One question I received a lot recently after returning from my 4-months backpacking trip around the continent was “how safe is South America?” This is an important question, and this guide will show you how to stay safe when backpacking South America!
Unfortunately, South America’s reputation in terms of safety is not the best, and the internet is full of horror stories about violence, robberies and various scams happening all over the continent. Therefore, my parents were not very happy about me traveling around South America for a couple of months. Several of my friends would never even step a foot on the continent because of these horrible stories out there.
However, is it really that bad? When I set foot on the continent starting in Colombia, I got to know many travelers coming up from the south and finishing their trips in Colombia. Several of them have spent multiple months in South America and faced a negative experience related to getting something stolen, etc. Obviously, this was not the best welcoming to the continent I could ask for and I was afraid something could happen to me during my four months in South America.
Nevertheless, I’m back home again, and absolutely nothing happened! I wasn’t robbed, mugged, scammed or pickpocketed at all. Let me tell you my personal advice about how to stay safe when backpacking South America!
Be careful with Alcohol
I mentioned at the beginning that I was concerned about safety because of the negative stories I was told. Well, after asking for details of why someone got robbed, 90% of the time people’s stories started roughly with “…well, it was 2 am, I was quite drunk on the streets and then it happened…” The bottom line: be careful if you go out partying and if you get wasted. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying South America’s nightlife, but keep in mind that too much alcohol makes you careless and vulnerable, and keep in mind that you’re in a foreign city with people you might know only since a few hours beforehand. Leave your valuables at your hostel or hotel before you go out partying, and make sure that you know how to get (safely) back home. Same goes obviously for drugs – you don’t want to be completely blacked out somewhere in South America!
Leave your valuables at your hostel/hotel
There’s always a small risk of getting robbed or pickpocketed every time you leave your accommodation. In some places, this risk is lower, in other places, such as Quito, Rio de Janeiro, and Bogota, the risk is higher. Therefore, you should ALWAYS leave valuable things which you don’t need (passport, credit card, big amounts of cash) in your accommodation. Don’t take the risk and carry all your valuables through the streets, especially in the night and when you go partying. Only take some cash and maybe your phone and your camera if you need them.
Do your research
By this, I mean that learning about other’s experiences or doing research online can be very useful to anticipate common crimes and areas you should rather avoid
in the places you plan to visit. It is very useful to learn and read about common scams in a country before you visit, so that you know what might happen to be prepared. Doing that research is not about getting scared or losing your adventure spirit, it is just about being well prepared and understanding the local context.
Be careful in buses
Always take care of your belongings on public buses. Always keep your daypack with your valuables on your lap, never put your valuables in the luggage storage, in the overhead or even under your seat (people from sitting behind you could grab it). If someone comes to you, claiming to work for the bus company and asking you to put your bag on the overhead for safety reasons, don’t do it, it’s a popular scam in South America (especially in Ecuador). Be especially careful when the bus gets crowded and when many people, including passengers and food sellers; get on and off the bus. Be careful at bus terminals as well. If anyone offers you help and wants to put your daypack somewhere, refuse. I recommend using small locks to lock your bag. Be careful when you fall asleep in buses – I always try to wear sunglasses, making it harder for people to tell if I’m asleep or not. During night buses, put your valuables in your pockets, zip them up and put an extra sweater or jacket on top. I’ve talked to plenty of people who got their stuff stolen in these situations.
Be careful with taxis
This depends on the country and the place you’re in. While in most smaller cities and villages, taxis are fine to use, try to avoid random street taxis especially in the bigger capitals (Quito, Bogota, Lima,). There is a lot of crime happening with fake or stolen taxis. Try to use Uber or Easytaxi whenever you can (I always get a sim card for mobile internet). In Quito, the crimes involving taxis got so bad that the government introduced new rules, making it mandatory for each official taxi to have a specific license plate, a sticker on the car, two cameras inside and a red panic button for passengers. While Uber wasn’t launched yet in Ecuador in summer 2017, the app EasyTaxi was a good alternative that I used.
Some further remarks about taking taxis:
• Take care when exiting a car – leave the door open and ask the driver to help you get your bag out, making him/her exit the car before you leave. This prevents the driver from driving off with your bags in the car as soon as you exit (This isn’t very common, but it happened to people I know).
