It seems that the question of safety when travelling to South America is quite common, probably due to the numerous media articles discussing the precarious safety situation over the continent. If one looks purely at statistics, the numbers tend to corroborate the media reports.
The problem is, numbers can lie. So the question remains…
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- Is Colombia Safe to Travel?
- What are the safest South American countries to travel to?
- South America Backpacking Routes
Is South America safe to travel?
Yes. However, like many places across the globe, some cities and neighbourhoods can be dangerous. Similar to the sketchy areas that you avoid in your hometown, each South American country has its dodgy places that travellers should either avoid or take extra precautions when visiting.
As one of the poorest continents in the world, crime can be a problem and you need to pay attention to your surroundings. Nevertheless, for every horror story, there are thousands of other travellers who visit South America without any problems at all.
To ease your worried mind, we have compiled the ultimate safety guide to South America. This is everything you need to know about keeping both yourself and your belongings safe on the road. South America is an incredible place to travel and you shouldn’t let safety concerns rule your trip. The key is getting clued up and knowing how to make your visit trouble-free!
Always consider where your accommodation is located. It may be more expensive to stay in a centrally located hostel but it is well worth the dollar if it means you can avoid a dodgy area on the outskirts of the city!
Once you arrive at your accommodation, always be sure to ask if there are any areas around the city that you should avoid. Some hostels will give out maps which detail safe areas and ones to avoid which can be super helpful! Although you may suspect that the hostel won’t want to publicise that there are less savoury parts of the city, their number one priority is your reviews and therefore, it is in their interest that you remain safe whilst staying with them.
Keeping your passport, small amounts of money and other valuables in your hostel/hotel room is a good idea if you can lock it up. 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.
Buses are a backpacker’s best friend. They are cheap, frequent and (generally) reliable. Despite their obvious pros, there are also downsides to travelling South America by bus.
This form of transport can be greatly affected by adverse weather conditions so it is always worth looking at the forecast before travelling. Some roads can become completely impassable due to landslides or flooding so always be mindful when arranging transport in the rainy season. Bus hijacking is not as common as it used to be but still something to be aware of. This involves armed gangs who strategically stop and enter buses to rob the passengers on board. In the past, violence has been used against travellers.
If the worst happens and you find yourself in this situation, hand over any valuables that are asked of you. Your travel insurance will cover an event like this so be compliant and try not to attract extra attention.
Drink driving is also another problem in South America and sadly, it is not uncommon to hear of tour drivers and bus drivers under the influence. Some bus operators, including the highly-rated Cruz del Sur will breathalyse their drivers before travel to ensure safety.
Unlike many western countries, some of the roads in South America leave a lot to be desired. Road maintenance needs a serious makeover and potholes like swimming pools can make for dangerous journeys.
Despite being generally safe to travel around, Bolivia, in particular, is known for its dangerous roads. Perhaps most famous of these is Death Road, so-called because of the thousands that have lost their lives trying to make the journey from La Paz to the Yungas region. Although this road is officially closed to traffic now, instead favouring the guided cycling tours which take place there, daring cyclists are still regularly injured during the descent.
Road accidents are common in Bolivia, with numerous buses every year plummeting off of the side of mountain roads. Often these roads will be very poorly maintained (if at all), with no barriers and a staggering drop below. The road to Rurrenabaque has a particularly bad reputation and every year buses of people lose their lives when their transport simply falls off the edge.
Although it can be hard to counter these risks, the best advice is to always travel with a reputable company. Talk to your fellow travellers, read reviews online and always do your research before booking a bus. It might be more costly to go with a good company but you can’t put a price on safety.
Owing to some of the bus horror stories, you would be forgiven for assuming that travel via taxi is the safest way to get around South America. However, this is certainly not the case. South American taxi drivers have a bad reputation when it comes to traveller safety.
It is important to say that whilst not all taxi drivers are bad, this reputation does not come without reason. All over the continent there have been problems with taxi drivers and their complicity in express kidnappings.
This involves the traveller getting into a taxi before a gang enters. These gangs have usually been tipped off by the taxi driver who is in on the scam. From here they take you around the area, stopping at ATM’s and forcing you to withdraw your cash and hand it over to them. These hijackings have been known to get violent so if you find yourself in this situation it is best to be compliant.
As most backpackers will already know, striking a fair deal with a taxi driver can be tricky and this, coupled with the risks outlined above, can mean it is easier to stay away from taxis. Uber and rival company EasyTaxi are used all over South America and come highly recommended by locals as a way of staying safe.
If you have to use taxis, we advise asking your hostel or guesthouse to call you one and avoid hailing them on the street. If taking a taxi from an airport, always make sure to use a branded one from the airport taxi rank and not the ones which wait just outside of the carpark.
Contrary to popular belief, hitchhiking can be a great way to get around South America. Many backpackers hitchhike in and around Patagonia and will recommend the experience. In fact, Argentina and Chile are often said to be two of the best and safest countries for hitchhiking. This is because the local people use this as a means of transport in places where public transport is scarce.
Hitchhiking can be a great and cheap way to get around but it is never 100% safe. Always trust your gut and if you get a bad vibe from the driver, do not accept the ride.
It is always worth checking out the most common scams 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.
The Ring of Fire loops down through South America which means volcanic activity is frequent and common. Despite this, travellers should not worry. Volcanic activity is closely monitored which means that eruptions are usually predicted in advance.
