Let’s face it. There are a lot of horrible stories of armed robberies, muggings and even kidnappings happening to travelers in South America. Yet, like everywhere in the world, people live normal lives with the usual ups and downs. Too often South America is portrayed as a place where you leave your hotel room just to get instantly mugged, raped and chopped into small pieces. 99.9% of the time it is not like that.
At the moment I am travelling in Colombia and security is on everyone’s lips in this beautiful country. The situation has gotten a lot better since the early 90’s and many foreigners are finding Colombia as a good place to travel and set up a business and family. This has got me thinking about making a list of useful tips on how to stay safe in South America and pretty much everywhere in the world.
How to Stay Safe in South America
1. Don’t stand out
Don’t walk around with expensive jewelry hanging from your neck or wrist. If any, wear a cheap watch to tell the time. Same goes with expensive cameras. Myself, I love taking pictures in the street and walk around with my camera. What I have done for my Sony a6000 is that I have covered up the camera logos with black tape. This makes the camera less flashy and it might just slip me under the radar. There’s nothing good on letting other people know you’re carrying a camera worth of a compact car with you!
Dress appropriately and fit in with locals. Green camo pants in hot and humid Rio or a lime green technical shirt will make you stand out. Look what the locals wear and dress accordingly. I also pack a lot of old sun-faded old clothes with me when travelling to keep a low profile. The clothes will be thrown away anyways and to replace the space in the bag you can bring home some new wardrobe additions!
2. Keep your valuables safe
Never, ever, keep all your money in one bag or wallet. It can all get stolen if someone decides to rob you. Multiple storage locations is the way to go.
When leaving your hotel/hostel, leave your passport and larger amounts of money to a locked safe. Only take with you the money you need during the day and in the case you absolutely have no idea how much you are gonna spend, take your credit card.
My all time favorite travel companion is Design Go Luggage Clip Pouch, Black, One Size (Amazon Store, ~ 11 US$). The wallet hides perfectly under my clothes and I don’t have to worry about pickpockets (unless they are extremely touchy!). You can fit a credit card and a nice stack of money in this wallet.
Lastly, do not fondle with your money on the street. This will just draw attention and expose your whole money reservoir to everyone! Also, you might even drop some notes on the ground. Keep a small amount of money in your pocket for street shopping and only check your wallet indoors in a toilet or while sitting in a café.
3. Do destination research before travelling
Check with your Ministry of Foreign Affairs for recent travel notices or of any emergencies. Read up on areas to avoid and especially on different vaccinations to get before traveling. Most often the notices are up-to-date and extremely useful when planning your trip!
When you are already in the country, ask the local for their advice. They will surely tell you where to go and where not to go. Trust me, the locals beat the guidebooks by 100-0!
Before traveling to a new country or a city, I always check for common tourist scams in the area. This infographic of the 40 most common tourists scams around the world is a good way to start!
4. Documents, documents, documents
Scan and photocopy all of your documents: travel insurance, flight tickets, passport etc. Upload the documents to Dropbox or Microsoft OneDrive and you will never lose them! Simple as that. Scans of your documents can also be really useful when re-applying for new ones in the case your stuff gets stolen/lost.
I always carry a copy of my passport when travelling. I have even boarded buses in Brazil with just the copy! Leave your passport in hotel/hostel safe and keep a copy in your pocket!
5. Common sense
Listen to your gut. It rarely steers you wrong. If the situation you are in feels uncomfortable, leave and try to find a crowded place, blend in and take a taxi back to your accommodation. Do not blindly trust a stranger, but remember, that not everyone is a criminal. Use your best judgement on this one.
Know your surroundings, act natural, smile and acknowledge people coming and going. Thieves and hecklers don’t go for people who are confident. You’re an easier target when you’re looking lost and out of place.
If someone robbing you puts up a fight, don’t play a hero and give them what they want and get away. Your life is more important than an iPhone 6.
Don’t be scared and travel
The world is full of beautiful countries to visit. Some of them are more dangerous than others. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t travel to these places and enjoy what they have to offer. Generally, the dangerousness of a country is greatly exaggerated by the media and by biased travel stories that happened to “my friend” or “someone I know”. Most often these cases could have been avoided with very simple precautions.
I have had a good streak so far. For example, the most dangerous situation on my recent trip in South America happened on the way to the continent, when I almost fell down the stairs in my hostel in Spain. The Polish volunteer had just washed the floor. Devil wears rubber gloves!
I travel smart whether I am in Finland, Europe or South America. The precautions I make have become a second nature for me when traveling.
Most important thing is to remain who you are – friendly, courteous and polite. Get to know the local customs and respect them. Don’t carry with you large amounts of money and make sure to have copies of your documents. Take a deep breath and relax: most likely nothing ever happens to you. Adventurous and fun travel is possible without sacrificing basic safety.