Personal Safety in South America

South America has a reputation for not being a particularly safe place (I’m sorry to any south Americans reading this if it offends you, I am merely stating a fact). Before I went to South America, a lot of people told me how dangerous it is and to be very careful. These people were people who’ve never actually been anywhere near South America themselves. Did I listen to them? No chance. I did ask friends who I knew had been recently and friends who travelled there years ago, and I asked people who’d grown up there.

From the friends who’ve been recently I got told that as long as I keep my wits about me, don’t flash valuables around, and just be careful about what I’m doing (all common sense stuff really), then I should be ok. From the friends who’d travelled there years ago I got told some horrific stories about ID being stolen from peoples’ shoes, and other horrific stories. From people who’d grown up there I got told to be very careful, don’t carry a lot of cash around, look out for motorbikes, be aware that people can just cut the strap on your bag and steal it. I was also very fortunate to meet a lovely Peruvian woman on my flight to Lima who gave me the advice ‘Tiene los ojos’, which literally translated means ‘Have eyes’, but in this case meant ‘be aware of what is going on’.

I took all of this advice on board, and have lived to tell the tale. I think some people thought I’d just woke up one day and decided to go to South America, but in fact it’s a place I’d wanted to travel to for about the last six years. I’d thought about it carefully, took self defence classes, just in case, and I did my research. I looked into all the places I was planning on visiting, read reviews on how safe previous visitors considered them. I knew about the potential situations I could end up in and I knew that if anyone tried to steal my bag to not fight back.

When I was in South America, I never felt unsafe, but I never felt as safe as I do in the UK. I was very weary in Peru, particularly in Lima (it was the first place in South America I visited). The rest of the time, because I was on an organised tour around Peru and had a local guide, I felt safe enough. In Brazil, particularly in Río de Janeiro, I was also very weary, looking around constantly. Other places in Brazil I went to, like Ilha Grande, Paraty and Foz do Iguacu, because they were smaller places, I felt safer. Because of the research I’d done about South America, I read that Sao Paulo is possibly one of the worlds most dangerous cities, so I decided to miss that out entirely. It would have only added extra days on my time in Brazil anyway, and I was eager to get to Argentina so I could speak Spanish once again!

In Argentina, the first place I went to was Puerto Iguazzu. This is a very small (and really cute) border town. Due to its size, I felt quite safe there. My next destination in Argentina was Buenos Aires, which is the capital city (just in case you don’t know this already). It’s big, it’s a place of contrast- rich city bankers who own country houses verses poor, homeless families who sleep in bus stations or bank doorways. It is a city full of petty crime- pick pocketers, people doing black-market money exchange, where you have the potential to get fake Argentinian notes at a great exchange rate when you change US dollars. It’s a place where I definitely had to keep my wits about me. Almost as soon as I arrived in Buenos Aires, I backed up the photos on my camera because if someone tried to mug me, I would gladly give them my bag but the most valuable thing in it was my camera (not the camera itself, but my photos). Fortunately no one ever did mug me. When I went to Mar del Plata, I was warned about the dangers there. For some reason I had in my head that it was a small town, but it was in fact a large city. I had to keep my wits about me there too, but I felt safe enough.
When I was in Puerto Iguazzu, I met a backpacker who’d told me about a Kiwi backpacker who’d got stabbed to death in Mendoza. The reason? A couple of people on motorbikes drove past him and tried to grab his backpack, and he fought back. This is why you don’t fight back with a mugging. When I heard this I figured I would miss out Mendoza, but the vineyards there drew me in, so I went. Mendoza is a big city, but as I was in the centre it felt small enough, and I felt safe enough to wonder around, even after dark. Cordoba too felt quite safe because of its small size.

When I went to Uruguay, I felt totally safe. I had heard Uruguay was a relatively safe country, but I did only go to one part of it, and it was a small town, which was full of day-trip tourists like myself.

The whole time I was in South America, I rarely left my hostel/hotel/house with my phone. I almost always left it where ever I was staying (in a locker), as it would have just been one extra thing to take care of while out and about during the day. And in all honesty, unless I was connected to wifi, or it was an emergency, no one was going to contact me, so I didn’t actually need it.

So all in all, despite its reputation, South America isn’t all together as dangerous as everyone makes out. Yes, there is violence and crime, but where in the world is there not? That’s not saying it’s totally safe I could do the same trip all over again and have things stolen or get into situations I’d rather not be in. A lot of it is all down to wrong place wrong time. For anyone planning a trip to South America, I would say just keep your wits about you, and be smart, don’t get your fancy iphone or tablet out in public and flash it around. Don’t walk around with your camera in your hand all the time, put it away after taking a photo and get it out again when the next photo opportunity comes up. Yes it’s a faff, but dealing with the loss of all your photos will be devastating. Keep your money hidden and just be prepared to lose whatever you have on you. Even if you go with a friend, male or female, don’t assume you’ll be safe. The Kiwi in Mendoza was with two other people when he got killed (so I’ve been told). If you are planning a trip to South America but are scared about going on your own, I would recommend joining an organised tour, there are plenty around.

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