After nine months backpacking down the Andean spine of South America and eastward from the Pacific to the Atlantic Oceans, Neil and I have come home to welcoming family and friends asking the big question: Did you run into any “problems” in South America?
They always meant in terms of safety. I hardly think they cared about slow WIFI in Ecuador or basic bathroom facilities in Bolivia. They wanted the dirt on safety. So, Neil and I had to admit. We were careful. We were vigilant. We had fun. We didn’t get robbed. We faced no shakedowns or requests for bribes.
Crime does exist on the South American travel trail. In fact, we met people who were victims of bus robbery and camera snatching. But in general, these incidents often occurred at night, in tourist-crowded areas, or when alcohol was a factor. Whenever we were in these situations, Neil and I always kept an extra eye out for trouble. Generally, we employed these safety tips when we started our trip in Ecuador and continued through Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay
Tips for Safe Travels in South America
Ask a Local. They’re the experts and will know which neighborhoods should be avoided and which have safe nightlife. In San Telmo in Buenos Aires, we asked an expat bookstore clerk about safety in the neighborhood. He was honest, saying that the area may look run down but people are always around. So be aware but enjoy the nightlife. Conversely, when we were in the city center looking to head to La Boca neighborhood, a newsstand seller shook his head vehemently. Tourists should not visit in the late afternoon into dark. For major cities like Quito, Lima, Cusco, and Buenos Aires, visit the South American Explorers Club for detailed information on the destination.
Use your eyes. Neil and I traveled with a US war veteran for a month. He’d been to Iraq and he’d had his fair share of exploring unknown territory. He always said to look around. Do you see kids playing? Women walking around, alone? Seniors chatting on the corner? He always smiled when kids played soccer in the middle of the street. It was a marker of a good neighborhood, he said.
Give yourself a curfew. Especially in a new city, set a curfew for yourself on the first day. Don’t wander until its too late to walk back safely. Take your time and ease into your new environment. If you go out drinking on your first night in town, try to tag along with someone who knows the area. That way you won’t be left alone at the bar at 4am with only a vague sense of direction for the way home. Don’t bring much money when you first walk around a new place. Wait until you are more familiar and feel an area is safe before using an ATM machine.
Travel in Groups. It’s almost cliche but nevertheless a traveler’s golden rule. When possible, meet up with new friends from your hostel or hotel lounge. The herd mentality supports the notion of safety in numbers. We met great travel buddies in Peru and made plans to meet them further along in parts of Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina. It was great to catch up and learn where they’d been since we had originally encountered them. This may have been easier to accomplish as a traveling couple. Solo travelers should use the same precautions as hitchhikers when befriending explorers on the road.
Leave Electronics in the Hotel at Night. A few people we met had problems with their cell phones and cameras at night. They’d go out drinking. They’d squeeze into packed clubs. Sometimes a set of fingers would pluck their cameras loose from a pocket. Other times, someone would drunkenly drop it on the bathroom floor. We never carried our SLR camera out at night, electing to use a discrete point-and-shoot for nightlife shots. We don’t travel with phones. We hesitate to use our computers in public. Travelers who use accessories like hard drives and flash drives should keep them concealed because they’re easy to steal.
Pay by Credit Card. Some people still pay with debit cards. It’s incredible to me. Bank cards give the user very few rights in comparison to credit cards. So use them for hotels, online purchases, and in the supermarkets. In Buenos Aires, a hotel overcharged my card. If I had paid in cash, the problem would have been very difficult to resolve. Instead, they can credit my account, or I can get my credit card company involved. Either way, my money stays with me. Check for credit cards with no international fees and never spend more than you can afford just because you’re traveling with plastic.
Always Carry Small Bills in Several Pockets. The last thing you want to do as a tourist is pull a wad of 100 peso bills from you pocket and ask for change. Taxis and buses may not have any. Some bars and small grocers could take this as a opportunity to short change you. Always count your change.
Check Out Your Surroundings in a Subway Car. Try to avoid rush hour on subways, trains and bus. They can be extremely uncomfortable when 300 people are squeezed into a space designed for 50. But if you must, try to angle yourself into a corner so that your pockets are tucked away and check out your neighbors. Sometimes a brief moment of recognition is enough to deter would-be thieves. Carry carabiners to clip pockets and bags when you know you’ll be in tight quarters. These carabiners will come in handy on overnight buses to secure your valuables as you slumber.
Avoid Crowded Escalators, if Possible. Especially during rush hour when a million city dwellers are scurrying to work, escalators from the subway can be crowded. At times, people shove up against each other to make room or perhaps distract you as someone else slips a hand into your pocket. Instead, take the stairs. You won’t be a sitting (or rather standing) target. You can go at your own pace and it will be more obvious if someone is trying to press up against you.