Earthquakes are also possible over the continent and can sometimes be fatal. If you find yourself caught amid an earthquake, avoid going outside and seek shelter in doorways and under tables.
Landslides are very common throughout South America and can pose a huge danger to those travelling on mountain roads. As noted in the section about roads, the route from La Paz to Rurrenabaque is particularly vulnerable to landslides which can result in very serious and often fatal accidents.
It may surprise many travellers to know that choosing a tour company in South America can be an issue of safety. Unlike many other continents, there are less official rules in place when it comes to ensuring the safety of tour participants.
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 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, has 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.
To help you choose a good tour with a reputable company, we have put together our own booking platform full of backpacker tried and tested adventures, promoting only agencies with a fantastic safety record and overall great customer experience. Book your South America tours here!
We always advise getting the necessary vaccinations before your trip. Although there is debate as to whether you actually need the recommended vaccines, it is always worth extensively researching to make sure you are informed when making this decision. We wrote this comprehensive post all about the vaccinations required for the continent and their associated risks – don’t leave for your trip without reading it!
South America has a big problem with stray dogs and as such, 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, look for a rock to threaten it with. This tends to scare them off.
In case it isn’t obvious, avoid touching any of the wildlife you may meet in the rainforest or on specific jungle tours. Not only can this be dangerous for you but it can also be problematic for the animal in question. Frequent human contact can mean that they begin to foster a dependence on people and lose their ability to fend for themselves. In more extreme cases, it could even lead to their mother abandoning them.
Some countries in South America have a very bad reputation when it comes to food safety. I would be lying if I claimed to be 100% healthy during the 8 months I backpacked around the continent and the vast majority of illness was down to dodgy food.
Unfortunately, most travellers will have to accept that the food in South America is likely to mess with their stomach in some way – regardless of what they eat.
Markets are a hub for foodies in South America and also offer some of the most backpacker budget-friendly options. While there is some degree of snobbery surrounding these kinds of markets, they are some of the best places to eat.
Not only can you get an authentic taste of the country that you are visiting but owing to the popularity of these destinations with the locals, food rarely sits for long. This means you tend to be eating fresh which avoids nasty bacteria.
To decide whether to eat at a particular restaurant, always look for a high turnover of local customers. Avoid anywhere that is washing their dishes or food in river/seawater, (supposedly common around Lake Titicaca).
It is not advisable to drink water from the taps in South America. Whilst some countries such as Ecuador have filtered water on offer for free in hostels, many countries do not offer this service. Instead, to cut down on your plastic use by buying disposable, we recommend purchasing a water filter bottle.
We are never ones to dampen a party and firmly believe that a little tipple can help make a good night great!
Despite this, it is important to 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. This drug incapacitates its victims and is usually used to enable theft or sexual assault. Although it is nowhere near as common as it once was, never leave your food or drink unattended to avoid becoming a victim.
Alcohol can make you more vulnerable so avoid taking out your valuables when drinking and always have the address of your accommodation saved in case you forget how to get back! We also never advise walking home alone when you have been drinking.
South America is steadily shaking off its bad reputation but unfortunately, violent crime still happens.
Premeditated violent attacks on foreign visitors are rare without motivation. Be careful when you drink excessively as this makes you more vulnerable to crime.
We also advise, avoiding any kind of drug-based activity (including selling and buying), as well as flashing anything valuable. The vast majority of these kinds of attacks are robberies or thefts gone wrong.
This is the thing that most travellers worry about the most when considering South American travel. Theft is commonplace all over the continent so it is important to avoid making yourself a target.
When travelling by bus, make sure you keep all of your valuables on your person e.g. passport, money, phone and only put the main bulk of your luggage in the underneath bus storage. Bags have been known to be pinched from the undercarriage of buses during stops. It is also advised to avoid putting bags in bus overhead lockers for the same reason.
Consider buying a money belt or bum bag to keep your valuables safe. Keeping your most important items in discreet places can avoid unwanted attention from would-be thieves. In some countries like Brazil and Colombia, it is advised to check your phone only inside and avoid walking down the street with it in your hand openly. If you visit an area and notice that the locals are taking extra safety precautions (e.g. wearing their backpacks on their chests), you are advised to do the same.
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 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 which have resulted in stabbings and shootings. If you have adequate travel insurance, your valuables should be insured in case of theft anyway.
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.
Marijuana and Cocaine are available all over the continent but they are illegal. For a long time, many countries in South America battled with the power of the cartels in trying to keep their homes and cities violence-free. Whilst some headway has been made in this area, drugs and cartels still create huge problems for ordinary South American citizens.
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 serious and sometimes fatal.
Coca is consumed in mammoth quantities in countries such as Peru and Bolivia to counter the effects of altitude sickness. However, it is important to 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!
One Backpackers Top Tips For Staying Safe in South America
Seasoned traveller Yvonne Ivanescu shares her advice for backpacking South America, trouble-free.
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 period with these individuals, many travellers start to think that they 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 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.
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 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 cafe or store to ask for directions or pull out your map. You want to avoid looking lost, confused or panicked and instead, strive to look calm, cool and collected.
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 during my time there. 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.
5. 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.
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 ID into 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 in the street and no one flinches. This doesn’t fly in South America though 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 or 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 when using 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 wary of someone who is standing too close or paying 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.
7. 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.
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.
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 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.
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 breathtaking. 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. Buena suerte!