Whether you are there for a short period of time or whether you are thinking of backpacking through the continent, safety is a major concern when travelling through South America.
My first backpacking solo trip was through South America. A full 2 months and a half trip which took me halfway through the continent. During that first trip I was mugged, which really sucked. But looking at the experience, it was a combination of bad luck and inexperience which resulted in me getting separated from my belongings.
As I have continued to travel through the continent, I follow a set of guidelines in getting around safely while not letting it impact my travel experience. 7 countries and 34 cities later, I am sharing them with you.
Most countries in South America are relatively safe. People are welcoming, honest and hard-working, and most will not hesitate to lend a helping hand in case of need. However some level of precaution is still needed, especially when city-hopping like I do. Follow the below tips for travelling safely in South America:
Definitely the most common way of travel through the continent, taking the bus to get from one destination to the next is the easiest and most convenient way of doing so. With literally hundreds of companies to choose from, do your research as to which companies are the safest in each country (i.e. the ones with less recorded incidents) here are a few pointers to make sure you make the safest decision:
Most bus companies have at least two or three classes of service to choose from, mainly regular (standard) and first class (or VIP or any variation of the name).
First class buses and those of a higher class are generally safer than regular buses. Regular buses stop to pick up passengers in the middle of the road. First class buses only pick up registered passengers in designated bus stations (registered as in I.D.).
Many recorded robberies are done by passengers who were picked up in the middle of the road, mainly on overnight buses.
Your backpack or roller suitcase are safe in the compartment below the bus. Most companies will hand out a receipt with a number which is also stuck on your bag, and will only hand the bag at your destination upon return of the receipt.
However this cannot be said with any carry-on bags taken inside the bus with you. And this is also the case for any bags left on the overhead compartment above your seat.
As unfortunate as it is, any bags or small items left unattended are at a definite risk of getting stolen. The best place to keep any bags are between your legs. If you’re on an overnight bus, tie one of the handles to one of your legs, no one will try to take it that way.
Official vs. Non-Official Taxis
In the past, anyone with a car could run a taxi. Today however, many South American cities have now adopted official taxis.
This is not to say that unofficial taxis are nonexistent.
If you are keen on taking a taxi, it is best to ask your hotel to call one for you. At bus stations or airports, only official taxis can enter the interior parking to wait for passengers, while unofficial ones normally wait outside.
Although an official taxi is indeed more expensive, it is wise to spend the extra money for safety and peace of mind.
Know Your Route
Even though you might not be familiar with the city or route to your destination, always know which direction (north, south, east, west) your taxi is supposed to go.
Set your phone with your final destination on Google Maps or a similar app, and make sure that your driver is following a similar route. Google Maps will still run your location even when not connected to a network, so you can know where you are at all times.
If your taxi deviates too much from a particular route, ask them to drop you off and head inside a café, corner store, shop, or anything else that may be nearby and ask the clerk to call for an official taxi to take you where you want to go.
Whether you are taking the bus or the metro, public transportation is one of the best ways to experience local culture first hand. Not only that, but it is one of the most fun ways to experience the city while still keeping your trip on budget.
Avoid Rush Hour
Mainly in the capitals, rush hour traffic means overcrowded buses or metros. While rubbing elbows with locals heading to or coming back from from work may seem like an interesting experience, this is also peak time for thieves and pickpockets to roam around looking for an unsuspecting victim.
If you have to ride during these times, always have your small valuables (cellphone, wallet) in the front pockets of your pants and your hands in those same pockets. Any of these being carried on a jacket is an easy target for quick hands.
If you’re carrying a small backpack, it should always be in front of you and never on your back.
In the metro, avoid sitting or standing next to the door as this is an easy run away exit for thieves.
Dealing With Police
Most police officers are honest individuals trying to uphold the law while keeping citizens and tourists safe. However there are a few things to be aware of when travelling in South America and you happen to cross paths with police officials.
Unless there is an actual reason for it, police officers will not randomly approach you to ask for your identification. However, there have been recorded instances where people impersonating police officers have approached tourists and made up a story where the victim committed a minor offence, and subsequently ask for money to let them go.
If you are caught in this situation, keep your cool and talk to the “officer” normally. Ask them for the details of what the offence was and to write you a ticket which you can pay at nearest station, at which point you will be either handed an actual ticket or asked to pay cash for a possibly lower amount than what was quoted.
If you feel you are being coerced into something, ask to see the officer’s badge and identification. If they claim to be off-duty, then request to walk to the nearest police station to report the offence. NEVER get into a car with them.
Bribing For Drugs
Although cannabis and marijuana are decriminalized in many Latin American countries, this is often not extended to tourists when a possibility of getting a bribe is involved. It is not uncommon for tourists to be arrested for “carrying drugs” with them.
Although you should not put yourself in this situation, know that many police officers may accept a bribe in exchange of looking the other way. If this happens to you, ask the official como podemos arreglar esto? (how can we work this out?). The officer will know what you’re talking about and negotiation will ensue.
Pickpocket Techniques Used
The following are some of the commonly used pickpocket or scamming tricks I have become aware of during my time in South America.
Something On Your Shoulder/Back
Situation where someone will approach you to tell you that “there is something on your shoulder/back”, like mayonnaise or dirt. They will help you clean it off while pickpocketting you at the same time.
Situation where one person will actually spit on you, causing you to distract for a moment while someone else takes and runs away with any bags or belongings you left unattended for the one solitary second.
Mostly used in public transportation, whereas the person sitting behind you will “drop” some change on your seat or besides you and will ask that you assist them picking it up. The moment your eyes are turned, your bag will be unzipped and any unattended belongings gone.
What You Can Do To Avoid Getting Robbed
While you might not consider yourself to be the richest or wealthiest traveller out there, how you might be seen by locals is a different story. Cameras, cellphones, watches and jewelry are visible signs of wealth and make you a target to pickpockets.
Once you are done with your camera, conceal it in your bag. Always note of anyone around you while taking pictures with your cell phone. And ask yourself whether you really need to bring that expensive watch or that shiny jewelry on your trip in the first place.
Only Carry Enough Cash
Other than when withdrawing money, there is never a need to carry all of your money around with you. Only carry enough for the part of the day until you get back to your hotel or hostel.
Also keep your currencies small, as these are easy to take out and show less wealth than carrying around big bills. If you must carry higher currencies, keep them in a separate pocket to avoid taking them all out at the same time.
Walk With Confidence
Regardless of where you are, avoid looking like you’re lost and walk confidently at all times, as this will avoid any potential thief from approaching you offering to walk you where you want to go, only to take you somewhere to rob you.
If you are indeed lost, go inside a store or a restaurant and ask for directions, or ask them to call an official taxi for you if you have wandered off too far.
Most Important Of All, Enjoy Your Trip
Most countries and cities in South America are safe to travel. Some even safer than in other countries in Europe or North America. Although robbery and theft do happen, you can avoid being a victim of these by keeping in mind the above.
Want to know more about a particular destination, city, or country in South America? Send me an e-mail with any of your questions and I’ll be happy to reply!