South America is a treasure trove of wonderful food, people & landscapes just waiting to be discovered and is one of my favourite travel experiences to date. Its reputation for general safety however is no secret and is a real concern for many prospective travellers. However, with these tips for safe travel in South America, you’ll be well prepared and know what to expect in advance of your travels!
Yes, there are certain risks to travelling to this continent, as with most places, but with the right precautions and research, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t take the leap and make that dream trip a reality.
If you are planning a trip to South America be it solo or in a group, but have some reservations, this blog aims to help to ensure that you have a safe and enjoyable time and avoid any unwelcome surprises.
1. Book Flights That Arrive During the Day
With both of my trips to South America, I arrived late at night. The first time when travelling to Peru, it was intentional as it was the only direct flight from London. The second time however, it was unplanned as my flight was delayed by several hours.
Travelling alone as a female can be nerve-wracking. Arriving alone at night to an unknown country with a not so great safety record, especially when things perhaps aren’t going to plan, just adds to the anxiety.
My trip to Colombia is a classic example. It all began with a shaky start from being denied boarding in London due to my ESTA not coming through in time (visa for transiting through the United States), arriving late and rushing for my connection in Austin which was then ultimately grounded for several hours anyway due to storms.
On my connecting flight to Bogota, I then collapsed due to exhaustion arriving in Colombia late at night and completely alone. Thankfully after a little lie down and assistance from the lovely flight attendants, my hotel pick-up was still waiting for me when I arrived or that would have been another thing to worry about.
The picture I’m painting here is that things don’t always go smoothly and travelling can be stressful. The unexpected can happen at anytime. Arriving late at night alone in Colombia after having fainted just made an already stressful situation more stressful and scary. I could have needed to go to hospital or my pick-up could easily have left and I could have been left stranded in an empty airport at night.
Thankfully, I was fine and managed to get to my hotel safely, but I would advise where possible to arrive during the day as you have more control of the situation if things don’t go to plan.
At night, there are fewer people around to assist you should you need help, most shops/ restaurants are closed and public transport stops running. There are also limited taxi options from the airport in case your transfer arrangements fall through. This is less likely to be the case if you arrive during daytime hours.
2. Pre-Book Taxis
Never hail a taxi from the street in South America. I’m not saying you’ll definitely run into trouble but express kidnappings are a real issue in this part of the world so it’s just better not to take the risk.
For those who aren’t familiar, express kidnappings (secuestro exprés in Spanish and sequestro relâmpago in Portugese) are a form of abduction used across South America where an unsuspecting victim is taken hostage, usually via an unlicensed taxi. A ransom is then demanded to secure their release. This is usually done by driving the victim to various ATMs, threatening them with a weapon and forcing them to withdraw cash.
I thankfully didn’t experience this but I recall walking from my hotel in Lima towards the city centre when I caught the attention of a dodgy taxi driver. He proceeded to follow and shout out to me, driving slowly alongside me trying to lure me into his taxi. I crossed the road and kept walking.
Travellers and tourists are sadly often the target of such crimes so limit your exposure to this risk and book taxis through reputable companies. Either book through your hotel or use apps such as Cabify or Tappsi (research the most popular ride-sharing app in the specific country you’re visiting as this will vary).
Uber isn’t quite as widely used in Latin America as it is here in the UK and is illegal in some countries so be cautious of this. For this reason, Uber drivers are often not allowed into airports for collections.
I’d also add that you should agree a rate before getting in or make sure that the driver has a working meter. If they tell you it’s not working or won’t set a price, don’t get in. Chances are they’ll try and get an extortionate rate from you once you’ve arrived at your destination.
3. Take a Photo of the Taxi Licence Plate & Driver
This acts as a deterrent in case the driver has something other than driving you to your destination in mind. Do it in plain sight of the driver and make it clear you’re sending it to your family. You don’t have to be rude about it. If your driver has a problem with it, don’t get into the car and book another ride.
