Travel safety tips, general precautions, health and safety, how to secure your valuables, etc…
“Is it safe to travel around Latin America?” This is quite a frequent and rather complex question to answer. If I were to speak only for myself, I can say that by following certain precautions and routines, I haven’t experienced or witnessed any dangerous situation in my extended travels around Latin America, Europe, or South East Asia.
I’ve therefore decided to share those with you, hoping that you’ll find them useful and perhaps also helpful. Although, above all, I do hope that you will never find out how effective these tips are because you won’t encounter any situation where you’d have to put them to the test.
Please think of this article as a set of tips and ideas that can help you to reduce the chances of having a bad experience in regards to your safety, rather than some sort of “how not to get robbed manual”. I’m sure that you understand that the extent to which these tips could be effective generally depends on many factors, such as what kind of traveller you are, what are the things or activities you are into and also perhaps a bit of luck.
If we however talk about visiting the popular places along the so-called “Gringo Trail”, unless exceptional circumstances occur, the following tips should be efficient enough to spare you from facing dangerous situations and/or unfortunate safety-related incidents.
Reputations and stereotypes
I admit that the reputation Latin America comes with doesn’t promote it as the safest corner in the world. Reputations are however often rooted in various generalisations, which is not the most scientific method of evaluation, especially if we talk about the whole country or a continent, regardless of whether it’s about safety, culture, or anything else.
But even if we ignore the ethical side of negative stereotyping and look at facts only, we’d have to assume that any generalisation basically implies that the majority of the generalised group is in line with such stereotype. And in regards to safety, that is certainly not the case of Latinos, because the vast majority of them are lovely, warm, and friendly people, whom you can feel very safe with.
Of course that the horrible stories we often read in the papers are not all made up. It’s true that in many parts of Latin America, there’s a massive problem with drug or gang-related violence. But those incidents mostly affect only people who live in particular areas where they take place and those are not exactly the tourist hotspots. On the contrary, they’re often quite far from the popular tourist areas. So however tragic and horrible these incidents are, they don’t concern the usual tourist’s safety much.
So if were to talk about a violent crime in regards to classic tourism in Latin America, I’d say that with the exception of some large cities or just some of their neighbourhoods, you can feel pretty safe when visiting popular places across the continent. Well, there are always the second-hand products that are attached to mass tourism, such as scams, pickpockets, and so on but that is regardless of the country or region.
One thing is for sure, we can not talk about safety in general terms based on stereotypes, reputation, or even on statistical data and paint the whole region with the same brush because those often produce information that could be misleading.
Before we move on to the travel safety tips, let’s ask ourselves: What exactly qualifies as a safe place to visit? For example, in the top 50 murder rate municipalities, there are five US cities. Would you consider New Orleans dangerous for instance? Possibly, if you wander into the wrong area at the wrong time of the day, right? And that’s what needs to be taken into consideration when looking at crime stats.
As I’ve mentioned above, while our usual tourists should be more concerned by pickpockets, the statistical data about crime rates also involve various high-volume drug syndicates and gang-related crime. That is however a different world. It runs on its own harsh rules and it shouldn’t concern you, at least not from the safety point of view, because it doesn’t physically mix much with the “normal world”. In other words, as I’ve mentioned above, the tourist spots are usually fairly away and safe if compared with the most dangerous areas of towns, plus they normally come with heavier police presence to maintain safety.
Let’s look at the 2020’s Global Peace Index to illustrate this point even further. It lists the USA at the 128th position, behind the vast majority of all Latin countries. In fact, the only countries that stayed behind the USA from all Americas are Mexico (140), Colombia (143), and Venezuela (144). But then again, I bet that taking a guided tour of Grand Canyon is a different story, if compared to strolling certain hoods in St. Luis or Detroit at night, right? And the same applies to visiting Machu Picchu versus some harsh neighbourhoods of Lima.
How do you know where not to go?
