Is It Safe to Travel to South America in 2019?
Is it safe to travel to South America? That was probably the most common question we had heard after our eight months trip around this continent. In this guide, we will sum up and respond to all safety concerns you might have before your travels.
In the past few years, South America has experienced an enormous growth of visitors, and we are not afraid to say that this trend is going to continue. What are the secrets behind its skyrocketing popularity? In our opinion, there are two significant factors behind this trend. The incredible diversity and still very affordable prices.
The truth is, that although travelers can find in South American countries everything from the jungle, ancient ruins, famous treks, glaciers, mountains, colonial towns to beaches when it comes to safety we are used to bundling up all those countries in one and considering South America as one large destination, which can be a mistake as those countries differ a lot not only when it comes to natural and architectural beauty but also when it comes to travelers' safety.
But still, there are several safety rules you can follow when traveling around South America to make sure your trip will be perfect.
So back to the point, is South America safe to travel? We spent eight months in the area and visited nine countries during this time, so we believe we can give you an idea of what you can expect from South America, safe-wise and what to do and how to act to avoid any troubles.
Before traveling to South America, we had heard some horrifying stories about people getting robbed, mugged at the knifepoint or worse at gunpoint or about people who got their bank accounts emptied after they tried to withdraw money from an ATM which was meddled with and we won't lie to you that those stories did not make us a bit paranoid at first, but we are so glad they did not put us entirely off from traveling to South America, as this trip turned out to be one of the most amazing things we've done together as a couple (even though my phone was stolen right at the beginning of our trip in Bogota, Colombia).
Today, with a good conscience, we can say that when following your common sense, you should not experience any troubles when traveling in South America.
That's being said you can, unfortunately, come across bad people anywhere in the world, and sometimes you cannot do anything about it, but there are many situations you can prevent by your actions.
Petty theft is not unknown in South America, and you should be more careful in larger cities with a high concentration of people. When you see local people wearing backpacks in the front, for example in Medellin, do not hesitate and do the same. It is also common that your bag can be snatched from your shoulder when walking on the street, so be always aware of your surroundings.
We learned a lesson right during our first days in South America when someone stole the mobile phone from my pocket. We were walking on a crowded street in Bogota, and it was too hot, so I put a jacket around my waist and completely forgot about the phone, but some attentive citizen of Bogota noticed than one pocket is heavier than the other one and decided it would be nice to bring something new home. It was not the smartest idea to leave a phone in my pocket unattended, and I can blame for this loss only myself, but from now on we were much more careful.
If possible, always keep your valuables inside a backpack, do not show off your electronics, when you need to look on the phone, it is always better to go inside a shop or restaurant, or at least quickly check that no one is staring at you. A few times we found very useful to wear small pouches under t-shirts where we kept extra cash or passport when we needed it.
We think that it is always better when someone takes a thing from your pocket than when he decides to rob you with a knife or a gun.
Although this technique is nowadays not that common, we met one elderly couple in Chile who were robbed at gunpoint during midday in Valparaiso, Chile. It must have been a terrible experience, and when it happens to you, there is only one rule you should always follow.
Never fight back, always cooperate, hand over all your valuables and wait until it is over. Generally, attackers have no interest in you they care only about money and electronics. For this worst case scenario, it is always wise to keep some bank notes with you to have something to give away.
We always feared and made inappropriate jokes about how we will explain in Spanish that we have no money and that one of our phones is already gone.
KEEP YOUR VALUABLES IN THE ROOM
In the beginning, we were a bit reluctant to keep our valuables in a hotel room, but we soon found out it is a much safer option than taking our passports or extra cash with us - or at least there is much lower chance to find your room broke in than to be robbed on the streets.
If you need your passport, unless clearly stated otherwise, a photocopy or even a screenshot on a mobile phone is usually sufficient (for example for buses' reservations). In South America, we preferred to pay with cash, so we took a credit card out only when we needed to withdraw money, and in all other cases, we kept it in the room (use a safe if available).
We always carried only about $50 with us (when we knew we wouldn't need to pay for an expensive bus or a tour, of course), so did not have to be too worried about losing it plus we at least had something to hand over in case of mugging.
TRAVELING BY BUS
We found traveling by public transport in South America most of the time comfortable and safe. The best buses are without doubts in Chile, Argentina, and Brazil - they are new and run on time. The worst experience we had in Bolivia, where we usually had troubles with our tickets (bus company sold our seats to someone else and tried to force us to sit on the second floor although we booked the first floor - we did not move though) and buses were not in good condition. In Colombia, we traveled mostly by minivans and sometimes had a feeling that a driver could slow down a bit.
Especially in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, always add one or two hours to the estimated time of arrival as we never arrived on time.
During eight months when we solely traveled by bus, except for a flight to the Galapagos Islands, a trip to the jungle in Pacaya Samiria Reserve and flight from Ushuaia to Buenos Aires, we had experienced only one issue when our bus was involved in a car crash. It was on our way from Nazca, where we took flight over Nazca Lines, to Arequipa, a starting point for visiting Colca Canyon, and luckily, no one on the bus was injured, but unfortunately, we cannot say the same about the car driver. We believe this accident was only bad luck.
