Updated September 26th, 2020.
It is no secret to most that South America doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to safety. With everything from dangerous roads to scams and even violent drug cartels, this is a continent which requires travellers to be a bit savvy.
We constantly get asked ‘is South America safe to travel?’ and generally our answer is yes. However, there is no disputing that some countries in South America are safer to travel than others. If you’re planning your trip and feeling a little nervous about where to go, we’ve put together this comprehensive list of the safest South American countries.
How Did We Decide The Safest South American Countries?
In order to compile this list, we’ve used our own travel experience as well as general research and the Global Peace Index rankings for 2020. This index is compiled based on the degree of ongoing conflict, the extent of militarisation and the level of societal safety and security.
To give you a bit of context before we dive into the safest countries in South America, the United Kingdom sits at 42 on the Global Peace Index, the USA sits at 121 and Australia comes in at number 13. The most dangerous country according to the index, is Afghanistan which sits at position 163.
To make it easy for you to compare, all of the South American countries will have their Global Peace Index ranking explicitly listed. Interestingly, all of the South American countries listed have a better Global Peace Index ranking than the United States! The list is in reverse order, with number 1 being the safest country in South America!
The Top 6 Safest South American Countries
Disclaimer – Safety advice changes quickly across the world and all of the countries listed below still fluctuate in terms of their overall stability. What is considered a safe country today, may not be so tomorrow. Therefore we always advise travellers to do their own research before booking a trip.
Global Peace Index ranking: 90
For such a small country, Ecuador is one of the most biodiverse places in the world. Home to a section of the Amazon Rainforest, the Andes and the incredible Galapagos Islands, Ecuador has a stunning coastline and plays host to some of the planet’s most rare and exotic wildlife.
Situated along the ‘ring of fire,’ Ecuador is an area of huge seismic activity. This means that volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and earthquakes are all possible. You should familiarise yourself with the relevant evacuation and safety procedures in event of an emergency. Whilst this may sound alarming, advance warning of a natural disaster is usually available and most visitors will have no issues.
Whilst petty crime is common, especially in Quito and Guayaquil, Ecuador is generally very safe. Pickpocketing can be an issue in the major cities but keep your valuables out of sight and you shouldn’t have too much issue.
The Galapagos are undoubtedly the safest place to travel to in Ecuador. There is a virtually non-existent crime rate owing to the tiny population on the islands. However, these islands do have their fair share of active volcanoes – just something to bear in mind!
In October 2019, there were nationwide protests across Ecuador. Some of these became violent and there were a number of fatalities. To be on the safe side, avoid protests of any kind.
Traveller Highlights of Ecuador:
- Snorkel with Hammerhead Sharks in the Galapagos Islands. Or you could go see the taxidermy of Lonesome George, trek an active volcano, hang with some of the rarest wildlife in the world, you know, all that normal stuff you do every day.
- Camp in the otherworldly Cajas National Park just outside Cuenca.
- Take a day trip from Quito to ‘Mitad del Mundo’, a.k.a. ‘The Middle of the World!’
- Get your adrenaline flowing with a whitewater rafting trip through the jungle. Keep your eyes peeled for monkeys, butterflies and a whole manner of other critters!
- Climb a volcano! Ecuador is home to one of South America’s best treks, Cotopaxi Volcano. Head out on a Cotopaxi day trip to hike to the glacier or arrange an overnight adventure if you want to reach the summit!
Global Peace Index ranking: 84
Whilst Peru surely does have something for every kind of traveller, it is likely to be the mystical ruins of Machu Picchu that draws first-time visitors. This is not Peru’s only archaeological wonder though, the country is full of them!
Much of Peru is located in the Andes Mountain range which means that the trekking opportunities are great. This does come with risk though, as many cities are located far above sea level. Altitude sickness can be a problem for travellers so to stay safe, make sure you have allowed yourself the necessary time to acclimatise. Whilst some travellers say that altitude sickness pills help, these can have nasty side-effects.
As Peru is such a hotspot for tourists in Latin America, you can expect there to be petty crime in the main cities. In areas such as the Plaza de Armas in Cusco, it is nearly impossible to walk around as a traveller and not get offered drugs.
The Amazon Rainforest is a draw of Peru for many and lots of travellers flock to the jungle in search of spiritual enlightenment. This has meant a boom in the popularity of Ayahuasca ceremonies. This plant medicine has hallucinogenic properties and has long been used in far-flung corners of South America. Whilst many backpackers talk of finding themselves during a trip, the practice isn’t always safe and some have even died whilst taking the drug.