Taking all that into consideration, let’s just say is that in some countries, including the US of A, there are certainly some areas, where tourists are as safe as anywhere else in the world but there are also areas where even locals wouldn’t go unless they had to. How do you know where not to go then?
Except for the above-mentioned fact that the popular tourist hotspots are usually nowhere near the areas where the violent crime takes place, you can do a little research about the place you’re about to visit. I consider it to be a normal thing if I’m travelling somewhere new for the first time.
Even if you didn’t look into that in advance, the simple solution is to ask at the hotel reception before heading out for a dinner. Once you arrive at your destination, just proceed with a normal caution, following the basic precautions you would do in any place where you don’t know anyone.
In practical terms, I mean that you don’t advertise your valuables by flashing them around and so on. Sometimes you can even get warned by the locals not to go to certain areas but generally, you simply use common sense to avoid wandering into a dark alley in the middle of the night by yourself.
What gear to pick and where to keep your valuables
Generally, pick neutral colours for your visible gear so it doesn’t scream for the unwanted extra attention unless you want some. As for the valuables, as I’ve mentioned above, don’t advertise them. Don’t show your newest iPhone and expensive jewellery to everyone on the street.
And keep them safe. How? Here’s what I normally do. I keep my money and documents in 2-4 different places, depending on where and for how long I’m about to travel. The point is not keeping your bank cards in one place, you still have a backup, in case one of them was lost or stolen.
- The first place where I keep my money is my regular valet that included some small cash that’s only sufficient for whatever I’m about to do, my major debit card, driving license and so on, the usual lot;
- The second place is hanging on the inside of my pants in the secret pouch. It isn’t the classic (and very obvious) hip belt, it is the one from the picture above. My secret pouch includes the passport, the second credit card and some extra cash. I mostly keep it on me, unless there was some sort of safe locker in the hotel or unless I’m planning to have a few that evening;
- The third part is a small emergency stash in the secret pocket of my day pack. It was the worst-case scenario’s ‘First Aid’, consisting mostly of some cash and paperwork, such as copies of my passport, driving license and other things, I would need to get the lost/stolen cards or travel documents replaced, which is an option more suitable for long term travels as it might your life easier in case of such event took place;
- Oh yeah and I’ve sometimes hidden some cash in the security belt with an inner zip but it can get soaked during trekking so I’ve only used it very occasionally.
As for my electronics, this is where my Pacsafe day pack also came very handy ‘cos it was designed as an anti-theft backpack. Thieves can’t properly cut through it, plus you can attach it to the table or bed with a special strap mechanism. You can also lock the backpack and you can use it “secret” pocket as well, which is always handy. More about the gear as well as what to pack for a long trip could be found here, in case you were interested.
If you are, for any reason planning to visit more dangerous parts of town or if you are just a bit paranoid, you can also take a fake valet with some old bank cards and small cash. If you are really paranoid, take also your old phone in case you were robbed, you can hand those two over to an attacker if such an unfortunate situation was to take place. Remember, in the vast majority of cases, they don’t want to hurt you – they just want your stuff…
FYI, I’ve also met people who used very advanced tricks to store their valuables. In case you want to get creative and go a step further, you could also store your valuables in places like sunscreen bottles if you empty them and make it look&sound like if it was half-empty of its original content. Basically, anything that appears like it holds no value for the potential thief filled with cash is a good secret pouch 😉
Safety and scam in tourist hot spots
As for the general safety, the tourist areas are generally safe when it comes to robberies but I wouldn’t say that about pickpocketing and scam. Every popular tourist spot comes with a lot of scam. Some of the tricks are rather clever so you better stay sharp.
For instance, watch out if you get for example involved in an innocent-looking accident, such as spilt drink over you. I’m not saying that it’s every time, but such accidents often take place on purpose, which is to divert your attention away from your valuables. I’m sure that you know what I mean. If you are in a busy place – always be aware of where your bag is and watch your back because those are very often fertile ground for con artists and pickpocketers.
