So I had this pre-misconception about South America. Before leaving I told my mother not to worry when she gets the phone call or email saying that I had been mugged… it was inevitable, it would happen, she had to expect it… I was!
Well, it never happened and from my own personal experience after travelling for 2 months through Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru and Chile I realised it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.
Of course people are mugged and pickpocketed all the time in South America, tourists are targeted, and there is the odd occasion of taxi drivers colluding with others to kidnap you, take you to an ATM and demand all your money.
Now the fact I had no problem doesn’t mean you won’t, but perhaps the simple precautions I took made a big difference to being targeted by thieves. Most criminals will do a quick risk calculation to see if they’re likely to get away with their crime before committing, so make it hard for them!
Firstly, I always wore dark sunglasses. This allows you to observe your surroundings and dark lenses make it hard for thieves to know if you’re looking at them or distracted by the pretty parade going past.
Always observe and be aware of your surroundings and the people in your personal space. Many pickpocketers will distract you through a number of different means such as squirting liquid on you or even just a simple bump. Your immediate reaction is usually to deal with the unplanned disruption while the thief or their mate swipe your wallet or camera. Be aware and just keep walking!
Use locks, or if you’re worried about losing keys try safety pins, they take too much time to unpin for crims. If you have a loose strap from your bag wrap it around your arm while you have it on your shoulder. Tangle zip tags when zipped together. Place zips under the tightened straps on backpacks. Of course, someone can get into your bag if they really wanted to, but for the on-the-go thief, a few extra seconds is a few too long.
Just about every airport in South America has a plastic wrap service where they will cling-wrap your luggage till it resembles the cat out of Bad Boy Bubby.
They say to carry your passport on you at all times, but I believe you have a better chance of losing it on the street than in a hotel room or hostel locker. The same goes for bank and credit cards, if you don’t need them, don’t take them out with you.
Carry a fake wallet and fill it with a few low-value notes and train tickets. And girls, you realise you have an extra hidden pocket in your bra?! But if you do carry a wallet, don’t carry it in your back pocket and if you expect to be in a crowded area, consider a wallet chain.
Don’t wear flashy jewellery, even if it’s fake.
Carry your backpack on your front, especially in very crowded areas and watch where you place your bags, putting them at your feet is often not safe, at the very least put a foot through a strap.
If travelling on a bus avoid placing baggage in the overhead compartments, especially on overnight trips. Some South American bus companies take the precaution of filming all passengers upon boarding and even in your seat. These companies, such as Cruz del Sur in Peru, do tend to be safer overall, so use your own judgement if you intend to use the overheads with them. Put your arms through the straps if keeping it on your lap when you sleep.
If taking a taxi, have a look on Google Maps so you have a rough idea and direction of where you should be going. If travelling alone sit on the kerb side of the door, or if in twos, both sit on each window side to avoid any extra visitors jumping in. Look the taxi driver in the eye, let him see you read his ID. Reputable companies will have these.
Use ‘Radio Taxi’s’ if you can, it’s sometimes hard to know which is which, but I always look out for the roof sign, signage and phone number on the side of the vehicle. If you’re really worried, avoid the younger looking taxi drivers. Most good hotels and hostels will have up to date information on any latest taxi problems in the area.
Avoid walking home alone, late at night, or drunk for that matter. Drunk = easy target. Although I once walked home at midnight, by myself through a pretty dodgy area of Rio de Janeiro after the Carnaval parade, all the time saying in my head “You’re gonna get mugged, you’re gonna get mugged.” And you know what? I didn’t. Didn’t even have any dodgy people look at or approach me. Probably just lucky, but I was still surprised.
Watch out for ATM’s, see if anyone is watching you, try not to use the street ATM’s that aren’t attached to a bank, these are more likely to have card skimming devices attached to them. If there looks like an added piece has been attached, try not to use it. There are photos online if you want to see what to look out for, although some are very hard to detect.
Look like you know what you’re doing and where you’re going. Looking lost or whipping out that map makes you look vulnerable, screams tourist and ups your risk rating.
And my last tip, try to have a Plan B for if it does happen to you. Figure out what you’ll do, how you’ll get money etc. Maybe keep a stash in your larger backpack. If you lose a credit card, know the number you need to call to cancel it and see if (like Visa) they will courier you a replacement card free of charge.
But all in all don’t allow it to consume you, it will eventually all become second nature and you’ll see what I mean when I say it’s not as bad as you think it will be!