Common Sense Safe Travel in South America

Colored and steep neighborhood of Valparaiso, Chile
Pierre-Yves Babelon/Getty Images

Traveling, exploring new places, discovering ourselves is a joy and a learning experience not to be missed. Being open to adventure and off-the-beaten-path travel is part of the experience. And yet, it's only common sense to know what to expect and take some cautionary steps. Some of these suggestions apply to travel anywhere, and some only to South America. Enjoy your travels, but be safe!

When away from home, there are some basic safety tips:

Documents and Visas

  • Carry them with you. If you are stopped or detained by the police, you will need to prove who you are. If you're worried about having your passport stolen, carry it in a hidden pouch under your clothes.
  • Copy all your documents and leave a copy at home.
  • Email all your details, itinerary, passport number, name of embassy and visa, to your own email address, so if you lose anything, you can visit an internet café, log in, and get your details.


  • Travel light! Unless you are going on a cruise and will unpack once for the entire duration, you are better off with a smaller amount of baggage.
  • Pack what you can carry yourself.
  • Pack with the expectation that you will acquire more during your journey.
  • Pack your own luggage and do not let it out of your sight.
  • Do not ask other people to watch your luggage or agree to watch someone else's.
  • Never, never, never carry packages for someone else.
  • Make sure you know what you've packed in each piece of luggage. Place your name, address and telephone number inside each piece.
  • Use luggage tags, but make sure they are covered.
  • Invest in travel insurance. You may not like the cost, but if you need it, you'll be glad to have it.
  • Consider these travel safety myths and truths.


  • Leave most of your credit cards at home.
  • Know your credit card numbers: whom to call if lost or stolen.
  • Use traveler's checks.
  • Carry your cash in different pockets, or in a hidden wallet on your body. A money belt is a good investment.
  • Do not put your wallet in a fanny pack, a backpack, or in a purse hung over a shoulder. These are very popular with pickpockets.
  • Don't count your money in public. Have a small amount in a convenient pocket for cab fare, bus fare, tips, etc.
  • Be cautious when using automatic teller machines. If you use an ATM in a public area, pick a well-lit machine and be aware of anyone who may be watching you.

Keeping in Touch

  • Decide on an itinerary in advance and leave a copy with family and friends.
  • US citizens can register their travel plans with the embassy or consulate. If a search is needed to find you, this will be the place authorities contact.
  • Keep in touch along the way. Let people know of changes to your itinerary.
  • Use email, text messaging and the telephone.
  • If on an overnight or longer stay away from your hotel, let the front desk know your stops, expected time of arrival and departures.

Arrivals and Departures

  • Try to arrive in the daytime.
  • Choose your own taxi. Do not be cajoled into accepting a ride from an unmarked cab.
  • In an airport, where possible, check in, go through whatever security measures and go to your boarding area.

Staying in Hotels and Hostels

  • Your choice depends on your budget and personal preferences, but choose sensibly.
  • Take a rubber doorstop to use on your side of the locked door.
  • Ask for a room near the elevator or stairs.
  • Check for fire detectors in public areas, hallways and sleeping rooms.


  • Keep them hidden.
  • Leave your good jewelry at home.
  • If you must take some, check it into the hotel safe. Don't wear it while touring.

Medications and Prescriptions

  • If you take prescription medicine, get a note from your doctor stating the medication, doses and a refill prescription.
  • If you are diabetic, make sure you carry a note on your person with instructions should you need help.
  • Do not try to take extra with you. Many customs and police officials might consider this drug trafficking.
  • Take your own first aid kit. In addition to bandages, topical ointments, sanitary needs, condoms, etc. painkillers, antiseptic wipes, etc., take along motion sickness remedies.

Drugs and Unlawful Substances

  • Don't! The penalties for possession of/or trafficking in drugs in some countries can include long prison sentences or even death.


  • Take it with you. Use it, and put it away, out of sight. Something that doesn't look like a camera case is useful.
  • Don't hang it around your neck.
  • Take some film with you. It's readily available in most places.

Personal Behavior

  • Please try not to look and act like a tourist. Be a traveler, a visitor, but not an unwary tourist.
  • Wear appropriate clothing for the locale and situation. Dress like the locals as much as possible. Don't flaunt your affluent status. Even if you are not wealthy, to the poorer people, or con and scam artists, you are a target.
  • Respect local taboos, traditions, and customs.
  • Study ahead. Know your destination. Study your local map and guidebook before you head out on a tour, either alone or with a group.
  • Know your way back to your hotel.
  • Walk with a purpose. Know where you are going.
  • Do not walk alone at night, particularly down dark streets.
  • When in a bar or nightclub, do not accept drinks from strangers. Do not leave your drink unattended. If you must leave it, order a fresh drink. Do not take a chance with any of the "date rape" drugs. Keep your hand over your glass. It is very easy for someone to drop something in.
  • If you smoke, do not accept cigarettes or food from strangers. These may also be drugged.
  • Intimacy with a hot-blooded Latin lover, of either sex, may be on your agenda, but take precautions.

