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Dangers & Annoyances

To avoid becoming a victim, use common sense and take general precautions throughout South America:

  • Carry only the minimum cash needed when out for the day.
  • Dress down, leave the jewelry at home and don’t walk around flashing iPhones, iPads and other expensive electronics.
  • Be alert and walk purposefully. Criminals home in on dopey, hesitant, disoriented-looking individuals.
  • Use ATMs inside buildings. Before doing so, be very aware of your surroundings.
  • Check windows and doors of your room for security, and don’t leave anything valuable lying around.

Confidence Tricks & Scams

Keep your wits about you if nefarious substances (mustard, bird droppings, human excrement) are thrown upon you followed by the appearance of someone who lends a helping hand, while others steal your belongings. Other scams to be aware of involve a quantity of cash being 'found' on the street, whereby the do-gooder tries to return it to you, elaborate hard-luck stories from supposed travelers and 'on-the-spot fines' by bogus police. Be especially wary if one or more 'plainclothes' cops demand to search your luggage or examine your documents, traveler's checks or cash. Insist that you will allow this only at an official police station or in the presence of a uniformed officer, and don't allow anyone to take you anywhere in a taxi or unmarked car. Thieves often work in pairs to distract you while lifting your wallet. Simply stay alert.

Drugs

And now a word from your mother: marijuana and cocaine are big business in parts of South America. They are available in many places but illegal everywhere. Indulging can either land you in jail or worse. Unless you're willing to take these risks, avoid illegal drugs.

Beware that drugs are sometimes used to set up travelers for blackmail and bribery. Avoid any conversation with someone proffering drugs. If you're in an area where drug trafficking is prevalent, ignore it entirely, with conviction.

In Bolivia and Peru, chewing coca leaves or drinking maté de coca (coca leaf-infused tea) may help alleviate some of effects of altitude. Keep in mind, though, that transporting coca leaves over international borders is illegal.

Natural Hazards

The Pacific Rim 'ring of fire' loops through eastern Asia, Alaska and all the way down through the Americas to Tierra del Fuego in a vast circle of earthquake and volcanic activity that includes the whole Pacific side of South America. Volcanoes usually give some notice before blowing and are therefore unlikely to pose any immediate threat to travelers. Earthquakes, however, are not uncommon, occur without warning and can be very serious. The last big one in the region was an 7.8-magnitude quake that hit the northern coast of Ecuador in 2016, and over 600 people died. Andean construction rarely meets seismic safety standards; adobe buildings are particularly vulnerable. If you're in an earthquake, take shelter in a doorway or dive under a table; don't go outside.

Police & Military

In some places you may encounter corrupt officials who are not beyond enforcing minor regulations in the hopes of extracting a bribe.

If you are stopped by 'plainclothes policemen,' never get into a vehicle with them. Don't give them any documents or show them any money, and don't take them to your hotel. If the police appear to be the real thing, insist on going to a police station on foot.

The military often maintains considerable influence, even under civilian governments. Avoid approaching military installations, which may display warnings such as 'No stopping or photographs – the sentry will shoot.' In the event of a coup or other emergency, state-of-siege regulations suspend civil rights. Always carry identification and be sure someone knows your whereabouts. Contact your embassy or consulate for advice.

Theft

Theft can be a problem, but remember that fellow travelers can also be accomplished crooks, so where there's a backpacker scene, there may also be thievery. Here are some common-sense suggestions to limit your liability:

  • A small padlock is useful for securing your pack zippers and hostel door, if necessary. Twist ties, paper clips or safety pins can be another effective deterrent when used to secure your pack zippers.
  • Even if you're just running down the hall, never leave your hotel door unlocked.
  • Always conceal your money belt and its contents, preferably beneath your clothing.
  • Keep your spending money separate from the big stuff (credit cards, tickets etc).
  • Be aware of the risk of bag slashing and the theft of your contents on buses. Keep close watch on your belongings – the bag isn't safe under your seat, above your head or between your legs (it's better on your lap). Be mindful in crowded markets or terminals where thefts are more likely to occur.
  • When exploring cities, consider ditching the daypack and carrying what you need in a plastic bag to deter potential thieves.

Trouble Spots

Some countries and areas are more dangerous than others. The more dangerous places warrant extra care, but don't feel you should avoid them altogether. Venezuela, especially Caracas and anywhere near the Colombian border, is particularly volatile. Colombia is much safer than it has been in years, but certain regions are still off-limits. The northern border region of Ecuador, specifically in the Oriente, can be dodgy due to guerrilla activity. Travelers have been assaulted at remote and even well-touristed archaeological sites, primarily in Peru; stay informed. La Paz (Bolivia), Caracas (Venezuela), Rio and São Paulo (Brazil) and Quito (Ecuador) are all notorious for assaults on tourists.

Kidnappings

Be careful when taking taxis. 'Express' kidnappings occur in some cities, like La Paz (Bolivia). These incidents involve whisking travelers to far-off neighborhoods and holding them there while their ATM accounts are emptied; sometimes assaults have also occurred. We've noted in individual country chapters the known places that pose this kind of risk to travelers. To be on the safe side, have your guesthouse call you a taxi rather than hailing one on the street, and use official taxis at airports rather than those outside the gates. And never ride in a vehicle that already has a passenger in it.

Tours

There are loads of great adrenaline activities on offer, from rafting to mountain biking, but do your research on an agency before joining a tour. Travelers have lost their lives owing to poorly maintained equipment and reckless, ill-prepared guides. It's never wise to choose an operator based on cost alone. In Bolivia, for instance, the mine tours in Potosí, bike trips outside La Paz and the 4x4 excursions around Salar de Uyuní have become so hugely popular that some agencies are willing to forgo safety. Talk to other travelers, check out equipment and meet with guides before committing to anything.

Druggings

Lonely Planet has received correspondence from travelers who were unwittingly drugged and robbed after accepting food from a stranger.

Be very careful in bars, there are occasional reports of folks being unwittingly drugged then raped or robbed. Always keep a close eye on your drink, and be cautious when meeting new friends.

Government Travel Advice

The following government websites offer travel advisories and information on current hot spots.

Discrimination

Discrimination in South America – and it's a different beast in every country – is complex and full of contradictions. The most serious reports of racism experienced by travelers have been from black travelers who were denied access to nightclubs, in some cases until the door person realized they were foreigners. Some black travelers describe experiencing genuine curiosity from people who simply aren't used to seeing folks of black African descent. Brazil, with its huge Afro-Brazilian population, is among the most welcoming places for travelers of color.