Nowhere Is Completely Safe, But Portugal Comes Very Close

The Third-Safest Place On Earth

Pickpockets, car break-ins, and drug pushers… plus sunburn in summertime and rip currents in the Atlantic Ocean…

These are the dangers and annoyances you’re likely to face in Portugal.

If you base yourself in the center of Lisbon, Lagos, Albufeira, or Portimão, there’s also the risk of being woken up in the middle of the night in high season by drunken partygoers.

In other words, Portugal is one of the safest countries in the world.

Specifically, it’s the third-safest country on earth, as rated in the 2017 Global Peace Index (GPI), behind Iceland and New Zealand.

This 11th edition of the GPI, which is produced yearly by the Institute of Economics and Peace, ranks 163 independent states and territories according to their levels of peacefulness. Twenty-three indicators are taken into account, divided over three broad themes: the level of safety and security in society; the extent of domestic or international conflict; and the degree of militarization.

Portugal ranks so high because, to state the reality directly, there’s just not much to be afraid of here. Whereas London, Paris, Brussels, and Berlin, for example, have suffered from terrorist attacks in recent years, this hasn’t happened in Lisbon. Portugal doesn’t have as much political influence in Europe as the UK, France, Belgium, or Germany. The country is a non-player on the global political stage. In today’s world, that’s a plus.

Big picture, Portugal is about as safe a place as you’ll find. The only real dangers are at street level. Pickpockets and purse-snatchers ply their trades, especially in tourist areas, as they do everywhere.

Lisbon’s Tram 28 is especially famous for its pickpockets, and I know of many people who have had their rental cars broken into while they were sunbathing on one of the Algarve’s more touristy beaches in summer. Leave your handbag exposed in your car while you’re elsewhere and it, along with all of its contents, likely will be gone when you return.

Common sense, right… not to leave your valuables on display. That said, many mornings I’m looking for the key to our house to find that we’ve left them in the door overnight… on the outside of the door. And we usually leave our car windows open when the car’s parked in our driveway. We don’t give it a second thought, and we’ve never had a problem as a result.

The Algarvian countryside, where we live, just isn’t a scary place. On my daily early-morning walk with the dog, I’m not startled by rustling sounds in the bushes, as I know it’s likely a little lizard and nothing more worrisome.

Living in the countryside does, though, come with a risk of forest fires.

Every year, some part of Portugal burns. Most recently, in June 2017, were the horrible fires in Pedrógão Grande, which killed more than 60 people and ravaged 30,000 hectares of forest. There have been fires in our area, as well. And, yes, that is scary. Waking up at 6 a.m. because you can smell smoke isn’t a good way to start your day.

On a recent afternoon, a dozen fire engines sped past our house, their sirens wailing. Moments later we saw smoke come from a nearby valley and prepared our exit strategy (chucking dog, valuables, and water in the car and heading in the opposite direction). The smoke changed from black to grey as the day went on, and the bombeiros managed to extinguish the fire.

Of course, this situation isn’t unique to Portugal; wildfires are a concern many other places, too.

What is a uniquely Portuguese risk is the way the people drive here. The typically mild-mannered Portuguese are transformed… and not for the better… when they get behind the wheel of a car. Portugal has one of the highest road accident rates in Europe.

That said, according to the World Health Organization’s data on road fatalities per year per 100,000 inhabitants, Portugal has 7.8. That’s worse than countries like Spain (3.7), the UK (2.9) and the Netherlands (3.4), but next to nothing compared with Angola (26.9), the Dominican Republic (29.3), and Iran (32.1).

Still, before you take the leap and move to the best country in Europe (yes, I’m biased… but I also believe I’m right!), you might want to learn how to deal with roundabouts the Portuguese way.

Here’s what you do:

Expect the car in the left lane to take the first right, that car that’s just gotten in the right lane to take the roundabout three-quarters of the way around, and the car that just overtook you to make a circle and go back to where it came from.

None of these drivers will indicate their planned moves, and you should take extra care with the single car that is indicating a turn. That driver has left his turn signal on since the turn he made 3 kilometers ago. Now he is on his phone and likely will just carry on straight ahead.

Don’t get mad and use your horn. That will only scare the horse trotting down the side of the road, thus increasing the chances of the gypsy wagon crashing into a car…

Yayeri van Baarsen