Like many countries in South America, it is not possible to drink the tap water in Peru and you will struggle to find free water refills. To save the planet and save yourself some dollar, invest in a filtered water bottle to remove all the nasties from your agua!
Traveller Highlights of Peru:
- Did you even go to Peru if you didn’t visit Machu Picchu?! Take on the epic Inca Trail for the real authentic experience.
- Dine in some of the best restaurants in the world in Lima. The capital is the spot to be for Peruvian food lovers – definitely don’t miss our favourite dish ceviche.
- The Mountain of Colours (also known as Rainbow Mountain) has to be experienced firsthand. Check out the alternative version for fewer crowds on a guided tour from Cusco.
- Explore Huacachina and sandboard your way down one of the many dunes close to Peru’s idyllic desert oasis!
- If you’re brave enough, take a flight over the Nasca Lines and ponder over how these gigantic geoglyphs came to be!
Global Peace Index ranking: 75
Paraguay is a country that hasn’t quite reached the mainstream in terms of its tourist numbers yet. This means it is a great place to travel as so much of the country is just waiting to be explored.
The country is generally pretty safe and crime isn’t too much of an issue. As you would expect, there is a risk of petty crime but this can usually be mitigated by taking the necessary precautions. Avoid flaunting your wealth with expensive clothes or jewellery to avoid pickpockets.
Perhaps the biggest concern for travellers visiting Paraguay is the standard of driving. Traffic accidents (particularly those involving motorcycles) are common and many locals will engage in risky road practices such as riding without a helmet or driving at night without lights. Much like Vietnam, road signs are treated as guidelines rather than instructions which need to be obeyed.
Traveller Highlights of Paraguay:
- Share a cup of yerba mate with your friends. It’s not just a drink, it’s an institution!
- To get your blood pumping, head to Eco Reserva Mbatoví. Here you can zip-line, rappel down a cliff face and even swing from hanging bridges!
- Visit the Parque Nacional Ybycuí for a bit of wildlife spotting. This national park is home to a whole range of creatures including peccaries, capuchin monkeys and even one of South America’s most amazing animals, the coati.
- The Itaipú Dam is one of the seven engineering wonders of the world and it is easy to see why. This dam produces 75% of Paraguay’s electricity!
Global Peace Index ranking: 74
Argentina is the second-largest country in South America and offers plenty for all kinds of traveller. From natural wonders to urban cityscapes, this is a country of contrast. It has a big expat population with many originally coming from the USA.
The country is home to some of the world’s best hikes in the Patagonia region and the scenery is out of this world. The cities of Argentina are vibrant and colourful but there are plenty of natural places to retreat for a dose of serenity.
Whilst petty crime occurs, especially in big cities, the country is generally very safe for visitors. Hitchhiking is common, particularly in the areas around Patagonia however, it definitely helps if you have a degree of basic Spanish. As with any kind of hitchhiking, always tell someone where you are going beforehand for safety reasons.
Dengue Fever is perhaps the biggest health threat to travellers in Argentina, however, this can be prevented through practising mosquito bite avoidance. For more about potential health risks and the necessary vaccines needed for South America, see this post. The plus side is that if you do get ill or injured in Argentina, the health system is of a good standard and free for everyone.
Unfortunately, Argentina has been suffering from an economic decline in recent years which has amped up tensions over equality. This means that protests are becoming increasingly common. Whilst there is no guarantee that things will turn ugly in these situations, travellers are advised to avoid protests whenever possible.
Traveller Highlights in Argentina:
- See the incredible Perito Moreno Glacier on an alternative tour. This is one of the world’s only glaciers which is not retreating!
- Learn to dance the Tango in Buenos Aires.
- Cycle through the vineyards of Mendoza and enjoy a glass of the country’s finest red. (Maybe not at the same time though!)
- Visit the ‘end of the world’. Ushuaia is the world’s most southerly town.
- Get off the beaten track and head off on a road trip out of Salta! The scenery is likely to blow you mind!
Global Peace Index ranking: 45
Chile is one of the most diverse countries on the continent which makes it an amazing destination for intrepid adventurers. Chile is (arguably*) the longest county in the world and covers 10 climatic zones! This means it really does have something for everybody.
Whilst traditionally Chile has been voted the safest country in South America for years, their Global Peace Index status took a big hit in the 2020 rankings. Previously, the country had always graded within the top 30 safest countries in the world but owing to violent protests over the increased cost of living, inequality and privatisation in 2019, they dropped 17 places.
