The Big Book of Safety: 32 tips for safe travel in South America + 6 known scams
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Thanks to various reputational blows and scary news headlines, people don’t expect to find safe travel in South America easy. When I first left the UK, my parents’ biggest concern was that I was going to end up coerced into some drugs ring somewhere, not to be seen until I ended up on the 10 o’clock news having been caught for trying to smuggle cocaine through an international airport in my knickers. LUCKILY, they were just being bloody ridiculous, and across my 19 months in South America (plus a further 7 months in Central America) the most troubling crime I ever encountered was that time that I was wrongly accused of stealing cash from a girl in my hostel in Rosario. Still bitter.
My parents did have some semblance of a point, though. Crime follows poverty, and there’s no skirting around the fact that South America has an awful lot of poverty. Even the nicest of you would get caught up in a tangle of mishaps if it was the only way to feed your family. It’s easy to have a burning hatred for criminals, but the more you see what some people call ‘home’ and learn about the institutional and societal forces that completely stunt upwards social mobility in certain communities, you may find yourself taking a softer stance.
Anyway, I’m not here to excuse criminal activity, I’m here to give you lots and lots of helpful tips for safe travel in South America! The below advice (consisting of basic 101s, petty crime, violent crime, financial and transport safety tips) will hopefully greatly reduce your risk of falling foul of common issues in the region. I’ll also tell you about some of the scams at play. There’s a huge amount of socioeconomic, cultural and geographic diversity across South America which affects what you need to be looking out for, but it’s easy to adapt as you pick up tips from new people along your journey.
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This all being said, please don’t let this information scare you. I like to have a ‘pase lo que pase/what happens, happens’ view to stumbling my way around South America, and I know that I wouldn’t enjoy myself half as much if I spent my time constantly worried about all the bad things that could occur. Yes, there are risks, but with each day that you travel, the below tips for safe South America travel will become more and more engrained in your way of life as second nature, until you don’t even realise you’re employing them. Stick to the safest countries in Latin America, and you’ll have even more chances of keeping secure.
But honestly, chill. You’re gonna be fine!
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Basic tips for safe travel in South America
If you do nothing else, make sure to master these basic bits of advice for enjoyable and safe South America travel!
1. Trust your gut
This tip for safe travel in South America HAD to come first. Humans have evolved to subconsciously pick up behavioural micro-cues, so your gut actually tends to be a pretty good indicator of a situation. I think a lot of us feel obligated to suffer through certain circumstances in order to remain polite, but you should never feel too embarrassed to walk out of an uncomfortable place, sale or conversation when your gut is screaming blue murder at you.
2. Agree on your price beforehand for everything
EEEEVERYTHING. Be very clear about what you’re paying, and for what. Unless you see locals paying upfront too, don’t pay until you have received the full service. If you’re feeling uneasy, ask for a receipt (recibo in both Spanish and Portuguese).
3. Book at least one night of accommodation in a new city
As if long journeys between cities weren’t enough, looking for accommodation around a new destination with all your valuables on your back and clearly no idea where you’re going is not a great start to safe South America travel. Always book at least your first night, then you know where to head to from your transport terminal, and you won’t be caught aimlessly wandering the streets of a random neighbourhood. If you love it, stay another few nights, and if it’s grim, you can still be a free-spirited backpacker and play your next move by ear now that you’ve had a chance to see what the city offers.
4. Never let your stuff out of your sight
You’d be surprised how quickly your things can go walkies when you leave them alone out of your view. I’m assuming you’ll be travelling with a larger backpack for clothes (ladies, here’s my review of the Osprey Auro 50L backpack!) and a smaller rucksack for your valuables, like I do. Your larger backpack should be heavy enough to deter most people, but they might still have a fumble for goodies inside. If you’re not travelling with a well-trusted buddy, your smaller bag needs to accompany you everywhere until you can lock it up somewhere secure.
5. Listen to the locals
Locals have spent their whole lives getting to know their hometown like the back of their hands, so when they tell you not to go down certain streets or behave in certain ways, make sure you listen to them. Locals are definitely some of the best sources of info for safe travel in South America, and in lots of destinations we came across strangers who were compassionate enough to take time out of their own day to give advice to tourists they’d seen making rookie safety mistakes.
6. Remember that other travellers are just as much of a risk
Going to developing countries, I think a lot of travellers assume that their only threat is poor local people who are desperate or morally void in some way (yes, some people really think that). However, of the crime I’ve heard about or witnessed in South America, a significant proportion has actually been committed by other backpackers – mostly petty theft from empty hostel dorms. While I don’t want you to spend the entirety of South America trip on-edge, don’t let your guard down when you arrive at your accommodation just because you’re back to being around people who look like you.
