Fringed by reefs and lined by sugar-soft sands, the great sprawling capital of Pernambuco state is a place to wander historic colonial centers and crank up the sunbathing time. But, before you get a-booking and excited for the endless rays: Is Recife, Brazil, safe?
That’s what this guide is here to answer. It will run through the ins and outs of traveling to Recife to see how safe it is compared to the other famous beach escapes of the Brazil east coast – Fortaleza, Natal. The aim is to help you make a choice on whether it’s the salt-washed metropolis for you, or if somewhere else might be better suited.
Along the way, we’ll run through the general levels of crime in Recife, compare it to a few other spots for context, and offer some insights into the nuanced safety scene of the city. We’ll also mull over whether it’s safe for solo female travelers and offer some helpful safety tips for those who do decide to head this way during their Brazil adventure.
Table of Contents
Is Recife, Brazil, safe in 2022?
We hate to say this, but the stats aren’t good. Recife is up there with the most dangerous cities in Brazil if you check the numbers. Numbeo lists it as just about the same as Rio for increasing crime, worse for overall crime rates (93.37 compared to Rio’s 90.68), and worse for the risk of being caught up in violent crimes and robberies (91.49 compared to Rio’s 90.50). Perhaps most strikingly, Recife is still up there in the top seven most deadly cities in the country, with a 2019 homicide rate of 35.55 per 100,000 head of population.
Not good. Well…not so fast. It’s certainly worth saying that millions of travelers – both Brazilian and international – come here every year, especially during carnival. More importantly, the vast majority of their trips go fine. On top of that, things seem to be improving in Recife. The murder rate was a whopping 90+ per 100k head of population back in 2008, so it’s dropped in the interim by almost two thirds. Oh, and the cities of Natal and Salvador (Recife’s main rivals as east-coast beach hubs) have worse rates of homicide, so this is actually the safer pick in the region.
What’s important is that you come to Recife in the knowledge that there are certainly risks. The town stands out among others in Brazil for its gang violence and its murder rate, and there’s always the chance that travelers can get caught up in that. The same goes for the usual travel worries – scams, theft, natural disasters. However, you can help reduce the risk of something going wrong by planning ahead properly, being aware, staying in the right places, and always keeping your wits about you.
Let’s take a closer look at the specific dangers that await in Recife, Brazil…
Violent crimes and gang crime in Recife
Perhaps the biggest worry of all for would-be travelers to Brazil is the risk of getting caught up in violent crime. It’s well-documented that this occurs frequently in Rio, where tourists are routinely warned off heading into certain favelas where the gangs basically rule the roost. It’s the same in Recife – stick to the more-visited corners of town and witnessing this sort of stuff becomes much less likely.
There’s no use pretending that it doesn’t happen, though. It does. How else could a city clock up a homicide rate that’s over 30 people per 100,000 of population, enough to put it among the 45 most deadly cities on the planet? There have also been recent reports that the drug cartels in operation across Pernambuco state and the northeast coastal region more generally have been thriving in recent years, which is only a hint of potentially more violent crime to follow.
Again, though, it’s important to keep this in perspective. The murder rate in Recife still remains less than what it is in Baltimore or Cape Town, but it’s rare that people would completely change their travel plans to the Eastern Seaboard or the Western Cape because of it. The crucial thing is that you’re aware that it happens and you’re able to make an informed decision as to whether to go or not.
Other crimes and human-related risks in Recife
Of course, it’s not just the hardcore violent crimes that could affect your holiday to Recife. There’s all manner of other things that could happen here. The stats show that the risk of auto theft is particularly bad (Numbeo lists it as 73.5, which is “high”), so know that if you’re looking to rent a car, and there’s a high rate of police and official corruption in the town, which is actually a big issue across the whole of Brazil more generally.
Recife is also prone to its political upheavals. The last example of that was pretty recent, when crowds of people took to the streets to protest against President Jair Bolsonaro’s handling of the COVID pandemic. They were swiftly met with crackdowns that involved flashbangs, crowd control, and even rubber bullets. Our advice? Steer clear of any political gatherings or protests that might be happening when you’re in town.
