Maintaining your personal safety in Latin America is often one of the major concerns of people travelling to the region. Mike East offers advice on precautions you can take to lessen risks.
Latin America is my favourite part of the world; so much so that I have chosen to live here. My city is Caracas, which has a beautiful Mediterranean climate year round and sits at the edge of a national park called The Avila, so in a few minutes you can be walking the tree-lined slopes of a mountain and feel far from the traffic jams and urban sprawl.
Sadly, Caracas also has a terrible reputation of being one of the most dangerous cities in the world, with a high murder rate, gangs and overstretched police. Yet, most of the time, I feel safe, content and comfortable here. What follows is a description of the steps I take to maintain my personal safety in Latin America.
Disclaimer: I’m just an average guy, not a criminologist. It has worked for me up to now, but I’m not offering invulnerability, just opening up a conversation on this important topic.
Security experts talk about a state of mental preparation called Situational Awareness
Second disclaimer: don’t let stories of crime deter you from visiting Latin America – it is amazing.
The first thing that we all need to get right is our mental approach. Avoid any kind of attitude where you view the locals as potential robbers. As in any nation, the vast majority of the people are honest and struggling to get on with their lives. I have lost track of the number of times locals have apologised to me about the level of crime in their country – honest folks who have to deal with it all the time.
Security experts talk about a state of mental preparation called Situational Awareness. This means being relaxed, in general, but aware of your surroundings. With practice, it does not take much energy to maintain this for hours. You just keep your senses alert. It avoids two states that you never want to be in, either continual paranoia that you are about to be attacked, or being switched off. Avoid listening to music on earphones or anything that prevents your natural awareness operating.
Much of being safe is simply a numbers game. Reducing the chance of being a victim of crime by adopting a sensible approach to how you act and what you carry.
Yes, don’t wear expensive jewellery or designer gear. Don’t pull your phone out in the street and start scrolling through it. If you need to take it out then do so in shops or public buildings.
I make two copies of my passport and laminate both. The actual-sized one I keep in a pocket then I make a credit card-sized one that I keep with my cards. The passport goes in the hotel safe. Wallets are for putting lots of things worth stealing into one place; that also needs to be in the hotel safe. If you can live without it, your cell phone could go here too, though if you use it to take photos, you will probably want it with you.
If you are finding this useful, read Mike’s Safety in Latin America, Travel Advice.
What I take with me is a roll of money in my pocket – just what I need for the day – large denominations on the inside, small on the outside, one credit or debit card inside both (all other cards at the hotel). That way if I need to get a note quickly I can put my fingers into my pocket and pull out the note I want without getting all my money out in places where that is a bad idea. Also, sometimes, I keep a roll of larger denominations stuffed down my sock.
Before you arrive in a place do your homework. Find out where the safer parts of cities are. Make sure that your hotel is in one of them. If there is no room safe and no reception safe, lock things in your luggage – or reassess whether you should be staying there at all. A small daypack is a good idea, but sling it forward, not over your back. Again, just put stuff you need for the day in there. When walking, choose places where there are lots of people.
Top tips on Safety in Latin America:
- Adopt the right mindset
- Put everything you can in the safe
- Carry only the money you need for the day
- Be as inconspicuous as you can
- Do not resist if robbed
You probably look and dress a lot differently from the locals, but you want to give the impression that you are a streetwise foreign resident rather than a dazed tourist who just stumbled out of the airport taxi.
If you are really unlucky and someone sticks a gun or knife in your face, give them your valuables (or what they think are all your valuables), keep your hands open and then back slowly away, if you can. Do not try to negotiate or defy them over your valuables. Never go out without any money – thieves have been known to become violent if they get nothing from their victims.
If you are unlucky enough to be a victim of crime in this way you will have lost a little money, one card that can be cancelled quickly and laminated copies of your passport that are easily and cheaply replaced. However, your trip can go on as you still have all the things you really need in the safe.
Perhaps the worst thing about being robbed is that sense of outrage and shock that hits afterwards. Again, do not let this ruin your whole trip. You have to pull yourself out of it. Treat it as an unofficial tourist tax. Life goes on; make sure yours does too.
Remember that for the rest of your existence you will have a great after-dinner anecdote that will thrill your companions.
If you are thinking of travelling to South America, why not follow Mike’s advice and go to Rio for New Year. Alternatively, if you want further travel inspiration why not follow Mark Bibby Jackson’s footsteps through Patagonia.
The Lonely Planet also has a very useful section on security in South America.
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