Updated July 16th, 2018.
It seems that the question of safety when traveling to South America is quite common, probably due to the numerous media articles discussing the precarious safety situation within the region. If one looks purely at statistics, the numbers tend to corroborate the media reports. The problem is, numbers can lie.
So the question remains…
Is South America safe to travel?
However, like many places across the globe, there are cities, neighbourhoods and locales that can be dangerous.
Similar to the sketchy neighbourhoods that you avoid in your hometown, each South American country has its own unsafe areas that travelers may choose to avoid or should consider taking certain precautions when visiting.
As one of the poorest continents in the world, crime can be a problem and you do need to pay attention to your surroundings. Nevertheless, for every horror story, there are thousands of other travelers who visit South America without any problems at all.
Heck, as someone who was mugged and robbed while living in Chile, I still adore South America and strongly recommend travelling to this breathtaking continent. The key to staying safe is to act sensibly and stay aware of the risks.
If that piece of advice isn’t enough, then here are some more travel safety tips for anyone considering a trip to any part of South America:
1. Know before you go.
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, 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 before embarking on your trip.
2. Hang out with locals but don’t think you are one.
When travellers interact and hang out with locals, they get the opportunity to step off the gringo trail and truly experience a country through the eyes of a local.
The problem is that after spending an extended time with these individuals, many travellers start to think that they themselves can do what the locals do.
As a girl with fair skin, blond hair and blue eyes, it was nearly impossible for me to blend in Chile. I befriended numerous Chileans who took me to many different watering holes.
When I was part of a group of Chileans everything was fine but when I tried to go to the exact same locations alone or with other gringos, I was repeatedly approached by Chileans who warned me or told me to leave certain areas because they were unsafe.
Just because locals do something doesn’t make it safe; be cautious because at the end of the day you are not a local.
Santiago, Chile, my first home in South America
3. 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 electronics/items and opt for a bohemian look. Along with a dressed down look, travelers should always adopt an air of confidence, even when lost. Thieves are always on the lookout for an easy score, so they pick out the weakest traveler.
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 clearly not familiar with the area, making you the perfect target.
If you are lost then duck into a cafe or store to ask for directions or to pull out your map. In the end, avoid looking lost, confused or panicked and strive to always look calm, cool and collected.
Try to blend in, booty shorts and flashy jewelry is not the best way to go
4. Limit your English.
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.
Since I could pass as a Brazilian, I limited my conversations in English to try and 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.
Rio, an amazing and safe place
5. Leave your valuables at the hostel/hotel.
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. Do not think you can outsmart thieves because pickpockets have become extremely good at their craft.
A friend of mine, for example, opted to take her iPhone to a club in Buenos Aires against my advice. I’ll keep it safe she said. She proceeded to clutch that purse in her hand for most of the night.
That intense focus on her purse must have tipped off the thieves that there was something valuable inside. She took her hand off her purse for less than a minute and her phone disappeared.
Don’t need it? Leave it. Also NEVER take your passport with you when you are sightseeing or as a piece of ID to a club. An old health card or driver’s license is sufficient.
6. Be vigilant.
I laugh at my Canadian friends who walk around with their cellphones in their back pocket. Aren’t you are 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 on the street and no one flinches. This doesn’t fly in South America as these items can make you a target.
If you decide to take cameras, phones or any expensive electronics with you while sightseeing than be vigilant. Never put your wallet/phone in your back pocket and opt to wear a cross body purse with zippers for added security.
Backpacks should always be taken off and placed in front of you on buses and in the metro. Pickpockets have become so good that they can pick your front pocket with ease.
I remember a female 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 weary of someone who is standing too close or paying too much attention to you or your belongings.
Lastly, when eating/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.
7. Limit your alcohol consumption.
Many horror stories start after a hard night of partying. In Santiago, for example, flaites/thieves wait outside of clubs in Bellavista for drunk tourists that are walking alone. A friend of mine actually rescued two German guys who were being pummelled by a gang of flaites at 4 in the morning.
There is nothing easier than robbing a drunk person, especially a drunk person who is walking home alone. If you do decide to go out and party, then try and leave the club with a group of people and take a taxi instead of walking home. Remember that there is safety in numbers.
The clubs of Bellavista are fun, but make sure to keep your wits about you
8. Invest in 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 are able to claim for loss of money, passport and valuables.
And… most importantly, that you’ll be able to attend a good hospital in the unlucky event that you are hurt. Check out our recommended travel insurance, World Nomads.
So what are you waiting for?
South America is not as scary as everyone makes it out to be. Quite the contrary, it’s beautiful, unique and breath-taking. South Americans are also some of the most open and inviting people in the world.
All you need to do is stay alert and be careful. Other than that, make sure to have fun and take a lot of pictures. Suerte!
Author Yvonne Ivanescu
Written by: A self-proclaimed travel fanatic, Yvonne Ivanescu launched Under the Yew Tree, the ultimate guide for Latin American travel, in November 2013 after living in Santiago de Chile for a year. She is an avid scuba diver who dreams of one day relocating to Brazil.
But for now, she plans on finishing up her travel memoir, continue travel writing and master the world of social media. For more Latin American travel tips, visit Under the Yew Tree or follow her on Twitter and Facebook.