South America is arguably the most rewarding continent you can ever visit. The diverse culture, weather, scenery, history and architecture make it a travellers dream. Cold, extreme climates in the south. Hot beaches in the tropical north. From the mountains of Chile to the low lying Amazon jungle of Brazil. From the ancient Inca settlements to the Spanish colonial influence of Uruguay. I spent 4 months exploring the continent, leaving just 2 countries unventured. However, it’s important to be prepared – and also to stay safe so here are my top 12 tips on staying safe in South America. Before I start though I should mention that the catalyst for this post came from Sam and Zab’s excellent collaborative post on their site Indefinite Adventure, which has some of the best tips from other travel bloggers. I contributed one tip to that last, so here’s another 11 of mine.
1. Hostels – It’s an old cliche, but trust no-one! Lock up your belongings everywhere, even when you’re taking a shower. I met people who had things stolen from dorm rooms, hostels and hotels while they weren’t looking. Even your fellow travellers cannot be trusted sadly. As a tip – get to know the hostel owners very well – and once you do – leave your laptops, passports and phones with them. But only once you feel you can trust them.
2. Night buses – While travelling in South America you will definitely be on a fair share of night buses, some of them even across borders. Carry ALL your important belonging with you at all times – that is to say only put your big backpacks in the bag storage underneath the bus. Also – ignore overhead bag racks – don’t use them. They are a prime target for thieves especially if you are asleep. Wrap your bag round your leg or arms when you’re tired. If you fall asleep – it will make it hard for any wannabe thieves to swipe your bag. Also if you have a padlock (which I recommend), lock the zip part of your bag. Be aware at all times that even the person sitting next to you may want to steal your camera. Again – trust no-one!
3. Walking at night – Have a money belt with your main wallet essentials in it – cards, money, passport etc. Leave only a small amount of money that you need in your pockets when you go out. Most cities are relatively safe, but there are still pickpockets and muggings taking place. It’s an idea to not go out alone unless it’s essential.
4. Travel in groups – Make new friends, form trusted travel buddies and travel in groups. You will be much safer and can always trust a person slightly more if you are travelling with them – you’ll know their real name, their country and you’ll have fun times with them. But just make sure you trust them first!
5. Sleep before midnight – As a general rule – what’s the point in being out after midnight? Most of the awesome things you want to do (museums, hikes, viewpoints, architecture, food) are done in daylight hours. So head to bed early each night. Only break this rule when there’s a mega party on and you’re invited with friends. I enjoyed some great nights out in Paraguay, Argentina and Colombia. But most of the time I was asleep by midnight.
6. Don’t wear jewellery – As a rule – showing your wealth (if you have any) to the South Americans can make you an easy target for thieves. Watches should be cheap or even better hidden. Rings and necklaces should be avoided. Same goes for clothes – no designer labels.
7. Markets – Backpacks can be slashed and even opened without your knowledge when you are in busy markets. Sometimes it’s OK to leave your backpack at the hostel in your locker. Only take what you really need with you when you go out.
8. Water – More a health tip but for water – fill up your bottles from canisters and dispensers in hostels and hotels, try and save money on buying water and don’t order ice in your drinks. Tap water is not always safe to drink. You really don’t want a few days in bed. In the worst case scenario – buy bottled water.
9. Soroche – Places like Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia are lofty to the extreme. You may experience altitude sickness. To deal with this I simply drank a load of Coca tea, rested, slept and drank water. It filters out easily. Don’t be ashamed to spend an entire day in a hostel recovering from the high altitudes. It will be worth it once you get through it.
10. Local Friends – This could arguably be the best way to see South America and stay safe. Instead of staying in hotels and hostels – message your friends that live there and stay with them. Get them to show you around the city, ask them for advice and immerse yourself in their culture. I stayed with a local family in Uruguay while studying Spanish and stayed on my mate’s farm in rural Colombia for a week. You may remember my famous mate Julio who swapped his camera for a cow! These are ways to stay safe while loving the local culture and spending time with friends.
11. Couchsurfing – Be aware that couch surfing is not always safe – people steal things – including money, and while you have their address, the local police will side with local people rather than backpackers.
12. Money – Carry US Dollars and change it to local currency in bulk when you need it. Do it in safe places and double count your money each time you get it. People do try to rip you off so just be aware of that. Paraguay can be particularly confusing as 1 million Guarani sounds like a lot of money. Carry only the money you need in your pocket, bargain hard, refuse to pay for rip off taxi drivers and keep your money in more than one place.
All in all though – please don’t worry too much when you hit South America. People are not out to get you and most people are honest, hard working people. South America should be on every travellers list. If you’re toying between Thailand and Bolivia right now – don’t even consider Thailand. Bolivia, and South America knock the socks off South East Asia. But that’s just my take on it! Safe travels!!
With my endless travel tips and stories, I want to inspire you all to head out there and see the world! Check my advertising page if you have an idea for a product for my Tuesday’s Travel Essentials, and don’t forget I welcome freebies that help you on your way…