Before coming to South America we had heard multiple horror stories of muggings by gunpoint, robberies on bus journeys, scams and abduction.
Of course, scams and robberies do happen. They can happen anywhere in the world. This isn’t something to put you off or to worry about when you travel. It is, however, important to be careful and take certain precautions.
Rest assured, we arrived back to the UK in one piece with all of our belongings, aside from my (Antie’s) bank card, which I stupidly left in the card machine in Chile. We felt completely safe most of the time and found the locals to be warm and welcoming towards us pretty much everywhere we went.
We’ve put together these handy tips to bear in mind on your next trip to South America. We hope these help you feel more at ease whilst travelling to countries that have a slightly more unsafe reputation:
1. If you are taking an expensive camera with you, it is important to take precautions. Firstly, make sure it is insured with a reliable insurance company. Pete took with us a Lowepro backpack, which fits the camera in a specially designed camera compartment at bottom of the bag, which can only be opened by zips on the inside (side nearest the back) of the rucksack. To anyone else it looks just like any other day sack and no one would automatically assume you have some expensive and bulky camera kit inside, which they would immediately notice with a conventional camera bag.
2. Take with you padlocks and always lock your valuables away in lockers that most hostels provide. It is much safer to leave your passports, computer, etc… locked away safely in a locker rather than taking them out with you for a day of sightseeing.
3. If your hostel for some reason doesn’t have lockers and you feel that your valuables might not be safe, either in a dorm or private room, we tended to lock them in the bottom of my rucksack with a padlock. Of course, if someone really wanted to get in there they could cut it open, but the chances are an opportunistic thief would go for another open bag which is far less hassle.
4. I was often quite worried when we were camping in Patagonia about leaving our valuables in the tent whilst we went out for the day on hikes. You definitely have to have a certain level of trust with other campers and although it is a nice community of people you never know if someone might be desperate! A couple of things you can do is to padlock your bag. Also, a clever method is to scatter your clothes everywhere and make the tent look messy. If someone did want to steal a bag, it is much easier for them if everything is neatly packed away inside it and not strewn all over the tent.
5. It is inevitable on your trip to South America that you will take at least a few long overnight bus journeys. We were very careful to never leave our day bags out of sight either completely tucked under our seats or in the overhead compartments. Either hug your bags close to you or keep them in between your feet where you can see them. Also, never let anyone (even if they look like a figure of authority) offer to carry your day bag, keep it with you at all times.
6. When you arrive in a new city or town always ask the hostel staff for a map and ask them to show you where to walk to see the main sites. They will usually point out any no-go areas in town or if certain areas become dangerous after dark.
7. If you are concerned about being pick-pocketed, you can keep a ‘dummy wallet’ on you with a fake bank card and a little bit of cash. If anyone tries to mug you, you can have this to hand to give over immediately. It is important to have at least a little bit of cash on you that you are prepared to lose. We also heard about people carrying their card in their sock.
8. If you don’t need to use your bank card don’t take it with you when you go sightseeing. Try to only carry as much cash that is necessary for the day.
9. A popular scam in certain cities in South America is for someone to spill something over you in the street and then offer to help you clean it off. Whilst they are helping you, either they or someone else involved, will steal your belongings and run off. If you ever feel anything fall on you, refuse anyone’s help and just keep walking whilst holding your bag close to you.
10. We have mixed feelings about money belts. Pete and I both took them with us and I think I used mine once in Colombia and Pete’s lay untouched at the bottom of his bag. I almost feel like it is more obvious if you have to keep lifting up your shirt to burrow around to find money in it. I think for some people it really makes them feel safer but we don’t think it makes to much of a difference.
11. Interestingly someone we met in Bolivia told us that certain phones are more desired and much more likely to be stolen than others. iPhones and Samsung phones are the most desirable, especially the new ones, whereas other brands are much less likely to be nicked. Luckily, we both have Motorolas, they cost around £130 each and so if stolen it would be annoying but not the end of the world.
12. We took with us a MacBook Air and iPad and these were two items we were most concerned about having stolen (as well as Pete’s camera!), we would be wary taking these out with us and would always be careful using them in cafes and public places. Never leave them unattended and be careful about using them on street-side cafes, as it is known for thieves to grab and dash from such locations.
13. Having at least a little bit of Spanish under your belt will help if you fall in to any difficult situations. Pete’s rather suspicious (oi!) tan and the fact he looks Brazilian definitely helped us to blend in. Although sadly my freckles and blue eyes gave me away immediately.
14. If, like Pete, you almost always keep your wallet in your back pocket and ignore the fact there’s a reason it’s known as the ‘sucker’s pocket’, it’s probably worth not doing this in situation so where you are likely to be pressed up against people in a crowd or in a situation where you can’t easily check your pockets. I.e. On public transport, in crowds on the street and on nights out in busy bars. I (Pete) have persisted in doing this, regardless, across the world and, touch wood, haven’t yet been taken for a sucker. So, you makes your choice and takes the risk.