South America is wonderful. Fantastic landscapes, fascinating cultures and History, friendly and welcoming people. There, adventure is still possible, and that’s probably why it is hugely popular with backpackers from all over the world. But South America can also be full of dangers for the uninitiated. This page aims at giving a few guidelines to radically increase the chance of staying safe when travelling in South / Latin America.
I have vagabonded quite extensively around Central America and South America, and came across various risks of getting in trouble. Sometimes potentially big trouble. That’s why I decided to share here what I learnt by traveling there, and what rules I apply to myself to stay safe. I advise you to set these rules for yourself too, specially if you travel alone.
In no particular order:
- Leave your valuables at home – Your shiny jewelry and your beautiful watch should be left at home. These really are like a “please, attack me” sign for some people. A large part of the Latin American population is poor. Your beautiful necklace represents months worth of their revenue. And it’s so easy to take it from you. Don’t tempt them.
- Try not to take out a lot of cash from your wallet when you pay at a counter – Same concept, this is a “look at how rich I am, do you realize that you could get all this money if you attack me” message to someone with bad intentions.
- Same rule applies to your cool high-tech camera – We all love to take photos but you don’t really need to keep your $1,000 camera hanging at your neck the whole time, do you? It’s fine in many places and touristic spots, but it can be a little more risky in some cities or districts.
- Avoid crowded areas – If you happen to be caught in a crowded, you’d better keep your hands in your pockets and protect your stuff. I remember once in Bolivia during some festival in the middle of a crowd, I knew that at the second my legs would stop moving when I stop walking, an unknown hand would visit my pocket. The crowd blocked me, I had to stop walking, some thief put his hand in my pocket. In such situations, you also absolutely want to have your backpack in the front.
- Try to avoid borders towns, or avoid staying there for too long – Borders are notoriously usually more dangerous than other regions, mostly because there is always a lot of trafficking going on between the two countries. This brings all the bad guys that increase your risk of getting into trouble.
I remember years ago hearing the news of a French couple disappearing, in a town at the border between Bolivia and Brazil, where they had chosen to stay for a while. It’s a rare incident, but it happens. I’m sure you can find a better place to stay, really.
Many borders can be crossed without any problem, and some are crossed by tons of tourists, like the one between Peru and Bolivia. But just bear in mind that they are generally less safe, and try to limit the time of your stay.
- Avoid going going out at night and know where you are going – The safety situation can greatly differ from a district to another, and at night the risk of stumbling across some very bad guy is much higher.
- In bus terminals, watch your luggage carefully – Any baggage left unattended even for a few minutes is an easy prey for a thief. Even if you have to get a little far from your bags for a moment, make sure you keep an eye on it.
- In airports, and generally, be distrustful of people who come to talk to you – You can either pretend not to speak their language and not start any conversation, or talk to them casually but just be careful not to get tricked by some thief or worse, a drug trafficker. I know this happens to one in a million tourists, but it happens. And it’s always better to be aware of such practice.
A nice guy, a fragile grandma or a cute kid can come to talk to you and distract you, while an accomplice takes care of your bags. Of course, if you are asked to keep their bag for a moment or anything like this, NEVER, ever accept.
I am not saying to isolate yourself from everything and everyone and not say a word to anybody. I am just saying that it is safer to keep your guard up, and always keep at the back of your mind that friendly people are sometimes friendly for bad reasons.
- Beware of fake police officers – This has become a quite common scam in South America. A man without a uniform can claim to be a police officer and order you to show him your passport or get in his car. Never accept. Real police officers will be wearing a uniform, never ask that from you, and are usually told to leave foreign tourists alone.
In Cochabamba in Bolivia, two guys in a big car suddenly stopped next to me screaming “Police! What are you taking pictures of?” The they asked me to get in their car. I walked away quickly, luckily they didn’t follow me. If you get in the car, they would usually take you to an ATM and force you to empty your bank account.
- If you are attacked, give it to them!! – You could easily lose much more than your belongings and be sent to the hospital – or worse.
Don’t get scared because of this list, South America is fabulous! When you think about it, most of this is common sense. You just want to avoid tempting the bad guys to do anything to you and appear not interesting to them. If you are a white Caucasian gringo like me, you will be regularly considered as a giant walking dollar sign anyway. There is no way to help it.
That’s why you always have to be cautious, pay attention to where you go, to who you talk to and to where your bags are. It’s not really much of a hassle once you get used to it. And it’s worth making the effort of getting used to it so you can have a great experience!
I came across various delicate situations, but I believe that these guidelines I religiously follow enabled me to stay safe the whole time. I visited 7 Latin American countries, some of them twice, and nothing serious has ever happen to me. My South American trips are filled with marvelous memories, do not hesitate to go there!