To begin with – I LOVE SOUTH AMERICA! If you have your plane ticket and reading this post – I want to congratulate you, because it will be experience of a lifetime.
However, when you think South America, one of the first thoughts that pops into your head is safety. But the truth is – it is not that bad. The further away you are, the more terrible scenarios the mind tends to conjure up. So rule number 1 – DO NOT watch “City of Gods” or “Narcos” to get the feel of “South American culture”. 😀 Terrible mistake. But probably you already watched it, and now freaking out. 😀
Honestly, I would lie if I told that these films are completely fictional and nothing like that happens in reality. Because it does. BUT… If you don’t get in some serious trouble during your visit, you will simply not see all those back scene stuff that movies JUST love to show.
However, South America is not Europe and no one should forget it. Better stay safe than sorry. Here are some tips about safety that helped me staying alive in South America for two years 😀
Staying safe on the streets
There are a couple most likely scenarios of misfortunes that can happen on the street – you can get pickpocketed or mugged. Here are some tips that help to avoid it.
1.Look as trashy as you can (seriously 😀 )
Being a foreigner by default will make you stand out from the crowd and look like an easy and rich target. So try to get as low-profile as you can and use common sense.
- Do not wear expensive jewelry/watches.
- Do not pull out your newest iPhone and start scrolling facebook on a street.
- Do not hang your expensive camera with 300mm lens on your neck and walk around the city.
- Wear simple, not expensive clothes. Best idea – hippie clothes. Hippies are everywhere hippies 😀
- Best idea – do not carry valuable things with you on the street at all. But have in mind, notion “valuable” is very wide… In my country, people rob money and cell phones, but South America was mind-expanding experience (in all sense 😀 ). Shoes, jacket, sunglasses, backpack, tent, sleeping bag can also be a valuable prey for theft.
2. Know VERY WELL where are you going
It is a MUST to ask locals or investigate on internet where it is safe to go. Of course, use your common sense. Sometimes things on internet might seem terribly exaggerated. Also sometimes locals just feel so responsible for your safety that they might just say that everything is very dangerous, don’t do it. Despite that, there are definitely NO GO ZONES. Drugs, gang war and blah blah (for more info watch the movies 😀 ).
However, dangerous zones might be situated not only somewhere in the suburbs of big cities (favelas) but in the actual city center. For example in Bogota, just a couple blocks away from the main square and cathedral there are zones named Egypto and a zone around market (Calle 10), which might be quite intense. I have experienced it myself, when a bus at night left me a couple of blocks away from my destination… What was left to do? Thank all gods for help and run as fast as I can. 😀 Or in a coastal village of Colombia called Taganga, there is a spot to enjoy a beautiful sunset and of course a spot to rob people. Everyone knows that, even who is responsible for doing that :D. So when you arrive to your destination, the hostel staff will probably tell you these kinds of things, or just ask them.
So always investigate where you go. And don’t trust the map – tourist zones not necessary are safe.
3. Fake phone and fake wallet
Always be prepared. Because a robbery can happen anywhere, anytime. Even on a busy market street full of people. One of the best tricks is to have a fake phone and a fake wallet. Let me explain how it works.
I used this belt for 2 years (you can notice it from its condition 😀 ). I bought it at a shop selling travel gear and I was carrying it on my back under my clothes (even slept with it in some situations 😀 ). I was carrying my passport, extra credit card, my smartphone and a bigger amount of money. It is not noticeable under the clothes, and of course no one can pickpocket it. And in my bag I have a wallet with up to 20 USD and another phone, which is older.
So imagine the scenario – someone approaches you on the street and tries to rob you. So you give your fake wallet and fake phone. The thief is happy, leaves you and you are safe without bigger losses. Of course, thieves are not stupid. So make it look real. Have enough money in the wallet for them to believe you don’t have more. And don’t give them old Nokia 3330, because it’s 21 century and everyone has smartphones now. No one will buy that and making a thief angry might be life threatening.