7. Healthcare in South America can be cheap, but travel insurance is still a must
Accidents happen, even to the most healthy of backpackers, and you really want to be prepared for any wallops that come your way. Mine and Andy’slong-term backpacking travel insurance saved us about £1200 in the first year of backpacking in South America alone. We found them very quick and easy to work through a claim with, plus they allowed us to purchase a long-term policy without being in our home country at that time, which surprisingly few travel insurance companies do.
8. A little lingo goes a long way
Knowing just a teeny bit can help you communicate to locals what help you need, and can solidify trust if they see that you’re at least trying to learn their language. If you want to go further to ensure you travel safe in South America, I highly recommend spending some time at a school in one of the best destinations to learn Spanish.
9. Make sure someone out there knows where you’re going
Even if it’s just the girl who sits on the reception desk of your hostel or your grandma on WhatsApp, make sure someone has some clue as to where you’re off to each day, especially if you’re on your own. They’ll have a lot better idea of when to start looking if you end up going missing.
Fend off petty crime for safe travel in South America
10. Stay alert for safe South America travel
Keep your wits about you. Ask the hostel in any new destination to let you know of any scams, areas or tour companies to avoid. Of course, let your hair down, but always know who’s around you, where you are and never ever ever let your stuff out of your sight. Pickpockets are quiiiiiiiick, and you probably won’t even realise you’ve lost anything for a fair while.
11. Know your surroundings
One of the easiest ways to label yourself as a target in destinations known for petty theft is to wander around looking like you don’t have the foggiest idea of where you are or where you’re trying to go. Know your barrios (there are places you need to avoid in every city in the world), check maps before you head out, and walk as though you have at least an indication of what you’re doing.
12. Keep your passport in your hostel
I’m not really sure why so many people are adamant on taking their passport out with them day-to-day. I don’t even trust myself to do that in England without losing it immediately. Well-rated hostels in South America are generally pretty trust-worthy, and you should only be staying in accommodation that provides some form of locker. In some hostels and hotels, they will ask you to put your passport behind the reception desk until you leave. Don’t panic, this is due to local laws and they will keep it in a lockbox. Bring a drivers license to use as ID, and print some passport copies if you’re worried you may need it out and about (apart from vehicle hire and longer transport journeys, you won’t).
13. Pack a decoy
In certain cities and when travelling by night bus, I got into the habit of taking a small handbag as a decoy, so thieves focused on that instead of the actual valuables in my small rucksack. Andy took a decoy wallet with a few unused cards and coins, and we both had old crappy phones to take on nights out. We only felt the need to do this in cities where stealing from tourists is rife, like Rio de Janeiro (check out Rio de Janeiro’s safest neighbourhoods here to minimise your risk).
Just make sure the bag or wallet isn’t completely empty if you’re using it as a mugging decoy (i.e. to roam a city at night vs just passing through a bus terminal where the threat is more of pickpockets). You don’t want to put yourself in even more danger if muggers have time to check the contents.
14. Only book hostels that offer lockers
In this day and age, you’d be surprised by how many hostels think they can save a few pesos by not providing a few metal boxes in the corner. Luckily, Hostelworld and Booking.com will always let you know if lockers are on offer in a given hostel. Also, they should definitely be free. Even hostels like this with no window panes provide lockers:
15. Bring a heavy duty combination padlock for your hostel
By heavy duty, this doesn’t necessarily mean ‘thick’, as some of the locker loops can be small. But make sure your lock isn’t flimsy, as it doesn’t take much for someone to cut through them. Even in private rooms, you should use any locker provided. I learnt this the hard way when we had £100 in cash stolen from a private room in Torotoro, Bolivia.
16. Don’t be flashy
As the Colombians say, ‘no dar papaya’, and as my dad would say, ‘don’t be a flashy git’. In short, if you ‘give papaya’, someone will see your papaya, want your papaya and take your papaya. This can’t happen if they never know your papaya exists. For the purposes of safe travel in South America, papaya is your cash, your watch, your phone, even your nice trainers. I didn’t want use my auntie to make a point, but here she is providing an excellent example in San Gil, Colombia that I just can’t let up:
17. Dress to blend in
I get it, some of you are going to stand out just through simple genetics. However, leaving the belt wallet and bumbag at home can take you from looking like an easy target to a well-seasoned travel pro who has their wits about them, therefore making your South America travel safer by a mile. Look around at how the locals dress and try to mimic it (though obviously don’t step out of the boundaries of what would be culturally appropriate for you – no one needs to see a gaggle of Kiwi dudes in cholita dresses. Or maybe they do. May that is exactly what this world needs?!).
