Many people have been asking us how it was in South America, especially if we felt safe and what our experience was like. To be honest, we had many questions about safety coming to South America as well. We have already traveled to many countries by now but still, we were researching and asking around. Some people were making us nervous on how dangerous South America can be. Who hasn’t heard stories of kidnappings or the traveler who unknowingly becomes a drug smuggeler. 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 them here and give you our South America safety tips. If you follow our tips and advice you shall not worry.
The most common questions we get asked about South America, are:
- DID WE FEEL SAVE?
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 SAVE. We did feel safe most of the time. But there are a couple of things you have to take into account when traveling in South America. We would like to point out, that this 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 makes sense. 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. That is why I do not like how people refer to a South America as a dangerous continent regarding crime, theft and drugs. South America has a complex history filled with unfortunate episodes that impacts life 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, around 2 million 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 😀
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 thats it. For 5 months in South America, its pretty good right? Again, we felt generally safe, but please follow the instructions we are mentioning in this articles.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW BEFORE GOING
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 advice you to know these little things before you go. Why? 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.
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, a 5 day hike to Macchu Picchu or enjoying a beautiful city like Rio. 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 travellers might help making 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 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 neighbourhood 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. At night time even more so. We usually went home when it got dark while in the big cities. DO NOT WALK AROUND ON YOUR OWN WHEN IT IS DARK IN THE PLACES YOU SHOULDN’T BE. Many hotels, guesthouses will advice 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
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. There are of course places (usually smaller towns) where it is less of an problem to walk around late.
However, we did got for a few drinks, but we always ordered a beer, as it is closed. Someone can put something into your drink and poison you. In Bolivia we were warned that if you get drunk and then fall asleep on the street, they might take you as a offering to Pacha Mama. This is not a joke and we were told this by a few guides.
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 toursits and somehow we thought we would blend in more in South America. NOPE. We did not. It is impossible. At the beginning we didn’t understand why and one Uber driver was laughing, just shaking his head and saying: “how we can possible think that we can blend it?” I asked, “BUT WHY”? He answered: “Well, you have different features, different type of clothes, your hair, everything is just different. You don’t even need to start talking”.
What does it mean Gringo? In South America, locals use this as slang to call tourists, gringos. We don’t care and I really find it funny.
LEAVE YOUR DIAMONDS AND OTHER EXPENSIVE JEWELLERY AT HOME
I mean it. Leave it at home. You do not need expensive jewellery, pearls, watches and other precious things with you when you travel. You do not want to have all attention on you.
BE INVISIBLE, TRY TO BLEND IN
When you walk around in the city keep your voice down if you speak English or other languages. Otherwise you send a beacon to thiefs. Try to be invisible or blend in, which might be harder than you think. This is the advice which we got from our hosts and people we met. We were of course surprised but we followed their advice.
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 gains access 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). Thiefs 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.
BE AWARE OF YOUR SURROUNDINGS AND KEEP YOUR BELONGINGS CLOSE
The most common mistake a traveler can make is to lose sight of your surroundings. Whether you are walking around on your own, in 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 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 theifs are looking for such a situations, where you seem distracted to take advantage of you. A great example are 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 the 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 type of thefts in South America. We heard the same thing for Vietnam as well.
KEEP YOUR SHOULDER BAG AWAY FROM TRAFFIC
When you walk close to the 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 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 in to oncoming traffic.
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 to 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 are very common when traveling in the bus. We took many bus trips. We always felt save in the bus in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. Until we got to Chile. In fact, everyone we met who was travelling in Chile, got something stolen in the bus.
You can read the full story here on how we almost got robbed in the bus in Chile.
DO NOT PUT ANY VALUABLES IN THE OVER HEAD 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. When we travel by bus, plane, train etc. we make sure to lock our bags.
TRY TO AVOID OVERNIGHT BUSES
There are few reasons why you should not take overnight buses. In some areas for instance at the boarder between Colombia and Ecuador rebel groups or thiefs are active. Those groups are known for stopping buses at night and robbing them. Often violence is involved.
Its crappy, we did it few times though.
TAKE UBER, AVOID TAXIS
In many big cities, taxis might operate as 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. Thats 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 to get a taxi at an official stand, which are 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.
Please note, that you are responsible for your own decisions, these are our recommendations and its up to you to take them into account when you travel to South America. Again, its not our intention to scare you, only to share with you our experience which we had in 5 months traveling in South America. We felt safe and nothing unfortunate happened to us.
That is why, we highly recommend to 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? LET US KNOW IN THE COMMENTS BELOW 🙂
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