In the worst case scenarios you might get undressed and this trick does not work. But for this to happen you need to be in a really fucked up situation, in the middle of nowhere. So fingers crossed it will never happen 🙂 .
4. Put cash withdrawal limits on your credit card
Sometimes it might happen that thieves will “kindly” escort you to ATM and force you to withdraw cash from your card. To prevent huge losses, you can ask your bank to add limits to cash withdrawal. I had a limit of 100 USD. You can’t check your balance on ATM with a foreign card. So conclusion will be that there is no more money in your card.
5. Do not get drunk or walk at night
I think it is quite an obvious tip, but still worth mentioning. Night time is quite a bad time to go for a walk. Especially in empty and badly lit streets. My travel buddy got robbed while walking a dog at night in the old town of Bogota. By the police… I just leave this fact here, you can make your own conclusions if justice system works 😀
As everywhere, if you are under the influence of drugs, you are an easy target. So if you go partying always stay alert. An after-party with random people you just met might not always be a good idea.
6. Big gangs of young guys – hmmm be alarmed
Easy. If you see a big gang of young guys hanging around and looking like thugs, they probably are 😀 One of possible robbery scenarios can be that all of those 10+ guys will attack you.
Ok, this story that I’m going to tell you is a funny story. The same friend of mine was walking the same dog (guy :D) in the old town of Bogota, and was attacked by this kind of gang. One guy took the dog (the beast was small and friendly enough to allow that :D) and others started pushing and closing on my friend and trying rob things from his pockets. He managed to escape and reclaimed the dog. The only loss was the dog’s chewing toy. Why thugs needed it? No one knows 😀
One Colombian friend told another story about how he was robbed while passing through the bar. One moment the guys who appeared to be just customers at the bar, turned to my friend and attacked him.
So better think a couple of moves ahead and avoid such situations.
7. NEVER try being a hero and fight
The last and MOST IMPORTANT advice. If this really happens – someone approaches you with a knife or a gun and “kindly” asks your belongings, STAY CALM, do not panic and give everything the thief wants. Why stay calm? Ok, here is some psychology of robbery. The thief is definitely high on adrenaline and your panic might provoke some inadequate actions.
I know that most of you guys are super manly, real machos and might feel like defending yourself. But not in this case. People who rob on the streets most of the time have nothing to lose and they most likely are going to use a gun. Also the flawed justice system almost guarantees that they will escape unpunished. I won’t tell the details, but heard many sad stories when this actually happened. Material things are not worth it.
Staying safe in a taxi
“Never take a taxi on the street, call for it”, you will definitely hear this millions of times. And it is good. Taxis are terrible! They are small, music is terrible, drivers will rip you off, you will definitely pay 10 times more. 😀
Ok, let’s get serious. It is very likely you will get unfriendly price in a taxi. But that’s not the worst part of it. So WHY IS IT DANGEROUS TO TAKE A TAXI IN THE STREET (especially at night)? Because there is no record what car you entered, where it took you and there is no proof that it is even a real taxi. So, let’s start from the scenario: you take a taxi, a driver drives you to an unknown place, robs you and hopefully leaves you somewhere. In the worst case people get killed.
There are two kinds of taxis: a normal taxi and a shared taxi, which works as public transport and brings up to 4 passengers. I heard some other Lithuanians’ story, how they got robbed in a shared taxi. Other 2 passengers and the driver appeared to be partners in crime and they only survived because the thief’s sliding knife got stuck and didn’t open at the right moment. Ufff, what a luck 🙂
So always, if you can, call for a taxi! Or use public transport 😀
Ok, honestly, in two years I haven’t called even once for a taxi. Nothing happened to me. Maybe it was just luck. Or maybe it is not so bad. However, as a girl, I never took a taxi alone and always used my intuition while dealing with a driver.
