For most travelers, staying safe while abroad is a big concern. Nobody wants to end up in hospital when they should be relaxing on the beach or sightseeing. Watching what you eat and drink is the best way to avoid any nasty diseases or illnesses. One of the biggest questions people ask when visiting Brazil is can they drink tap water?
You have spent months planning the trip of a lifetime to Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro. You have a carefully chosen itinerary of activities. The last thing you want is to end up bed-ridden for days or in the hospital with a water-borne illness. Rio de Janeiro’s water supply is complicated. It can alarm and confuse travelers. Although tap water is generally considered safe, it has recently made headlines for spreading illness among the local population.
There are a lot of concerns and questions surrounding drinking water in Rio de Janeiro. Is it safe to drink from the tap? Should you only buy bottled water? Is mineral water safe? Read our guide to stay safe when drinking water in Rio de Janeiro. Don’t let worrying about water ruin your trip.
Is it Safe to Drink the Water in Rio de Janeiro?
The short answer is yes, it is considered safe to drink tap water in Rio de Janeiro. However, it is more complicated than that. If you are able to drink bottled water for the whole trip, it is advisable. Tap water in Rio has had a turbulent history, despite the best efforts of city officials to improve it. Issues with water pollution and inadequate supply have caused outbreaks of illness.
What is worse, is when the water is safe, the extensive water treatment process leaves it with an awful taste. Locals prefer to drink bottled or filtered water and travelers should do the same.
Is it Safe to Drink Tap Water in Brazil?
Officially, yes it is safe to drink tap water in Brazil and very tempting as it is free. The Brazilian government has worked hard in recent years to improve the quality of drinking water. They frequently claim that the water has been improved due to their efforts. Indeed, residents with access to a basic water supply increased from 95% to 97% between the years 2000 and 2015. While this is an improvement, many Brazilians lack access to even running water for bathing and cooking.
Brazil is a huge country and inequality is still a huge problem. This uneven distribution of wealth affects the water supply. Although Brazil is working hard to improve life in the cities and the quality of life for its residents, 6% still live in favelas (slum neighborhoods). These are makeshift structures and most lack even a basic water supply. Water shortages are also common in the northeast of the country which is more rural.
The quality of tap water also varies widely around the country. It is considered unsafe to drink in many rural towns and villages where water treatment is almost non-existent. It is important to ask before you start quenching your thirst with tap water, or you might find yourself quickly regretting it.
Another big problem with tap water in Brazil is how they treat it. In order to sanitize the water supply to a safe standard, a number of chemicals and treatments are used. This heavy process gives the water a rather unpleasant taste. Most residents prefer to drink bottled water simply as it tastes better.
If you are unsure whether to drink the tap water, ask your hotel or tour guide. If you are at all concerned, play it safe and stick to bottled water.
Is it Safe to Drink Bottled Water in Brazil?
Yes, bottled water is safe to drink in Brazil. You may copy the locals and drink bottled water to avoid that awful taste. However, you don’t need to use bottled water to brush your teeth or rinse food.
Bottled water has seen a massive rise in popularity due to the persistent problems with tap water. Sales of bottled water grew by an astonishing 5000% between 1974 and 2003. Bottled water comes in two types: agua sem gas (still water) and agua con gas (sparkling water). If you only learn 2 Portuguese words let it be these! Nobody likes to be surprised with sparkling water when they wanted still!
While bottled water is safe, you need to be on your guard when buying it in Rio de Janeiro. With the rise of tourism, it is no surprise that scam artists have popped up. These criminals aim to exploit worried tourists buying bottled water. Rather than selling the genuine article, they will just refill used or empty bottles from the tap. Although tap water is safe, tap water that has sat in unsealed bottles may pose a problem as you have no idea how long it has been sitting there or how it has been stored. To avoid this, check that the bottle still has its original seal. All new Brazilian water bottles will have this so don’t be tricked by someone telling you it is part of the branding.
What is the Water Problem in Brazil?
Brazil’s water problem is that tap water is inconsistent across the country. Due to a number of incidents of contaminated water supplies, residents have lost faith in the Government. There are massive inequalities in the water supply from region to region. The charity water.org stated that 3 million Brazilians are still living without access to a clean water supply. They also write that many of those who do have access, find it is frequently disrupted.
One of the biggest problems is that the Brazilian government promises big changes then delivers very little. Although the water supply is more consistent in the cities, there are often problems here too. They are also reluctant to admit any problems. This famously happened in Rio de Janeiro which we will discuss shortly in more detail.
How Clean Is the Water in Brazil?
Water is considered clean in Brazil by local officials, but residents openly disagree. Locals frequently take to social media to post pictures and videos of cloud or murky water. Horror stories of people being bed stricken for days after drinking the water are worryingly common.
Tap water is generally considered safer in the cities than in Brazil’s more rural areas. If you find yourself traveling to different areas in Brazil, you will notice that the quality of the tap water changes greatly. Sadly, for poor rural communities, buying bottled water isn’t really a sustainable option and they must drink dirty water.
Brazil’s water problem isn’t just with drinking water. Water pollution on beaches and rivers is also a continued problem. Polluted public swimming water made big news in the lead up to the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Local governments pledged to clean up the dirty water where the athletes would be swimming. However, many people were worried in the days before the games when scum and litter were still floating everywhere. Tests of the water found raw sewage mixed in with the water. According to tests, swimmers only needed to swallow 3 tablespoons of this disgusting water to become ill.
Why is Water Pollution a Problem in Rio?
Rio de Janeiro has had continued problems with water pollution. Rio residents have reported illnesses caused by contaminated water. Before the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, officials promised that 80% of all communities would have treated water and sewers. This target was not achieved by a long stretch.
