Vance here to talk about safety in Latin America.
Now, I’m sure you’ve heard the news. Latin America was, once again, ranked as the world’s most dangerous region.
This isn’t exactly new – it has taken this dubious title each year as far back as I remember.
But, what does this mean for you as a foreign tourist? Is Latin America safe to travel?
Let’s dive in and find out.
Table of Contents
What Do The Statistics Say?
Well, you know what they say! I’ve just told you (and even included a source!)
More important, however, is to focus on what the statistics measure.
Any time you see a news article about “Most Dangerous Cities” or “Most Dangerous Countries”, usually what it is measuring is murder rates.
While murder rates certainly don’t look great when evaluating how dangerous a city is, they don’t reflect the insecurity (or lack thereof) that you’ll encounter as a tourist.
High murder rates in Latin America generally mean there is a heavy gang-presence in the city. Gang violence largely targets other gangs or local businesses, and, aside from extreme cases, is confined to the outskirts or more seedy areas of any given city, i.e. places that are easily avoided. In other words, this type of violence won’t effect you.
These articles, while fashionable, are not ideal for evaluating tourist safety. Sure, you may not want to go to a city that has a murder rate of over 50 per 100,000 people for other reasons (guilt, perhaps, for living the high life and sipping cocktails while locals are getting gunned down 15 km away) but the concern of being counted among the victims shouldn’t be one of them.
That isn’t to say these articles are bs.
Many travel enthusiasts react emotionally to such studies.
I spent two-weeks in San Salvador, and nothing bad happened to me! This list is garbage!
Well, no, sweetheart, the list is not garbage – it is simply measuring something different from what you’re measuring.
Of course, there’s bias on both sides. Typically, these articles are marketed as “The 50 Most Dangerous Cities in the World” as opposed to “The 50 Cities With The Highest Murder Rates in the World.”
While the latter is a more accurate title, it doesn’t sound as sexy as the former.
Anyhow, just something to keep in mind.
…And Here Are 3 Other Things To Keep In Mind
When considering safety in Latin America, here are three things you must remember.
Official reporting of crime statistics often isn’t accurate (e.g. police/governments will deflate figures)
Many locals don’t bother to report crimes (due to no confidence in police)
Crime in major cities is rather compartmentalized to certain areas (I’ll talk about this in the next section)
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How (Most) Major Latin American Cities Work
Most major Latin America cities make a diligent effort to ensure that its affluent neighbourhoods are safe. They will heavily focus security efforts to these neighbourhoods, often at the expense of less affluent ones. For instance, when I lived in Mexico City, I rented an apartment in Colonia Roma: a very safe neighbourhood. However, a few blocks to the east was Colonia Doctores, a dangerous neighbourhood. While I could feel entirely safe and secure at all hours in Colonia Roma, as soon as I crossed Avenida Cuauhtemoc, I’d best watch my back.
Large avenues (or bridges) to separate the rich from the poor are quite common in Latin American cities.
Sometimes, they even use walls!
Point being, if you stick to the more affluent areas, which are easy to determine through a bit of research, chances are that you won’t be a victim of crime. Of course, there’s no guarantees – richer areas that border poorer ones are targeted because potential victims are more likely to be carrying things of value. But the overall risk is lower.
This isn’t true in all LATAM cities, however. For instance, Rio de Janeiro has many of its wealthy areas pushed right up against its poor ones, which results in affluent areas being targeting more often.
So, the “just stay in a safe neighbourhood!” theory doesn’t always hold up.
But it’s generally good advice.
That said, an interesting quirk for folks looking to live in Latin America: smaller, poorer barrios can sometimes be safer than larger, middle-class ones! This is because, once the criminals realize you’re living in the barrio, they’ll stop robbing you. Whereas in middle class barrios, there’s not the community nor solidification of gangster hierarchy to prevent such things. A old friend of mine moved to a small barrio in Mexico City’s Centro. She was robbed once, but during a second robbery attempt, some other gangster actually stopped the perpetrator, telling him that she lived in the neighbourhood. She didn’t have any issues after that.
That’s just a quirk. Don’t test it. No one likes to be robbed (even if just once).
Stick to safer neighbourhoods.
Safety for Tourists vs. Safety for Locals
Another thing to consider is the difference between safety for tourists and safety for locals.
Contrary to what most folks think, I wouldn’t say that tourists are targeted more than locals when it comes to crime. Robberies, petty theft and whatnot are opportunistic – they generally aren’t based solely on who the perpetrator thinks might be carrying more money or valuable items.
For instance, if a criminal is sizing someone up to rob and he’s got a choice between a poorer looking local in a dark alley with no one around, and a rich-looking tourist crossing a busy street in a posh area of the city with loads of security around, he’s going with the poorer local.
Now, this doesn’t mean you can speak loudly in English, wear flashy jewellery and throw wads of cash around without concern – it simply means that opportunist crime trumps any sort of profiling.
Kidnappings, however, are another story. Victims are usually chosen based on the fact that they have a lot of money. Locals are the usual victims of this – if you’ve just arrived to the city, criminals aren’t going to know if you’re flush because they don’t know who the hell you are!
I wouldn’t worry too much.
That said, taxis can be hazardous. “Express kidnappings”, where you hop in a taxi and two dudes hop in, threaten you and take you on an ATM withdrawal tour have happened to tourists. I suggest using UBER instead of taxis if available.
Bottom line: you’re not going to be targeting solely because you’re a tourist (unless, perhaps, you’re in Venezuela, where extreme poverty and the desire for foreign currency means that your number will probably come up at some point).
You will, however, be targeted if you make yourself an easy mark.