Never forget to take precautions while using a taxi. And if robbery happens… Well, read a paragraph about not being a hero again 😉
Crossing the borders
On the internet you will find that border zones are dangerous because of drug trafficking, armed conflict in Colombia (which technically ended, but still…) or all kinds of other horrors. The same you might hear from locals, especially the ones who live far far away from the border. 😀
The truth is that drugs really travel across borders. Like thousands of people everyday. So you have nothing to do with that. If you don’t go alone to the jungle and use official entry points, you are going to be just fine.
Staying safe in hostel/hotel
Hostel/hotel, compared to the street, feels like a safe oasis. And it definitely is. However, burglary is possible. So if you have some valuable things in your room, you should take some precautions:
1. Lock of the room
Probably haven’t thought about it before? 😀 Of course, who checks the lock? The view from the window and a wide bed is more important. But here are some basics.
Ok, lock no. 1 you can open with credit card (I tried it myself)
And lock no. 2 on a wooden door you can open with a knife or, let’s be more latinos – a machete 😀 (Seen how it is done)
Paradoxical enough – there are sooo many rooms which have this kind of locks. In countries with such high theft rates…
So when you search for a room (of course if you do it personally, not via internet) take a look at the lock.
2. Where is hostel/hotel administration located?
Do you need to go through them to enter? Is it possible to climb in via balcony/window? If random people can enter without being noticed, it might lead to problems.
3. Don’t leave your valuable stuff unattended in dorm rooms.
Even when you sleep. Best idea – keep your valuable things in lockers or with the administration of hostel/hotel.
Other safety precautions
1. Fake doctors
Health care in South America generally is quite bad. With corruption and lack of control there is an open window for low qualification and even fake doctors. For example, Colombia is famous for plastic surgeries, which are cheap and attract many health tourists. However, where there is a lot of money, there is always a lot of scams. I met a women who ended up quite injured by a fake plastic surgeon. And apparently it is a huge problem in Colombia.
If you are not planning to increase the size of your boobs, still stay alert if you need to get in contact with doctors. There are many witch-doctors, and witch-medicine sold around. Even some professional doctors do not seem to know what they are doing. So always investigate a lot. You alone are responsible for your health.
2. Fake services: Story about fixing a smartphone
One interesting story happened while trying to get a smart phone fixed in Peru. The phone maintenance shop took the phone, gave the ticket and said that after 3 days it will be fixed. After 3 days the shop is closed, no one knows anything. So here is the great plan – a tourist came to fix a phone, he is definitely leaving soon, he will have to leave the phone behind. After 2-3 weeks the guy at the shop gets quite confused when the owner shows up and claims for his phone.
So be careful. Even “clean” places might be not so “clean” after all.
3. One night stand robbery
Partying and hooking up with a girl is quite nice. But it has its drawbacks. Like, for example, a girl leaving with all your stuff while you are drunk and asleep. Or just asleep. In Bogota I shared a house with 3 Colombian guys. One of the guys was unlucky to experience it twice.
Also it is possible that a girl that you meet at the bar and bring back to your room puts sleeping drugs into your drink and robs you. So always be alert. If something looks too good to be true – it probably is.
4. Use a mosquito repellent
I know. Your first thought is probably – WTF? How it is related? 😀 But honestly, mosquitos are very dangerous. And if you can get away without any kind of robbery in South America, you will not escape the attack of mosquitos. The main diseases that they transmit is dengue, chikungunya, zika, malaria. Read online about the symptoms and treatment, which in mild cases is more or less the same as with flu – lie in bed for one week with high fever and drink a lot of water. You don’t even need a doctor. But… You need to be informed and know what to expect and how complications looks like. In severe cases these diseases are life-threatening.
Even in mild cases they are quite painful – so better use a repellent and avoid lying in agony for couple weeks 🙂
Some last words
My travel credo is “If nothing is stolen from you, you haven’t traveled long enough”. Despite all the precautions, something will still be stolen from you. That’s part of traveling. So relax, just be sure not to get hurt physically. ALWAYS USE YOUR INTUITION, which tends to sharpen once you travel.
Good luck. Enjoy South America.
Do you have your own tips how to stay safe while traveling? Please share them with all of us in the comments 🙂