Since coming back to Europe after 10 months travelling in South America, we’ve certainly been asked more than once, “was it safe?”
We absolutely felt safe during our time in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador and would return to each of these countries without a second thought about what extra precautions to take to ensure our safety.
But that was just our experience, so in order to give a more balanced and varied look at how to travel safely and healthily in South America, we reached out to some other travel bloggers and asked for their tips and experiences.
We hope you find them useful, but above all, that they help assuage any fears you might have and help you make the leap to travel in this amazing continent if you’re already considering it but are concerned about safety in South America.
“Conceal your wealth” – Arianwen, Beyond Blighty
So you may not think of yourself as being loaded with money, but as a traveller who can afford to take a plane from your home country to the other side of the world, you will be perceived by many as a goldmine. For people like me who could never blend in in Asia or South America (think tall, pale-skinned redhead), there’s no chance of fooling the locals into thinking you were born there, but your actions and the way you present yourself can go a long way to keeping you safe.
To begin with, don’t dress up. In my opinion, there’s no place for a pair of high heels or expensive jewellery in a backpack. Keep your outfits practical, conservative and as plain as you can and fewer people will notice you. If you have to wear a watch or decorate your wrists and ankles, go for the classic friendship bracelets and cheap devices you wouldn’t be upset if you lost.
When you take photos, be surreptitious. Put your camera back in your bag and zip it up when you’re not using it. If you need to consult the map or travel guide, hide in a shop door instead of standing in the centre of a plaza or you might as well have a sign on your head saying ‘not only am I a rich tourist, but I’ve only just arrived in this place and I have no idea where I am!’
Arianwen is the author of Beyond Blighty, a travel blog focusing on independent travel and adventure activities. She is a solo female backpacker who spent 7 months travelling through South America from Colombia to Patagonia and back up through Brazil.
“Know when to hire a guide” – Casey, A Cruising Couple
Don’t get be wrong, I love to be adventurous: to set off into the unknown, make mistakes, and learn along the way. But sometimes, you’re advised to get a guide for a reason. A few years ago, my friends and I set off to climb a 15,000-foot (4,570m) mountain outside of Quito, Ecuador.
The trail appeared to be well marked, and being the brave souls we were, we decided to conquer it alone. Going up was fine, but on the way down we got horrendously lost. The path disappeared into fields of wild grass. We spent hours clambering up and down hills, trying to find our way to the path once more, but when darkness descended we knew we were in trouble.
We were wet to the bone, dripping from a thunderstorm, with no flashlights, food, and a limited supply of water. Luckily someone was watching out for us that day; around midnight we came across a little shack, where an indigenous woman told us how we could find a road. We made it down safely in the end, but we very easily could have been stuck up there overnight, or even longer.
Casey is half of the duo behind A Cruising Couple, an adventure travel blog with a dash of class. As lovebirds, world travelers, and adventurers extraordinaire, Dan and Casey are slowly and indefinitely traveling the world.
“Go to Chile!” – Dani, GlobetrotterGirls
Chile has the lowest crime rate in all of South America, and in the 3.5 months we spent traversing that country from north to south, we honestly didn’t feel unsafe once. Sure, there is the occasional pickpocket in Santiago, common in most big cities, but as long as you are not careless with your belongings (iPod in the back pocket of your pants for example, or wallet easily accessible in your backpack), you should be fine.
Even though Chile is still a little bit more conservative than other South American countries when it comes to the acceptance of same-sex relationships, we never felt unsafe traveling as a lesbian couple and I got the sense that Chile is also very safe for solo female travelers. Dangers like taxi express kidnappings or theft on overnight buses that exist in other Latin American countries aren’t issues in Chile, making it one of the safest countries in South America.
Use common sense, don’t flash expensive items, leave credit cards and passports locked away safely in your hotel, take only as much cash as you need and keep your valuables on your person when on buses, not in the luggage hold under the bus. Other than let, enjoy your time in beautiful, diverse Chile!
Dani started the site GlobetrotterGirls after she set off to travel in 2010 and never looked back. Her site is where she shares everything from inspiring travel stories to the hard-earned information and experience to help independent travelers plan and make the most of their own authentic adventures.
“Prepare for travel days” – Simon and Erin, Never Ending Voyage
We spent a year travelling in South America and felt very safe there. Robberies do happen though and our advice is to be careful but not paranoid. You are the most vulnerable on travel days when you are travelling with all of your belongings and the long distances in South America mean you are often exhausted. To avoid problems on travel days we recommend you:
- Choose a side opening backpack that is lockable with a small combination lock.
- Travel with a carry-on sized backpack only if possible. We did and felt much more secure having our backpack with us at all times rather than on top or under a bus.
