The city of Trujillo has the unfavorable reputation of being one of the most unsafe cities in Peru. In October 2011, El Comercio, one of the most respectable newspapers in Peru, asked 1,200 Peruvians what they considered to be the three most dangerous cities in the country. The number of people asked was small, but the results tend to reflect the general perception of crime and public safety in Peruvian cities. The cities considered the most unsafe were Lima (75%), Trujillo (52%) and Chiclayo (22%).
If you ask an average Peruvian about safety in Trujillo, you might hear some disconcerting answers. You might hear that:
- It’s a haven for organized crime
- Mafia-esque gangs run extortion and protection rackets among local businesses
- Armed muggings are common
- Buses, including tourist buses, are sometimes held up by armed gangs
- Bogus tour guides take unsuspecting tourists to remote locations to rob or rape them
- In the not-so-distant past, police death squads murdered gang members and other criminals in bloody raids
- You can hire an amateur hitman to kill someone for less than US$50
If you think the above sounds far-fetched, think again. Such things have happened -- and continue to happen -- in Trujillo. But is it a city that foreign tourists should avoid?
A Diamond in the Rough
In actuality, Trujillo is a standout destination on the north coast of Peru and one that all tourists should visit if they head north from Lima. There are security issues and problem areas that you need to be aware of, but the same can be said for most major cities in Peru and throughout the world.
Most tourists leave Trujillo with nothing but positive experiences. If you exercise reasonable caution and basic security measures, there’s no reason why you should run into any problems during your stay.
There’s really not much to worry about in the historic center of Trujillo, especially during the day. Of course, opportunistic theft is common in Peru, so watch out for pickpockets in crowded areas and keep your wallet and expensive items (camera, laptop, etc.) as hidden as possible. If you carry a day bag, keep a firm grip on it and never let it out of your sight.
Exercise greater caution at night. While the Plaza de Armas and immediately surrounding streets are generally safe after dark, you should nonetheless keep a closer eye on your surroundings and avoid completely empty streets. Avoid stumbling around drunk in the early hours.
The historic center is contained within the circular Avenida España (which follows the path of the old city walls). Once you cross over Avenida España from the historic center, you’ll enter less touristy and increasingly less secure parts of the city. Feel free to explore the streets immediately off Avenida España, but be extra careful if you stray too far from the historic center -- especially at night.
There are some excellent restaurants outside the historic core, such as the Don Rulo cevicheria and El Cuatrero Parrillada. The safest and easiest way to reach them is by one of Trujillo’s numerous taxis. Always use a recommended taxi company; your hotel should be able to call a reliable taxi on your behalf.
Hotels in the historic center can be quite expensive, but it’s worth paying a little more than usual for a well-located hotel that offers higher levels of security. Hotel Colonial and La Hacienda are both good, affordable options just a few blocks from the main square.
Outside the City
Many of Trujillo’s main tourist attractions are located just outside the city. You can visit them independently or with a tour agency located in the city center.
If you’re looking for a tour guide, don’t trust informal guides who promise to take you to little-known spots near famous archaeological sites such as the Huaca de la Luna or Chan Chan. It could be a scam to lead you to an isolated location to be robbed or possibly raped. In general, stick with recognized tour operators who have offices in the historic center or those recommended by your hotel.
You can get to most of Trujillo’s surrounding attractions independently, but don’t stray from the well-trodden route. If you take a combi (minibus) from the center of Trujillo to the Huaca de la Luna or Chan Chan, for example, get off at the site entrance and find an official guide inside. Be wary of unofficial guides outside the main entrance.
Another potential pitfall comes in the guise of the San Pedro-proffering shaman. These fake shamans are known to offer psychedelic San Pedro sessions to tourists; the tourist then becomes an easy target to rob -- or worse -- during mescaline-induced highs caused by the ancient cactus concoction. Such scams also take place in Huanchaco, a popular beach town near Trujillo.