Tips for Travelling Safely in Latin America

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!

3 Responses to “Tips for Travelling Safely in Latin America”

  1. Great post. When I visited Costa Rica, I stayed at a bed and breakfast that provided a ride to and from the airport. This allowed me to avoid the whole crazy cab driver scene outside the airport. Also, some places in Latin America like San Jose don’t have official addresses, which can make taking a cab even more difficult. While staying at the B&B I carried a card they gave me that described where it was in Spanish. It said something like, “two blocks from the Steak House off the main road.”

  2. Sit on the right side of buses? Fantastic idea that I will remember!

    I’ve been to Colombia a couple of times. While on a road trip there, I did notice that people do swing into the opposite lane so they don’t have to turn the wheel and brake as much around turns. Therefore, its a great idea to sit where any hypothetical collision would hopefully be minimized.

    Also, I caught a pickpocket in the Old City of Cartagena. I will go ahead and copy and paste it since there is room.

    3 new friends (a group of female friends, one of whom had just arrived from New York that day), their 2 new friends (a swiss couple) and I had just finished eating at an Italian restaurant. A block or so down the street, near the restaurant I checked the time on my phone– 11:20 pm, August 2nd, 2010. We might have walked another block, and then crossed a street. I was walking in front of the 3 girls, and behind the Swiss couple, and I think I heard someone run up to us, and I turn around.

    All I saw was a flash of light purple on the siloutte of an elongated figure in action. Suddenly I realized that this figure had just grabbed my friends purse and was running, so I bolted as fast as I could. I noticed someone sprinting behind me, the swiss guy, but couldnt think about hesitating or stopping. I ran maybe a 25 yards, right on the tail of the thief, and he slammed the door of a cab shut. I dont know if he locked the door, or was just holding it shut, but I tried to open it for a few split seconds, and when that failed, I started kicking the door, maybe 3 or 4 times, being pissed off that not only had this guy stolen someones purse, but that the thief was grinning inside the cab. Then the taxi took off, but suddenly another one appeared right next to me and opened its door.

    I hopped in and yelled “COGELA COGELA!!“ “LA TAXISTA!!“ (Catch it! Catch it! The taxi driver!). Right about when my taxi started accelerating, a metrocop on a motorcycle sped up along side of us and took off after the first taxi with the thieves in it (he must have heard me kicking the door, and also I might have been yelling “Hey! HEY! HEEEYYYY!!“).

    I took a second to reflect, and thought for a moment, “whoa, this is me.. I am in a car chase, after a thief, in cartagena…“ I opened my window and started yelling directions like “derecho! a la izquierda!! cogela!!“ (straight! to the left! catch it!!). We sped down narrow streets for maybe 3 or 4 blocks, Jason Bourne style–in a tiny yellow taxi– passed restaurants with groups of people sitting outside at tables, dining. Then, the city opened up into an area along the Old Citys massive 300 year old walls, and I saw the cop had the purse in his hand. There were maybe 15 or 20 pedestrians standing around looking confused, but I ran after the cop now since he had the purse. We ran up to the top of the corner platform of this massive fort-wall, and looked in both, north and west. The, the cop turned around and ran down, I ran after him. Some people were pointing towards this area where taxis were sitting lined up, and there was a bus. I followed the cop over to the bus, and now there were 4 or 5 cops.

    From the sidewalk I saw two cops inside the back of the bus slapping and punching some guy who was sitting down in the back. They dragged him out and he had this thick band of sweat covering his forehead and dripping down his face, and he looked really nervous. Clearly it was the thief.

    I said, ´´Tanto sudor! sí, es él!“ (so much sweat! yeah, thats him!) then I hopped on a motorcyle with a cop, and he took me to the taxi that I was chasing– although I didnt realize it at the time. I hopped in the taxi with 2 cops, and the taxi driver who was the get-away driver for the thief as I realized a few minutes later when I saw them sitting next to eachother at this open air police station in the middle of a cemetary maybe 1 kilometer from where they caught the guy, and right around the corner from my hostel.

    The cops start smacking the thief around, and he was shouting at me to tell them that it wasnt him and that I got him confused. then a cop showed me the purse and asked me if i knew whose it was, and I told him it belongs to a new friend of mine. Then another cop showed me that they found a knife of the thief, not the slicing kind, but the stabbing kind–a dull edge, with a 3-4 inch blade.

    A few minutes later, the same taxi driver that picked me up for the chase brought the 3 girls I had been walking with there to the cemetary police station and started interviewing the one whose purse was stolen.

    At the same time, the thief was sweating, and seemed to be on the verge of tears, handcuffed there to the bottom of a wall. The cops had removed his shoes, and put them right outside the door. After a few minutes he realized this, and started asking for his shoes. The cops loved it when I told him, ´´What, these shoes? These are mine now. I´m robbing your shoes. These are mine, sorry.´´ That pissed him off, he seemed surprised that I would say or do such a thing, and started asking even more adamantly. The 6 or 7 cops immediately burst out laughing, and told me to keep them. Of course i just left them there, what would I do with them? I was just teasing him. He got his shoes back in the end.

    The get-away driver was telling us hes sorry and to excuse him, and that the thief forced him to do help him. Yeah, right, then why wait for the guy to get out of the taxi, mug someone, and hop back in, then drive away as fast as possible? Its also a shame that this guy chose this profession, he spoke a bit of english and had a guide card as some sort of city or museum guide, 22 years old.

    After hanging around this police station for 3 hours, they took us to the main station in town, and recieved some more testimony from the girl whose purse was stolen. Finally, 2 hours later, we were finished, 4:30 am in the morning.

    As it turned out, they were part of a gang. The 22 yr old driver´s brother had been recently busted with a suitcase full of drugs in the same taxi he used as part of the mugging-team, and who also had a very long rap sheet and is in prison here in Cartagena. The 22 yr old driver had also previously been found to have been carrying a firearm without a permit/papers, in a taxi. We noticed at the cemetary station that he had a black berry. I asked him who he stole it from, and he said no one, its his, and to respect him. Then I mentioned that they are on a team, he and the thief, and he told me: no, dont say that, dont say that. The other guy, who grabbed the purse and ran, is 26, and maybe 5´8 about the same build as me, or maybe even a little more muscular. He will would get 2-4ish years for theft, and an extra two for having the knife. So, 4-6 years.

    The cops mentioned that theft is their profession, and it didnt surprise me because they both had on pretty trendy clothes and good, clean shoes.

    It was definitely an exciting night for me, and I was very glad that a cop had heard me yelling and kicking on the door of that taxi. Kicking the door broke open my $15 dollar shoes from urban outfitters, but they are cheap and lack durability anyways…

    So yeah… that was what it was like being in a car chase in pursuit of a thief here in the most touristy area of Cartagena. We got two members of a thief gang off the street, so they will not be robbing anyone else for at least a few years.

    It turns out all of that running, biking, and krav maga does eventually pay off.

    While those people were left there stunned and dazed– the girls told me their friend whose purse he took was still holding the strap to her shoulder and just totally seized up and froze. My self, I started running. Is was when I was at full speed that I asked myself, “Wait a minute.. am I chasing this guy?”

  3. Oh yeah.. so the taxi hit a dead end at one of the old city’s walls. I left that out haha.

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