- Wear a money belt under your clothes with your passport, credit cards and most of your cash in it, and only keep a small amount of cash in your wallet.
- Wear trousers with a hidden zipped pocket to store your phone and/or wallet.
- Don’t store your bags in the overhead compartments on buses and be aware of your bags by your feet as they could get stolen, or slashed and the contents removed.
Simon and Erin are a digital nomad couple who sold everything to travel forever. Follow their blog at Never Ending Voyage for everything from tips on how to deal with banking as a long-term traveller to mouthwatering vegetarian food.
“Beware of the mayo” – Victoria, Bridges and Balloons
The key to safety anywhere – at home or abroad – is to have your wits about you. It’s when you let down your guard that you’re most vulnerable, especially when you’re drunk. Don’t let that stop you from being open with people or having a few drinks, but don’t put yourself in needlessly risky situations – for example walking home alone in the dark. Mostly it comes down to common sense.
One scam we saw in Buenos Aires was the popular “mayo trick”. Someone came up to us and told us we had mayonaise all over our backs and tried to help us clean it off. We were both suspicious so kept a keen eye on our bags. Sure enough, we later learned that this is a common scam – one person squirts mayo at you and then the other comes to clean it off, trying to pickpocket you while you’re distracted.
Victoria is a writer from London who gave up the 9-5 to explore the world and all its wonder. She travels and works around the world with her filmmaker boyfriend Steve, and blogs at Bridges and Balloons.
“Couchsurf, but always have a backup plan” – Linda, Indie Travel Podcast
Couchsurfing in South America is an amazing experience, and generally very safe. However, we were always careful to have the name and address of a hostel on hand in case of emergencies, and on one occasion, this came in very useful.
The taxi driver was a little cautious of letting us out, since it wasn’t one of Lima’s best neighbourhoods, but we weren’t worried. However, when our host failed to answer the door, or the phone, or reply to the text messages and emails we sent him, we started to get a bit concerned. Half an hour later, he still wasn’t back, and we decamped first to a local restaurant, and then across town to a hostel whose details we had with us.
It turned out the guy had been caught in an important meeting at work, and although we don’t have any hard feelings towards him, he did leave us in an unfortunate position. Having a backup plan got us out of trouble.
Linda Martin is a self-confessed word geek, Spanish addict, and world traveller. She and her husband Craig run the award-winning Indie Travel Podcast, and have been travelling full-time for eight years, mostly in Europe, South America, and Oceania.
“Make local friends” – Jonny, Don’t Stop Living
This could arguably be the best way to see South America and stay safe. Instead of staying in hotels and hostels – message your friends that live there and stay with them. Get them to show you around the city, ask them for advice and immerse yourself in their culture. I stayed with a local family in Uruguay while studying Spanish and stayed on my mate’s farm in rural Colombia for a week. These are ways to stay safe while loving the local culture and spending time with friends.
But please don’t worry too much about travelling in South America. People are not out to get you and most people are honest, hard working people and I think South America should be on every traveller’s list. If you’re toying between Thailand and Bolivia right now – don’t even consider Thailand. Bolivia, and South America knock the socks off South East Asia. But that’s just my take on it; safe travels!
Jonny Blair runs the travel blog Don’t Stop Living and has been writing and travelling for around 7 years now. His journeys so far have taken him to over 80 countries spanning all 7 continents. In Jonny’s vocabulary there is no such word as “can’t”!
“Don’t take your video camera to carnival in Brazil” – Zara, Backpack ME
Carnival in Brazil is popularly known as “the biggest party on earth”. No wonder things can get messy. We spent carnival in the happening city of Salvador da Bahia last year and we didn’t get to enjoy a happy ending. That’s when we learnt rule number one for surviving carnival in Brazil: do not carry a camera or any other symbol of wealth with you.
Things can easily get hardcore: people in need could rob you and hurt you for way less than this. Depending on your level of comfort mingling with the crowds you can enjoy carnival in two different ways: you can either roam the streets with locals, dancing and partying alongside the parades (this is called pipoca and that’s what we did and would recommend) or book a seat inside a protected view point (camarote) where you can spend hours comfortably and secure. Whatever you do, make sure you do not bring along anything valuable!
Zara is a Portuguese girl who quit her job in Dubai 2 years ago to travel around the world with her now husband Ashray, from India. Their site Backpack ME, aims to inspire people to go travel, no matter where they come from!
