5 Safety tips for South- and Central America

Street art in Valparaiso, Chili.

In 2009, I decided to travel from Mexico to Costa Rica by myself. My mother asked me why I didn’t decide to just go to Spain or Italy. ‘Isn’t Central America too dangerous?’.  And of course, she had a point. South- and Central America aren’t the safest continents, but fortunately many countries are getting safer each year.

Since 2009 I’ve been to many South American countries (Colombia, Ecuador, Surinam, Brazil, Peru, Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia) as well as back to Costa Rica and to Panama. Knock on woods, but so far, I haven’t experienced any trouble. If you ask me, a great way to reduce risks is to follow certain rules. Let me tell you which ones so hopefully you can travel in South- and Central America trouble-free too.

1. Prepare!

Know where (not) to go. Always make sure to consult the Foreign Affair website of your country. This information should be very up to date. Sometimes a whole country is considered as unsafe. And sometimes you should just avoid some parts of a country, for instance around borders. Obviously (political) conditions can change over time. So, do a last-minute check before you leave.

Hereby you’ll find some links to Foreign Affair Websites:

The Netherlands UK USA 

2. Don’t bling bling and be aware of your stuff

Without a fancy camera, Rolex and diamond ring, locals might already see ‘$$$$’ when they look at you. In comparison to a lot of locals you’re rich. A camera can be worth a year income for someone else. And while most people won’t bother you, some others survive by stealing. That’s why I never bring any jewelries on my trips. Maybe just some wooden rings and a beaded necklace. I do bring a camera, but I always ask at my ho(s)tel if I can bring it out. When I leave it in my ho(s)tel, I put it in the safe. Once I was in a place where they didn’t have a safe, but I did have an empty fridge in my room. I unplugged the fridge and hid my stuff in there!

When you’re traveling keep your important stuff close to you. Be aware that your belongings can be stolen when you put them above you in the bus or even on the floor behind your feet. Sometimes people are distracted while their bag is cut open from behind them. A girl I met told me she sat in the bus and her neighbor started talking to her. At the same time the guy behind her cut her bag open and this way she lost her wallet and camera. After reading and hearing about similar tricks, I decided to always keep my daypack on my lap or on the chair next to me.

I’m always extra aware of my stuff at crowded places, like markets, in capital cities and around borders. And I never leave my stuff unattended.

Bus in Ecuador (photo bij Roel Ruijs)

3. ‘Not too many killings in Belize City’…. take local advice seriously.

Safety-rules can be precise. ‘These blocks are fine. Just don’t cross that street, because that area is unsafe’. Or ‘You can walk everywhere during the day. Just take a taxi wherever you go after sunset’.

Unfortunately, not everyone follows these rules. I heard a lot of stories of people being robbed because they thought they didn’t need a taxi for the 3 blocks from the restaurant to their hotel. Even though they were advised not to walk the streets after dark. My advice: just ask the restaurant or hotel to call you a taxi or order an Uber yourself. It might cost you something (most of the times not much) but it might save you a lot. And what’s maybe even more important: it doesn’t negatively impact your vacation or leave you traumatized.

Years ago, I arrived in Belize city on a Sunday evening. There was hardly anyone on the streets and most restaurants were closed. At the hostel, me, and two others I met on the bus, were advised to eat at a restaurant of one of the big hotels. I preferred to take a taxi, but the others wanted to walk. Ánd they brought their cameras, dangling on their necks. I didn’t feel comfortable at all, so when we run into a guard (of some kind of parking) I asked if it was safe to walk at this hour. He replied with ‘Ah… not too many killings in Belize city’… Fortunately nothing happened, but I felt walking to the restaurant was a stupid choice. Of course, I convinced the others to take a taxi home after dinner.

3. Keep someone back home informed about your whereabouts.

Always make sure that someone back home knows where you are or where you are going. If you feel unsure, send a picture of the number plate of your taxi home. Or let family track you on What’s App live.

4. Choose your transportation wisely

Some people in Central- and South America drive like maniacs. On many roads, the small ‘altars’ for the people who died on these roads are countless. When I went from Potosi to Tupiza (in Bolivia) the driver stopped halfway to light a candle for his brother who died 10 months earlier. The tracks on the road were still visible…

When I travel by bus I pick a reliable bus company. I don’t mind paying a little bit extra. Same goes for airways. I check if they’re not on any black list before I go!

Cycling the Death Road.


Small altars for those who died on this road

The brother of our driver died in an accident on this road.

5. And if something goes wrong anyway…

Hopefully I didn’t scare you too much. I just think it’s important to acknowledge some risks, so you can prepare and minimalize them. And if something does go wrong, it might still be ok. I travel with a good travel insurance and I realize that everything (that’s materialistic) is replaceable. Except for my photos. That’s why I always make backups of my pictures and I keep my sd-cards in a money belt when I’m traveling from A to B.

I also keep in mind that if I’d be robbed, I should just give them what they ask for. I don’t want to risk my personal safety. Struggling might be the worst thing to do.

So, just make sure your personal safety is not at risk by following the rules of the country/place you’re visiting so you can enjoy South- or Central America. They are amazing continents to visit and I hardly ever felt unsafe.