The idea of writing this post is not to scare anyone into traveling to South America. Every country has it’s own set of problems (My post on Safety in India). The purpose is to make one aware of the most common kind of crimes which is the reason I have only included stories that describe how it actually happened. Only first hand experiences of people are included that are not older than 2 years.
This is not a comprehensive list but would definitely give a fair idea of major things to avoid while on the road in South America and protect one from certain kind of crimes at least.
Rio de Janeiro
- “I was robbed today on the way up to the jesus christ statue in rio de janeiro(hiking route). I just walked up and then 3 guys with knives told me to give them all the things that i had. We waited for other people in the same place and for 2 hours they forced all the travellers who were walking by to give them their money, phones, cameras. Today 12 people were robbed in this way. and that two weeks ago 101 persons been robbed in the same place”
I met two guys in Ilha Grande, Brazil, who were robbed while hiking to Christ Redeemer as well. They were robbed of EVERYTHING. They returned to their hostel in boxers. Yep, shoes were robbed as well. The hike has a notorious reputation so better to avoid it.
Night bus Sao Paulo – Foz do Iguazu
- “Our night bus got robbed between Sao Paulo to Foz du Iguazu at about 4 am local time. We got robbed by 2 people who were seated in the bus the whole trip. A shot was fired in the front (we were seated in the back) and everyone got robbed of their money, jewellery, phones, notebooks, tablets, laptops etc.”
Such crimes are not common, I did take multiple night buses in Brazil and never lost a thing or heard of anyone’s bad experience in a night bus. This particular route apparently is not all that safe.
- “A group of men aged between 45-60 distract you (asking the time etc.) while one steals the bag. After reporting it to the police and being forced to spend the night in the town (this crime usually occurs when boarding the night bus), In most reported cases the important documents (passports,visa etc) that where in the stolen bag miraculously show up in the bus station the next morning. This allows the tourist to leave that night meaning the crime is mostly forgotten about and nothing ever done to prevent or catch these men. We discovered this is the 4th time it’s happened here in one week”
- “We were robbed of our backpack in the baggage compartment above us in a Tur-bus at the Iquique bus station, as we were looking by the window and resting. We didn’t put the bags in the trunk specifically as a precaution, and despite that”
- “I was in a small shared dorm of 4 with lockers & locks that the hostel provided, and that got broken into and all my stuff stolen – passport, credit card, laptop. If the lockers are in more of a ‘public’ area with less chance of ppl breaking in then should be ok”
- “Some people posing as police officers (not in uniform) had badges and stopped their car beside us and started asking questions in Spanish. They wanted to see our passports and asked us to get in their car to sort some shit out and make sure everything checked out. We were on the way to our hostel from the bus terminal (going west) and they gave some story about Brazilian cartel people smuggling things through. We said they could follow us in another taxi but we weren’t getting in, and as soon as we went for a taxi they got in their car and drove off”
- “Be careful on the trails! I just had my backpack stolen on the Santa Cruz trek”
A friend of mine had his bag stolen from a bus in Bolivia. His bag was in the overhead compartment. At one of the stops, an old man requested him to open the window a little but, he obliged only to turn around and see the man was gone and so was his bag which had all the valuables including his passport.
