Guest blog post by @Brendanvanson.
I remember the first time I left home on my own to travel the Central America I was 20 years old. Everyone around me warned of the thousands of dangers – real and make believe – that would exist in this strange part of the world of which I knew little about. I remember clearly my mom telling a friend of hers that I was going to Central America, where “the favourite pastime of people is kidnapping foreigners.” The truth of the matter is that the media always has a way of accentuating the negative aspects about different parts of the world.
When most people think of Canada they think it’s cold all the time and that if you’re not careful you could be killed in an avalanche because these are the only Canadian stories that make it this far. As ridiculous as some of the assumptions people have about parts of the world, there are some very simple things we can do to maintain that we don’t become a part of people’s stories. Here are my quick tips to traveling safely in the Latin America. However, they can be applied to anywhere in the world – including home.
1. Taxis are cheap
Although it might seem like overkill at times, especially if your hostel or hotel is just blocks away, taxis generally are much safer than walking, above all at night. We hear horror stories all the time about taxis taking people for all they have, but in reality this is a rarity. If you want to be extra careful, have the bar call a certified taxi and make sure you are not alone.
I remember one time I was out on the town in Granada, Nicaragua with a group of people from Ireland. And maybe it goes without saying, being that I was with the Irish, but things got a little out of hand. Some of us opted to take taxis, and others decided that it was silly to walk to 10 blocks back to the hostel. The price of our taxi came to about 50US cents each. The walkers got held up and taken for about 100 dollars in total. Take taxis, save the hassle.
2. Keep your valuables on your body not in your bag
This seems obvious but many people, especially women, don’t think to do this. They have qualms about putting things such as cameras, wallets, passports, etc on their bodies, perhaps at the risk of looking bulky. However, keeping these things in a purse or even a backpack can leave you at risk. In Latin America one of the biggest tricks is to have someone to come by and spill coffee on you.
Then a group of 2 or 3 very “helpful” people will rush to your aid. However, this team of thieves is looking for you to set your bag down, or better, let one of them hold it as they clean you off. You’ll look up seconds later to realize that your bag is gone along with your passport, camera, and everything else in the bag. Trust the Germans on this one, they always wear cargo pants fitted with pockets protected by zippers, buttons, Velcro, or all three.
3. If it seems wrong it probably is…
Trust your instincts. You don’t have to feel guilty about not trusting someone. The biggest mistake you can make is to say to yourself, “I’m being silly. This is fine. Don’t be such a baby.” I can remember the only two times I ever got ripped off or scammed was in situations where I felt uncomfortable but was too timid to admit it. As much as you would like to please everyone, you can’t. If something feels wrong just tell them, “Thanks but no thanks,” and move on.
4. Keep your bags at your feet on buses
I don’t think I ever took a proper nap in my life. That was until I met the power of Central American humidity and the gentle massage of their local buses. The point of this is; if you leave your bag in the overhead of the bus (especially if you didn’t follow tip #2) you are going to be at risk of losing your stuff if you doze off. Once, while taking a rough local bus from Uyuni to Potosi in Bolivia, I had set my favourite pizza in the overhead for the trip to eat at lunch. I knocked off a couple of zees in the morning and awoke to find that someone had snuck off with my ‘comida.’ At one point, in Guatemala, I was so nervous about an overnight I decided to lock my backpack to my shoe. However, I woke up and forgot where I put the key, so I had to walk to the nearby hostel with one shoe on. But the point is that my bag made it to my next destination.
5. Take only what you need
Quito, Ecuador is known for its petty crime. Rarely does anything serious happen, but quite often people are stopped in the streets and stripped of their cash and anything else valuable they have on them. This is something that you cannot really avoid other than sticking to busy districts and following rule #1. The trick then becomes to only take exactly what you think you’ll need. There is no need to take hundreds of dollars with you or your passports or your credit cards or your iPods. It is a law in most parts of Latin America for foreigners to carry at least a photocopy of their passport. I once got checked on the beach of Colombia for a passport, and since I had my photocopy hidden in a zip lock bag, I didn’t have to go down to the station for a shake down.
6. Have a hidden stash
Keeping all your money and credit cards in the same spot leaves you at risk of losing it, or having it stolen all at once. I hide money and cards in different stashes all over the place. I used to hide a stash in the bottom of my stuffed sleeping bag, which it the best hiding spot. I also used to hide stuff in my laundry bag, until one day I had my bag returned with a stash full of soggy American dollars.
7. Ask the locals, or other tourists
Before heading out on any trip with a tour agent or any bus journey, ask around and check about the safety of the company you are going to use. Hostel receptionists are usually really good at providing this information. Also, if you plan on taking an overnight bus, take extra precaution and make sure to ask around to find out if it is a safe route of travel. Hot tourists runs between Guatemala City and Tikal, and Rio de Janeiro and Foz Iguazu have often been the target of armed robberies. In those cases, it might be better to splurge for a bed and take the day bus.
8. Don’t be OVER SAFE, walk like you own it.
This is a classic mistake that I see so often. Travelers can be seen outwardly on the streets taking every single little precaution with their things. As they there standing tall and clutching tightly to their goods, and they appear to have to have something worth taking. When walking around be observant, but appear to be calm. I always say that you should walk like you own it and that you’ve been there before. Be confident, and try to be aware but at the same time appear to be free from concern.
Don’t stress…if you take these simple little precautions you will probably pass through without having a single problem. And while being safe, don’t forget to have fun, that’s what it’s all about, right?
If you’re interested in becoming a contributor or guest blogging for A Pair of Panties & Boxers, please feel free to contact me.
Branden Van Son