Is it safe to travel to South America? That was the most common question people have been asking us lately.
There is this crazy misconception about South American safety. The dark times of drugs and Narcos destroyed the reputation of South America. But things have changed and improving as we speak.
When we were traveling to South America, some people were making us nervous about how dangerous South America can be. Who hasn’t heard stories of kidnappings or the traveler who unknowingly became a drug smuggler?
Well, if you watch too much TV and have never been to South America, you have no clue, because it’s not true. Now, that we had our experiences we will share all your South American safety tips with you. If you follow our tips and advice you shall not worry.
IS IT SAFE TO TRAVEL TO SOUTH AMERICA?
Other questions we get asked about South America, are:
- DID WE FEEL SAFE?
2. DID WE GET ROBED?
3. DID WE EVER ENCOUNTER DANGEROUS SITUATIONS?
So what is the truth? Is South America safe or not? The short answer is: YES, WE FELT SAFE. But there are several safety rules you can follow when traveling around South America
We would like to point out, that the following advice should be followed where ever you go. Not only in South America but also while traveling in general. Usually following common sense and your intuition will keep you safe.
Robbery or petty theft can happen anywhere in the world, even in your home country, in every city, on every continent. Don’t do things you wouldn’t do at home.
People refer to South America as a dangerous continent full of crime, theft, and drugs. South America has a complex history filled with unfortunate episodes that impact people’s lives until today. Yet, most stereotypes when traveling to South America are exaggerations.
WHY TRUST US?
We traveled to 7 countries in South America, we spent 5 months all together there. Our journey started in Colombia. We took many buses, making our way all the way down to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. We crossed 3 borders by bus (Colombia to Ecuador, Ecuador to Peru, and Bolivia to Chile). Crossing borders can be exhausting and very time-consuming. Currently, millions of Venezuelans are leaving their country and traveling mostly by bus all across South America. So trust us, we know what we are talking about here 😀
Planning a trip to Peru? Check out our 1 month itinerary: Perfect 4 weeks Peru itinerary with our highlights that are worth to visit.
DID WE GET ROBBED?
Almost 😀 but fortunately we were lucky and nothing happened. Click here to read our story.
DID WE EVER ENCOUNTER DANGEROUS SITUATIONS?
Not really, we only saw one robbery and that’s it. For 5 months in South America, that’s pretty good, right? Again, we felt generally safe, but please follow the instructions we mention in this article.
WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE TRAVELING TO SOUTH AMERICA
When you decide to visit a new country, you need to understand that you are viewed as a visitor.
Don’t fight it, it is what it is.
Some people forget this important fact and behave in a new foreign country like at home. This might be a bad idea.
Every country has its own customs, traditions, history, the way of doing things. And we advise you to know these little things before you go.
Trust me, it will make your and their life easier. You can easily overcome many frustrating situations and unnecessary misunderstandings. You will understand the country better, what you should expect and how to react in situations you have never been in before.
SAFETY FIRST IN SOUTH AMERICA
Yet, you don’t want to think about bad things when traveling, right? So make sure to not forget why you visit the countries you visit. It might be the wonderful beaches of San Andres, Colombia, a hike to Rainbow Mountain in Peru or enjoying a beautiful city like Rio.
A part of traveling is that things will go wrong or you might be confused for some time. Usually, those are the funniest and most memorable moments.
However, if your safety is at risk, make no compromises. Taking care of yourself and your travel companion(s) is priority number one. Right before making sure to not lose your SD card, memory stick or whatever medium you use to back-up all your wonderful pictures and videos.
The world is no Disneyland, with happy, honest people around. Unfortunately, not yet. But by traveling and opening up to new cultures or showing others our culture, we as travelers might help to make a difference.
GET A HOTEL IN THE CITY CENTER, NOT IN THE “SUBURBS”
In big cities like Bogota, Medellin, La Paz, Lima, Rio, Buenos Aires, etc., you have to watch out all day and more so at night.
You would be surprised but we were a couple of times warned by the locals in big cities not to openly carry our camera and phone around.
We spent our very first day in South America in Bogota, the capital of Colombia. We were walking around the touristic neighborhood La Candelaria. It was noon. After 5 minutes an older man was telling us (and he sounded very concerned), that we better be careful with our camera out like that.
That was during the day and we were a bit shocked. As we couldn’t even imagine what is happening at night time. Okay, let me know to stop you right here. It is not that bad and things can go wrong everywhere. After we got back from South America ( and nothing happed to us) I visited my mum in Prague and guess what happened? In my first 15 minutes in Prague my phone was stolen. So we were joking that 5 months traveling in South America, nothing happens and you come home and you get robbed right away.