18. Muggings aren’t common, but if it happens just give up everything
Yes, even your laptop. And your passport. Your life is worth more, and there’s really nothing your embassy and backpacker travel insurance can’t sort out. You’ll have to deal with the administrative hassle and perhaps attack on your ego, but that’s really a much better result than you receiving stitches for a stab wound in an over-packed A&E ward. The truth is that there are many desperate people in this region, so you never really know the lengths they will go to in order to feed their family or survive life in a brutal gang.
19. Protests are a normal part of South American life, but steer clear
There’s a fair bit of political unrest in various pockets of South America at the moment, so it’s not unusual to find yourself in and amongst a protest or two. These rarely turn violent, but it’s always best to stay away. As long as you avoid protests, at most you’ll probably just experience a few travel delays as a result. Keep plans flexible when you’re around a city that has had some civil unrest, and keep up-to-date with the local news.
20. Keep an eye on your drinks
Ladies, I’m sure most of you will already be vigilant with watching your drinks in public due to date rape fears anywhere in the world. However, men may not have gotten into such habits due to their much lower risk back home, and therefore get double-whammied when their drink is spiked with scopolamine and they wake up dazed in an empty apartment with their bank accounts wiped. This drug comes from a plant, and is used mainly (but not exclusively) in Colombia. It’s like a truth serum that turns you into a fully-functioning zombie with complete compliance. This allows thieves (often in the form of stunning women) to ask you all your bank details with no fuss, and to get your help in moving all of your stuff into their car. Be wary!
21. Be super-careful around drugs in South America
If there’s one thing worse than going to prison for 15 years, it’s going to Ecuadorian prison for 15 years. In addition to this, gringos arranging to buy drugs is one of the key ways that criminal gangs know who to target for theft. Look, I know a huge draw of South America is the quality and price of the cocaine, but you need to be cautious in terms of whether you can trust your source, whether you can keep it quiet and whether you’re dosing to allow for the fact that the strength of this stuff will be mind-blowing compared to what’s available at home. You don’t want to be waking up in a hospital bed anymore than you do a police cell. Here’s me, not actually on drugs, but probably surrounded by them. Sneaky drugs.
How to be financially-smart when you travel
22. Carry less cash
This is all about minimising your damage. If you do get robbed – or even just lose your purse because like me, you’re effing useless – let’s at least make sure you don’t lose your entire life’s savings in one pop. Only carry as much cash as you need for the day, and use card payments as much as possible.
23. Don’t have everything on one card
Just as you should limit the damage that can be done if your cash gets stolen, you should also limit the damage that can be done if your card gets stolen. Use a travel card (you’ll see why I recommend a Revolut card below), and load it up by just $150 or so at a time. You don’t want thieves having access to your entire savings if they get their hands on your main bank card.
24. Keep a second wallet
Now, this isn’t a decoy wallet, it’s a savings wallet to keep a safe stash if you’re going to a place that will have poor access to ATMs or is unlikely to accept card payments. Each morning, you transfer one day’s worth of cash into the wallet you take out, then put your second wallet into your locker. Again, damage control if stolen, but also a smart measure to take if you’re just very loss-prone (me, basically).
Avoid street ATMs to take out cash as much as you can (though of course sometimes you just don’t have any choice). Where possible, try to instead find a cash point in a place with bright lights and security guards, like a shopping mall. Alternatively, your next best option is an ATM room which you’ll see outside banks or at random points between shops, but avoid using these alone or at night as people may loiter outside for when you come out.
27. Never let your card out of your sight
If someone claims their card machine is in a different room, insist they bring it out to you, or let you follow them into said room. Don’t make the same mistake Andy and I made in Argentina when our card got cloned – potentially in a pretty upmarket restaurant.
Ensure safe travel in South America on public transport
28. Be careful of unlicensed taxis (and tours!)
Unregulated taxis and tours can lead to all sorts of issues – lack of fair pricing, disregard for safety and unaccountability if you need to report something troubling. This problem is especially prominent with Buenos Aires taxis – aim to get a RadioTaxi instead of hailing a random yellow car. Most cities have reputable taxi apps where you can pay in-app; Uber is available in the places that haven’t yet managed to outlaw it, but you can also try out Cabify, 99 Easy Taxi or Beat.