Generally speaking though, Chile has a very low crime rate which makes it one of the safer South American countries to travel through. As with any kind of backpacking, common sense is advised. Don’t carry large amounts of cash on your person if you can help it and invest in a money belt to keep your valuables out of sight. A theft-proof backpack is also a good idea.
Chile has one of the highest quality of life rankings in Latin America, largely due to its modern infrastructure and internet connectivity. It also has one of the strongest healthcare systems on the continent which should be reassuring for accident-prone travellers. This doesn’t mean you should skimp out on travel insurance though!
Potentially the biggest risk factor when visiting Chile is the chance of earthquakes. This is because the country sits adjacent to the Nazca Plate, which is fast-moving as has a history of producing massive quakes. Travellers shouldn’t worry too much though as scientists are always keeping an eye on plate activity to provide advance warning for those in the country.
Traveller Highlights in Chile:
- Head to Easter Island, one of the world’s most impressive archaeological sites.
- Visit the place considered to be the driest place on earth: the Atacama Desert. Visit the otherworldly Moon Valley and go to see the petroglyphs of Hierbas Buenas.
- Hike the W trek through the magical Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia.
- Sip on the finest Chilean wine on a vineyard tour just outside of Santiago.
- Enjoy the Valparaiso’s New Year firework display, it is the largest in South America!
*Some claim Brazil is longer but there is only around 100 km in it!
Global Peace Index ranking: 35
And the safest country in South America is… Uruguay!
Previously always pipped to the top spot by Chile, 2020 is finally the year that Uruguay has scored higher on the Global Peace Index. Whilst an enormously popular destination by those who visit, Uruguay is still under-visited compared to its neighbours.
The country is one of the smallest in South America but this doesn’t mean there is nothing to see. Known for its friendly locals and incredible beaches, Uruguay offers an authentic and safe destination without the crowds. There is also plentiful wildlife here which means it is a great choice for nature lovers.
Due to the geography of Uruguay, there are no real threats of sudden natural disasters. Violent crime is uncommon too, however, travellers will need to be savvy in the main cities to avoid pickpockets.
Uruguay is often touted as the ‘most chilled’ country in the whole of South America. This is, in part, thanks to the liberal laws regarding marijuana possession and gay marriage (both of which are legal).
It is one of the wealthiest countries in the region and as 96% of Uruguayans vote in democratic elections, the citizens also seem to benefit from a positive relationship with their government – something which cannot be said for many countries full stop!
If you’re looking for a stress-free and safe country to visit in South America, Uruguay is definitely your best bet!
Traveller Highlights in Uruguay:
- If you’re brave enough, top up your tan on Playa Chihuahua, Uruguay’s nudist beach!
- Wander down the cobbled streets of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Colonia del Sacramento.
- Head to the ‘Mercado del Puerto’ in Montevideo for a chance to try ‘parrilla’, a delicious taste of Uruguayan barbecue.
- Hike Quebrada de los Cuervos for the chance to see rare birds and other wildlife.
- Take a dip in one of the country’s many hot springs. You deserve it after a long day of exploring!
A Note About COVID-19…
Of course, the emergence of the dreaded COVID-19 has changed the face of travel as we know it. Coronavirus in South America is currently a very real threat and some countries are really struggling to contain and limit the outbreak. If you are considering travelling to South America during these unpredictable times, make sure you follow your government’s advice and adhere to any social distancing rules in place.
And One Final Country to Avoid (For Now…)!
Global Peace Index ranking: 149
Whilst Venezuela is undoubtedly a naturally diverse and beautiful country, it is currently considered to be a ‘Do Not Travel Destination’ by many different governments all over the world. Be aware that this means travel insurance will be near on impossible to get if you do decide to visit. This is why we don’t recommend travelling there currently.
Violent crime is rife, as are kidnappings and armed robberies. You are also much more likely to be a victim of any of these if you are a foreigner. Venezuela currently has one of the highest per capita murder rates in the world. This is a statistic that has only grown with the recent increase in political instability.
Drug traffickers and criminal gangs rule the areas around the borders and travelling anywhere on public transport is a dangerous gamble. It is becoming common practice for visitors to need to travel in armoured cars, especially at night or if coming to/from the airport.
Whilst we don’t like to say anywhere should be completely off-limits, Venezuela might better suited for your future bucket list. Besides, with so many safe countries in South America to explore, we bet you’ll be busy for quite a while yet!