A friend and reader I’ll call T.D. writes in:
I’ve read some almost unbelievable stories on those Quito and Cuenca FB groups regarding what seems to be rampant petty crime, and more. You’re an extensive traveler and I know you’re savvy (and you’ve just been in Colombia) but they make it sound like a person is inevitably going to be robbed and possibly “express” kidnapped at some point.
For background, we lived in Colombia for six months (July 2015-January 2016), and traveled through Ecuador (January-March 2016) and Peru (March-April 2016). Medellin was the former home of Pablo Escobar, while Bogota…? Just can’t seem to catch a break, really. Ecuador and Peru see some tourists amidst the higher altitudes, which add some health-related issues to safety stuff.
TL;DR: Yes, South America is safe.
Whether you’ve passed by the selfie stick sellers in Italy or dodged the street food restaurants in Thailand, South America isn’t much different in the ‘how-to-stay-safe’ department. Common sense continues to go a long way.
Start with these three rules to stay safe…
- Rule #1: don’t look visibly drunk in public.
- Rule #2: look like you know where you’re going.
- Rule #3: give the world that ‘don’t-f*ck-with-me’ look.
These are great places to start – and I dare say these will prevent a vast majority of problems worldwide.
…then get specific to South America.
To be sure, it ain’t rocket science.
Know the language and dangerous hotspots
Be it Spanish or Portuguese, having even a couple sentences and a mouth to pronounce them are real assets. It also helps when you’re, say, ordering an extractos (sin agua) or a jugos con agua (concentrated fruit juice vs. fruit juice) or getting the flavor you want. Knowing where you are, where you’re going, and so on? Just a little more important – it’s hard to show that in a picture, though.
Most dangerous hotspots are where you’d expect: around bars and clubs at night seems to be the biggest or more common one. That said, most areas where expats are likely to find themselves living have developed into safe or less dangerous areas. In Medellin, Colombia, the few areas still deemed unsafe are areas few tourists would find themselves going to accidentally or without some knowledge of what to expect. Research the city before you go to learn the no-go neighborhoods – Wikitravel and Facebook groups are great for that.
Use Easytaxi or Uber instead of hailing taxis on the street
Taxis are generally cheap – even at the rip-off prices charged gringos – but there’s no reason to pay a gringo price when taxis have meters. Worse, there are enough stories of foreigners taking taxis and being forced to withdraw money from an ATM.
Easytaxi was our favorite, since the app hails a local taxi and has you pay the metered rate directly to the taxi driver. No extra fees, and it’s very easy to report a driver that tried overcharging. Uber, when and where it’s available, is the service you know and love, so no need to expound on this one.
Pass on the dual pricing
It’s not nearly as common or egregious as it was in Thailand, but dual pricing as a practice is also seen occasionally in South America.
As public transportation goes…
(Wait, what?! There’s a Batman bus in South America? Yup. Seen in Cusco, Peru.)
We didn’t see any outright scams, but we did see and hear enough stories about pickpocketing, crowds, and annoyances. Kids singing (loudly) while trying to sell candy or musicians that set up shop on the bus are just two potential distractions that locals of a more opportunistic nature use.
The crowds can range from manageable to ‘sardines’, so carve out your personal space where possible. While most buses have spaces set aside for people in wheelchairs or strollers, they’re rarely used in those capacities.
Be wary of locals speaking English
As seen in Asia, speaking the language of tourists (and not locals) means they’re looking for you for one reason or another. To be sure, it can be legitimate and helpful at times – an English-speaking salesperson makes it far easier to book a tour or answer questions, for example. It’s when they’re seeking me out that my guard remains high.
Locals ≠ foreigners
Some places that are safe for locals simply aren’t for foreigners. If you’re being warned away from somewhere by well-meaning locals, it’s a good idea to heed them. It’s one thing to party or hang out with locals, but you may not necessarily be able to go all the places they can.