Is South America dangerous? Safety in South America is a big issue for backpackers who plan to explore this region. However, most fears are unfounded, I would like to give you some practical tips for safe travel in South America that can easily be applied in other parts of the world.
Backpacking in South America is usually not more dangerous than other regions, many of the following tips are also mainly applicable in cities. I myself was a victim of a violent robbery (more here), but I could have avoided this by following tips 16) and 19).
Most of the time, simple safety rules are enough to travel comfortably – I’m sure you already follow many of the following points, don’t you?
1) Learn the local language
English is not as widely spoken as you might be used to in Europe or other regions. The school education is very different from ours, without being able to speak Spanish you are often stuck. The great thing is that Spanish is spoken in many countries – a Spanish course (online course) will help you later in Central and North America!
In dicey situations or after robberies, the ability to speak the local language is worth its weight in gold – that’s how I was able to communicate with the doctors in the emergency room after the robbery.
(If you are going to be in Brazil for a longer period of time: consider taking a Portuguese language course (online course).
2) Inform yourself about your destination
Especially in big cities there are “good” and “bad” areas. As a European you are very conspicuous in South America – in big cities poor and rich usually live close to each other. Therefore you should inform yourself in advance in which areas it is safe and book your accommodation accordingly (e.g. on Wikivoyage).
3) Make sure you have a good insurance
Especially for longer stays abroad, normal travel health insurance is no longer effective – here it is recommended to get your own long-term health insurance to be covered accordingly.
I would like to recommend 2 providers – my current favorite is the complete insurance from WorldNomads. This is not only health insurance because theft, loss of luggage, robberies and active vacations (ski & snowboard) are covered in particular. The best thing about it: You can take it out quickly and conveniently online, even if you are already on location!
If you are just looking for a suitable long-term health insurance for abroad, I recommend the package of Hanse-Merkur – I have booked this on my trips in Europe (Stiftung Warentest: “Very good”). You can also book online, but this should be done before you start your trip.
4) Be attentive
This applies especially to your luggage. The bus is the means of transportation you will use most often. Always take care of your luggage, if you have a backpack you can use the rain cover in “transfer mode” (when traveling from one place to another) to make it more difficult for potential thieves to get your bags.
Bus stations, large bus stops or busy squares are popular places for pickpockets – always keep an eye on your bags or carry them with you at all times.
5) Withdraw money only IN banks
The so-called “skimming” is also widespread here – ATMs are manipulated in such a way that your card data is read and copied when withdrawing money without you noticing it. This happened to me once in Chile and once in Uruguay. Then they try to withdraw as much money as possible from your account – but I was lucky because I respected 6).
Of course, you need cash on the spot – so it is best to withdraw it from machines located in the bank building and come at a time when the bank is open (i.e. during the day). Preferably, machines located in public areas are manipulated, mostly skimming takes place in the evening.
6) Credit card with appropriate limits & service
When my card data was tapped at an ATM, an attempt was made to withdraw a total of 1000€ within a very short time – however, this was recognized in time by the security department, the card was blocked and I was contacted in no time.
As a result, an immense financial damage was prevented and I was helped by the service department to continue to get my money (replacement cards can usually not be sent to South America without problems). So: pay attention to the service and security benefits and do not forget to set appropriate limits (applies to all cards!).
7) Do not carry valuables around openly.
While in Europe it is no problem to go sightseeing with a 1000€ camera around your neck, this can be difficult in other parts of the world. This does not mean that everyone is after your camera, but you should be aware that in some countries the value of a DSLR is equal to several months wages.
It’s best to keep your camera in an inconspicuous daypack and only take it out when you really need it.
8) International card blocking
If you notice that your card has been misused or stolen, you can have it blocked directly – for some time now there has been a so-called blocking emergency call which applies to all cards:
+49 116 116
9) Keep passport and cards close to your body
In the beginning I found it a bit silly to carry a bag under my clothes, but little by little I got used to it – these travel belt bags are inconspicuous and a great way to keep especially explosive things like passport and credit cards safe.
10) Always have a purse with you
This might sound a bit strange after the previous tip, but: for paying in stores, on the street or in markets you should always use a normal wallet – filled only with the money you need for that day.
In case of a case, you will always have something that you can easily hand over in case of a robbery.
11) Recognize typical tricks (English: Scams)
During my time on the ground I got to know many tricks that are used to get money or valuables – these vary from country to country. Make sure you know which scams are widespread in your destination country to avoid falling for them yourself.
Example: the so-called ketchup trick is very popular. In an unobserved moment, ketchup lands on your jacket – a little later, one or two helpful people come and offer to remove it. Meanwhile, they take the opportunity to get rid of your valuables.
12) For day trips take only the most important things with you
If you are not traveling you should use the safe / locker in your accommodation to store your credit card and passport. For sightseeing, beach trips, etc. it is sufficient to have the amount of money you need for that day. You should also carry a copy of your ID (see next tip).
13) Have copies of your papers & passwords with you
The loss of a passport brings many problems, so you should only have the original with you when you absolutely need it (in transfer mode and at border crossings) – for the rest a copy is often sufficient (hostels, tours, forms).
In addition, it has proven useful for me to write down all my passwords for email, Facebook, etc. and carry them with me. This helps if, for example, your own laptop breaks down on which they were stored and you have forgotten your passwords.
14) Travel with less luggage
The less you pack, the less can get lost, is clear. But especially in busy areas it is worth its weight in gold to travel with only a small backpack and have both hands free, in buses it is easier to take care of your things.