In South America, we usually went home when it got dark while in the big cities. So out advice would be: DO NOT WALK AROUND ON YOUR OWN WHEN IT IS DARK IN THE PLACES YOU SHOULDN’T BE. Many hotels, guesthouses will advise you and show you on the map certain parts of the city where you shouldn’t go. SO DON’T GO THERE. And especially not at night. Simple, right?
If you go for dinner, try to take only the things you need. Perhaps take one credit card, cell phone and leave your big camera at home. Or just bring enough cash to pay for food and drinks. If there is no Uber available ask the hotel or restaurant to call you a taxi. But more on this in a paragraph further down.
DON’T PARTY TOO HARD AND DON’T DRINK TOO MUCH
If you are traveling to South America you should know that going out at night can be risky.
First of all, you don’t know the place, the country, the people. You will be always visible as a tourist.
And if you do decide to go out, don’t get drunk. We highly recommend you to go in bigger groups and stick together. Please, don’t go out by yourself.
We as a couple never went party and to be honest, we don’t regret it. When too much alcohol is involved, nothing good can happen. At least that’s our experience. There are of course places (usually smaller towns) where it is less of a problem to walk around late.
Of course, we did go for a few drinks, but we always ordered a beer, as it is closed. No one can put something into your drink if you get a bottled beer.
If you are in a bar, someone can suggest trying a local drink. You might find a great idea to try new things. But for instance, in Colombia, there were some cases when someone slips a burundanga into a drink. It is not a deadly substance, but this can knock you out for several hours. Like this criminals can rob you very easily and do other horrible things. We do not want to scare you of course, but just to mention all the information we heard while traveling around South America.
If you are traveling to Colombia, make sure to read our guide to 22 essential things to know before you travel to Colombia
In Bolivia, we were warned that if you get drunk and then fall asleep on the street, they might take you as an offering to Pacha Mama. This is not a joke and we were told this by a few guides. If you want to learn more about Bolivian traditions you should visit a place like Isla del Sol on Lake Titicaca.
YOU WILL BE ALWAYS SEEN AS TOURIST AKA “GRINGO”
Before coming to South America we spent 6 months in Southeast Asia. In Southeast Asia, we were clearly tourists and somehow we thought we would blend in more in South America.
NOPE. We did not. It is impossible. In the beginning, we didn’t understand why and one Uber driver was laughing, shaking his head and saying: “how we can possibly think that we can blend it?” I asked, “BUT WHY”? He answered: “Well, you have different features, different types of clothes, your hair, everything is just different. You don’t even need to start talking”.
What does Gringo mean? In South America, locals use this as a term for tourists. It’s not only valid for Americans in Mexico. We don’t care as it is not that offensive and I really find it funny.
LEAVE YOUR DIAMONDS AND OTHER EXPENSIVE THINGS AT HOME
I mean it. Leave it at home. You do not need expensive jewelry, pearls, watches and other precious things with you when you travel. You do not want to have all the attention on you. I even left my engagement ring at home as I didn’t want to lose it. I am not a paranoid person, but many travelers mentioned that advice so I followed it. Showing your belonging too much can be a reason for robbery.
QUICK TIPS ON ROBBERY
If you ever happened to be in that situation ( God forbids), there are a few rules you need to follow. Do not fight it. This is so important. Please remember that these are only material things which you can replace easily. Your safety and health are the most important things in the world. So let it go, give all your belonging away and wait until criminals leave. Of course, after you need to go to the police station to file a complaint, so you can claim your lost itmes through your insurance.
BE INVISIBLE, TRY TO BLEND IN
When you walk around in any city in South America, keep your voice down if you speak English or other languages. Otherwise, you send a beacon to thieves. Try to be invisible or blend in, which might be harder than you think. This is the advice we got from our hosts and the locals we met. We never asked for this kind of advice. Of course, we were surprised but we listened.
HOW TO MANAGE YOUR MONEY SUPPLY
If you travel in general, have a couple of different credit cards with you. The reason why is that, if one of your cards get stolen or blocked by the bank, you can use other ones. Don’t be the tourist who has no money left. Usually, we lose access to one of our credit cards while we travel because someone hacks our card along the way. If you travel longterm it is likely that it happens to you too.