29. Keep belongings tied up between your feet on public transport
Did I tell you of the guy who had his entire 30L backpack – plus the shoes he’d taken off – stolen from him while he slept on a bus?! Well, I’m telling you now. Passport, laptop, clothes, all gone. Obviously, at some point during an over-night journey, you’re going to need to sleep, but ensure first that everything you own is tucked way out of others’ reach (thieves aren’t against squeezing sneaky fingers round the side or underneath your seat), and that bags are tied to you by a strap. I even had a jacket pulled out from under my seat on what must have been Quito’s rainiest day in goddamn history. Enjoyed losing that. Although between your feet isn’t perfect, you are far safer putting small bags there than up in the luggage rack above your head. Staying safe and comfortable on night buses in South America will provide some more info for you!
30. Don’t pack valuables in the top of your backpack
You shouldn’t be putting many valuables in your big backpack anyway as you can’t always have it in sight, but for some things – such as your second wallet, where the whole point is to have a back-up if your actual valuables get stolen – it does make sense whilst travelling between destinations. Make sure these valuables are wrapped up right in the middle of your backpack contents, so a slight hand will pick up nothing more than a wad of your dirty underwear. ‘at’ll learn ’em.
31. Know when the last bus leaves
And don’t end up like me, stuck in a closing bus station on the wrong side of a large city, unable to flag a taxi or book anything on Booking.com before the next day, realising the only option is to follow a lady holding a cardboard ‘HOSTAL’ sign and pay to sleep in her basement with locks on the outside of my door. That was a fun night. Moral of the story is, always know when the last bus leaves, and if worried, ask someone to point you to where your bus will be pulling in so you don’t miss it.
32. Don’t arrive too late in a new city
Public transport doesn’t run at all hours, even in lots of the capital cities, so try and plan your night bus or flight to arrive at a time when you’ll be able to get a transfer to your accommodation. Having to sit around a terminal with all your bags at 5am is not the one, and it’s not the most recommended situation for safe travel in South America.
Interesting scams in South America
Half for actual advice, and half for the fascination of some of the ways that people catch tourists out, here are some known scams in the region. Let me know if you heard of any others in the comments section!
A taxi driver quotes a price and makes you pay upfront, but then they lock the car and demand more money at the end. When you refuse, they take you to the police station where you expect to find justice, but instead you are met with a fine that gets happily split between the taxi driver and the corrupt policeman.
Knowing that you’re fresh off a plane and therefore a tantalising combination of loaded with big notes of cash + unfamiliar with the new currency, a taxi/tuktuk driver or shopkeeper will ask for smaller notes, but when you don’t have any, will ask their friend to switch a big note for change. They bamboozle you so hard that you won’t realise until they’ve driven off that they’ve switched your big note for fake small notes of ‘change’. We heard of this happening more than once in Máncora, Peru.
In Medellín, there have been many reports of taxi drivers (there’s a theme, here) driving with their window open, then acting surprised when an armed robber/their friend pulls up on a moped at the traffic lights and demands money. Always insist the driver puts the window up at the start of any journey, and if they won’t get the hell out of their car, pronto.
In some countries – especially those that receive a lot of American tourists – there is a HIGH expectation for big tipping, even in places where locals wouldn’t ever tip. Accents are really hard to distinguish between in a second language, so locals tend to assume any English-speaker is from the USA, a country known for their tipping culture due to lacklustre minimum wage laws. Service providers (and by this, I mean anything from unsolicited tour guides who stopped you in the street to people who are paid by a company to open an electronic bus door) therefore might try to pressure people to tip, or if they have, to tip more, which steadily gets more aggressive if you continue to refuse. This sometimes ends up with them shouting ‘fucking Americans‘ down the street at you, which is all sorts of fun. Though as a non-confrontational (and very British) person this is kind of my worst nightmare, the main danger here is embarrassment, so if someone is forcing you to give more money, I’d say that’s enough reason to tell them their service is bad and just walk away.
Not a scam, per se, but we heard of people going to ayahuasca camps, and having all of their things stolen from their tents whilst tripping balls for 8 hours in a shaman’s hut. There are also horror stories of people being sexually attacked during their hallucinations. I don’t really have much advice on how to avoid this other than, I dunno, don’t do ayahuasca.
We got caught out by card-copying in Argentina. This is definitely more of a thing in the south of South America, but wherever you go just be careful your waiter isn’t taking your card to a card machine ‘out the back’. They copy it, sell the details on the dark web, and within hours your card contents will be wiped by transactions all over the world. I hope the guy in Cyprus had a wonderful time on his $150 Uber ride, supposedly around the entire island. Luckily, Revolut were straight on the fraud claim and we got all our money back very quickly. Hooray!
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