I’ve been travelling through Central and South America for close to eight months now and during that time, the topic of travel safety has continually came up in conversations with fellow travellers. I’ve met plenty of people who have misplaced or had things stolen from dorm rooms, pick pocketed in the streets, and few who have been robbed at knife and gun point . When hearing or reading about them in other blogs, it doesn’t surprise me that it can deter people from travelling to certain places here, but it shouldn’t.
I am currently in Santiago, Chile where my time in Lain America will end next week. Just like Mexico where I began this trip, Santiago is used by many travellers as a starting point for a Latin American adventure. Everywhere in the hostel, I can feel the intoxicating energy of fellow travellers that I can remember when I first nervously checked into my Mexican hostel. It’s a great city to start a trip like this. Well developed with all of the modern amenities of the first world so you’re not being thrown into the deep end first up. You can even flush the toilet paper down the loo here, but like most Countries here and even around the world, it’s not without its dangers.
I wasn’t planning on writing anything about travel safety here, but after seeing a young German, just starting his trip arrive back to the hostel this morning covered with cuts, bruises and facial injuries including a chipped tooth resulting from a mugging, I feel compelled to do so. I’m not sure how well travelled one needs to be to qualify as being able give this advice, but if I were to give new travellers some advice on travel safety based on my last eight months in this neck of the woods, I would offer the following ten tips.
Go slow and take your time to get to know a place
Spend the first day or to become orientated with a place. I generally look at a map briefly and walk few a couple of hours without referring too much at the map. Most of the times lose sense of direction but not enough to get into major trouble. Things to keep an eye out for are the location of: Bus and train station routes, ATM’s, supermarkets, entertainment precincts and where the main traffic areas are. Try to avoid the temptation on taking your camera out on the first day. You will soak in more information see it in a different way if you’re not constantly looking through a viewfinder. If you like what you see and want to take some photos then you can always return another time.
Whether you have time or not to stay in a place then I would recommend recommend a free walking tour of the city. Although they are called free, it’s still advised to tip the guide however the information learned and questions you can ask about safety can prove to be invaluable. Try to find one run by a local as they would have either grown up in the area or have spent quite a bit of time there.
Learn off fellow travellers
You can do as much research online or reading books but nothing beats talking to people about their previous experiences when they travelled. I’m sure you can name a hand full of people who have done sort of short or long term travel in the past 12 months. There are millions of other blogs that touch on the issue of safety and most are happy to respond to any email questions, including myself. While you’re on the road, it’s even easier to find out more as you’re staying in places with other travellers who you could ask. They will most likely be going to places you are going to or have already been, plus it would be an awesome way to meet new people. Finally, talk to the hostel staff who live locally as they will have extensive knowledge on where to go and not to go.
Keep your documents safe
Your health and personal safety should always be your number one priority. In my opinion, your official documents should be second as they are a major hassle to replace. I always keep these in my pack that never leaves my side when travelling on any form of transport and I never let anybody touch it. Although I’ve never used them, I can still see merit in those money belts. Just don’t do what a lot of people I see do and go pulling it out it in public. First of all, I don’t want to see the skin under your shirt and secondly, it’s supposed to hide from people the location your important stuff, not to broadcast it. If you need to retrieve something from it then do it beforehand or go somewhere private to do so.
Out on the town? Safety in numbers.
You may do it more frequently after you’ve been travelling for a while but self confidence will be your downfall. It’s not common to feel super confident after a few brewskies and decide to walk home. I am guilty of this. Take a taxi home or if you have to walk, then ask a friend or fellow traveller to when they are thinking of going and leave together. If you’re by yourself by any chance then ask a mixed group of guys and girls leaving wherever if you can tag along if they are going in the same direction.
Also, don’t get too drunk. I know, I sound like your mother now and it may be difficult to do so at the start of a trip, but we’re not back at home anymore where you can lose your wallet and call a friend or relative to come pick you up.
Know what time of the day to travel.
The safest time to travel is during the day, however on longer routes people prefer overnight busses to save on dishing out the cash on accommodation for the evening. For example, in western Mexico the roads are narrow and sketchy at best and wind through mountainous terrain and the drivers pretty crazy speeders. So you may want to evaluate whether to travel at night.
It may sound obvious but taking into account the bus departure and arrival times is important too as most bus stations are out of town in some dodgy areas. After a 10 hour bus ride, we arrived in the capital of Honduras, Tegucigalpa in the evening. It’s not a great place to be caught out at night so we caught the taxi to the hotel (even some hostels weren’t safe from speaking to friends) and even got ripped off by the cab driver, but you do’t really want to get into an argument in the evening in the a city that has the fifth highest rate of homicide in the world.
Also, in many of places, the metro train system shuts down earlier than you’d think. For example, in Buenos Aires at closes at 10pm and in Santiago, Chile it shuts at 11pm, in a city where people don’t leave go out partying until closer to midnight and beyond.
