Bogota, Colombia, Latin America

Is Latin America a safe travel destination?

Infos, tips and tricks for your health, personal and mental safety when traveling Latin America

First things first: Yes, Latin America is a safe travel destination when you follow your healthy natural instinct and adjust to certain rules of the latin culture. And avoid no-go areas that you also would avoid in Europe, North America or anywhere else in the world.

But, let’s be honest, Latin America is a difficult area: historically, economically, socially.

In many parts it’s a poor continent. With people having way less to spend on their lives than in other parts of the world. 

Here we want to give you some important tips, tricks and advice on how to behave and what to watch out for to make your trip through this part of the world an unforgettable and unique experience.

Crime

Petty theft is most common when it comes to crime. On the street, in buses, in bars, it can happen. Definitely be aware of that. All over Latin America. 

But, also know that the majority of people you will encounter will keep an eye on you when you approach them with a friendly attitude. And especially when you interact with them, buy something from them or show interest in what they are doing.

And if some trustworthy person gives you security advice about the area and its people, believe it. 

Still, narco and gang criminality exists, but usually doesn’t involve travelers. 

What travelers have to look out for is pick-pocketing, scams or getting involuntarily drugged in order to get robbed, or in a worst case scenario, sexually assaulted.

Latin America - Quito's Old Town
Quito - View over Centro Historico with Panecillo

In order to avoid pick-pocketing:

  • Don’t wear jewelry or wrist watches.
  • Don’t wave around with what you have and keep it on the lowdown.
  • Keep your wallet and phone hidden or at least in your front pockets.
  • Turn your backpack into a ‘frontpack’ when in public transportation or crowded places.
  • Don’t use your phone in public without scanning your surroundings.
  • Don’t keep the wallet in a back pocket (yes, I know I said it twice, for a reason)

In order to avoid scams:

  • Don’t interact, listen or follow random people that approach you in the streets or at a bar. Ignore them!
  • Always be suspicious and on the lookout and back out if anything seems fishy.
  • Always make taxi drivers turn on the meter.
  • Negotiate everything beforehand.

In order to avoid drugging:

  • Always keep an eye on your drinks when in a bar, better close it with a coaster. Don’t take drinks or even sip from strangers drinks
  • Don’t touch stuff that somebody hands to you: When you are asked to translate a letter on the street for example, or when someone wants to sell you postcards. It is not uncommon in Latin America that a drug called Burundanga (extracted out of the fruits of the ‘Brugmansia’ or Angel’s Trumpet, a common garden flower) is used to make you unconscious, and that drug can even be absorbed through the skin, put in your drink or simply blown in your face. 
  • Stay alert when somebody overly friendly offers you free stuff, drinks, a tour, transport or wants to accompany you to a ‘secret tip’ restaurant.

In order to avoid an assault/holdup/raid/ambush (with knives or guns):

Well, there is not much you can do. Out of our own experience, try to save yourself! Unharmed!!! No phone, wallet or camera is more important than your own life!

A common assault is 2 guys on a motorcycle trying to rob you, mostly in deserted or less touristy areas. So stay in a public area and take safe rides back to the hotel.

In any case, if you get robbed, hand everything over and shut up! Nobody needs to know about those emergency 20 Dollars in a belt, shoe or boxers. 

Everything else is definitely replaceable.

The sun

Well, this is a huge topic here and should not be taken lightly. The sun around the equator is extremely strong!

No matter where you are, in the Andes, the Amazon basin or somewhere on land or sea in the Galapagos islands, the sun is a serious threat.

UV Indexes are high on a daily basis, not to compare with the Mediterranean Sea during July. 

Even on cloudy or rainy days it is extremely important to use sunscreen on all body parts that are exposed. Put it on right in the morning and don’t forget to reapply it regularly. Additionally, wear a hat with a wide brim and wear long sleeves and pants.

A sunburn can be really severe here and can easily ruin an otherwise perfect trip!

We would always advise you to use SPF50 (reef-safe brands of course).

And, whenever possible, seek shelter in the shade.

The sun over the Andes

Mosquitos

These flying little monsters not only cause itchiness and annoying swellings, but can also carry diseases like Dengue Fever, Zika or Malaria. So, be aware of them when going to the coastal regions or into the Amazon basin. Especially at dusk and dawn, near open water, mosquitos are present.

So, what to do against them? Use repellent! 

There’s natural options you should consider first in order to protect the environment.

If there’s no way around, only then use repellent that usually carries ingredients like DEET or Icaridin. These are highly effective, but also not environmentally friendly, and also can irritate the skin. DEET for example, when getting into your eyes, can be a real hassle for a couple of hours. 

But, mosquitos are aggressive as well. So just know your weapons. And use them wisely!

Insect repellent - Icaridin, DEET

Altitude sickness

Soroche, as the altitude sickness is called here, is another serious thing to keep in mind when traveling the high Andes. It usually appears above 2500m (8200ft).

In cities like Quito, Riobamba or Cuenca, you are already on altitudes between 2450m and 3000m (8000ft-9850ft).

The symptoms are different for everyone: Anything from headache, feeling sick, dizziness, tiredness, loss of appetite or shortness of breath, amongst others.

So, when you arrive in Quito for example, take it easy for the first few days. Take light walks, stay hydrated, get used to the altitude before going to higher grounds and do those fantastic hikes in the avenue of the volcanoes.

In any case, if the altitude sickness hits you hard, always descend from the mountain!

Altitude Sickness in Latin America

Tap water

Don’t drink it! Always go for water coolers to fill up your bottle, or buy bottled water.

Yes, in some places the tap water is safe to drink, and I usually do it in newer buildings in Quito, Guayaquil or Cuenca since I live in Ecuador and I imagine I know when it’s safe for me.

But for travelers, especially when you have a weaker stomach in general, it’s just not worth the risk of dealing with an upset belly when you’re only in the country for a couple of weeks or so. 

Tap water in Latin America

La hora Latinoamericana

Well, this is not a serious safety threat, but a little information about it might improve your mental stability. 

In most Latin American countries, it is still polite to arrive a little late for dates, appointments, and meetings.

Don’t take it personally and don’t leave, the person you are meeting with will come eventually. It is best to arrive a little late yourself.

For me, it took quite some time to adjust to that, but at some point I got somehow over my usual overly punctual nature. 

La hora Latinoamericana
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