UPDATED JANUARY 2020
South America Guide: How to Keep Safe and Travel Smart
Worried about keeping safe while travelling through South America? Don’t be! Our South America Guide: How to Keep Safe and Travel Smart is that go-to guide you need to ensure your next stint to the most exciting and rewarding continent on the planet will go down as your best travel experience to date.
Just How Safe is South America for Tourists?
The question of personal safety seems to come up quite a lot when talking about South America travel, although it’s fair to say that this probably relates to every corner of the planet nowadays. Nevertheless, if you’ve been planning a visit you’ve no doubt been asked this a few times already: ‘But just how safe IS South America, for tourists?’
The most important thing to remember is that South America is a continent, a very big one at that, and not just a country. Using sweeping generalisations and tips is quite a useless exercise, considering the 12 countries which make up the region are diverse, each boasting their own unique characteristics and safety precautions.
Although there are some general tips which can apply to all of South America (and travel, in general) we have created a few specific guides for destinations which often come under question when it comes to safety, namely for Brazil, Mexico, Cuba and Colombia.
Below are 10 general tips on how to travel smart in South America and keep yourself safe and happy. We’ve also included a Current Concerns section at the very start of this guide.
2019 was an incredible year of social awakening, the whole world over, and a few Latin America countries are currently going through their own ‘wake up calls’ as we type. The most recent protests making headline news have been in Venezuela, Chile and Bolivia. Although protests are nothing new to those who are familiar with the continent, it may make potential first-time travellers wary of planning a trip.
To this end, we thought we’d offer some insights should anything else arise between the time this piece is published and when you get on that plane.
What’s going on in South America?
Much as it was with France, social unrest in some South American countries started innocuously enough, after a sudden government increase in petrol or public transport costs, which hit lower-income citizens most of all. Grievances soon grew (as they do) to include fundamental issues like income inequality and lack of social welfare. Protesters, today, are basically demanding radical political reform and are holding large-scale protests in the centre of capitals and major cities. Protests have been the backbone of social, economic and political evolution in Latin America and, in many cases, they have been successful in bringing about major change, which is the reason the ‘tactic’ continues to be used. If you’re Australian, you may find this to be an unsettling concept, one that you may think is only ever seen in developing countries. Not so. This year alone has seen major political protests in France, Spain and Hong Kong as much as they’ve been held in Iran, Albania, Algeria, Georgia and Azerbaijan. It total, there are have been 16 global protests held, four of which have been in South America.
What has all this meant for visitors?
Aside from Venezuela, which was taken temporarily off tourist’s itineraries back in June this year, when the Canadian Embassy closed and Australians were left with no consular assistance, there haven’t been huge disruptions for tourists at all. Do note that the Venezuelan crisis is an extreme and quite rare occurrence and it is still inadvisable to travel there.
Usually, however, the most trouble you’ll ever find as a tourist is a disruption to transport, which means you may need to account for more travel time than usual (to reach the airport, for example).
Keep updated via SmartTraveller
The Australia Government-sponsored SmartTraveller page constantly updates information on current events, all over the world. Right this minute, Chile and Bolivia share the same travel advice as France and Indonesia, two of the most popular travel destinations for Australians. Things change and normalise very quickly so keep abreast of the latest news and always remember that the most famous and touristed spots are hardly ever affected – local communities are always keen to keep normalcy in their region/city because they depend so heavily on tourism. South America, in general, has returned to relative calm in December 2019, so although you should always be a little cautious, there is really no need to change any travel plans. If there ever are, we will tell you.
Which brings us to the next point!
Don’t know how bad it is? Trust Chimu to know
We are not a bunch of dare-devil backpackers – Chimu Adventures is, nowadays, one of the leading Latin America and Polar travel specialists. Guest safety is our #1 priority and that’s why we have the latest and most update info, at any given time. Trust that we would not be offering any tour if it isn’t deemed to be safe and trust that we work with an amazing group of local guides who know the intricacies of any ‘issue’ that may arise.
How to Travel Smart in South America and Keep Yourself Safe and Happy
1. Keep it in perspective
The overwhelming majority of visitors to South America have the adventure of a lifetime and go home with nothing but amazing memories. Problem is that the only ones you ever hear about are the few who don’t. Keep things in perspective and know that, every year, a whopping 95 MILLION tourists take their vacation in Latin America. If you hear of a guy who got pick-pocketed on a metro in Rio, don’t take that to mean that Brazil is not safe, and definitely don’t simply assume it makes the whole continent unsafe. People get pick-pocketed at home too.
2. Leave your valuables at home
Valuable jewellery, phones and laptops have really no place in adventure travels to far off destinations of Latin America. Chances you will lose them are high – considering your constant moving and packing – and expensive gear has the unsavoury habit of crying for attention they probably shouldn’t. The best rule if you don’t want to be robbed is to never have anything on you which would tempt a would-be robber. Keep valuables you do have safe and out of sight, especially when walking around cities.
3. Be informed
Just as you wouldn’t stroll willy-nilly through some parts of Melbourne or Sydney at 3am on your own, it reasons that there are parts of every single destination, which you should be particularly wary of. The trick here, and our number one recommendation, is to find out what they are as soon as you arrive. Some cities are notorious for petty theft while others are known for their high concentrations of mosquito-borne illnesses, bad drinking water or dodgy home-made alcohol. The key to keeping safe is to be informed. This includes being up-to-date with the largest political and social issues in the country/countries you intend visiting, and keeping well away from any protest no matter how peaceful it looks. Know what risks are higher where you are, parts you should steer clear of, and special precautions you should take, and you’ll be well on your way to a happier – and safer – South America adventure.