4. Pre-Arrange Collection from the Airport & Pre-Book Your First Night of Accommodation
This is an extension of the above points but I always arrange a collection from the airport either via my tour operator or my hotel.
Booking.com has a great internal messaging function which allows you to communicate with the hotel via the security of the website. Many hotels offer an airport collection service. Arranging this via the Booking.com website itself offers an extra added layer of security. I also ask, where possible, for a female to collect me but that’s just me being extra cautious.
Travelling to an unknown country alone is an exciting experience but it can also be quite stressful. You don’t want to arrive somewhere after a long flight and then have to scramble around looking for somewhere safe to stay. It’s therefore a good idea to have somewhere prebooked to stay for at least the first night.
5. Dress Like a Local
I hate the idea of us women having to restrict ourselves, including the way we dress, just to protect ourselves from the unsavoury actions and intentions of others. It is however a sad reality that we have to deal with and it would be irresponsible of me to advise anyone reading this that it is perfectly safe for women to dress how they want – that, unfortunately just isn’t the case in certain countries for female travellers.
When we’re on holiday, it can be tempting to pack lots of fun holiday wear. I wouldn’t however recommended it when travelling to off the beaten track destinations such as Latin America. Machismo culture is prevalent across South America, as such catcalling and unwanted attention from men is something women have to deal with on a daily basis. In order to keep this to a minimum as a female traveller, I advise dressing like a like local and keeping as low key as possible.
Standing out as a tourist can make you a target for scams, unwanted attention, catcalling and possibly being robbed or worse. Nobody wants to experience that, so see how the locals dress and copy that.
When I travelled to Colombia, locals generally wore jeans, T-shirts and jumpers in areas such as Bogota and Medellin. As I travelled north towards the Caribbean coast, I was able to crack out my dresses and shorts but again anything too revealing would have attracted unwanted attention, so do just bear that in mind.
6. Don’t be a Loud Tourist
If you can speak Spanish (or Portuguese in Brazil) then that’s great, speak it as much as possible. If however like me, you can’t, avoid talking loudly in English (or any other non-native language) when out in public as this will make it very obvious that you’re a tourist. Try and keep a low profile and don’t be like this guy:
7. Be Cautious of People who are Overly Friendly
I know this makes me sound like a paranoid cynic but hear me out. When you travel, meeting new people is a part of the experience. You will encounter many lovely and nice people who are genuinely interested in you and your travels but there are also others whose intentions may not be entirely pure. It’s important to be able to distinguish between the two.
On my second day in Lima, I went for a little wander around the Miraflores area alone. As I was returning to my hotel, I was greeted by an old man in his 60’s just outside my hotel gates. He immediately came towards me and initiated a conversation. It all seemed entirely harmless and he told me he was a guest staying at the same hotel.
We chatted for about 10 minutes, during which time he told me he was a Peruvian living in the US and was visiting Lima on holiday. He spoke very good English and seemed genuine. He then proceeded to ask me where I was from, how old I was and if I was alone (red flag). I gave him some vague details and said I was meeting friends (I lied). I recall after mentioning I was a lawyer, he immediately explained he was also a lawyer (probably an attempt to create some common ground.)
He then explained how he’d really enjoyed speaking with me and asked me to join him for a coffee nearby so we could talk some more. He seemed quite keen to lead me away from the hotel. I explained that I couldn’t as I was due to meet with my friends. His tone then immediately changed and became slightly frustrated. He then asked me why I didn’t want to have coffee with him. He sounded offended and became a little pushy.
The conversation made me uncomfortable, and I politely ended it and went into the hotel. In an irritated huff he walked off down the street (after telling me he was staying at the hotel).
Later that day, I went into the city centre to meet a walking tour group where I met another solo female traveller. She told me about a weird encounter she had had a few days ago after having been approached by an old man who insisted she meet him for coffee. She was more direct than I was and it seems her encounter was very similar to mine.