15) In the worst case: don’t play the hero
Ok, it still happened – now you should act prudently and respond to the demands. In such situations, resistance often brings more violence, here it is better to lose the camera or the money than to risk your own health!
16) Nightlife in the group until the home
At night the danger increases in many places because the darkness often brings out the dark figures of a city. If you don’t want to miss out on nightlife, join a group of like-minded people (e.g. friends, other hostel guests) and go out together, taking care of each other and making sure you go home together.
17) Avoid the drunkenness
A party without alcohol or even drugs is hardly imaginable for some – while traveling this can be quite dangerous and lead to problems. Try to take it down a notch, otherwise you could be an easy victim.
18) Watch your drink
Another tip that applies to many places: when you are at a party you should always keep an eye on your drink, so that no drugs or so-called knockout drops end up in it unnoticed – so it is best to always keep it with you!
19) Taxi after the disco
Ok, plans are good but sometimes don’t work. If you come out of the club alone at night choose the safer transportation option and take a radio cab (see next tip) back to your accommodation.
20) Prefer registered cabs
In some countries, such as Peru and Bolivia, there are many unregistered cabs, but this is difficult to spot as they also drive around with a “cab” sign on the roof. There are quite a few cases in which especially these are involved in robberies, so it is often strongly discouraged to use these cabs.
The safest option is to use registered radio cabs. These are ordered by calling the place where you are – in hotels/hostels, restaurants, pubs or clubs you can also have them called. A bit more expensive, but also safer.
21) Tourist option as a safer choice
On my trip through Bolivia I was often warned about the buses – the roads here are extremely dangerous, because due to the poverty in the country many roads in the mountains are still not paved. In addition, there are cases in which bus drivers cause accidents while intoxicated or overtired.
Although I’m not really a fan of tours, every now and then I decided to choose the more expensive tour option (especially for long night trips) – here more modern buses were used and 2 bus drivers were hired. In the end, this “luxury” only cost me 10€ more (in said month, 3 bus accidents happened in Bolivia with 63 deaths).
22) Sometimes other travelers are a danger
You can be as well prepared as you want, but sometimes it’s not you but your fellow travelers who can put you in dangerous situations – if you decide to travel with others, make sure they act as prudent as you do.
If in doubt, confront them, explain the situation to them and in the worst case: separate yourself from travel partners who put you in danger with their behavior.
23) Listen to your gut feeling
Maybe you have already experienced such a situation: we make many decisions based on our feelings. When you are booking a tour, bus trip, etc., or considering a travel option, it is not wrong to trust your gut.
If something tells you that it could be dangerous or get you into trouble, weigh the options and trust your gut!
24) Do not change money on the street
In some countries, such as Argentina, due to the economic situation, there is an unofficial exchange rate that far exceeds the official one. Often flying exchange dealers offer to change the money at the unofficial rate (in Buenos Aires in the Calle Florida to find) – but I strongly advise against it. Quite often friends of mine have been ripped off there or have been sold counterfeit banknotes.
Check with friends and locals where it is safe and if in doubt, give up a little extra profit.
(If you travel to Argentina, be sure to bring US$).
25) Pay with small banknotes
Also in Argentina, I have encountered several cases where travelers have been sold counterfeit money – for example, when shopping at a kiosk or even in cabs. If you get to the wrong person and try to pay with a large banknote (100 pesos), this bill is very quickly and cleverly exchanged for a counterfeit (so-called “Falso”). To avoid this, it is recommended to use smaller banknotes, e.g. by changing larger ones into smaller ones in the hostel.
26) List of important phone numbers
For emergencies you should always have a list of phone numbers ready to help you: Insurance, family, bank, health insurance, family doctor, etc. . For phone calls, I recommend a Skype account with appropriate credit
27) Let locals show you the city
Locals know their city best – why not get in touch with them and let them show you around. Couchsurfing is a great option for this, for example, here you can join regular meetings (in big cities like Buenos Aires, Rio, Lima…) and meet great people. In Lima, Buenos Aires, Santiago and many other cities I took this opportunity, made new friends and later met with them to be shown the coolest corners.
Often I got along so well with the hostel staff that we went out together after hours. Locals know the best insider tips, know which areas and situations you should better avoid – I let this flow into many of my travel guides.
28) Carefulness also in your accommodation
It is often misunderstood that many thefts also happen in hostels / hotels. Therefore, use the safe or the lockers that are offered.
If you sleep in shared rooms and want to charge your camera, tablet or cell phone without being in the room: a temporary battery is ideal for this, so you can charge your devices later when you are on the road!
29) Don’t get careless
After 6 months in South America, 5 countries and a 1000km hitchhiking tour, I almost felt at home. I had settled in and was of the opinion that I knew my way around – what I hardly noticed: I became careless. Exactly at this point it happened and I became a victim of a robbery.
My advice: no matter how long you are in a place and no matter how well you think you know it – carelessness can quickly get you into difficult situations. Therefore, caution is always better than indulgence! (yes, I know: the phrase piggy bank is calling)
30) Respect yes, fear no
Last but not least: this article is not meant to scare you, rather I want to make you feel safer and behave accordingly with the examples and advice given here. As already mentioned in the previous tip, you should always approach the matter with a certain respect.
There is crime and danger in many places in the world and South America is by far not as dangerous as it is often portrayed. I felt very comfortable here and met great people and new friends!