• Check on google maps or maps.me (works offline) the route that your driver chooses and ask if you feel like the taxi is heading in the wrong direction. Give your driver the feeling that you’re prepared and that you know where to go.
• Ask the driver to turn on the meter. In some countries or cities, metered taxis don’t exist. In this case, make sure to agree on a price before you enter the car and have a good idea of what is a fair price for the route you will take (ask locals at the bus terminal or in your hostel).
• If your driver wants to pick up a random person on the street, refuse, protest and in the worst-case scenario, get out of the car.
One last point to clarify – don’t get the impression that all taxi drivers are bad guys, this is certainly not the case and most drivers I had were very friendly, helpful and gave me recommendations and advice about their city. But as always, it’s good to be prepared.
Get information at your accommodation/hostel
That’s the first thing I do when I check in at a new place – I ask at the reception for a city map and ask for some further information – any areas to avoid? Is it safe to walk? How is it at the night? No one knows the neighborhood better as people working at your hostel, so take their advice.
Further, the situation in Latin America always changes so fast. Nicaragua was super safe to visit in 2017, but should be avoided because of violent protests in 2018. Colombia was one of the most dangerous countries a few years ago, but is completely safe to visit in 2017 and 2018. You see – the situation always changes, so make sure to get updated information.
Time your arrival
When taking a bus or flight, I try to time my arrival so that I arrive during daylight. Sure, this isn’t always possible. In case you have a late or super early arrival, get some information before – how do you get to your hostel. Do they have a 24-hour reception? (if not, send them an email in advance).
Avoid certain areas (especially at night)
Every major city has areas that need to be avoided, so make sure to know them. It’s a no-brainer that you shouldn’t walk down dark allies, but that’s not everything. Furthermore, there’s also a big difference between daytime and nighttime. Let me give you some examples: While the area of Ipanema is one of the safest neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro, it’s dangerous to be at the beach during the night. While the historical center in Bogota is the place were all attractions and hostels are located, don’t walk around there in the night either. This might be surprising since these places are safe during the day and you might expect that the top tourist hotspots are always fine to visit, but this isn’t the case
Be careful when using ATMs
When taking out money, try to do it during daylight and if possible in a proper bank or at least in a closed building. Make sure that no one watches, put your money quickly in your pockets and be extra careful while walking back to your hostel.
Know the scams
In every region in the world, there are specific kinds of scams that you need to know in order to avoid them. A quick google research can help. Here are some common ones in South America:
• Suddenly, out of nowhere, there’s some slush / shit / whatever on your clothes, on your bag or on your face. Some locals approach you, offering their help, trying to clean it up. You’re confused, you’re distracted. And suddenly, the locals are gone, and so is your wallet or your phone
• Suddenly, there’s some cash lying on the ground, just next to you! You pick it up, you’re distracted – and your daypack is gone.
• Suddenly, you’re approached in a bus by someone claiming to work for the bus company and pushing you to put your daypack in the overhead, since it wouldn’t be allowed to carry it on your lap. He offers you help, the bus gets crowded, people get on and off. And your bag is gone.
• Suddenly, someone randomly talks o you on a bus, while your bag is on the floor. You talk, you’re distracted, and someone from behind grabs your back and takes out your valuables.
• Suddenly, someone bumps into you on the street, he/she apologizes – and your wallet is gone.
As a rule of thumb: Always be cautious if something unexpected happens, since it’s every scammer’s main goal to distract your attention. Again, don’t be paranoid, most people are kind and helpful, but also don’t be too naïve and careless.
Don’t be a hero
This one is very, very important. In case someone threatens you with a gun or a knife, DON’T fight back, DON’T discuss, just hand out your valuables. In Latin America, criminal’s threshold to actually use their weapons is very low and you definitely risk your life if you offer any resistance. Keep in mind: your life is more valuable than any material value. Same goes if you witness any crime or any robbery – don’t try to be the hero, just leave the place as soon as you can.
I hope I was able to give you a broad overview of how to stay safe in South America. It is not my intention to scare you. Many people (including me!) travel South America for several months without anything bad happening to them. Nevertheless, the safety situation certainly is different than in Europe and it’s necessary to be prepared.
But now stop worrying and get ready for your South America adventure! Check out the ultimate South America bucket list for some inspiration for your backpacking trip.
Did you already pack your bag? Have a look at this South America packing checklist from my friend Steph to make sure you don’t leave anything important behind!