I’ll go over how not to make yourself an easy mark at the end of the article.
How To Determine If A Latin American City Is Safe For Tourists
Sorting out if a Latin American city is safe for tourists is difficult. As I mentioned before, murder rates don’t necessarily reflect danger to tourists and crime rates either aren’t accurately reported, aren’t available or may bump up the average in an otherwise safe city due to a few problematic areas.
Asking tourists who have spent little time in the city is of no use. Asking locals isn’t much help, either, as every local in every major Central or South American city will say that their city is dangerous as hell.
So, what are you to do?
Go on Facebook.
(Yes, I know they’re stealing your data and whatnot, but hop on there anyway).
Next, join the expat groups of several cities, including the one’s you’d like to visit. Try to join the groups with the most members/similar number of members between them.
Finally, go to the search bar and type in words like “robbed”, “stolen” “assaulted”, etc. You get the picture. See how many expats have reported being victimized in their adopted city. Gather up these reports, see what city has the most victims and take note of the nature of the crimes.
Were they preventable? Street crimes? Property crimes? Have posts about this sort of thing decreased or increased from past years?
Round up all the incidents that could potentially touch you as a tourist. If one particular city seems to have a lot of people getting robbed on the street, it’s probably not entirely safe. If another city doesn’t have too many people discussing such things, it’s likely safer.
Although this method is far from perfect, it’s about the best you’re going to find.
A Few Safety Tips
Here are a few things you can to do stay safe while travelling or living in Latin America:
-Opt for apartments with doormen or, if not that, with decent security measures in place (i.e lots of locks; no easily climbable balconies)
-Leave the pricey jewellery at home or in your hotel/apartment
-Don’t walk around alone at night – particularly if you don’t know the neighbourhood
-Don’t get too intoxicated in public places
-Take Ubers instead of taxis (if available). If not, take radio taxis/Easy Taxi when you can.
-Don’t buy drugs (if you must take drugs, get a trusted local to play the middle man for the transaction)
-Learn Some Basic Spanish
-Don’t carry credit cards or passports or a massive dorky backpacker rucksack around the city. Only carry enough cash you are comfortable with losing. I usually carry no more than $100 USD unless it’s gonna be a big night out
– Avoid riding the metro or bus at peak hours (due to pickpockets…plus, it’s just straight-up miserable)
– If a taxi driver insists you ride up front, get a different taxi
Pretty obvious stuff, but important to keep in mind.
Another important factor is to know your neighbourhood and the neighbourhoods that surround you.
For me, my achilles heel when it comes to travelling is directions. I just a’int that good with them. I’m not the worst, but it doesn’t come naturally. My spatial ability is average at best. I’ll admit that. I’m getting better through conscious effort, but I don’t have much talent for implementing a map to the streets.
In other words, if you’re like me, walking into the wrong neighbourhood by mistake and struggling to get out could be your greatest risk.
Here’s what I do.
Whenever I arrive to a new city, I vigorously map out its boundaries. Not all of it’s boundaries, mind you, because that would take ages in a city like Mexico or Sao Paulo, but I at least map out the neighbourhood in which I’m staying, and where surrounding neighbourhoods begin.
Then, I hit the streets.
I walk around the entire neighbourhood, always making sure I have my north, east, south and west in order.
Every so often, I’ll take a seat and update my drawn map, taking note of major avenues, streets etc.
I dedicate a couple hours to this – basically, however long it takes to map out the area in which I’m staying.
Finally, I get home and look at Google Maps and reconcile what I’ve just drawn with a map of the city, and see how the major avenues fit into the context of other neighbourhoods (e.g. does it change names, where does it end, etc.).
After doing all that, I have a pretty good grasp on the area I’m living, and don’t have to humiliate myself while leading someone to a cool bar or restaurant I stumbled upon, or endanger myself by getting turned around in a dangerous barrio by mistake.
I know, it sounds unnecessary, but I like to do this.
If you’re an ace with directions, feel free to ignore all of the above. All you’d have to do is be aware of the streets or avenues that separate one neighbourhood from another.
One More Thing…
It just occurred to me that I’ve spoken primarily on safety in big Latin American cities.
What about if you want to get off the beaten path?
Here is where things get dangerous.
If you round up all the articles of tourists getting killed in Latin America. Yes, KILLED, not just robbed. You’ll find that the majority of the incidents happen in rural or isolated areas. Could be in a small town, or travelling a road or highway that doesn’t see too much traffic.
All murdered in Mexico. All murdered in rural areas.
There are many other examples I could cite.
Personally? I don’t mess around with travelling isolated roads in Latin America. Or, if I do, I do it on a bus. The risk of being robbed is about the same, but the chance of criminals killing everyone on the bus is, well, lower.
If you plan on driving or biking isolated roads in Latin America, or spending time in small towns that have a high criminal presence, do so at your own risk.
And I mean that – it’s probably one of the greatest risks you can take down here. Since there will be no witnesses anyway, killing you is “insurance” i.e. to ensure you won’t be able to identify them to the police after they take all of your belongings.
I understand the draw of visiting “unknown parts”, but, if you want to preserve your safety, Just. Don’t. Do. It.
Right, I think that about covers it!
Not your typical article on safety in Latin America, but I hope you’ve got a thing or two out of it.
Basically to sum it up don’t let “Dangerous Cities” lists scare you off entirely, but also don’t sleep on some of the real risks associated with travelling in Latin America.
A lot of staying safe comes down to good old common sense, as well as trusting your gut when things feel off.
If you’re able to do those two things and accompany them with a bit of local knowledge, you shouldn’t have too many issues down here.
Thanks for listening.
Until next time,