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How to Stay Safe in South America + Safest Travel Destinations

Updated: May 2


south-america-safety

I traveled through South America for 6 months and never got in trouble or robbed. So let me share with you tips that will keep you stay safe during your trip in South America.


In this article, I will also comment on safe travel destinations in South America!


Short on time? Here is a quick summary of all the tips:


  1. Don't be the only person on the street.

  2. Watch out for thieves on motorbikes.

  3. The bigger the city the more wary you have to be.

  4. Downtowns (the historic centers) are usually more dangerous.

  5. Do your research on areas to stay at.

  6. The smaller the tows, the more into the countryside the safer they are.

  7. In crowded places be extra vigilant about your belongings.

  8. When taking pictures hold your camera or phone extra tight.

  9. Never take all money and wallet with documents out when exploring.

  10. Never ever give anyone your passport.

  11. Don't wander around in the late hours.

  12. Use Uber over local taxis.

  13. Hold your bag in your lap when on buses.

  14. Have an extra phone with you.


Don't be the only person on the street

This is probably the first and main rule I recommend to anyone traveling to South America. Most stories I heard of people being robbed were when they were alone on some quiet street. As contradictive as it might sound, in South America, you will be safer in crowded places. No one will attack you there. The robbers however know the places where they can do that without attention. I think it is much scarier when you get approached on a quiet street rather than just realizing later that your phone or wallet is gone. I stuck with this rule throughout my whole trip and never got robbed.


Watch out for thieves on motorbikes

Always stand a bit further away from the road and don't wait at the edge because a very common way between thieves is to go with motorbikes very fast close to people and grab their bags. So it mostly will be 2 people on the bike where one makes sure they drive as close and fast as possible and the other guy behind grabs your bag.


It almost happened to me! In Cartagena in Colombia. I was about to go for dinner with my boyfriend so I had a little bag on my shoulder (yes, I never wore that bag again) and we were waiting to cross the road. We were literly standing on the road about to cross when we suddenly heard a motorbike coming very fast so we slowed down to not cross and wait until it passed but of course, it was all purposely. The bike came literly 10 centimeters from us, I was frozen in shock and thankfully my boyfriend pushed me back so that the guy on the bike couldn't reach for my bag, but he literly had his hand outstretched to grab my bag. A scary moment that ended well! So yes after that I wore only little backpacks.


So if you suddenly hear a bike approaching fast they might have bad intentions, step back and let them pass.


Researching the location is the key

General rules I noticed when traveling through several South American countries:


  1. The bigger the city the more dangerous it is.

  2. Downtown aka the historical center of the city is the most dangerous part.

  3. In big cities, there are always different areas. Safer ones, more modern ones, and also areas that are not the best for tourists. Do your research before booking the accommodation!

  4. The smaller the tows, the more into the countryside the safer they are.


I always comment on all the areas in the city in each of my travel guides of the specific location but I also have prepared a few in-depth articles on the safest areas to stay at in locations that you usually come up more when talking about safety concerns:



Rules for crowded places

Crowded places are definitely safer but at the same time, pickpockets are way more concentrated in those areas. I visited so many popular travel destinations and by following some basic rules never got anything stolen from me.


  1. Always wear your bag fully on the back or front, never just hanging on the shoulder

  2. Don't be embarrassed to wear your bag in front, even locals do it!

  3. Always keep all the zips closed

  4. Don't take out your phone or wallet unless really needed. Best if you have some change in your pocket you can use for buying water or things on the street.

  5. If you do take your camera or phone out, hold it tight. The most common way how to steal them is to simply grab them out of your hands while taking a picture or video.

  6. Never ever put the phone or camera on the table. 


These things might seem quite obvious but I was surprised to hear so many stories where people did not follow these basic steps and got their stuff stolen. I think when you are sightseeing you simply all the time need to make that little tiny effort and think and be wary of your belongings.


Never take all money and wallet with documents out when exploring

south-america-travel-insurance

Quite obvious one but sometimes we hold onto habits from back home and take our wallet with us. Don't! I always have a little travel wallet with me where I only keep a little bit of cash enough for lunch, water, and snacks. I do have my card with me in case, but that one is easy to block if anything happens. Do not take any documents with you. No one will ever ask for your passport or ID to get into any site. If they do, it is probably a scam. Never ever give anyone your passport.


Don't wander around in the late hours

By writing this by no means you should sit all evening in your hotel. I think the most important rule is not to wander around and end up being the only person out there. If you do go out late for dinner or drinks, stick with popular areas with people around you and take an Uber back to your hotel.


This leads me to my next point...


Use Uber over local taxi

Although there are some countries and places where local taxis are safe and regulated, in 80% of places they are not. And although there are honest local taxi drivers who simply want to earn their living, there are scams.


I used Uber in all countries, several times, and only had a positive experience. You can be lucky and get a good honest local taxi, but with Uber you are 100% sure. Uber has drivers data, they are verified and they have reviews. Their reputation on the app is more important than scamming someone once. You also know exactly how much you will pay and can follow the route.


So I personally always chose Uber over local taxis and as I said I never had any issues. And I used Uber a lot! There were only a few places in South America where Uber did not work.

Hold your bag in your lap when on buses

I know this rule might be quite annoying when taking an 8h bus ride which is quite common in South America but trust me, leaving your bag under the seat or above is not safe. Especially leaving it under your seat, because you think you have control of the bag and you can see at all times, but a common practice is to sit behind you, cut your bag open under the seat, take out as much as possible, and get out of the bus. Because in South America it is normal. you can ask the driver to drop you off anywhere at any time.


Again storytime - I was about to take a bus from Banos to Cuenca in Ecuador and before we all could get on the bus, suddenly the driver was throwing a man out of the bus. Turns out he had sneaked onto the bus at some moment, lied down at the end of the bus, and was waiting for the bus to start going, so then under the seats he could cut up the bags. So grateful for the vigilant driver who noticed this. I could have been robbed during that ride. This is mostly common in Ecuador but of course this can happen in any country.

Have an extra phone with you

And if the worst things happens and your bag does get stolen - have a backup phone with your in your hotel. Hopefully, you do not need to use it, but it is good to have one, so you can quickly access your online bank and block all the cards, Also get in touch with anyone if needed. And have a phone for the rest of the trip.


For your peace of mind, consider getting travel insurance!

Safe Travel Destinations in South America

If you want to ease into traveling South America and start with some safe tourist-friendly destinations then these would be the key rules I would follow when picking a destination because there are many that are fairly safe:


  • All the famous sites are safe to visit because there is a lot of police presence and people want tourists to come so those I would call 'neutral territories'. I mean like, Machu Picchu in Peru. Salt Desert in Bolivia, Galapagos Islands in Ecuador. So anything famous and well-known is safe to go to.

  • All the little beaches, jungles, and mountain towns are way safer than the big cities. So for example Banos in Ecuador, Salento in Colombia, and Arequipa in Peru.

  • In general, I personally think the safest country in South America is Peru. Simply from how I felt and my experiences. So I think for your first trip to South America you can pick Peru and then pick a few places to visit there. I think the only city you need to be a bit more wary about is the capital - Lima.


If you want to get some ideas for your trip make sure to check out the best places you can't miss out on in South America!


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