On the internet and on the Gringo Trail, people have asked me about safety in Ecuador. Is it dangerous? Will I get mugged, robbed, killed? In the guidebooks and discussion forums, the crime news can be overwhelming. There are people who have been robbed on their front door and raped 2 blocks from their house. Neil and I met a couple who were sprayed with feces, and during the ensuing confusion (and disgust) three people tried to rob them. In Otavalo, I met a woman who, after 15 years of living in the country, was robbed on the bus from Quito. In Cuenca, I met one man (an army veteran) who had been robbed at gun point and then jumped by a group of locals within seven days of each other. So while safety is an issue in Ecuador, this aspect is a constant concern in world travel in general. Ecuador is a special place, worth visiting and living in. Originally, we had only planned five weeks for this little country. Instead, we stayed the entire length of our visa– crossing the border at Loja into Peru— and intend to return again soon. The people are warm and helpful. The landscape is beautiful. That being said, here’s the truth about travel safety and how we dealt with it.
Paranoia? I Prefer Constant Vigilance
The fact of the matter is I’m from New York and I’m the first person to say “I don’t trust nobody!” Not saying that I’m paranoid but I don’t like dark side streets or ATMs off the main drag. My hand is physically resting on my bags during bus rides and a carabiner clamps my purse to a chair while I eat dinner. While some people say I am paranoid, I prefer the words of JK Rowling’s Mad-Eye Moody; I practice constant vigilance. I travel in groups when I can. I don’t carry much cash on me. I keep small bills and coins in my pocket so that I don’t have to pull out my money wallet. And I am now thoroughly in the habit of checking over my shoulder regularly. So while I do consider myself lucky, I also think this aspect of my personality has contributed to safer travels in Ecuador and Peru as well as general safety in South America.
Stay Safe and Use Common Sense in South America
ATMs: I use ATMs (usually in the mornings) that are attached to actual banks and preferably inside a guarded alcove. Once I make a withdrawal, which during long-term travel, is never less than US$100, I make a beeline back to my hotel and lock it away. Carrying large sums of cash on you, makes you a target. So take it out and stash it away.
Nightlife: Take official taxis. In Ecuador, call for one. In Peru, look for the official blue sticker on the side of the cab. Lock the doors and don’t accept additional passengers off the street. Travel in groups and never walk home alone, even if it is just a few blocks. Cabs are US$2, so do it. Don’t leave your drink unattended or accept them from strangers.
Bus Rides: Check low-value luggage below and ask the porter to keep an eye on your pack. Bring valuables on board with you. If the driver asks to take your bag, just say “arriba” and point to the seats. He’ll understand. Inside the bus, never put your bag on the top rack or even at your feet. The optimal place is in your lap. If someone leans over you to open the window, just keep your hand on top of your bag. If someone asks for the time, don’t be ashamed to decline assistance. On overnight buses, Neil and I use carabiners to link our bags together and to the seat. Brightly-colored ones signal would-be thieves that we mean business.
Walking Tours: Always ask the hotel desk and tourist office about walking around town. What streets should you avoid? Until what time is it safe to walk around? Are there certain trams/buses to avoid? In terms of hikes, I felt very safe walking around Otavalo and the tourist office encouraged our explorations. However in Vilcabamba, we were advised to stay clear of one specific trail. We did and all ended well, for us.
Overall, remember that the average person in Ecuador makes about US$400 a month. So when you bust out that iPod Touch or a crumpled wad of green backs, people will notice–sometimes the wrong type of people. Stay humble and don’t give anyone a reason to hurt you. Don’t walk home drunk and don’t leave your bag on the counter because you’re “just going to look over here for a second”. During our 3 months in Ecuador, I felt the most safe in Banos and Montanita while Quito and Guayaquil felt the most intimidating to me. Even locals there advised us to take care with our belongings. If something arises, don’t hold back your goods and cash. Give them over and walk away with your life. As I tell friends along the trail: “It just aint worth it, kid.”