Here is a list of tips on traveling safely in South America, with specific examples from Peru and Bolivia.
Make You and Your Things Look Messy
We carried a DSLR and two lenses with us throughout all of our South America travels. To prevent looking like huge technology-carrying targets, we decided we would make our expensive equipment look less appealing.
Prior to leaving on our trip, we covered our camera with hockey tape, which looked more legitimate by each day of travel as the tape accumulated more and more travel dust and attained a level of “distinguished character”. We made sure to cover all the brand names with tape, and hoped we gave off the impression of poor wandering souls who would travel for food.
Speaking of which – being messy includes you: keep your prized jewelry at home, hide brand labels, and dress down. The less conspicuous you look, the less likely you are to be targeted.
I’m sure this wasn’t the only thing that kept our camera from being stolen. The following helps too:
Make it Hard to Get to Your Stuff
This may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how quickly you start feeling comfortable in a new city and either become forgetful of your items, or just fall into the comfortable assumption that you’ll be okay.
In any busy place we visited, our backpack was strapped to the front of our bodies. This includes purses or cameras – we kept them in front of us with our hands on them at all times. Interestingly, in some cities like La Paz in Bolivia, the city’s own inhabitants walked around with their bags clutched at the front of their chest. Why not do as the locals do…
The down side? You end up with a whole load of photos looking like you don’t know how to wear a backpack:
Pay attention to your items in places like restaurants as well – don’t hook your bag onto the back of your chair or thrown at your feet and expect to find it there when you get back up to leave.
One place where I thought this tip would be obvious would be on buses and trains; however, we heard countless stories of bags and cameras being stolen out of overhead bins while tourists were sleeping. Definitely get cozy and sleep the night away – but do it with your arms snuggled around your backpack like it were a loved one, or with your feet intertwined around your backpack’s arm straps. Don’t make it easy for someone to snag your items while you snooze.
Arrange Taxis from Trusted Sources
Hailing down a taxi in Peru or Bolivia is a bit of a gamble. Many cities are host to a number of unregistered taxi cabs whose drivers look for tourists to rob, scam, kidnap, or worse. For the best chance of getting into a registered cab with a friendly driver, ask the hosts of your accommodation to call a cab for you. They usually have trusted sources to call and can decide the appropriate rate to charge and even arrange a pick-up time to bring you back to your hotel.
If you’re out wandering about, we still recommend popping into a hotel to arrange a cab rather than flagging a random one down.
This is more difficult at a major transit center, such as a bus or train terminal. These are often overflowing with sketchy drivers awaiting tourist arrival. Research these sites specifically (WikiTravel often has detailed arrival information that includes safe travel options) as recommendations will differ based on where you are. If it is possible to arrange a safe taxi from a booth within the transit center, this is often a good bet (though will cost more). As a last option, find someone working within the center that can point you in the right direction.
And as in many places around the world – arrange the price before you get into the cab to avoid being ripped off. And while in the cab, keep your phone and fancy items tucked away, your bags at your feet, and your doors locked. Don’t let taxi cab drivers pick up other passengers with you, as this opens the possibility of being robbed by your new mates.
Travel With Friends or Be Vigilant
We’re not against solo travel here. However, it does help to travel with others since a group of humans is always more intimidating to approach than a single person. This being said, we think you can travel solo without an issue if you do so with vigilance.
In general, it helps to stay in well populated and well lit areas, and avoid wandering most cities in South America late at night. Unfortunately we heard a couple stories of violent muggings occurring in the early morning hours as a traveler’s train arrives and they walk to their hotel alone carrying all their worldly possessions. If you’re arriving late at night, take a cab. Or find others to walk with.
Just be watchful of your surroundings, and go with that gut feeling we tend to have. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. If you’re feeling unsafe, take refuge in the nearest public building, restaurant or hotel.
While well populated, busy areas can be great in one sense for safety, they are also appealing to pickpockets. Crowded buses, busy tourist sites, city centers, and beaches tend to be a haven for these skillful thieves.
Keep items out of your back pockets and, as mentioned above, hold your backpack or purse in front of you. Carry little cash with you. We carried a fake wallet with a few small bills and the remainder of our cash/cards in a money belt or back in the room. This way if something does happen, you can sacrifice the fake wallet to keep your other (hidden) belongings safe.
There are some extra safety precautions you can consider, such as a wire-lined bag (or seperate wire lining you can purchase for any bag) to prevent bag cutting – allowing your goods to fall out the bottom. Wire technology is also available for your camera strap making it resistant to a quick cut-and-dash.
Don’t Worry, You’ll Be Ok
Overall, we felt safe during our travels in South America and had an amazing experience. We share these tips not to make anyone paranoid, but because we think many of these situations can be prevented with a few diligent steps with the goal of appearing like less of a target.
As we’ve mentioned above, one of our favorite travel resources for safety advice is WikiTravel. Find the page on the specific city you are visiting and there you will find very up-to-date information on how to safely arrive and depart from the city, and what current tourist scams to watch out for. Reading this beforehand will make you feel that much more comfortable and confident on your arrival.
If you have any further tips, we’d love to hear about them!