Generally, the most dangerous situation when traveling by bus in South America can come up when you do not watch your valuables. Never leave your bags unattended, or on the overhead shelves where it can be easily searched. From a certain point, when two people tried to rob us (unsuccessfully) in Ecuador when going from Quito to the starting point of Quilotoa Loop, we always kept our valuables on the lap, no matter how uncomfortable it was.
Some places have a worse reputation than others, you should pay attention when on big bus terminals, especially in the capital cities - Quito is definitely one of them (although you must pay to enter the new terminal and it looked very reliable, thieves were already waiting on the bus, and we believe drivers must have known about them).
On the other hand, very often bus companies in South America have own bus terminals with their security, and we never had any troubles there.
There are no serious threats health-wise which should at the moment put you off from traveling to South America. Sure, a couple of years ago there was an outbreak of Zika virus, but it is now more or less under control.
We take our health pretty seriously, so before our departure, we took a shot of yellow fever vaccination (you should take your card with you as to some countries you must prove you were vaccinated, although the only place where someone wanted to see it was when we flew from Brazil to Panama).
When you are planning on visiting Amazon, you should think off taking anti-malaria pills - it is pretty annoying, we had to use them over a month because we were camping for a week in Pacaya Samiria Reserve, but it is always better to be safe than sorry.
Probably the biggest threat on an everyday basis were strayed dogs - it is so many of them in South America, and although many people find them cute, we would advise you to stay away. Not only the chance of getting rabies is pretty high, but from time to time they can be aggressive as we could experience in Playa de Belen in Colombia.
You should never leave your house without decent travel insurance, not even when you travel on a low budget.
Somewhere I've read that having insurance is like betting against yourself, well, it might be funny and heroic, I think, it is quite stupid.
We found food in South America really bad (fried or with no taste) most of the times, at least in our budget category, but it is a different chapter.
When it comes to safety, you should always follow your instincts, and eat where it seems clean and fresh. Unlike in Southeast Asia, we never had stomach issues in South America.
Our rule of thumb is that we always try to find a restaurant with many locals inside - it usually means that the food should be alright and it is more likely fresh. We don't like tourist restaurants, because they often have higher prices, and there are not that many people, so we are worried about how fresh the ingredients, especially meat can be.
Always buy or purify your water. The only place where we drank tap water was in Patagonia in Chile and Argentina.
South America is a continent where cash is still the king, except for more developed countries such as Brazil, Chile, and Argentina, where you should not have a problem to buy anything with a credit card.
For that reason, it is always better to withdraw money and keep some cash with you, smaller bills if possible as it happened uncountable times to us that we had to run around and look for someone to get a change.
When taking out money from ATM, try to do it during daylight, find a bank with security or at least an ATM machine where you can close doors behind yourself. Make sure no one is watching and head straight to your hostel is possible.
Brazil is known for ATM scams, so always hide your PIN code (not only in Brazil obviously) and even month or so after your departure from the country watch your bank account and report all suspicious transactions you are not aware making yourself. Also, Brazil was the only country where our credit card was blocked because our bank considered the transaction as a scam. It is always good to know how to reach your bank and how to unblock your card.
We are not telling you not to party in South America, but be always careful when drinking alcohol, especially with strangers no matter how friendly they can seem. Alcohol can make you more vulnerable, so when going out always take a cab from the party, do not walk alone, do not carry valuables with you and never leave your drink unattended.
One of the most popular tricks, especially in Colombia is to slip burundanga in a drink, which can black out a person for several hours or even cause death.
TAKING A TAXI
When taking a taxi in South America, to stay safe, you should follow a few simple rules. First, it is not advised to hail a cab on the street, you should always ask a receptionist or staff in the restaurant, if they can call you a radio taxi. Never get on a cab when someone else is sitting there or don't allow a driver to pick up other clients.
Probably the worst situation with fake taxis is in Ecuador, where the government recently introduced new rules - all official taxis must have a specific license plate, a sticker on the window, camera inside the car and red panic button which you can press when not feeling comfortable. We even received a flyer about how to stay safe when traveling by taxi when we were crossing borders from Colombia to Ecuador.
Always agree on the price in advance to avoid confusion and unpleasant situation. Do not be under the impression that all taxi drivers want to cheat on you, but it is better to come prepared.
When we arrived at the bus terminal, we usually tried to reach our accommodation on foot (when it was up to two kilometers), and in other cases, we took public transport or called Uber which we found totally reliable, and it is actually our favorite way how to travel around the city without any hassle.
It can sometimes happen that you do not have any other choice than stop a random taxi as situations in South America are randomly perfect - it happened to us for example when we needed to get from Laguna Paron back to Caraz. In that case, do not panic and do not be paranoid, in 99% everything should be fine!
KNOW COMMON SCAMS
When you read about scams common in South America, you think it is so silly it can't be the truth, but believe it or not, it is still happening. We even met people who experienced at first hand the most favorite scam of all, a stranger who spills mustard all over you and then robs you while he is pretending cleaning you up.