WITHDRAW CASH ONLY AT OFFICIAL ATMs
Avoid ATMs in weird or dodgy areas. We always withdraw cash at official banks and rarely on the streets. If you are at the ATM, make sure to cover the pad while you enter the PIN. Moreover, clean the pad after you have entered the PIN to make sure no one retrieves the combination after you left. We do those things all the time but still can’t avoid that someone hacks our cards. It happened in South America again (just like in Southeast Asia). Thieves and frauds will always find a way so make sure to have several cards.
If you pay in a restaurant, shop, etc. try to not lose sight of your card while giving it away to pay. If they leave with your card, follow them, because people might copy your card.
Our credit card was blocked in Peru after we withdraw money to pay for our hotel in Cusco. There stole 300 Euros. This is already sad enough, but we had one credit card less. This Santander card didn’t charge any transaction fees, which sucked as we couldn’t use it anymore. If you call your bank right way, they might a possibility to unblock the card. That is why it is very useful to have phone number of your banks with you.
This kind of scam happens a lot in South America, but we also experienced in Miami too. Our credit card details were copied and next thing we know our cards are blocked. Thieves stole 800 euros from our cards, luckily our bank refunded the money.
BE AWARE OF YOUR SURROUNDINGS AND KEEP YOUR BELONGINGS CLOSE
The most common mistake a traveler can make is to lose sight of his or her surroundings. Whether you are walking around on your own, on the bus, plane, wherever make sure you know what is going on around you. This is very important. Don’t be overly paranoid and see a Bond villain in everyone, but just know where you are and who is around you. Tourists take photos, they look lost, they check their phones for directions, we simply do things that make us easy targets. I know, I been there. But, many thieves are looking for such situations, where you seem distracted to take advantage of you. A great example is free walking tours. It is easy to spot them, right?
Our advice for crowded places:
- carry your backpack on your chest
- make sure to have your shoulder bag closed and next to you
- have your camera with a strap around your neck (like a proper tourist)
- take your phone, wallet out of your pockets (if you are in a crowded bus, train, etc.)
Theft can happen anywhere. In South America, it can happen as well and we were advised by many people in every country we visited to be careful.
DON’T TAKE SELFIES
Just kidding but don’t show off your fancy phone too often. If you walk next to the street, do not have your phone in your hand or at least keep it away from the street.
I saw a robbery in front of my eyes in Buenos Aires. An old lady was standing on the pathway around a curve with her phone in her hand. A guy on a motorcycle came by, snatched the phone and stormed away into traffic. This is one of the most common types of thefts in South America. We heard the same thing for Vietnam as well.
KEEP YOUR SHOULDER BAG AWAY FROM THE ROAD
When you walk close to a main road or street with traffic, keep your shoulder bag away from the traffic. Why? Scooter robberies are very common. That means that a person on a scooter or motorcycle will grab your bag and leave. If someone would want to take it, they don’t have a chance as your bag is on the other side. If it does happen, please LET GO. There are several stories of people who got killed as they held on to their belongings and were dragged into oncoming traffic.
I actually saw one scooter robbery in Buenos Aires, when a men with a mask on the motorcycle stole a phone. A woman was standing next to the street and making a phone call and men just grabbed a phone and took off. It was crazy and I was so sorry for the women.
IF SOMEONE COMES TO YOU AND STARTS TO TALK TO YOU, BE CAREFUL
Not everyone is a criminal, but some people will approach you and pretend to be your best buddies. Welcoming you to South America, basically pretending that they care about you. And because you have no idea what is going on, or you want to get to know locals, you might get robbed or tricked and not even realize it, until it is way too late.
Maybe someone will tell you: “I can show you a nice restaurant or an interesting place,” and then, they will take you somewhere, you shouldn’t go. Or person A talks to you and distracts you, while person B, whom you won’t even notice, empties your pocket or bag. Again, don’t be paranoid, there many friendly people in South America. But again, know what is going on around you and have your eyes on your belongings. This is why it is good to travel as a pair. It feels nice to know that when I take photos or Nico is looking for directions on his phone, we have each others’ backs. I watch while he is busy and vice versa.
BE CAREFUL WHEN TRAVELING BY BUS (OR OTHER TRANSPORT)
Theft is very common when traveling on the bus. We took many trips by bus. We always felt safe in the bus in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. Until we got to Chile. In fact, everyone we met who was traveling in Chile, got robbed there on the bus.
You can read the full story here on how we almost got robbed on the bus in Chile.
