No one is ever going to entirely agree on a ‘safest cities’ list.
First of all, it’s hard to get a read on these things. Official crime statistics simply can’t be trusted in Latin America. I raise my eyebrows in amusement when journalists claim that Mexico City Has A Lower Murder Rate Than Cities Like Washington D.C or Boston, erroneously assuming that Mexican law enforcement agencies report murder rates with the same accuracy as American law enforcement agencies. Also, many people in Central and South America don’t bother to report crimes such as robbery (or, in some cases, even murder) because they either don’t trust law enforcement, or they know that law enforcement is so inefficient that the perpetrators are unlikely to ever be caught anyway.
Second, personal experience tends to color perception. For instance, if someone is violently robbed in Guadalajara but has a wonderful, trouble-free stay in Caracas, they may be more inclined to think that Guadalajara is more dangerous in spite of the contrary being, more or less, objectively true. Shit, I have a friend that was robbed in Toronto, one of the world’s safest big cities, and he’s still a bit on edge walking around after night falls.
So, with that now out of the way, I’ve done my best to compile a list of the safest capital cities in Central and South America. In the production of this list, I’ve taken three things into account.
1) Crime/Murder statistics
2) Experiences of friends/locals
3) Personal experience
Let’s get it going.
5) San Jose, Costa Rica
First up is San Jose. Probably the sketchiest looking non-sketchy city I’ve ever passed through outside of Cuba. Admittedly, I didn’t spend much time here so I’m basing this mostly off things I’ve read and heard from others rather than things I’ve seen.
Costa Rica is often ranked as One Of The Safest Countries In Central America, and its capital, while often pass over by tourists, is much more secure than other Central American cities such as Guatemala City or Managua. You’ll see a strong police presence, and most areas are safe to going during the day.
The reason this city isn’t higher on the list is due to theft. Although violent crimes are uncommon in San Jose, pickpockets and thieves are aplenty. Many unfortunate tourists have had their possessions nicked while on a bus, or simply walking on the streets. Because most tourists get out of San Jose ASAP, you’ll stand out as a tourist if you stray much farther than the bus station.
4) Panama City, Panama
Next, we have Panama City. Without a doubt the most developed and modern major city in Central America. Although it has its share of infamously poor barrios, the police do a good job of making sure the crime doesn’t spread to other parts of the city. For instance, El Chorillo, a dangerous neighbourhood is right on the border of a popular tourist neighbourhood, Casco Viejo. You’ll instantly notice a large police presence in Casco Viejo, which keeps it relatively safe, even at night time.
Violent crimes and kidnappings against tourists are very low here, and the major nightlife and tourist areas (Calle Uruguay and via Argentina, respectively) feel extremely secure.
The reason it isn’t higher on the list is due to getting ripped off. In my experience, Panamanians in Panama City are born scammers. If you’re a tourist, they will try to rip you off on everything from your taxi fare to your lunch menu. Maybe I just had a bad experience, but I had to deal with this shit in Panama City more often than in other places.
3) Montevideo, Uruguay
Number 3 is the quiet and understated Uruguayan capital. Many describe Montevideo as a less-impressive version of Buenos Aires, but I think that is unfair. It’s got it’s own chill and laid back vibe that’s distinct from the Argentine capital. In fact, I prefer it. If it wasn’t so far away and expensive, I’d definitely consider a longterm stay here.
Montevideo is one of the safest cities in South America. Violent crime is low, corruption is low, murder rate is low.
The one thing to watch out for is theft/pickpocketing. Groups of young kids are usually the one’s that will try to rob you. Areas like Ciudad Vieja and Barrio Sur aren’t safe to walk in at night.
2) Havana, Cuba
Havana, Cuba. What was once a hotbed for crime during the 90s (during the economic crisis known as the Special Period), is now a very safe city.
It’s worth noting, however, that it’s likely only this safe because of a high police presence and the harsh, harsh punishments for crimes against tourists. It is apparent that people are desperate here, and desperate people do desperate things, so don’t make yourself an easy target.
Chances are, you’ll be safe walking the streets at all times of night as long as you’re not wearing expensive clothes, jewellery etc.
Most tourists run into trouble in Havana for one or two reasons: they get really drunk, or they go looking for prostitutes (sometimes both!). If you get blackout drunk in a bar or club, don’t be surprised if you wake up in the morning missing some of your belongings. Likewise, if you follow a prostitute up a flight of stairs to a room, who says that her pimp or brother (maybe pimp/brother) isn’t waiting there to rob you?
Point is, if you don’t do anything too naughty, you’re very unlikely to run into problems here.
1) Santiago, Chile
Our winner today is Santiago, Chile. Consistently ranked as the safest city in South America. And for good reason. Crime and murder rates are often lower than American cities, the police are organized and trustworthy and the locals, for the most part, enjoy a pretty high standard of living.
You should be able to go out at night here without too many concerns, so long as you stick to well-lit, high-populated areas.
As in all Latin American cities, pickpocketing does occur, so keep a close eye on your stuff while taking public transit, and don’t leave your phone unattended. But as far as being a victim of violent crime or a confrontational daylight robbery goes, it is very unlikely to happen in the Chilean Capital.
And there you have it!
My Latin Life’s safest capital cities in Latin America.
Again, not the most scientific of studies. But due to the fact neither myself nor anyone I know has had any trouble in these cities, along with their relatively low crime rate statistics (as dubious as those may be), I have confidence ranking these as relatively safe places to pass your time in Latin America.
***One final tip: Learning a bit of Spanish will help you deescalate certain situations – check out Rocket Spanish to get conversational fast.