To be honest, I am personally not a big fan of overcrowded places where everyone wants to sell you something, but upon our journeys, we all end up in such places from time to time. I generally don’t do any purchases in these places because everything there is nearly always overpriced.
Maybe I take few pictures and if the place is really pretty, I grab a coffee but then I head away asap. And during my visit to the mega busy tourist spots, I’m always aware of my phone, camera, valet and so on, and my daypack is often on my chest, especially when I see locals doing the same thing.
Safety and social life
The same works you’re into the party scene because it could get rather predatory and opportunistic sometimes. There are so many dirty tricks that thrive in tourist bars, one could write a book about them. It’s a perfect place to scam if you think about it. People are often consuming alcohol and having fun so they often drop their guard a bit.
The scam is such places has many tricks up its sleeves, ranging from serving cheaper alcohol brands instead of what you’ve ordered; through the wrong change given back to the customers; up to more dangerous and darker tricks of dropping date-rape drugs and so on. So if you do fancy having a bit of fun in such places, don’t leave your drinks unattended and watch out for whom you take your drinks from.
Also always ask how much is the thing you’re about to purchase and make sure that you point out if you’re paying with a note of higher value so they can’t say that you originally gave them a note of a lesser value, which is the most annoying trick, especially if you’re not 100% sure as you don’t know the foreign notes that well. In a loud and busy bar. Nobody’s gonna back you up. On the contrary – other customers around will think of you that you’re the arsehole who’s slowing down the process of them getting their drink by arguing with the bar person – I hate that trick because it’s a dull and cruel buzz-kill.
Anyway. Overall, if you are having few drinks, be clever about it, especially as the night progresses. For instance, I’ve seen some young dudes acrobatically reaching for their secret stash of cash hidden somewhere deep in their underwear or socks in bars, after they’ve run out of the cash prepared for the eve.
Doing it drunk, at the bar, in front of everyone is rather unwise as they were practically advertising where were they hiding their money for the potential thieves. I mean why not do it in the cubical in the bathroom? You never know who’s watching. More examples of the scam are here, in case you were interested.
Safety and sport activities
It is not only other humans we should be aware of. Mother Nature also comes with some dangerous traps and let’s be honest, we often underestimate its powers. A little research wouldn’t hurt before taking up any activity in the wilderness. The important thing here is to know your limits.
Are you fit enough? Do you have sufficient gear? Will you be able to call for help in case you get injured? Are you insured for such help? Those questions are good to have covered before you for example take upon even a short 6km volcano hike, not to mention a multiple-day hike somewhere in the remote Patagonian wilderness.
The same applies to swimming. Oceans could get rather wild, so watch out not to end up too far from the shore in the wrong spot. Many swimmers often underestimate the power of rip currents and trust me, a human won’t stand a chance when confronted with such sheer power. Plus – apologies for stating the obvious – then there’s of course your stuff left alone on the beach. Don’t take any unnecessary things with you, if you have no one to watch your gear while swimming.
From the possible crime-related dangers in the wilderness, I must say that haven’t taken many precautions in SEA. Even in Latin America, the vast majority of the hikes were 100% safe, especially in Patagonia. But I’ve heard of robberies that took place for example in the hills around Bogotá or by the beautiful Lake Atitlán in Guatemala in the past.
So sometimes it’s better to go in groups, take a guided tour or just leave all valuables at your hotel. Because by the time you get down to the village, the thieves will be miles gone. So before you head anywhere remote, please ask about safety at your hotel first or at least inform them about your trip.
Disease-wise, apart from the current COVID-19 pandemic issues and restrictions, there’s a potential danger of containing a few dangerous diseases in certain areas of Latin America. For instance, northern parts of South America have several regions where there’s some risk of containing mosquito-transmitted diseases, such as Malaria, Dengue or Yellow Fever.