To me this sounded like a scam, possibly some ploy to lure young women away to a quieter location where someone else may have been waiting. Thankfully, we both had the right instinct to walk away but I can see how someone else could have easily mistaken him to be a genuine trustworthy person.
If something feels off, my advice is to always walk away. Not everyone is out to get you but it is important to keep your guard up and not to be too trusting.
8. Don’t Advertise You’re Travelling Alone.
This links to the above point but never tell anyone you’re alone. If someone specifically asks you if you’re alone, that should be a red flag. You should always say you’re meeting friends or make it out as if there are people expecting or waiting for you and that they know where you are. This will put any would be assailants off.
9. Tell your Family and Friends Back Home Where You’ll Be
I always leave a copy of my itinerary with my family before I go anywhere including place names, hotel addresses and contact details.
If you’re more spontaneous than me and don’t always have an itinerary, be sure to check-in regularly with someone back home letting them know your plans and where you’ll be staying. If you’re with a travel buddy, perhaps also provide their contact details in case your loved ones back home aren’t able to get in touch with you directly.
Another option is a location sharing app. ‘Find My Friends’ is a good example and there are several other alternative apps you can use for I-phone and Android. These apps use GPS to allow family/friends/ partners back home to monitor your whereabouts and can be extremely useful if you’re travelling alone.
These are all of course precautions to enhance your safety. It’s always better to have these measures in place should the worst happen, which hopefully and most likely won’t but prevention is always better than cure.
10. Keep Valuables in your Inside Pocket and Use a Money Belt
Pickpocketing is quite common in South America. The last thing you want is for someone to steal your wallet whilst you’re thousands of miles away from home.
I recall a time in Cusco, I was walking with a group of travellers across the Plaza de Armas Square when a local man collided directly (and deliberately) into me. Those few moments of distraction were enough for him to slip his hands into my pockets. Unlucky for him, I didn’t have anything of value in them.
Money belts are great for keeping things secure. Invest in a small, discreet money belt that you can wear under your shirt. Keeping things in your pockets is just not going to keep them safe. I also find stashing a few bills or a credit card in my bra a nice little hideaway too!
11. Don’t Leave Valuables Unattended
If you leave anything unattended, it won’t be there for long. Bag snatching is a problem in South America. We saw a traveller lose his bag at Nazca bus station after taking his eyes off it for a few moments. Some restaurants in Arequipa even took to chaining visitors’ bags to their chairs to avoid them being snatched under their noses whilst eating.
A poor fellow traveller who had left his phone beside him on the restaurant table in Aguas Calientes had the misfortune of having it stolen from right under his nose in a room full of people. Rather sadly, he also lost all of his photos from the entire trip including his Machu Picchu shots.
So don’t leave your bags unattended. I kept anything of value on my person and where possible looped my leg through the strap of my backpack when it was on the floor.
12. Walk Close to the Outer Side of the Pavement
When walking on the street, keep to the side furthest away from the road and facing oncoming traffic. This is not something I instinctively did until an experience in Cartagena. I had ventured outside of the old town alone to go and visit the San Philippe Fort in another part of Cartagena not frequented by tourists.
As I was walking, a bus came around the corner with a man hanging out of its doors. As the bus drove past, the driver cheered on the man to reach out and grab me from the roadside in an attempt to pull me onto the bus whilst it was still moving. Luckily, I was too far for him to be able to grab my arm and they carried on driving. It was in the middle of the day on a busy street but left me a little shaken .
13. Stick to Populated Areas and Daylight
This is an obvious one, but I still thought I’d list it. Certain areas become quite rough once it gets dark and are even avoided by locals. If you want to experience the nightlife, find some people from your hostel to go with you. Otherwise, there’s no real need or reason for late you to be venturing around alone by yourself at night.
14. Take Cash Out at ATMs Inside Banks
Where possible take cash out during the day from ATMs inside banks. Cover your pin code with your hand, keep an eye out for who is around you and put any cash away immediately before leaving the bank.