DO NOT PUT ANY VALUABLES IN THE OVERHEAD COMPARTMENT
We placed our backpack only a few times in the overhead compartment. While in Chile it almost went wrong. PLEASE DO NOT DO IT, I CAN’T STRESS THAT ENOUGH. Always keep your valuables with you, in your bag or in your lap. Don’t fall asleep with valuables lying around.
ALWAYS HAVE A LOCK ON YOUR BACKPACK
Our locks saved us many times, especially when we were traveling in Chile. We almost got robbed in the bus when traveling to the Atacama desert from Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. We left our backpack in the overhead compartment and thieves were trying to open it. Luckily we had a lock on and they couldn’t take out anything.
Well, instead they took the whole backpack, but luckily and thanks to one Bolivian couple they dropped the backpack in the middle of the bus. We were so lucky and incredibly grateful as we had all our photography equipment, including MacBook, drone, go pro, camera, battery pack and etc. When we travel by bus, plane, train, etc. we make sure to lock our bags.
We heard many sad stories from other travelers who got actually robbed in Chile, including cameras, money and even the entire backpacks from their rented car.
TRY TO AVOID OVERNIGHT BUSES
There are a few reasons why you should not take overnight buses. In some areas for instance at the border between Colombia and Ecuador rebel groups and thieves are active. Those groups are known for stopping buses at night and robbing them. Often violence is involved.
It’s crappy, we did it a few times though.
TAKE UBER, AVOID TAXIS
In many big cities, taxis might operate like the mafia. They will either overcharge, rob or do other horrendous things to passengers. A common trap is a so-called “Tour de ATM”. That means that a taxi driver will take you to every ATM they can until you max out all of your credit cards. That’s why we recommend to get a local SIM card and take Uber instead. Don’t take random taxis. If you can’t get a SIM card at the airport, use the airport’s WIFI to order an Uber. However, it might be hard to find Uber drivers at airports (thanks to the taxi lobby). Here we recommend getting a taxi at an official stand, which is usually expensive but trustworthy and reliable. Not all taxi drivers a bad. We actually had mostly friendly drivers. But Uber is simply cheaper, safer and more comfortable.
If you haven’t used Uber yet get our Uber Promo Code here and save money on your first ride(s).
HEALTH AND VACCINATIONS
Before our travels to South America, we made sure that we have all vaccinations.
However, there is no particular rule that you need a vaccination coming to most of the countries in South America. However, in Brazil you need to have a yellow fever vaccination. If you are leaving Brazil to another country and haven’t been vaccinated against yellow fever, you won’t be allowed to board on the plane. Instead, you need to go back to the city and get vaccinated and wait several days.
As you can see, this is a very costly mistake many travelers make. We actually met an US traveler who had to go back to Rio and get vaccinated, he needed to wait 5 days before he was allowed to take his flight to the US.
That is why, it would be very helpful to make sure you use mosquito repellant as much as you can, especially in a humid environment. Mosquitoes carry and spread many diseases and like this, you can prevent getting unnecessary mosquito bites.
We also carried a Malaria stand by pills, just in case. There is no vaccination again Malaria. If you wonder how you can get Malaria to stand by pills, make sure to go to your General Practitioner to get a prescription.
In general, it would be very handy to be vaccinated against Hepatitis A, B, polio, measles, and rubella.
Travelling is fun, but things can go wrong at any time. That is why, if you would like to stay safe in South America (and in general), make sure you do not travel without health insurance. This is one of the most important things you need to cover before you leave your home country.
Traveling without health insurance? Not a good idea, you can get a quote here.
If you are visiting South America and trying to live a healthy diet, you might have a problem. South American food doesn’t belong necessarily to the healthiest foods in the world.
Typical traditional meals contain a lot of fat and oil. However, there are many new restaurants popping out across South America with vegetarian or even vegan foods. Not to mention, many exotic fruits you need to try. I had many quinoa dishes, especially in Peru. My favorite of all was a quinoa soup. So definitely there is a way how not to eat fried stuff in South America.
Please note, that you are responsible for your own decisions, these are our recommendations and it’s up to you to take them into account when you travel to South America. Again, it’s not our intention to scare you, only to share with you our experience that we had traveling in South America. We felt safe and nothing unfortunate happened to us. So we would answer the question “Is South America safe” with a yes.
That is why, we highly recommend you visit South America, as it is one of the most diverse continents we have visited so far.
Greetings from Gigi (on the left) and Nico (on the right)
Did you experience similar stories? Did we forget something? Do you think it is safe in South America? LET US KNOW IN THE COMMENTS BELOW 🙂
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