Safety Tips for Travel in South America
Although most foreigners travel safely in South America, travelers should be aware of the safety risks they might face during their trip. South American countries are developing nations with widespread social disparities that encourage petty crime. Foreigners, regardless whether they are wealthy tourists or backpackers, are widely considered wealthy compared to the locals, which puts them at a higher risk of being targets of petty crime and rip-off schemes. But if you inform yourself before you go and keep a watchful eye on your surroundings as you travel, you will most likely have a safe and enjoyable trip in South America. The following travel tips are based on my own experiences for my extensive travels across South America, and I hope they will encourage you to explore this fascinating continent while taking a few basic safety precautions.
Know Before You Go
The best way to prepare yourself is to be well-informed about the current political and economic situation, which often indicates the overall safety and stability of a country. Search the web for reports on strikes, protests and civil unrest in the South American country of your interest, and also look for news about transportation safety. Airplane and bus accidents occur more frequently in South America than in North America or Europe, mainly to bad road conditions and a badly maintained fleet of buses and airplanes. A midair collision in the Brazilian Amazon in 2006 and a plane crash at Brazil’s busiest airport in São Paulo in 2007 are only the latest examples of a transportation infrastructure that often does not meet international standards.
Government travel warnings should also be taken into consideration, and you should check the website of the State Department or Department of Foreign Affairs of your home country for any recent events that might affect travelers. Before going off into remote areas you should register with your embassy or consulate and inquire about safety risks. Keep their phone number and address handy in case of an emergency. I have also found it helpful to read the local newspapers or a locally published English-language publication to stay abreast of the latest news and events that might affect your safety.
Fortunately there is little activity by guerilla groups in South America today, with the exception of Colombia, and travelers have little to fear in that regard. As a general precaution travelers should avoid slums and shantytowns, where curious foreigners are never welcome. There are many safe places to visit where travelers can have contact with the locals and learn about their daily lives, and shantytowns and slums are not among them.
Travel with a Watchful Eye and an Open Mind
Among the most common annoyances for travelers in South America is being overcharged by taxi drivers and shopkeepers, and being targeted by skillful pickpockets. These annoyances pose no direct safety threat, but they point at the vulnerability of foreign travelers in an unfamiliar environment. It is essential for travelers to be alert and observe the world around with watchful eyes. A friend of mine was charged US $50 from the airport to the center of Buenos Aires, whereas I only paid a fraction of that. Ask around to get an idea of current taxi rates, and compare prices at shops and markets to make sure you are not being ripped off.
Travelers should also take special precautions when walking around in unfamiliar cities or towns and should keep in mind that the crime rate in many South American cities is quite high. Dark streets with little traffic invite muggings. Unless you know the area well, you should avoid walking or waiting for a bus on deserted streets after dark. Late at night, taxis are a safe alternative to buses. Ask for safety tips at the local tourist office.
City centers, beaches, and tourist attractions are often frequented by pickpockets, and you should always keep an eye on your belongings. Be especially careful in crowded places and on buses, trains, and boats. Some travelers go as far as chaining their backpacks to luggage racks or railings while waiting in a public place or traveling, which can be especially helpful when alone.
Carry as few valuables as possible and keep important documents in a money belt under your clothing. Instead of original documents, carry authenticated copies. If you plan on staying in one place for more than just a few days, it may be worth depositing your valuables and travel documents in the hotel safe, since hotel rooms are never entirely secure against theft. This is especially true for cheap hotels around bus terminals, railway stations and the ports which often attract suspicious clientele.
Carrying your wallet in your back pocket only invites pickpockets. It is best to carry as little money as possible, and only keep a few bills in your front pocket. Purses worn over the shoulder are also easy targets for pickpockets. If you are ever mugged, don’t resist, even if the assailants are just kids. Remain calm and don’t attract attention as it will only startle the assailants and put you in danger. Keep in mind that they are armed and may not hesitate to hurt you. Hand over your money and leave the scene as quickly as possible.
I have found that the best way to lessen the risk of theft and muggings is to travel subtly. Less conspicuousness means less danger. The more you dress down and blend in with the crowd, the less likely you will attract attention. Avoid wearing flashy clothing, expensive watches and jewelry, and carry your camera in a small backpack instead of around your neck or shoulder. Keep in mind that it is illegal in many South American countries to photograph military installations or government buildings. Ask a policeman or security officer if you are in doubt.
Although women travelers in South America face the same general safety concerns as men, they also have to cope with undue attention from local males. South America is a fairly chauvinistic continent, and a single foreign woman is often considered an easy target for male advances. To get rid of undesirable male company, some women recommend wearing a wedding ring and referring to their imaginary husband. However, there is no strategy or advice that can completely prevent undesired advances. A friendly shopkeeper in Peru offered to take my girlfriend and me to the outskirts of a small jungle town. Since he only had a motorcycle we had to go one at a time. He took me first and when my girlfriend finally arrived, she told me that the man had taken her to his house and had proposed to have sex with her.
Learn from the Locals
Learning a few words in Spanish (Portuguese in Brazil) will also increase your safety. The ability to communicate builds friendship and takes away anonymity and distance. A traveler who is in contact with the locals and knows a few phrases is less likely to be regarded as an ignorant outsider and targeted as a victim. With just a basic vocabulary you can ask the locals if it is safe to walk in their town at night and where to find a good restaurant or a reputable hotel. You can’t always trust every word, but their advice will help you make up your own mind.
Even without basic language skills you can learn a lot from the locals by watching them and following their example. If people in a marketplace pay only with small bills from their pockets, you probably want to do the same and hide your wallet. If the locals take their carry-on when leaving the bus during a rest stop, maybe you should too. I have found the example of the locals to be especially helpful in remote areas, such as the Andes and the Amazon rain forest. They known what water is safe to drink, where streams are safe to bathe in, what trees not to touch in the jungle, what mosquito-borne diseases might be present, and what the common weather patterns are in the mountains. The wealth of local knowledge of their environment has helped me many times to complete my adventures safely and without incidents.
Know your Abilities and Limits
While it is important to keep a watchful eye on the world, some of the most serious safety threats come from the fact that we think of ourselves as more experienced and stronger than we really are. Misjudging our physical ability or potential risks is probably the most fatal mistake any traveler can make. If you are planning an adventure in a South American country you don’t know, you might want to take a more cautious approach to your adventure. You could go trekking in the Andes with a group before exploring this vast mountain range by yourself, or join a boat tour in the Amazon before returning in your own kayak. Get in shape before your trekking adventure in Patagonia and start with training sessions several months before your departure, so your body is prepared for the strains and the exertion. Be sensitive to your physical condition, and think "safety first" when you plan your adventure. Climate and weather factors are also an important consideration. How well can you handle tropical climate and humidity? Is your skin sensitive to intense sunlight? If you are hiking in the Andes, are you equipped for a sudden change in weather, freezing temperatures and snowfall?
Even with knowledge and planning, a certain degree of risk is an inherent element of travel. Neither insurance policies, professional guides or security guards can provide an ultimate guarantee for our safety when we’re high up in the Andes or far down in the subway of São Paulo. But it is this unpredictability that makes travel so fascinating and sets it apart from our daily lives. We are invited to take chances with the unknown, explore unfamiliar countries, and discover the adventurer within us. And these enriching experiences undoubtedly make up for the uncertainties and risks of travel.
For online travel safety resources, please visit our Living in South America section, choose the country of your interest and click on the link to the "Health and Travel Safety" section.