“When going out at night…” – Colleen, Colleen Brynn Travels
When I went to South America by myself in 2009, I was incessantly warned about how dangerous it is and how careful I’d have to be. Oddly enough, I didn’t really feel unsafe at any point, but if I did, it was only ever after dark. I went for a walk in Rio after the sun had gone down one night, and it was as if the kinds of people who were out had morphed into less trustworthy, more shady versions of those who had been out before sunset.
While the nightlife is unparalleled in South America and shouldn’t be missed, be sure to go out with friends or locals. Never walk alone. Use a trusted cab service. Let your hostel/hotel know that you are going out and when they should expect you back. Take extra precaution if alcohol is involved. Take a photocopy of your ID, lock up your valuables at the hostel and only bring a little money. Bring a separate, less expensive camera if possible. If that’s not possible, backup all of your photos before you take your camera for a night out on the town.
Most importantly, don’t be afraid! South America is a wonderful place, and you will find lovely people everywhere you go. Showing fear is a sure way to attract the wrong kind of attention.
Colleen Brynn left home at the age of 18 to volunteer and live overseas. She has been balancing travel and school ever since and has visited 40 countries and lived in England, Denmark, Mexico, Spain and Canada, where she was born and is currently studying optometry there, with a plan to open a vision clinic on Easter Island.
“Don’t take altitude sickness lightly” – Jürgen and Mike, For 91 Days
Going from sea level straight to a city like La Paz or especially Potosí in Bolivia can seriously affect your system. We met a few people who had to cancel all their plans because they were sick. If you can, ascend slowly. We traveled first to the mid-mountain city of Sucre, and then by bus-train to Potosí.
Once you’ve reached your high-altitude destination, take it easy for the first day, and beware of alcohol. We had a couple glasses of wine on our first night in Potosí and got seriously drunk! Another good tip to combat altitude sickness is to chew coca leaves and drink coca tea, which is legal in Argentina, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, though should not be imported to Chile.
Born wanderers, Jürgen (Germany) and Mike (USA) love traveling and learning about new cultures, and have decided to see the world slowly. They move to a new place once every three months, or about 91 days. You can follow their travels on their blog For 91 Days.
“Pack a few safety items” – Alex, Alex in Wanderland
- A simple padlock for lockers if you plan to stay in dorms. Lock up as much as possible, even your large bag if you can – I’ve heard of people having even their clothing stolen from hostels in South America!
- A Kensington laptop lock if you are packing a laptop. This lightweight cord allows you to tether your computer to beds or other furniture, meaning a thief will have to bring a chainsaw if they plan to remove it from your room.
- A Pacsafe portable safe especially if you are planning to stay in guesthouses, which will likely lack the lockers that dorms come with and the in-room safes that hotels come with.
- A hideaway method for bus rides. I stash my phone, wallet and passport into a pillow with an interior pocket before nodding off on a bus – grabby hands can’t reach them without waking me up! But money belts or bra stash can serve the same function.
In general pack as little as possible – though I can’t say I follow my own advice. Doing so will give you less to lose, and being ultra mobile and not weighed down on travel days will keep you safe and in control.
Alexandra Baackes is a freelance writer, graphic designer and New York native who left her home to explore the world slowly and thoroughly. She has been blogging about her world wanderings for the past three years at Alex in Wanderland.
“Keep yourself safe in markets and crowds” – Dan and Audrey, Uncornered Market
The only two times that we’ve had anything stolen from us in seven years of travel were in crowded areas in South America. The first time we had a handheld camera stolen from a zipped pocket of a messenger bag at a food festival. And the second experience was a mobile phone taken from a zipped trouser pocket at a market in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The similarities in both situations? Entering a crowded area where we were targeted and Dan was surrounded by people so that he couldn’t move. In the process, zippers were unzipped and small items taken.
Most important, don’t let the fear of getting pickpocketed keep you from the joy of markets, festivals and busy street kids.
Daniel Noll and Audrey Scott are the husband-and-wife storytelling team behind Uncornered Market. They’ve been traveling the world for over 7 years, more than 80 countries. Still going, and still married.
I would add that one of the ways we often felt safest when travelling in South America was by using Airbnb. Having a private place to stay in a residential neighbourhood removed us from the typical tourist places oftentimes, meaning we were much less likely to be targeted for pick-pocketing or common scams aimed at travellers. Use this link to sign up to Airbnb and get €20 off your first booking!
One final thing I would also suggest, is that you check you have the correct travel adaptors when travelling around South America. The plug socket types differ from country to country. For instance, Columbia have plug types A and B and Brazil have plug types C and N, so it’s worth checking before you travel so that you won’t be without power on your phone or camera during the trip.
Thanks to all the bloggers who contributed to this post! If you have any other tips you feel are missing, please leave a comment below.
All photos provided by the bloggers participating in this article.