- “Usual trick is to throw dirt on a tourist’s clothes. Then people come to “help” cleaning it off and try to steal something”
- “Travelled from Quito to Puerto Lopez on the night bus and my friend got her bag stolen. We went to the police and they said it is the 3rd case in a week and all of them from the same company: Reina del Camino. Also when we were at the police station I saw another report from another tourist and it happened with the company Jipijapa. I suggest to use another company as there are more or take the bus during the day”
- “On a bus last night had money stolen and my spare mobile phone taken out of my bag”
- “In the Quito bus terminal there are thieves that systematically rob people when the busses are waiting to leave. One acts as he works for the bus company, checks the ticket and all. Two guys work with him and will rob the valuables from the seat behind you while he distracts you. I had my bag where I could see it, I never thought they could open it and take the stuff without me noticing anything! There were 5 foreigners on that bus and all were robbed. “
- “Today on the bus in Quito my purse was cut open and my wallet stolen. I was wearing my backpack in the front and had the purse wedged between that and my body & the zipper closed, so like I said I thought I was safe. At one point I took out my wallet to give a coin to a deaf beggar, My guess is that someone saw that and took advantage afterwards”
- “At Quitumbe bus terminal a young guy helped us to find the seats. When the bus started he took a seat behind us (with another guy) and helped us to recline the seats to make us more comfortable. We usually keep all our valuable stuff in a small backpack that we always bring with us. We used to put this bag BETWEEN OUR LEGS and not under the seat, so that we can touch and feel it. After about 40 minutes I opened my bag to get my scarf and in that moment I realised that my MACBOOK wasn’t in my bag anymore. I quickly went to the bus driver to ask him to stop the bus straight away. Only after I discovered that all my valuables were missing. What’s more unbelievable is that they put back my wallet and the cover of my Macbook and closed the bag again without me realising anything”
- “I got my phone stolen in Ecovia bus in Quito. My backpack was in front of me, I was holding my phone in my hand, I put it in my pocket one stop before getting out of the bus and when I was out, it was gone. Here is how they did it. One stop before I was getting out somebody bumped me from behind so I lost my attention and looked back. Another woman bumped me from my side and got out of the bus instantly. I assume one of them distracted me and the other robbed me”
My host was robbed of her ID card in Quito. We were in the center to attend a cultural event. It was crowded, I constantly had my hand on the pocket which had my phone. After some time, my friend realised her card was missing. I’m assuming someone stole it mistaking it for a credit card or was maybe looking for cash
Another friend of mine was attacked at a beach. He was walking by himself in the evening when someone smashed a bottle on his head. His phone and money was stolen. He had to get stitches.
- “just got robbed in Cartagena, Colombia. Two guys on a motorbike punched me over and stole my bag”
- “I had cellphone grab attempts (from a pedestrian & motorcyclist) in Bogota & Cartagena”
I spent two months in Bogota to sort my documents after getting mugged near Monserrate. I was attacked by three masked men with machetes on the way down from Monserrate. I gave them my day bag as they demanded. It happened at 4:30 p.m. about 5 minutes from a police station.
In the two months that I was in Bogota, I met several people who were mugged in Bogota and not one was in the night. A lot of attempts happen in dark corners, and empty streets. So stick to busy lanes and carry as little as possible whenever you can.
How to deal with getting mugged:
- Get all the cards cancelled
- Inform the respective embassy if there was any valid Visa on your passport
- Inform your embassy
- file a police complaint (It’s important for Insurance, immigrations etc.)
- Inform the embassy of the country in which it happened if your passport was stolen as well
- Maybe look in the flea market, you might find your stuff there being sold for dirt cheap prices
Tips ON Keeping safe in south america
- Wear money belts on long journeys (The ones that are worn inside and are not that prominent)
- The only place where the bag should stay is – on your lap
- Never trust anyone blindly (Well, that’s generally in life)
- Carry old credit cards in a fake wallet
- Hide a survival card/cash in the other bag
- Buy clothes with hidden-pockets
- Always wear the bag with valuables on the front
- Never take your wallet/phone out on a bus or in other crowded places. If you want to give money to someone have a separate coin purse or keep some change in your pocket.
- You can ask the hostel to keep your passport in a safe
- Check the trail information before going anywhere for a hike even if you have company
- Don’t leave money in your backpack on a multi-day hike
- Only carry enough money for the day and if the phone is not essential then carry an alternate phone on you
None of it comes with a guarantee of safety but it definitely gives a perspective on how things are. I met people (yes, more than one) who were mugged on the very first day of arriving in Bogota but I also met people who travelled in South America for months and barely lost anything of value.
I was mugged once in 1 year of travelling in South America that included hitchhiking. Other than this, I lost two pair of flip flops and a rain jacket, essentially, anything that was hanging off my backpack was eventually stolen. I wasn’t watching my back all the time, I did many things that could be considered not so smart, from walking alone in the night to my hostel with all my stuff to taking the cheapest night buses. I was fine for most part of it.
The world doesn’t come to a stop because of any of these things, It can be traumatic, can be emotionally daunting, but nothing is worth putting an end to what you set out to do in life. Carry as little as possible while traveling in general because nothing is going to remain the same. It can get damaged, lost, or stolen.
Remember, EVERY material thing in the world is replaceable.
Any special tip you have for people to keep safe on the road?