Backpacker’s secret: How to not get robbed in South America

Photo of Backpacker’s secret: How to not get robbed in South America 1/1 by Neha Bhuchar

There are two things, in my opinion, that keeps people from traveling – safety and expenses. Lets talk about the former!

Of-course, for us, Indians, there is another reason: VISA application. I wouldn’t be surprised if you are an American/ Canadian/ Australian/ British and you don’t know what a visa is, because you know, people welcome you with open arms while third world citizens are stuck at immigration to prove that they are not going to work/study/ stay back in their country forever!

Coming back to safety. Tourists and travelers are the pet targets of attack for pick-pockets and thieves, for obvious reasons. Fortunately, I have never been drugged, mugged or bugged in any of the developing countries that I have visited or lived in,  but have been robbed in a buzzing restaurant in the US. I also believe that most robberies are opportunity driven rather than planned. The moment you drop your guard, you can expect something to go wrong. But we are human, we can’t be vigilant 100% of the time. Well, I follow some rules of thumb to go by when I am traveling:

  • When in RomeWhen in Rome, do what the Romans do. Blend in. Don’t wear flashy clothes. If you are carrying something expensive (a camera), make sure you wrap it around your hand or loop it around you neck. Save your higher denomination currency and try to use the smaller coins/notes while going out for dinner/ drinks.
  • Check before you leave: More often than not, people are just absent minded, thus leaving behind things. I make it a point to look around before I get off a taxi, bus, cafe to check if anything is left behind. Be sure to check you “Phone-wallet-keys-passport” before leaving a place/taxi.
  • Invest in the best locks ever: Invest in a couple of good locks to lock your hostel room locker. If you must carry some money with you, buy yourself a body pocket, pocket socks (remove socks at airport security, due to metal zippers) and a anti-theft bag (for the beach & water sports) before you embark on your travels.
  • Don’t put all your eggs in one basket: Try to put your cash at different places, so that in the unfortunate event of getting robbed, you have something to fall back on. I try to put my cash in different pockets in my backpack, body pockets and some of it rolled up in my tooth brush case (which is packed in the vanity kit). Try to carry some US Dollars as they are acceptable everywhere. Also, make sure you have 2 sets of keys for your locker and that both of them are outside the locker.
  • Listen to your mom: Remember when you were a little girl/boy and your mom told you “not to accept food from strangers”. Yeah – that holds true – always. Even in hostels.
  • Better safe than sorry: Do not share rides with people who you do not know. Carjacking is pretty common in some cities. Make sure you lock your doors in a cab. Sometimes, if it is the only way out, use your judgement about people. I find it easier to trust females and families with kids. That of-course is not always true. Looks may be deceiving – but sometimes you just have to take a call.
  • Don’t drop your guard: It is easier said than done. You cannot be careful all the time. So, be careful when you need it the most – especially when you are in transit and you have all your stuff on you. Try to store your bags in the bus storage compartments. If not, then tie your backpack on the overhead compartment. Keep your luggage with you all the time. Do not carry important things like passport, credit cards, cash when it is not needed – especially when you are going out for dinner or sightseeing within the city.
  • Learn how to speak the native language: At-least know how to call out for help when you need it. Most places, you will find someone who can understand English. But when you are visiting smaller towns, you need to know some basics – just in case you are lost or robbed.
  • Walk like you know where you’re going: Try not to look like you are lost, or new to the place. You may look like you are a foreigner, but you don’t want to be confused and look vulnerable. Before leaving your hostel, take note of some landmarks of your next destination – whether it is a bus stop or where-ever it is that you are going.
  • Give it up: Accept the fact that if you are robbed at gunpoint, you cannot do anything about it. All you need to do is give up what you have to – and move on. Your life is more important than anything else. A friend of mine carries a fake purse with a lot of 1 $ bills and an old mobile phone. I have never tried it, but it is not a bad idea. Try to carry your credit/debit cards hidden away in body pockets.

Bonus tip: If by a stroke of bad luck, you are robbed. You should have at-least 1 copy of your passport and your embassy address and phone number with you at all times, so that you can get in touch with them to get an emergency passport. Check up on major scams in where you are going – fake cops, fake tour guides – so that you are mentally prepared about things to expect and be cautious about. This will come handy when you are in a new place.

I was warned a hundred times before I traveled to South America on my own, because of its image of being unsafe for travelers. But I cannot even begin to count the number of people that went out of their way to help me. Me being me, I have shown up in a completely new town without even booking my hostel. At 10 pm in a town in Peru where no one spoke my language, a girl came to my rescue and actually drove me to my hostel in her car. In Costa Rica, I accidentally left my drivers license at the bus stop while pre-booking my tickets. The lady at the ticket counter walked all the way to my hostel to give it back to me. Yet another time, a local family came to my rescue in Columbia when I lost my way from the Airport. May be I was lucky, may be most of the people are good, and have no intention of harming travelers! That said, we as travelers are still most vulnerable to thefts. So, keep calm, prepare yourself well but keep traveling.

This post was originally published on Outbound Again