Riding the death bus in Mexico
Stay in places with good security
Hostels, like any home should be and feel safe. This includes protection from strangers entering as well as from other travellers. The first thing I do when I look up a hostel online is check on the rating on security given by other travellers to that place. Also check on the comments section as well for any negative feedback on safety. Most hostels also have female only dorms if sleeping in a room of buys as well is a concern. If this is the case, but be sure to contact and book a hostel in advance though. The last thing you want is not getting the type of accommodation you want and then having to go finding something else.
If it is not locked up, then it will go missing
Most hostels in Central and South America don’t have locks on their lockers, so ALWAYS bring at least one combination lock with you. One for the locker and one for your larger pack as it won’t be able to fit into most lockers.
This also applies mainly for things left laying around in hostel dorms. I won’t go as far as fingerprinting at fellow travellers but other people have access to dorm rooms too. Cleaners at most hostels enter the rooms daily and a lot of the time, outside contractors such as fumigators or tradespeople are let into the rooms without any prior warning. People who steal other people’s property are generally opportunists, not criminals and they won’t hesitate to take a swipe at any spare pesos or iPhones laying around unattended if they can easily get away with it.
If by any chance there are no lockers available, lock up your valuables in your backpack. It won’t stop people from cutting into your bag but you will most definitely deny any opportunists the chance of taking anything valuable.
Backup your documents and emergency cards/cash.
Always have photocopies of passports on you or in the cloud or on email so that you can easily show it as identification. Most places will also use a photocopy as ID without you having to bring a physical passport. As careful as you can be, chances are high that you will lose a bank card or two. I’ve already lost two due to the fact that I left the card in the machine and walked off. Silly I know but these things happen when you’ve lived in a country for 30+ years where your brain is wired to expect a bankcard to be ejected from the machine prior to receiving the cash and receipt.
In the event that this may happen, carry some emergency cash on you. It’s impossible to carry specific currencies if you’re travelling through multiple countries, but most of the time, US dollars are a safe bet. These also come in handy if you have just crossed a country border and can’t find an ATM but a place to change money. Always opt for the ATM if you can wait, but at least you know you have a backup.
Leave what you don’t need in the locker
This includes cash, cards and to an extent, mobile phones. Whenever possible, I try to minimise the number of trips to the ATM’s. This means withdrawing the maximum allowed in one transaction and it should last me for most of the week. Whilst I am going about my daily business, I’ll just carry whatever cash I need for the day and leave the rest locked up along with my cards and personal documents. While you’re out, there’s no need for these and it will limit the risk of losing a lot of cash as well as taking a load off your mind. I never enjoy carrying so much cash on myself.
Understand the culture and customs and learn a few words and phrases
Sometimes we need to be a bit more self conscious of our actions and how we present ourselves in public. Do your research on where you are travelling to on their cultural or religious beliefs. If you’re unsure then ere on the side of caution. Most places in Central America are insanely hot and humid, however in some places you may want to consider covering up a bit more for the girls and for the guys, put on a singlet or shirt rather than walking around shirtless.
Being able to speak a few words improves your confidence as well as closing the cultural gap between travellers and locals. Words such as: “help, no thanks, I am from Australia etc, stop, I’m ok thanks, goodbye, need, want, please” go a long way. It may not seem like much but at least if you can speak a few words and come across as confident then it can act as a minor deterrent for anybody just testing the waters if you have a clue or not before possibly trying to rip you off.
Trust your gut
Nobody knows you better than yourself. Gut instincts aren’t just strange random crazy voices inside of your head. They’re an accumulation of past experiences and preparation that forewarn you that something doesn’t seem right.
It’s no surprise that most of the questions about safety come from women. As much as we want equality in the world, we still need to do our research on how women are perceived and treated wherever we are travelling to. There have been some news on the dangers of travelling solo as a female. I don’t think I’m qualified to say too much on this for obvious reasons, but Shannon from A Little Adrift who has been travelling the world for five years now has written a detailed piece on solo female travel and overcoming fears. One word of advice she gives that applies for both males and females is that the each place has it’s own set of risks and challenges, should be assessed individually, and you should go about your own business with your own safety in mind.
Those are the first thoughts on safety and prevention that come to mind and from experience during the last eight months. Reading them, it may seem obvious, only because they are the easiest points to immediately take action without requiring any significant changes in behaviour or plans. Up until now I’ve been saying that I’ve been lucky to not have anything majorly bad happen to me on this trip. A huge part of that comes to planning and preparation prior to moving on to a place and trying to stick to the points above as well. No doubt I will update this post again sometime soon as I learn more from personal experience as well as from others.
Do you agree with above advice or have any other tips on travel safety to keep yourself and your property safe?