Scare stories and depictions of gang warfare and drug cartels in the media mean that many of us harbour a lot of fear about visiting South America. But is this fear warranted?
Put simply, South America is safe to travel. However, like many places across the globe, some neighbourhoods can be dangerous. Similar to the sketchy areas that you avoid in your hometown, each South American country has its dodgy places where travellers should take extra precautions.
If you’re heading to the continent, these South America safety tips should help to prepare you for your visit and put your mind at rest. Remember that for every horror story, there are thousands of other travellers who explore the continent trouble-free! Chill out and get clued-up!
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Is South America Safe to Travel?
According to the most recent edition of the Global Peace Index, none of the world’s least peaceful countries is in South America. Although there are countries where you will need to exercise additional caution (e.g. Colombia), most countries are perfectly safe to visit.
Of course, when deciding where to visit, you should always check your official government website for any travel advisories or warnings in place. They may state that citizens from your country should not visit a particular country in South America or advise you to avoid certain provinces.
It is worth remembering that if your government has put out an advisory to discourage travel to a certain country and you still go, you will find it very difficult to get travel insurance to cover the duration of your trip.
SafetyWing is the travel insurance of choice for scores of backpackers!
- Subscription style insurance
- Cheap and flexible
- Available after your trip has started
17 Tips for Staying Safe in South America
Seasoned traveller Yvonne Ivanescu shares her advice for backpacking South America, trouble-free.
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1. Prepare for Your Trip
You should always get the necessary vaccinations before your trip. It gives you less to worry about on the road and could save your life in case of an emergency! For more information check out this vaccination guide to South America – don’t leave for your trip without reading it and leave plenty of time to get jabbed up before travelling!
2. Invest in Good Gear
Anti-theft backpacks are also a great way to keep your stuff safe. Generally, these bags will be slash-proof, contain an RFID blocker (so thieves cannot make wireless transactions using your bank cards) and also have hidden zips.
If you decide to take cameras, phones or any expensive electronics with you while sightseeing then be vigilant. Never put your wallet or phone in your back pocket and opt to wear a cross-body purse with zippers for added security.
3. Ask the Right Questions
One of the reasons I was mugged in Valparaiso, Chile was because I had unknowingly entered a dangerous neighbourhood. If I had taken the extra five minutes to research the area or ask in my hostel, I would have found out that travellers are encouraged to stay on the plateau (flat part) of the city and avoid scaling the hills. Each city has safe and dangerous areas; make sure to research the city beforehand and ask the right questions once you arrive.
4. Remember You’re a Traveller
When travellers interact and hang out with locals, they get the opportunity to step off the gringo trail and experience a country through the eyes of a local. The problem is that after spending a lot of time with these people, many travellers start to think that they can do what the locals do.
As a girl with fair skin, blond hair and blue eyes, in Chile, it was nearly impossible for me to blend in. When I was part of a group of Chileans I could go anywhere but when I tried to go to the same locations alone or with other gringos, I was repeatedly warned off by other Chileans.
Just because locals do something doesn’t make it safe. You should always be cautious and remember that you are not a local.
5. Use a Filtered Water Bottle
It is not advisable to drink water from the taps in South America. Whilst some countries have filtered water on offer for free in hostels, this service is not commonplace everywhere. Instead, cut down on your plastic use and instead purchase a water filter bottle.
6. Watch What You Eat
It is the traveller’s curse… diarrhoea. To avoid your chances of falling victim to the squits, try to visit local food markets with a high turnover of local customers. This means that the food you’re eating is more likely to be cooked fresh, limiting your exposure to nasty bacteria. Avoid visiting any restaurant that is washing their dishes or food in river/seawater, (supposedly common around Lake Titicaca).
7. Blend In
When I moved to Santiago, I knew that I would be a target, so I decided to take certain precautions when travelling with my more expensive gear. The trick is to blend in as much as possible and to be discreet. If you are a photographer, for example, carry around an unmarked backpack.
When in doubt, it’s always best to conceal valuable items and opt for a bohemian look. Along with a dressed-down appearance, travellers should always adopt an air of confidence – even when lost. Thieves are always on the lookout for an easy score so they always pick out the weakest traveller.
The number one way to tip off a thief is to open a map in the middle of the street. It signals that you are lost, disoriented and not familiar with the area, making you the perfect target. If you find yourself in this situation, then duck into a café or store to ask for directions or pull out your map. You want to avoid looking lost and instead strive to look calm, cool and collected.
8. Get Clued Up on Scams
It is always worth checking out the most common scams in the place that you are visiting and learning how to recognise them. Although many of the scams that South America is known for initially seem a little farfetched, they do happen and you are always advised to have your wits about you.
9. Learn the Local Lingo
In Brazil, I was able to pass for a Brazilian woman. My trip to Rio was only two weeks after I was mugged and I was terrified that I was going to be robbed during my time there. Since I could pass as a Brazilian, I limited my conversations in English to avoid attracting too much attention.
A couple of months later, I was in Buenos Aires with a couple of girlfriends. One day on the metro, I found a free seat while the other girls stood by the door, chatting away in English.