4. Take care of your cash and credit cards
Avoid ATMS which aren’t situated inside branches of banks and plan ahead so you’re not having to withdraw cash in the evenings. Usually, we recommend you go to the ATM in company and return to your hotel immediately to stash your loot. When guiding I used to quote the old adage ‘only take with you what you’re prepared to lose’ and for most people this turned out to be about $100, maximum. The wonderful thing about choosing accommodation near touristy centres is that you have the option of returning to base several times a day, thus limiting the amount of stuff – including cash – you must take with you.
5. Don’t carry huge daypacks
Daypacks are certainly very convenient when out and about in the city, yet they are the single biggest neon sign which just screams ‘TOURIST!’ After all…do you normally carry a day pack when you go out for the day at home? A simple handbag with cross-shoulder strap, which can carry a bottle of water, a map and a small inconspicuous wallet should suffice you for sightseeing days out in a city or town. A daypack is perfect if you’re out on a daylong hike in Patagonia, taking an excursion by Zodiac in Antarctica or heading for an onshore exploration on one of the Galapagos Islands. In those situations, you’ll have quite a bit of photographic equipment to carry, as well as snacks, drinks and perhaps even a change of clothes. Other than that, you really don’t need to bring the home & contents along for a walk. Keep your bags to a minimum and you’ll also be keeping the risk of theft or loss at a minimum. If you happen to be a man, we have two words for you: man bag!
6. Evaluate your risk-taking as you would at home
There is an overwhelming majority of travellers who take many more risks when they travel than they ever would at home, and this is perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind. If you wouldn’t consider hopping in a car with strangers in your own home city, in order to go check out some ‘cool club’ that’s just opened up, why would you do it overseas? But people do. Constantly. They’ll ride scooters with flip flops, drink far too much, and get up to all sorts of mischief with people they met 5 minutes ago. Everyone has a personal risk taking radar, one which seems to get a little blurry in exotic locations. Keep yours in check and you’ll mitigate a lot of safety risks.
7. Take an organised tour
Joining an organised tour is actually one of the best safety tips to consider when travelling through South America. That’s because the greatest dangers, in this eclectic continent, lie on the road, and more specifically, are exacerbated by the lack of public transport safety. Bad roads, mediocre drivers and subpar bus maintenance all result in a worrying number of road accidents. Per capita, road accidents are by far a tourist’s greatest danger in Latin America, so know where the real risks hide. That would be on a rickety old bus that hasn’t been properly maintained, not at the hands of a would-be robber.
8. Be understanding and considerate of developing countries
Travel through Chile and Argentina and you may well forget where you are. Both countries are modern, bustling and boasting a certain kind of affluence. Yet just across their borders you may come across farmers in Bolivia who lead a subsistence life, earning in a year what you have spent on your airplane ticket to get there. Be conscious of the fact that, no matter your personal situation, you may be seen as infinitely rich by some locals. The great majority of safety concerns in Latin America do relate to petty, opportunistic theft, so keep a low profile, don’t show off your riches (phones, cameras, cash, shopping etc) and you’ll get a lot less undesirable attention. Discretion is key here.
9. Be alert…not alarmed
The Australian government used this slogan a few years back in regards to (perceived) heightened terrorist threats in the country, yet Latin America travellers have been quoting this same credo since time immemorial. Yes, you should be alert and conscious of your surroundings (this is what alerts you to the fact you’re being followed, for example) but there’s absolutely no reason to go overboard. Not everyone’s trying to get something from you, or do you harm. Most people, in fact, are perfectly lovely and helpful, so hone in on your instincts, steer clear of those whom just don’t ‘feel’ right, and seek help at the closest hotel/restaurant if need be. Locals, especially those employed in tourism, can be very upset with troublemakers, as they hinder their business indirectly. And even directly. Seek help from them, especially when you need a taxi or are lost. Dodgy taxis – the kind that organise robberies – are the scourge of Latin America and something which is actually easily avoided. Look for taxis with proper signage on the side of the vehicle and book one through hotels and restaurants as often as possible.
10. Know your own limits
There are times when a traveller will take unnecessary risks simply because they overestimate their skills and fitness levels. Example: taking an unguided 5-day kayak ride down the Amazon River or weeklong hike through the Andes when a) they’ve never kayaked or b) they’re woefully unfit and hate the cold. Be over prepared if anything, underestimate your abilities (this will keep you very safe) and test yourself gingerly. Join a group before you go it alone later, be realistic about what you are actually capable of doing and yes, don’t take on a robber unless you’re a martial arts expert. If confronted by an unsavoury individual, remember that the best course of action is to simply let it goooo…… For everything else, use common sense and don’t purposefully put yourself in risky situations to ‘test’ yourself. This is usually best done at home, not when travelling through Latin America.
11. BONUS: Get insurance!
Don’t even consider travelling without it. From belly bugs to injuries and everything else in between, those occasionally bad travel-times can be made infinitely worse if you aren’t covered by comprehensive travel insurance. The golden rule of travel states that if you can’t afford insurance then you can’t afford to travel. A simple and effective philosophy by which to travel the world.
At Chimu Adventures we organise adventure, sightseeing and luxury tours all over South America, Central America, Antarctica and the Arctic Region. We absorb most of the worry of travel safety, employ the best local guides and put you and your loved one at the hands of very experienced tour leaders. If you want to explore and discover this most amazing of continents but are a bit worried about safety, rest assured that we’ll have your back.