South America—home of the famous Machu Picchu, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Patagonia, and more—attracts roughly 37 million tourists per year. Naturally, due to the presence of rebel groups and its notoriously violent illegal drug trade, parts of the continent have been deemed unsafe for tourism. But even Colombia, widely avoided as a travel destination until the early aughts, has turned its reputation around in recent years. There are many places to visit in South America if you practice basic safety and stay away from certain areas and activities.
- Due to COVID-19, the U.S. Department of State has issued a Level 3 Travel Advisory ("reconsider travel") for all South American countries except Uruguay, which remains a Level 2 ("exercise increased caution"), and Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela, all under a Level 4 ("do not travel").
- Prior to COVID-19, all but one were under a Level 2 due to crime, terrorism, kidnapping, and/or civil unrest. Venezuela has been placed under a Level 4 due to "crime, civil unrest, poor health infrastructure, kidnapping, arbitrary arrest, and detention of U.S. citizens," the advisory says.
Is South America Dangerous?
While some parts of South America have been deemed dangerous by the U.S. Department of State, much of the continent is perfectly safe to visit. Travelers are advised to avoid the entire country of Venezuela due to ongoing political instability. Parts of Colombia—Arauca, Cauca (except Popayan), Chocó (except Nuquí), Nariño, and Norte de Santander (except Cucuta)—are also under a Level 4 because of crime, terrorism, and kidnapping. In 2019, the U.S. Department of State warned of "K risks" in 35 countries following the kidnapping of American tourist Kimberly Sue Endicott in Uganda. Venezuela and Colombia were the only two South American countries on the list.
The safest places in the continent seem to be the stunning beaches of French Guiana, Uruguay, the volcano-laden nation of Chile, Suriname (South America's smallest), Paraguay, and Argentina. Wherever you go, leave your valuables at home and travel with an abundance caution.
Is South America Safe for Solo Travelers?
South America is safe for solo travelers so long as they stick to low-risk areas and remain vigilant. Many of its cities and countries are popular tourist destinations with countless hostels frequented by the backpacker set. Solo travelers should stick to these areas—Bogota, Colombia; Jijoca de Jericoacoara, Brazil; Santiago de Chile, Chile; Mendoza, Argentina; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for instance—and only travel to more remote or dangerous areas with a licensed tour guide. As with any city, solo travelers should avoid going out alone at night and taking solo taxi rides. Kidnappings happen, so use the buddy system as often as possible.
Is South America Safe for Female Travelers?
Women travel to South America all the time—often in groups, sometimes alone—and many of them return home with only positive experiences. Women's rights are not as progressive in South America as they are in the U.S. and there are frequent reports of domestic violence in many countries; however, this doesn't generally put female travelers at risk. Because of South America's very macho, chauvinistic culture, women may experience cat calling or other hassle from men. What they should really keep an eye out for, though, is pickpocketing and other non-violent crime. Female travelers are vulnerable, especially when alone, so they should keep their guards up and travel in groups when possible.
Safety Tips for LGBTQ+ Travelers
Homosexuality is legal in every South American country except Guyana, where it is punishable by life imprisonment (although that rule is rarely enforced). Same-sex marriage is illegal in seven countries: Bolivia, Chile, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, and Venezuela. Anti-discrimination laws are in place everywhere except Guyana, Paraguay, and parts of Argentina. Travelers should know the laws of the countries they intend to visit, and try to avoid public displays of affection even where it's legal as violence towards LGBTQ+ individuals and couples still occurs.
Safety Tips for BIPOC Travelers
Demographics vary by country—for instance, Argentina is 85 percent white whereas Suriname is primarily Black and East Indian. Bolivia is 55 percent Amerindian while 75 percent of Paraguay's population identifies as mestizo. South America, as a whole, is a melting pot of races and ethnicities, and the vast majority of it is extremely hospitable and welcoming. That being said, racism is prevalent (as it is throughout the world), and exists in various forms. So long as BIPOC travelers stick to the tourist-centric places where locals are more exposed to diversity and are therefore more accepting, they shouldn't encounter any trouble.
Safety Tips for Travelers
- Colombians have a saying, no dar papaya (don't give papaya), which means "don't be stupid," or—in other words—don't put yourself in a position to be taken advantage of. Travelers should walk with confidence, stay aware, and avoid looking like a target.
- Educate yourself on the current affairs of your destination and avoid demonstrations or any unrest while there.
- Keep in mind that pickpockets often work in pairs or groups. One or more will distract you while another does the stealing.
- Learn and practice basic Spanish or Portuguese in case of an emergency.
- Wear appropriate clothing for the locale and situation. Dress like the locals and conceal any valuable possessions (iPhones, cameras, jewelry, etc.).
- It's always a good idea to register with your embassy or consulate before traveling abroad.
U.S. Department of State. "Uruguay Travel Advisory." November 23, 2020.
U.S. Department of State. "Argentina Travel Advisory." August 6, 2020.
U.S. Department of State. "Brazil Travel Advisory." August 6, 2020.
U.S. Department of State. "Venezuela Travel Advisory." October 30, 2020.
U.S. Department of State. "Colombia Travel Advisory." October 30, 2020.
U.S. Department of State. "Introduction of K Risk Indicator." April 9, 2019.
United Nations. "More women in Latin America are working, but gender gap persists, new UN figures show." October 28, 2019.
Centro de Investigación en Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades, UAEM. "Composición Étnica de las Tres Áreas Culturales del Continente Americano al Comienzo del Siglo XXI." 2008.