I noticed that two questionable guys sitting across from me were staring at them intently. Thankfully nothing bad happened but English confirms that you are a tourist and can make you a target.
10. Choose a Reputable Tour Company
South America is a haven for adrenaline junkies but many of these kinds of activities can be dangerous. Therefore, it is always important to book any kind of adventure tour with a reputable company. Research the relevant safety laws and check that the company you are considering follows them.
Some activities, for example, cycling Death Road in Bolivia, have a notoriously bad reputation for inexperienced tour guides and faulty equipment. Although it can be tempting to book the cheapest tour you can find, this is rarely the safest choice.
11. Leave Your Valuables at Your Accommodation
Thieves in South America are quick. I remember sipping a coffee at a Starbucks in Santiago when a guy casually walked up the stairs and, without flinching, grabbed someone’s duffle bag before walking away. In less than 10 seconds, the thief, along with his newly acquired bag, had disappeared. The moral of the story is: if you don’t need it, leave it.
Many hostels will provide lockers to help keep your stuff safe but you will often find that you are expected to provide the padlock. There is likely a charge if you need to rent one. An extendable padlock is a great idea as it allows you to lock up your belongings even when no locker is provided.
In countries where you are required to carry your ID at all times, never take your passport with you if you’re sightseeing or partying. An old health card or driver’s license is usually sufficient.
12. Keep Your Distance From Animals
South America has a big problem with stray dogs and you are not recommended to approach or touch them, no matter how cute they look! If you meet an aggressive dog and are worried it could attack you, look for a rock to threaten it with. The bluff is usually enough to scare it off.
In case it isn’t obvious, avoid touching any of the wildlife you may meet comes across, especially while on jungle tours. Not only can this be dangerous for you but it can also be problematic for the animal in question.
13. Avoid Drugs
We’re not here to judge the way that anyone lives their lives, however, for travellers in South America wanting to keep a low profile, drugs spell trouble. If you are caught buying or selling illegal drugs, the penalties are very harsh and you could end up in a prison that makes Azkaban look like a kindergarten.
San Pedro and Ayahuasca retreats are common in Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia and should be treated with caution. These hallucinogenic drugs are not something to be taken lightly and can be very dangerous if taken without proper guidance.
If you want to try these, research where to find a good shaman and follow the instructions given about diet and alcohol. Consumption of the wrong food and drink in the days prior to taking the drug can be very serious and sometimes even fatal.
Coca is consumed in mammoth quantities in countries such as Peru and Bolivia to counter the effects of altitude sickness. But, remember that coca is an illegal drug if passed over international borders. Don’t forget to dispose of any leaves, sweets or teabags before you fly!
14. Be Vigilant
I laugh at my Canadian friends who walk around with their cell phones in their back pockets. Aren’t you afraid someone will take it? I always ask. In Toronto, I see people pulling out their iPads or playing games on their phones on the subway or in the street and no one flinches. This wouldn’t fly in South America though as these items can make you a target.
Backpacks should always be taken off and placed in front of you on buses and when using the metro. Pickpockets have become so good that they can pick your front pocket with ease.
I remember seeing a woman screaming at a man in the Santiago metro after noticing that he had his hand in her pocket. Be aware of your surroundings and be wary of people who stand too close or pay too much attention to you or your belongings.
Lastly, when eating and drinking in public places, always loop your backpack or purse strap around your leg or arm. Never leave any items on the floor beside you or on the back of your chair.
15. Do As You’re Told
If the worst happens and somebody does try to rob you, you are advised to be complicit and do as instructed. Some travellers (even professionals like Nomadic Matt!) have attempted to resist robberies that have resulted in stabbings and shootings. If you have adequate travel insurance, your valuables should be insured in case of theft anyway.
16. Limit Your Alcohol Consumption
Many horror stories start after a hard night of partying. In Santiago, for example, flaites (also known as thieves), wait outside of clubs in Bellavista for drunk tourists that are walking alone. A friend of mine rescued two German guys who were being pummelled by a gang of flaites at 4 in the morning.
Always keep an eye on your drink and look out for potential spiking. Colombia is attempting to shake off a particularly bad reputation for use of burundanga in some of its bars. This drug incapacitates its victims and is usually used to enable theft or sexual assault.
There is nothing easier than robbing a drunk person or someone who has been spiked, especially if they are walking home alone. If you do decide to go out and party, leave the club with a group of people and take a taxi instead of walking home. Remember that there is safety in numbers.
17. Get Decent Travel Insurance
Travel Insurance is an essential purchase before you embark upon your backpacking trip, anywhere in the world, not just in South America. Make sure that on your policy, you can claim for loss of money, passport and valuables. Also, don’t underestimate the importance of being able to attend a good hospital in the unlucky event that you are hurt as well. Check out our recommended insurance providers below to get your cover sorted.
- World Nomads – Available to Citizens of 140 Countries.
- SafetyWing – Available Worldwide.
- True Traveller – Available to EU Citizens.
For more South America travel tips, check out this post!
Despite its bad reputation, South America is a safe destination for travellers. Much like every other continent, there are risks associated with certain places but if you’re savvy and follow our South America safety tips, you’ll be just fine.