Although this has been a problem for a long time, the most famous incident was January 2020 when it made international headlines. With temperatures hitting 104F, the water running from the taps was foul-smelling and dirty. Residents quickly switched to bottled water. With such warm weather, even the supply of bottled water ran dangerously low. This was weeks before the famous Rio Carnival, with thousands of tourists flocking to the city.
The state-owned company responsible for the city’s water quickly released a statement trying to reassure people that the foul taste and murkiness was simply caused by a natural compound (geosmin) found in soil. They boldly stated that the water posed no threat to public health.
Residents were outraged at the lie and took to social media to share their experiences of feeling unwell after drinking the supposedly ‘safe’ water. Although the water company’s CEO was sacked, they still maintain it was simply geosmin and nothing dangerous. One of the reasons behind the contamination is Rio de Janeiro’s awful urban planning. Lacking water, favelas use the river for sewage and washing, which in turn, pollutes it. The government also says it is difficult to lay the much-needed sewage pipes under these makeshift communities, causing a stalemate.
While the water is now returned to normal, most Rio de Janeiro locals have lost faith in the government and only drink bottled water. Although people sunbathe and enjoy the beaches, few dare venture into the polluted water with its floating sewage and litter. Tourists are advised to do the same.
5 Top Tips to Safely Drink Water in Brazil
Ask your hotel or tour guide
The quality and safety of tap water varies widely across Brazil’s regions. As a tourist, it can be difficult to know where it is safe and where it should be avoided. The easiest way to avoid drinking bad tap water is to just ask. Staff at hotels and hostels will quickly be able to advise you so it is a good idea to ask while you are checking in. Nobody wants to make a mistake and fall ill on their first day.
Travelers who find themselves in Brazil’s more rural regions should similarly ask their tour guides. After walking for hours in the sweltering jungle heat, you may come across springs that are labeled água potável (potable water). Excitedly you fill your water bottle and begin gulping it down! Hours later, you are bedridden with sickness and stomach cramps. Not a good way to spend your vacation. Make sure you ask your guide before refilling your water bottles from any source. The same should be followed when finding wells or springs in rural towns. If in doubt, don’t drink it.
Stick to bottled water
The best way to stay safe in Brazil is to only drink bottled water. Although this can be a hassle, it ensures you don’t drink any nasty water. It is available everywhere and you won’t have trouble finding it.
Most hotels provide small bottles of mineral water in the room, usually found in the minibar. These are overpriced. If you decide to only drink mineral water, we recommend taking a trip to the local supermarket. Here, you can buy larger bottles of water for much cheaper. You can then decant it into smaller bottles or your own reusable bottle.
The mineral water industry is generally well regulated in Brazil, and it is rare that brands sell contaminated water. However, it is worth looking out for a Ministry of Health (Ministério da Saúde) registration number printed on the bottles. This ensures it has met the safety standards set out for safe water. Look out for the Brazilian owned Indaiá as this affordable and reliable. You will also find most international brands, such as Evian and San Pellegrino which tend to be more expensive than Brazilian brands.
Pack a water filter
Bottled mineral water is good for your health but not so good for the planet. Endless single-use plastic bottles are causing massive environmental pollution around the world. Although plastic bottles can be recycled, it is estimated only 7% make it to recycling centers. The rest end up in the sea, washed up on beaches, and in landfill sites.
Luckily, you can save the planet while still drinking delicious (and safe) water. A popular solution to the problem of clean water is to buy a personal water bottle with a built-in filter. This means that you can fill it easily from the tap. The filter will take away any nasty tastes and impurities, leaving you with fresh-tasting water. Not only is it a great way to reduce your carbon footprint but it will also great for your wallet. We can’t argue with that.
Be wary of street vendors
Rio de Janeiro has a buzzing street food scene. Stalls selling enticing and unfamiliar food can be found around the city’s streets. For lots of people, this is what traveling is about. Moving from stall to stall, people love sampling what the city has to offer. Brazilian food can be spicy! You might find yourself quickly asking the vendor for a drink to cool down your mouth. You are then in bed feeling awful.
Although most street food stalls are clean, some are not. Be wary of where they are storing things and what they are giving you. If you buy a bottle of water, check the seal is intact. If it is broken, either ask for a new one or go elsewhere. It is best to ask for no ice.
A great way to judge is by following the locals. Locals won’t use stalls that are known to serve dirty food and drinks. There is usually a reason one stall is crowded when the one next door is empty. If people are drinking there, it is probably safe for you to do so. However, if you feel at all uncertain, wait until you can find a supermarket and buy water from there.
Say no to ice
Brazil can be swelteringly hot in the summer months and nothing is more refreshing than an ice-cold coke rattling with ice cubes. Sadly, ice should be treated with caution. Although ice made using tap water is technically safe to drink, the way it is stored can cause problems. Ice exposed to the open air can attract bugs and dirt, especially if it is at a street vendor. You also don’t know how often the ice machine is cleaned. A famous US study found that in 70% of restaurants, the ice had more bacteria than the bathroom. That doesn’t bear thinking about!
Ice in restaurants is generally safe, especially if they have a good reputation. However, if you are in the slightest doubt of how the ice is stored or produced, ask for your drink without it. A slightly warm drink is much better than 3 days in bed feeling sick.
So, Is it safe to drink water in Rio de Janeiro and Brazil?
Yes, it is technically safe to drink tap water in Brazil, but travelers should avoid it. Rio de Janeiro has a long history with water pollution and it doesn’t look like these problems are going away soon. As we have discussed, this is a complicated problem. The only easy solution is to drink bottled water, even if this is more expensive.
Contaminated water can quickly ruin a vacation, as well as leave you with massive medical bills. Therefore, it is safer to air on the side of caution and stick to bottled or filtered water. With so much to see and explore in Brazil, you don’t want to waste any time in bed feeling sick!