Not many people know about Scopolamine. Scopolamine, or ‘Devil’s Breath’ is a substance that comes from the nightshade plant which is indigenous to the South American continent. It is severely incapacitating and has the power to completely strip a person of their free will, thus making it an ideal drug of choice for perpetrators looking to rob or assault a victim.
The scary thing about this drug is that it can be administered through ingestion, inhalation or even through touch. There have been reports of the powdered drug being blown into the faces of unsuspecting victims or being administered via a leaflet or business card laced with it and being absorbed through the skin.
Once given to a victim, it places them into a zombie like state in which they become entirely complicit to anything they are asked to do. To top it off, the drug has an amnesiac effect meaning once it wears off, the victim has no recollection of what happened to them. The drug has been used to rob or rape victims and is most widely used in Colombia.
Nightclubs and bars are where most incidents occur so keep your wits about you, don’t ever leave your drink unattended and never accept food or drink from a stranger. Avoid leaving with strangers or bringing them back to your hotel.
16. Bogus Police Officers
This scam involves being approached by locals dressed as police officers who ask to see your official documents and proceed to steal them. If approached by police, always ask for ID and never hand over any original documents. Insist that you call the police station to verify their status and carry photocopies of your documents only.
17. The Mustard Scam
This is a common scam and involves someone squirting or spilling something on you. You are then approached by a concerned member of the public who insists on helping you wipe it off. In doing so, they pick your pockets without you even realising.
If you notice something has been spilled on you, don’t stop, carry on walking, refuse any help and head into a safe space like a shop where you can clean it off yourself.
18. Always Pack your Own Bag and Don’t Leave your Bags Unattended
I think this one is just from watching too many episodes of ‘Banged Up Abroad’ but you can never be too careful.
South America is known for drug trafficking and smuggling and so bag tampering is a possibility. This shouldn’t be an issue for an average traveller, but always pack your own bag, never agree to carry anything for anyone and keep your bags locked. You don’t want to be in the unfortunate position of finding a surprise in your bag at the airport. This probably rarely happens to tourists but you never know.
19. Be Confident and Act Like You Know Where You’re Going
When heading out to explore a new city alone, roughly plan your route before heading out. That way you have an idea of where you’re heading. Avoid standing out in the street looking at a map or your phone. This shouts tourist and can make you a target. If you need to, go into a shop or café and look at your phone or map there.
20. Don’t Walk Around with your Headphones/ Earphones in
I love listening to podcasts and music and my earphones are an extension of my body. As a Londoner who commutes to work on a daily basis, putting my earphones in when I’m out and about has just become second nature to me but it is something I completely avoid doing when travelling.
Certain places require you to be extra vigilant of your surroundings. Having headphones in lowers your awareness of who is behind you and what is going on around you generally. Try to avoid doing this especially when travelling alone.
21. Be Assertive If You Don’t Want to Do Something
Something we Brits struggle with is being direct out of fear of sounding impolite or ungrateful. Leave this mentality behind when travelling alone.
If you’re approached by someone or are asked to do something you are not comfortable with, say no and walk away. Don’t worry about offending anyone, just be firm and leave. Your safety is more important than appeasing others. If it feels off, follow your instinct, and walk away. I’ve found following my gut instinct has always served me well.
22. Do Your Research and Ask Locals
Locals have the best knowledge on where to go and what not to do. Your hotel reception is a good starting point for this. I always ask for recommendations and if there are any places to avoid and I am often presented with a map which they kindly mark up and highlight for me.
South America is a fantastic continent and should definitely be explored. With the right planning and research, there is no reason why you can’t have a safe and memorable trip so please don’t let any of the above scare you off.
The above are just some tips to help you avoid any difficult situations. As important as it is to be vigilant, it’s also important not to be hyper paranoid as this will dampen the enjoyment of travelling. Just exercise common sense and you’ll be absolutely fine!