Safety in South America
Safety in South America
While it’s not as safe as backpacking around Europe, travelling in South America is in general far safer than people are often led to believe. With some basic common sense and safety precuations, there is absolutely no reason to miss the opportunity to enjoy all that this wonderful continent has to offer because of safety concerns. What follows are a few key observations based on five years of living and traveling throughout the region.
1. When in Doubt, Ask the Locals
Always remember that 99% of people in South America are good; it’s the 1% of people who live at the margins of the law that give the rest of South America a bad reputation. After spending some time in South America, you’ll quickly realize that people are generally kind, helpful, and most welcoming to foreigners. They will be happy to assist you! If you are not sure if what you’re planning on doing is safe, ask a local for advice. From the biggest cities, to the smallest villages, there are good parts and bad parts. Locals will tell you if an area has a dangerous reputation for thieves, pick-pockets, drugs, you name it.
2. Learn the Language
While in large cities (Bogota, Buenos Aires, Lima, Rio de Janeiro) you’ll find plenty of English speakers in the touristy areas, in a large part of the continent you are out of luck, especially in the Andean countries (Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia) and the countryside in general. Thus, it’s critical that you acquire at least a basic conversational level of Spanish, or go with a friend who speaks Spanish. The better knowledge you have of the language and culture, the more likely you are to avoid dangerous areas, situations, and people.
3. Be Wary of Anyone Who Approaches You on the Street
Remember that South America, despite fairly impressive recent economic growth, still has high levels of poverty and extreme poverty. Obviously these levels vary by country (for example Uruguay is quite different from Bolivia). Some South Americans will see you and see a dollar (or euro or pound or yen) sign on your back. Be EXTREMELY cautious of people who approach you out of the blue on the street. They are most likely looking to take advantage of you. The best course of action is to politely, but firmly, decline to talk with them, and keep walking. Even if it seems that they are just trying to be helpful, you don’t know what kind of dangers they could be leading you into. As always, trust your gut instincts. If something doesn’t seem right, get out of the situation as soon as possible.
4. Leave Your Valuables in Your Hostel, or Don’t Bring Them at All
Your belongings are 100 times more likely to be robbed while you are out walking around, than back in your hotel or hostel. Leave EVERYTHING you possibly can in your place of lodging, but ESPECIALLY debit/ATM cards, credit cards, passports, electronics, jewelry, watches, and laptop computers. While technically many nations require visitors to have their passports with them, in practice you will be fine with carrying around a photocopy. If there is ever a problem with local authorities explain to them that your original is back in your hostel/hotel, and you would be happy to go back there to retrieve it.
Bring only the cash you will need for the day/night. Typically it’s a good idea to have at least $30, $40, or $50 of the local currency on you at all times, in case of emergency, or if you need to hail a cab. Hotels and hostels in South America are quite safe, and it’s EXTREMELY rare to hear of hotel or hostel employees robbing personal effects from rooms. That being said, virtually all youth hostels have lockers. Bring your own padlock or lock with key, and use them religiously!
5. Be 100 Times More Cautious at Night
As in any part of the world, there are parts of South America that are perfectly safe during the day are dangerous at night. This is especially true of the “centro” (downtown) areas of most big cities (Bogota, Lima, Santiago, Caracas). Thriving business zones by day, by night they often turn into the domain of prostitutes, thieves, drug-addicts, and homeless people. Be extra extra cautious with your travel plans at night, and be aware of your surroundings. Stay near well-lit areas, ask locals and/or hotel staff about the area you’re headed, and always go out at night in a group.
6. Make Wise Use of Taxis
Occasionally you hear of news reports of rogue taxi drivers robbing their customers. These cases are extremely rare. In general, taxi drivers are your best friend. For very reasonable prices (often between $5 and $10 for a 20 minute taxi ride) they will take you wherever you want to go. Plan your inter-city travels so that you can walk or use public transportation by day and early evening (typically public transport shuts down at 11pm in most cities), and return by taxi. One caveat though: at night it is wise to call a cab; a service which most countries and cities offer. You will get a numerical code to give to the taxi driver, and it’s far safer that way, as there is a record of the transaction, and you know the taxi driver is legitimate and from a reputable company. Ask friends, locals, and or hostel staff about how to call a taxi in your respective city.
7. Stay Away From Drugs and Alcohol
Sure, you come to South America on vacation and to have fun, and you’re going to have a few drinks. But if you’re going to drink, be careful. Thieves in South America are known to scout out bars and nightclubs looking for foreign patrons that are leaving under the influence of alcohol. If you’ve been drinking, always take a taxi home, and stick with the group. Also, be very vigilant of your drinks, as unscrupulous individuals have been known to slip drugs into tourists’ beverages. Be careful, but not paranoid, and never leave your drink unattended in a bar or nightclub (for example while you go to the bathroom).
Using drugs in South America is a decision that should be carefully considered, and in the opinion of this website, avoided. In addition to their destructive nature, they also help fuel armed conflict and criminal groups. Additionally, if you are caught by the police you could wind up in jail or faced with the prospect of paying a large bribe to get out of the situation. While there are many honest police officers in South America, it’s also fairly common knowledge that in some entertainment districts police may target foreign-looking people for random drug searches. Do yourself and your body a favor and don’t use drugs in South America.
8. Know the Enemy
You’re unlikely to get robbed in South America by an elderly grandma in her eighties. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of crimes in South America are committed by young, unemployed men between the ages of 15 and 30, sometimes working alone, or sometimes working with organized gangs. Additionally, a lot of crime is fueled by drug addicts who live on the street. Downtown areas of the city are particularly notorious for crimes committed by street dwellers, so be careful! As best you can, keep to well lit areas, that have adequate police patrols. Fortunately, as you will see, most South American cities have a relatively high police presence in comparison to other parts of the world. Keep an eye out for police: it’s always good to know there’s one nearby.
9. Watch Your Stuff
Never, ever, ever, assume that because somewhere looks safe that your bag/suitcase/computer/phone/wallet will be alright if left alone for a few minutes. This especially holds true in bus terminals and on buses. There are plenty of petty thieves who make a living scoping out places with high tourist presence, and they don’t need more than a blink of an eye to run off with your things. Be especially careful when traveling on overnight buses. Some buses pick up and drop off passengers on the side of the road, and if you are asleep or distracted, it presents a perfect opportunity for a thief to snatch your bag or backpack on the way off the bus.
10. Minimize the Risk
The bottom line is: it’s impossible to predict with 100% certainty that nothing well ever happen to you in South America. But following a few basic safety protocols will dramatically minimize your risks. Unsurprisingly, people that go looking for trouble (i.e. drugs, prostitution, late night drinking binges, dangerous parts of town) typically find it. Always prepare for the worst possibility, and have an emergency plan.
The vast majority of tourists in South America have a worry-free time during their stay.