Except making sure that you’re protected against mosquitoes, please speak to your GP about possible risks, regarding the possible vaccinations, depending on the places you’re planning to visit. FYI, some countries require you to have a Yellow Fewer shot if you’re entering their territory from within the areas with higher risks but that is something to think about in advance. More info about your possible pre-trip preparations could be found here, in case you were interested.
Safety on the public transport
If you’re travelling independently, you have to move around, which involves visiting many bus terminals. Being very crowded social centres, the stations are also mostly safe as they usually come with a heavy police presence but it’s always a good idea to watch your bags.
Once you’re on board, keep your valuables secure. I hear of scammers diverting people’s attention while their accomplices go through your day pack. Just keep your backpack on your knees, especially at night. And wear the seat belt 😉 FYI, more info about public transport in Latin America, including further transport safety tips could be found at the bottom of this article.
Safety in the cities
As for large metropolitan areas, it’s a whole different ball game. As I’ve mentioned above, many of the Latin capitals and large metropolitan areas are often infamous for their violent crime rates. We’ve also talked about the fact that it mostly doesn’t apply to the tourist areas but it’s not always 100% true. It all depends on when and where you go.
For example, in spite of its popularity, Rio de Janeiro is not exactly known to be a safe haven for tourists. But then there are also the historical centres of other cities, such as Montevideo or Quito that are usually super-safe during the business office hours but when the banks and offices close, the presence of police in the area suddenly got heavily reduced, turning those areas into a rather different world.
To be honest, living most of my adult life in large cities, I’m not into city tourism that much. Except for Panama City’s historical centre, I’ve avoided or at least minimised staying in any of the Central American capitals that are particularly infamous for their crime rates.
On the other hand, I quite liked both Bolivian capitals and I found it hard to leave Buenos Aires, as I fell in love with that city. True, I’ve just mostly stayed away from the dodgier parts of town and copied the locals with wearing my backpack on my chest in metro or busy streets and so on and I was completely fine.
Some people call the dodgier parts of towns “no go zones”. I personally find that term to be rather incorrect and filled with a certain prejudice, but I admit that wandering around dodgy-looking hoods is not for everyone. Nearly every large city has those.
As I said above, a little research usually helps a lot, but then again, most of the time, you’ll be able to spot the street you shouldn’t wander into in the middle of the night. You know those alleys with a flickering lamp and all shutters closed… Really – as I said – the best is to ask at your hotel, and of course, keep your eyes open…
In my humble opinion, being cautious and aware of what’s around you is what many of us do even in our everyday life, not just during our holidays. On holidays, we have to step up a bit because we’re in a less known world, plus our appearance might give away that we’re a stranger there. Taking any extensive measures might however lead to paranoid behaviour and that is not something to enjoy, well at least for me it isn’t. What I’m trying to say is keep your eyes open but enjoy your trip 😉
As I’ve mentioned, I had no situation when I faced any real danger of such nature. I wouldn’t call it “being lucky” I prefer to think of it that I wasn’t unlucky. The element of luck is however something one can’t really affect and I believe that using common sense and watching my back helped me to prevent getting into trouble.
Furthermore, I wouldn’t like to downplay the impact of weaker economies, corruption and/or various international influences on poverty and the consequent crime rates in any region. I mean that we can only speculate what would happen to crime rates in the poverty-stricken regions if we have eradicated poverty, although the answer is kind off offering itself on a plate…
I am not saying that Latin America is entirely safe, on the other hand, let’s remember that the news or various online portals mostly bring us the bad stories, while the vast majority is exactly the opposite. I mean that it’s like with aviation when you look at the number of people taking flights daily and compare it with accidents – it’s similar if you take the millions of tourists in Latin America and those who went through an unfortunate experience, the odds are quite outright 😉
To wrap it all up, just ask your guide and/or your hotel receptionist or even the owner of the restaurant where you eat your meals during your stay about the safety in the hood. They should happily inform you about areas of town where you shouldn’t wander into. Then there are always locals who advise you – but without trying to sound nasty – I must say to watch out for the most friendly ones not to become tricked by a clever scammer.