Criminal Activity

  • Be aware of your surroundings at all times. Stay alert to what is going on around you when you are out in public.
  • Muggers look for people who look unaware.
  • Keep your money, passport in a hidden bag next to your skin.
  • Pickpockets often work in pairs, or groups. One or more will distract you while the pickpocket does his or her job.
  • Learn and practice basic Spanish words for assistance in Spanish and/or Portuguese. In an emergency, you might not have time to consult your phrasebook or dictionary.
  • Learn the laws and regulations of the area you're visiting. Ignorance of the law is never an acceptable excuse.
  • Whatever you've heard about bribing your way out of trouble or police custody, forget it.
  • Be especially aware of unmarked or otherwise suspicious motorcycles. Motorcycle robbers approach from behind on unlicensed or unmarked motorcycles, snatch your purse or other valuables and disappear into traffic.
  • If confronted with an attempted robbery, do not resist. Remember that possessions can be replaced, but lives cannot.

Women Travelers

  • Don't be a victim! Use your street smarts.
  • Walk with a purpose. Know where you are going. Confident and aware people are less a target for muggers and pickpockets.
  • If you are attracting unwelcome male attention, conceal your knowledge of Spanish or Portuguese.
  • Wear a "wedding" ring if you are single.
  • Have a picture of your "husband" ready to display.
  • Sit with or near other women travelers on public transportation.
  • Walk with or near other women in public markets, on the streets, etc.
  • Don't give out the name of your hotel, your room number, or display your room key.

Political Issues

  • Be aware that in many countries of Latin America, US citizens may be welcome even while political stress exists.
  • Don't allow yourself to be caught up in political demonstrations.
  • Stay out of riots and large massed gatherings.
  • Be cautious. Before you travel, find out what's been happening where you're going.
  • Read or watch the news.
  • Talk to other travelers. Share your own experiences.

Country Information


  • Argentina is a medium-income nation, which continues to emerge from the 2001-2002 financial crisis. Buenos Aires and other large cities have well-developed tourist facilities and services including many four and five star hotels. The quality of tourist facilities in smaller towns outside the capital varies, and may not be up to similar standards.


  • Bolivia is a constitutional democracy, with an elected President and Congress. A developing country, with one of the lowest per capita incomes in the Western Hemisphere, Bolivia is a popular destination for adventure and eco-tourists. Tourist facilities are generally adequate, but vary greatly in quality.


  • Brazil, a nation the size of the lower 48 United States, has an advanced developing economy. Facilities for tourism are excellent in the major cities, but vary in quality in remote areas. The Capital is Brasilia.
  • Rio de Janeiro is billed as a marvelous city, and it is, but be aware that tourists flocking to the beach are targets for the poor who live in the favelas and feel the contrast between economic status. Unfortunately, the favelas are troubled by widespread drug-related crime, gang warfare and other poverty-related social issues.
  • Rival gangs from the favelas are known to stake out "territory" on the beaches, and defend it with violence.
  • The combination of high crime and poverty make it essential to practice good safety habits.
  • The Brazilian government recently launched a campaign to stop the sexual exploitation of minors by tourists.


  • Bogota and other cities of Colombia are targets for not only the usual types of criminal activity, but also acts of terrorism by various factions rebelling against the government, the curtailment of the drug trade, and US assistance in eradicating the coca fields. News of bombings, murders and assassinations fill the daily news. The US government advises travelers not to visit Colombia.


  • Ecuador is a Spanish-speaking country about the size of Colorado. It has a developing economy and a democratically elected government. Ecuador is geographically and ethnically diverse. In general, tourist facilities are adequate but vary in quality. Ecuador adopted the U.S. dollar in 2000. Both U.S. coins and Ecuadorian coins, which are equivalent to the value of the U.S. coins, are used.

French Guiana:

  • French Guiana is an overseas department of France. It is a sparsely populated tropical area located on the northern coast of South America. French is the predominant language; English is not widely spoken. Tourist facilities are available, especially in the larger cities such as Cayenne and Kourou, but in some instances are not highly developed. Kourou is home to the Guiana Space Center, from which Ariane rockets are launched.​


  • Guyana is a developing nation on the north coast of South America. Tourist facilities are not developed, except for hotels in the capital city of Georgetown and a limited number of eco-resorts.​


  • Paraguay is a constitutional democracy with a developing economy. Tourist facilities are adequate in the capital city of Asuncion, but they vary greatly in quality and prices. Travelers outside Asuncion should consider seeking travel agency assistance, as satisfactory or adequate tourist facilities are very limited in other major cities and almost nonexistent in remote areas.​


  • Peru is a developing country with an expanding tourism sector. A wide variety of tourist facilities and services are available, with quality varying according to price and location.


  • Uruguay is a middle-income nation with a developing economy. The quality of facilities for tourism varies, according to price and area. The capital city is Montevideo.​


  • Venezuela is a medium income country with a substantial oil industry. Over the past seven years the political situation in Venezuela has at times been highly polarized and volatile. Scheduled air service and all-weather roads connect major cities and most regions of the country. Venezuela’s tourism infrastructure varies in quality according to location and price.

After all these cautions, have a good trip. Buen viaje!

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