As I am approaching the end of my travels in South America (heading to Central America next month) I have been reflecting on how nervous I was when we first got here in terms of my safety and security. I am honestly so glad that I never let these nerves keep me from coming to South America as it has been the best time of my life and I think more people should make this trip a priority. The truth is that South America is relatively safe, even for females! Many times when situations arise that are unsafe, there isn’t much that could have been done to prevent the situation (just plain old bad luck), however in the odd circumstance there is a few things within our control that possibly could help. Here are just a few tips that I have that I think will help (obviously not guarantee) safety while traveling around this gorgeous continent, specifically as a woman.
1. Learn some Spanish – This is my number one suggestion for a reason, it is important. I started off this trip with almost no Spanish and after taking only two weeks of lessons in Bolivia my day to day confidence boosted dramatically, making me less of of a target.
When speaking Spanish not only am I less apparent as a clueless tourist, but I also have the ability to ask for help if necessary and I am somewhat aware of conversations and situations happening around me. The awareness, confidence, and communication abilities that come along with being able to speak to everybody is a huge factor in personal safety!
2. Pay Attention – Outside of my hostel walls, I try my best to be alert at all times. I notice street signs, “sketchy” looking people, angry or unhealthy looking street dogs, when the sun is starting to go down, nearby problems or situations arising. I pretty much know what is going on around me at all times, usually when one’s guard is let down is most likely when something bad will happen. This also goes for being intoxicated in public places which affects alertness (many women become targets of crime when they are out clubbing.) I personally prefer hostel bars/clubs for when I want to do some heavy drinking as there is bar staff that speak English as well as security guards whose job is to look after the guests. If you are going out to party with locals, only drink as much as you can handle while staying alert and go with a group of friends who will watch out for each other.
3. Do your research and ask questions – Some areas are much safer than others and it’s important to know this. I read blogs and reviews of towns or cities in advance and then always ask hostel/hotel staff for safety advice when arriving. I ask them if a neighborhood I plan on visiting is safe, ask if public transport is safe and easy to use, ask if there is a recommended registered taxi company in town, ask what the best bus companies are, etc.
4. Dress to respect the culture – Different places in South America dress differently, but I pay attention to what locals wear and ensure what I am wearing will not offend them. I don’t want to draw unwanted attention to myself by wearing my bikini around town in a culture where women typically don’t even show their legs. I always try to remember that I am a guest in a new country and must go along with their cultural norms otherwise I will make myself stand out, and this could make me a target for crime (sad, but true – we must remember that in most of these countries feminism and women’s rights are largely overlooked.)
5. No flashy clothing, jewelry or technology– This tip relates back to number four in terms of not wanting to draw unwanted attention to oneself. I know I already stand out to a certain degree by being a “gringo” but adding rings, a nice phone, or my best sunglasses could make me appear as wealthy. I left all of my nice things at home (didn’t even bring them on the trip at all as more valuables are more things to look after.) I don’t dress to impress around here, I don’t want to look like someone a thief thinks is loaded! I also am very aware where I pull my cellphone out of my bag, I make sure I am in a safe area or I go inside a store first.
6. Safety in numbers – This is obvious but very important, especially when going out at night. If you are a solo traveler it is a good idea to sometimes make a few friends for long bus journeys or day trips within very large cities. Get a group together from your hostel before checking out a nightclub or night market. A large group is an unlikely target, even if it is a group of obvious tourists.
7. Plan ATM visits strategically – I only take money out of the ATM during the day. I also only do it when I am heading straight back to my hostel as then I will lock up the large amount of cash in my room, only bringing out with me what I need for the day. Also, ATM’s inside actual banks are much safer as there are security guards and cameras and many people around, these ATM’s are also known to be less common for crimes such as card skimming.
8. Only carry what you are willing to lose – Many robberies only get violent when the victum refuses to give up their valuables. Therefore, I do not carry anything on me that I absolutely will not hand over to someone who is holding a knife or gun to me (check out my blog about when I was robbed at gunpoint here.) To some people this advice sounds silly because what wouldn’t you give up if your life was in danger? Well, I have met a few people on this trip who (for whatever reason) fought back and some of them ended up with injuries resulting in hospital visits.
I always think the most valuable thing I carry is my passport, and I am a strong believer of only bringing it with me when I am changing hostels or cities, otherwise I keep in locked in a locker or safe at my accommodation. However if I did have my passport with me and I was approached my a robber who asked for my things I would hand over my passport in a heartbeat. Although getting a new passport may be a headache, it is not worth my personal safety!
9. Listen to your gut – I always try my best to go with my gut! I truly believe this is useful. When I start to think “maybe this isn’t a good idea” or “I don’t feel really safe here” I get moving immediately. It isn’t worth the risk. The key is being aware of this gut feeling, but I found that once I started trying to listen, it now becomes almost natural.
And last but not least…
10. Be confident – Sometimes I am nervous, but I try my best not to show it. I walk with my head up, I pretend like I know where I am going or what I am doing, I look people in the eye. Confidence goes a long way – so be confident and have fun! Like I said, South America is generally pretty safe for tourists nowadays, just do what you can to prevent any unsafe situation and hopefully you will be on the trip of your life!
Other Small bits of Advice:
-Money belts are better than carrying a purse. However, I do recommend carrying a small wallet with a bit of cash in it, this way if you are approached by a thief you can give them this wallet and lose only some money. Most thieves will be satisfied with some cash and believe that it is all you have, therefore you can keep your phone, credit cards, and larger amounts of cash safe in your money belt.
-Don’t speak English loudly when walking by any people that look like they are up to no good. I use this one especially at night walking down streets that are not so busy, my group of friends and I will just stop all conversation walking passed as we don’t want to let anyone unnecessarily know we are tourists if they haven’t worked it out for themselves already.
-Lock up your stuff in hostels, even in private rooms. I have found that most hostels provide lockers but if you get a private room there may not be lockers for your use. In this case, I use my large backpack as a safe and lock up cash, camera, phone, etc when I am out for the day. Unfortunately, maids or other hostel staff have access to your “private” room and can easily take small things (especially cash which you cannot prove is yours.) It is unlikely anyone will be able to get away with stealing you 60L backpack – I have never heard of that happening before.
-If you are uncomfortable with a person in your dorm room asked to be moved and if the staff don’t help you with this then change hostels. This tip is related to the “trust your gut” one. You are probably most vulnerable while you are sleeping and sometimes drunk backpackers aren’t the most trustworthy people on the planet. I have asked to move rooms before because of one individual and the hostel staff told me this wasn’t the first time they had a complaint about him and upgraded me for free, no questions asked.
I hope these tips are helpful and that you book that trip to South America! I am no expert as I can only go off of my personal experiences, so if anyone has anything else to add please comment below – the more advice the better!