Other scams are very similar and have one in common: the goal to distract you. Always, when you have a feeling that something weird is going on, keep your distance from people around and watch your things.
Another popular scam is the one with fake police asking you to show your passport to distract you, but remember that no police officer will ever ask you to identify yourself on the street - rather the opposite, they have instruction not to harass foreigners.
FIND THE MOST UP-TO-DATE INFORMATION
When traveling abroad, it is always necessary to follow the most up-to-date information about the current safety and political situation which can change very quickly. Only a few years ago, Colombia was considered a dangerous country which was off-limits, but nowadays the situation has changed, and Colombia is experiencing a boom and is heavily-visited by travelers from all around the world.
Most of the countries in South America are more or less stable, but for example, now we would not recommend you to travel to Venezuela, a beautiful country which is sadly having enormous political and economic issues. Some people will for sure tell you it is safe to visit despite those problems, but we don't like taking our chances.
Bolivia, home to otherworldly salt flats Salar de Uyuni, often experiences strikes and protests which can negatively affect your travels as road blockades are common. In other words, always be prepared and have a backup plan in case your travels will be influenced by any unexpected situations.
PLAN AHEAD YOUR TIME OF ARRIVAL
When we were in Paraty, one of the most beautiful towns in South America, we soon realized that if we had followed our plan, we would have arrived in Rio de Janeiro after sunset, and we really were not comfortable with it, so we rather extended our stay in Paraty and arrived in Rio the next day in midday.
When you know, you will arrive in the city late at night or early in the morning (as not always it is possible to plan everything), make sure you know your options how to get to the hotel and contact them in advance to make sure someone is waiting for you. It was not a good feeling when we arrived in Tupiza, Bolivia at 4 AM, and no one was opening doors in our hostel in spite of loud knocking.
BE CAREFUL IN THE CAPITAL CITIES
Capital cities, borders towns, and port cities tend to be the worst when it comes to safety. There are usually too many people and too many dark alleys where you can easily get lost when not paying attention.
Capital or large cities are usually places where you can see in South America a lot of poverty and a lot of people in an unsatisfactory living situation which can drive them to do desperate actions. In Lima, Quito, Bogota or other large cities with disputable reputation always think first about your safety. It is better to pay $5 extra for a centrally located hostel than sleep in a favela on an outskirt of the city.
ASK ABOUT AREAS WHICH ARE BEST TO AVOID
Every town or city has a part which should rather be avoided, and no one would know better about it than locals, so do not hesitate to ask about the current situation in your hostel.
It happened to us when we arrived in Chiclayo in Peru, and Martin was looking on a map on his phone when suddenly a woman came and told us to keep the phone in the pocket otherwise it will be stolen - it is true that we were just talking at this moment that we don't feel very comfortable in the area and were trying to get out as quickly as possible.
We don't have to emphasize that areas you should not visit during the day are off limits at night.
DO NOT GO OUT AT NIGHT
During daylight, everything seems much friendlier than during the night, and we don't recommend you going out after dark much in South America.
Whether you want it or not, you will always look like a gringo, and you will be easily recognizable miles away. Of course, it is different if you are staying in notoriously renowned Rio de Janeiro, relaxing spa town Banos or in a small colonial village such as Villa de Leyva in Colombia where we felt safe, but you never know.
DO NOT SHOW OFF
It is always better not to show off - do not walk around with your expensive phone sticking out of your pocket, or notebook or iPad visible in your bag.
When we were walking in the city, we always took out only our small mirrorless camera to be as inconspicuous as possible. Although you might think your camera or phone is not worth much, do not forget that it is most likely much more expensive than items local people have. Only to give you an idea - did you know that more than half of people living in Cusco had never visited famous Machu Picchu because it is too expensive for them?
When deliberately showing off your possessions, there is a much higher chance you will lose it.
Shorts and t-shirts without sleeves are perfectly fine to wear in South America, but especially solo female travelers should always keep in mind their safety and dress appropriately and not to provoke much.
Wear whatever you feel comfortable in, but always respect local culture.
Overall, it is hard to put South America into one pocket. There are some rules which are worth to follow anywhere though - you should pay attention when in larger cities, not to wander alone in the dark alleys or be careful when taking a taxi. But the safety situation is very different when it comes to certain areas.
We felt perfectly safe when road tripping Carretera Austral in Chilean Patagonia, we even never got a key from our room as we were told it is not necessary, but did not have very satisfying feeling in La Paz in Bolivia.
Chile, Argentina, the Galapagos Islands and some parts of Brazil, especially Florianopolis Island and Iguazu Falls were probably the safest destinations in South America, and we would put them aside from the rest of the continent. Colombia has still some safety issues, but it is usually related to drug trafficking, and you should not experience any troubles when you mind your business - when it comes to this topic, areas around borders between countries are usually a bit rougher than the rest.
When in Ecuador, always be cautious when taking a taxi and keep an eye on your belongings on public transport. We visited only one city in Uruguay, Colonia del Sacramento, and it was lovely, and we did not feel any danger there.
When it comes to safety, we would put Peru, Bolivia, and Paraguay into one group, and here we would have followed all safety rules more closely.
Enjoy your travels!
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