I personally believe that if you stick with the tourist areas in addition to behaving reasonably and treating the locals with respect, and finally if you don’t flash/advertise your phone or expensive jewellery around, you should be fine, unless you’re unlucky. Avoid dark alleys, keep your day pack on your knees on night buses and so on. You know – normal precautions. Basically: watch your back and don’t be a dick 😉
Stay safe and healthy ❤️🖖
Latin countries Traveller’s Guides to explore on Quaint Planet
- Chile: popular as well as off the beaten path places to see, general travel tips, history, culture, cuisine, safety and more
- Argentina: places to see, general travel tips, history, culture, cuisine, safety, off the beaten path and more
- Uruguay: places to see, off the beaten path, general travel tips, history, culture, cuisine, safety and more
- there’s more to come soon…
More practical info about travelling Latin Americas
- Budget: in case you were interested, here‘s an article listing the country-by-country basic expenses for a traveller in Latin America
- How to get a cheaper Flight: here‘s a little guide to increase your chances of spending less on your airfare as well as tips about how to pick your seat, where to have a nap at the airport and so on…
- Transport: Information, safety and some other practical advice regarding public transport in Latin America can be found here
- ATM withdrawal charges: Some practical info, including the list of free-of-charge ATMs in Latin America, can be found here
- Border fees: To find out how much will you have to pay to enter or exit certain countries in Latin America, please click here
- Packing list: What to take with you for an extended trip as well as some security tips could be found here
- Pre-trip preparations: Few things you can do ahead of time before you’ll become frantically busy prior to your departure are listed here
Destinations covered on Quaint Planet
Santiago de Chile ► Valparaíso ► Santiago de Chile ►Punta Arenas – Ushuaia – Punta Arenas ► Puerto Natales – Torres del Paine – Puerto Natales ► El Calafate (Perito Moreno Glacier, Arg) ► El Chaltén (Los Glaciares National Park) ► Chile Chico (Ch) – Puerto Rio Tranquillo (Marble Caves) ► Coyhaique – Puyuhuapi – (Carretera Austral) ► Puerto Chacabuco – Quellón/Castro ► Puerto Varas – San Carlos de Bariloche (Arg) ► Buenos Aires ► Colonia (Ur) ► Montevideo ► Punta del Diablo – Cabo Polonio ► Montevideo ► Salto ► Concordia (Arg) ► Puerto Iguazú (Iguazú Falls) ► Salta ► San Salvador de Jujuy ► Tilcara ► San Pedro de Atacama (Ch) ► Uyuni Salt Flats Tour (Bol) ► Uyuni ► Sucre – La Paz (Death Road Tour) ► Copacabana (Lake Titicaca) – Isla del Sol – Copacabana ► Cusco (Per) ► Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu) ► Cusco ► Lima ► Máncora – Montañita (Ecu) ► Puerto López ► Quito ► Ipiales (Col) – Pasto ► Tatacoa Desert ► Bogotá ► Medellín ► Villa de Lleyva ► Santa Marta – Cartagena – Rincón del Mar Necoclí ► Capurganá ► Puerto Obaldía (Pan) ► Panama City ► Las Lajas ► Cerro Punta ► David ► Bocas del Torro ► San José (Costa Rica) ► San Juan del Sur (Nic) – Ometepe ► Granada ► Managua – El Rama – Bluefields – Corn Islans ► Léon ► El Tunco (El Salvador) ► La Antigua Guatemala – Lake Atitlán ► Lanquín (Semuc Champey) – Flores (Tikal) ► Belize City ► Bacalar – Tulum – Playa del Carmen – Valladolid – Cancún.
Featured image credit: Agustin Diaz Gargiulo from Unsplash