You’re right to be cautious at times when visiting Latin America, but so many people are way too paranoid. “Is it safe to travel to South America?” is a question asked all too often - yes it is safe, but here’s some genuinely different tips to make travelling to Central & South America that little bit more safer.
1. Make yourself look less well off than you are
Flaunting flashy jewellery and watches only attracts potential thieves. If you look like you’re not worth robbing, few people will even be tempted to rob you. My Omega watch stays at home when I visit any developing country - I buy the cheapest looking digital watch and take that instead, along with scruffy day to day clothes, and all the locals think I’m a skint backpacker and wouldn’t dream of robbing me as I look like I’ve nothing worth stealing.
2. Avoid getting pickpocked
Anywhere that is busy and has lots of tourists present (Cuzco, Rio, Mexico City, local markets etc.) are where the pickpocketers lurk. Don’t take any backpacks to such busy places and casually walk with a thumb in your wallet pocket through crowds to avoid get something nabbed.
3. Travelling on buses
I’d hazard a guess that most people who get robbed in Latin America experience the situation on buses. If your bag is in the bus hold (underneath), or on the roof, keep an eye on it by waiting outside until the last minute when the driver blows his horn to say he’s leaving. When you choose your seat, always sit on the right of the bus so you can see whether your bag is being taken out at a stop en-route. Sitting on the right of the bus is also safer as if there is a collision, normally the left side of the bus will get more mashed up than the right (bus drivers are often maniacs in South America, and love their stupid overtaking around bends manoeuvres. Best to pick a reputable bus company if possible). Make sure all your most important belongings are with you rather than in the hold. If you need to sleep, padlock your hand luggage zips together and wrap it around your legs so that you can feel if it moves. I always sleep on buses with my sunglasses on - a potential thief can’t tell if you’re actually awake and about to slap them round the face that way!
4. Don’t get distracted
Incidents in the street such as ketchup being “accidentally” squirted on you, you being spat at or kids fighting in the street, are often a means to distract you and put you off guard so that you can be pick-pocketed or otherwise robbed. Ignore it all completely, and keep an eye on your belongings, and pockets.
5. Selecting Taxis
The most frequent cause for seriously bad incidents for travellers to Latin America is when the select to use a dodgy taxi. If possible get the hotel or restaurant to actually call a phone number to request a taxi for you. If you’re picking up a taxi on the street, avoid the run down ones as the owners are likely to be poorer (and therefore potentially more dodgy - it pains me to say this but it’s true and safer this way). Generally speaking, older drivers are safer to travel with than younger taxi drivers. When you arrive at a new destination, whether it’s a bus station or airport, is when you’re potentially at the greatest risk. The important thing is to act with supreme confidence and totally ignore all the taxi drivers vying for your trade. If anyone says “you want a taxi, sir?” - ignore them. The important thing is that YOU select the taxi you get into - don’t let anyone else tell you which one you should take unless they are obviously an official working and organising the taxi rank at an airport. When I arrive at an airport or major bus terminal and need a taxi, I ignore all the people sreaming “Taxi!” at me and make a bee line for the taxi rank, I select the first taxi driver in the queue and negotiate a price with him before I get into the vehicle (always negotiate a price before getting in, or handing over you bags). The key thing is to ignore all the touts, choose the taxi yourself, act confidently like you regularly visit the place and negotiate the price beforehand.
6. Know Where is off-limits
All cities have no-go areas that are deemed a little undesirable, whether in Latin America or elsewhere in the world. Heeding local advice, and reading a travel guidebook, will tell you where to avoid stumbling across. Almost all places are perfectly safe to visit - just always be sensible, as in any foreign, relatively unknown country.
7. Using ATM machines
Cover your pin at all times - make sure nobody is looking over your shoulder (I got robbed in this fashion). Put the money straight into your moneybelt and walk off without dithering - totally ignore anyone who approaches you or asks you anything for the next few minutes.
8. Always be Confident
I guess this is easier said than done, but it is important. If you appear lost, confused or weak, thieves might be tempted. Certain places you visit, annoying people will hassle you often trying to sell you something or plead for money. Anywhere that you’re being hassled, you’re also more likely to be pick-pocketed at the time, so dealing with the annoyances effectively and confidently not only lessens the chances of a mis-hap but increases your own enjoyment of the vacation. When someone offers me something I don’t want or asks me for money, I’ll say No thank you / No sorry first, then a simple no the second time and if I have to say it a third time I stop, look them directly in the eyes and firmly say an aggressive, highly pronunciated NO - they almost always get the message and stop hassling. If they don’t, I’m fully prepared to start shouting and asking “Que parte de No, no entiendes?” [What part of “No” do you not understand?… I think that Spanish is ok!…]
These are my tips for travelling safely in Latin America. I’ve personally been robbed (or a friend with whom I’ve been travelling robbed) three times in my total of over two years of travelling around and living in Central and South America although I never even saw the thief on each occasion: my mate got a wadge of dollars nicked from the side pocket of a bag he put above the seats on an overnight bus in Mexico (silly him for putting it there); my credit card got maxed out after using it in an ATM in Quito (Ecuador) after someone somehow figured out my pin (thank God for credit card insurance); and after checking in my bag with Alitalia at London Heathrow on the way to Colombia, I didn’t see the bag for one week, by which time anything of value had been stolen (I sucked the airline dry for compensation though).
It’s easy to imagine that Latin America is a dangerous place to visit - it really isn’t. The threat to personal safety is extremely low. Right now I live in London (Shepherds Bush area) and can genuinely say that right here is far more dangerous than almost all of the places that I’ve visited in Latin America.
I have various close friends (and acquaintances who I’ve met while travelling) who have found themselves in a range of highly undesirable, potentially violent situations while travelling in Latin America - in every case it was because they were being stupid and foolish at the time (1- two friends staggering around blind drunk in the ghetto district of Belize City looking for drugs; 2 - a guy I met who had been staggering around drunk very late at night in Salvador, Brazil; 3 - friends going to the beach in Rio de Janeiro late at night, which everyone who has read about Rio knows is asking for trouble.)
It’s all a matter of being sensible - if you’ve read this, and taken it in, I’m next to certain you’ll have a thoroughly safe trip to wherever you choose in Central or South America. Enjoy and don’t be paranoid!