You should also be wary of common scams while in Recife. While these are rarely a threat to your health or wellbeing, they can ruin a holiday and leave you totally out of pocket. Common scam ploys in the town include:
- The broken camera scam – If someone hands you a camera and asks you to take their picture, don’t! We’re not being anti-social here, but a common scam is to try and charge visitors for “breaking” a camera.
- Inflated bar tabs – Don’t accept the invite of anyone who wants to suddenly go for a drink. A known scam in Recife is when people are coerced into paying ridiculously inflated bills for just a couple of beers.
- Taxi scams – You can’t escape taxi scams anywhere on the planet but they are particularly bad in Recife where drivers will often go the wrong way from A to B to increase the price or simply charge way too much. Uber is a good alternative and now operates in Recife but agreeing a set price you’re happy with beforehand is better practice.
Is Recife safe for solo female travelers?
We’d stop short of saying that NO female travelers should consider going to Recife. The town is a popular beach hotspot and has an enthralling old town area. There’s no reason why they should be out of bounds simply because you’re a lone lady backpacker. However, we do think it’s important to be aware of the heightened risks if you do decide to come to Recife, and Brazil more generally, without any company and as a woman.
We’d recommend staying in the more well-to-do parts of the town. The resorts of Porto de Galina or the UNESCO town of Olinda are particularly good choices. They aren’t in Recife itself but close enough to offer easy access. However, they are more tourist-orientated so come with smaller risks of violent crime. On top of that, never head out alone after dark and avoid talking to strangers, especially in bars and nightlife settings.
Shark attacks in Recife
Is Recife, Brazil, safe from sharks? Sadly, no. In fact, the town is infamous as one of the great shark hotspots of the South American Atlantic coast. There have been a whopping 60+ recorded attacks on humans in the shoreline to the north and south of Recife in total, 50% of which turned out to be fatal to the victim. Not good. More pertinently, there are claims that things are getting worse because of increasing tourism and port expansions.
It’s thought that most shark attacks in Recife are down to bull sharks and tiger sharks. They are both considered among to the most aggressive of all, and capable of swimming close to shore and near to the sand-bottomed beaches that are otherwise such a joy. There are now efforts underway to create artificial reefs that should help reduce the influx of sharks to the main bays, however you should always pay attention to shark warnings and never swim too deep.
Safety tips for Recife, Brazil
Here are our top five safety tips for Recife, Brazil. Their aim? To reduce the risk of all the major worries about travel to this coastal city, whether that’s violent crime or shark attacks on the beaches.
- Stay in Olinda – Truth is that most travelers skip Recife all together in favor of the UNESCO World Heritage town of Olinda. It’s a gorgeous colonial settlement that dates from the 1500s only 20 minutes from the downtown of Recife, but it’s a whole load safer and has some seriously fantastic hotels that ooze luxury.
- Never go out alone – The gangs and would-be scammers of Recife see solo travelers as a bit of a target. That’s why we’d say wait to go out as a group and avoid going out at night altogether if you do happen to be alone.
- Pay attention to warnings and lifeguards – The Recife beaches are plagued by shark attacks, so it’s very important to pay attention to any warnings present on the beach and always listen to lifeguards.
- Don’t do drugs – The drug trade is the single biggest culprit of violent crime in Recife. Avoid it completely by not being tempted by the wares.
- Don’t show off valuables – This is a common tip for travelers heading anywhere with less-than-reassuring crime stats. Don’t show off gold chains or Rolex watches or anything of the sort. All it will do is make you more of a target for thieves
Is Recife, Brazil, safe?
Is Recife, Brazil, safe? Actually, it’s among the 45 most dangerous cities on the planet if you look at murder rates and crime stats, so things aren’t ideal for would-be travelers. That said, thousands of trips happen here without a single hitch every year, though we would recommend following some key safety tips and being aware of the heightened risk of crime and robbery.