I’ve lived in Latin America for about 19 years. I’ve traveled and lived all over the map: Venezuela, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Panama, Dominican Republic, Peru, Mexico, and other warm places with (sometimes) amazing beaches. I’ve seen my fair share of dingy buses, overcrowded subways, and lonely stretches of highway reaching into the jungle. At times, all those mountains, beaches, big cities, small towns, empty plains and jungle paths all seem to meld into one confusing Latin American collage in my mind.
And along the way, I’ve learned a thing or two about getting robbed. And avoiding it.
My only personal brush with armed robbery was one time in Valera, in the Andes Mountains of Venezuela. I was standing on a city street waiting for a friend to meet me, and a guy came up and very kindly asked me to give him all my possessions. And not scream in the process, of course.
He was a very polite thief, which, I think, is not good for business, since I just walked away from him (that’s not a recommendation, though – you should never turn your back on an armed man).
So what do I do to not get robbed while on city streets in Latin America – and anywhere else in the world?
I never use my phone in public
If I’m walking on the street and my phone is ringing, I pop into a store or café to take the call. Having my phone out on a busy city street is the equivalent of offering it to whoever is walking by. I also don’t text on the street, for the same reason.
I never wear my headphones when I’m out in public
I want to be alert when I’m on the street, and listening to headphones is a distraction. And thieves know it.
I walk fast and with a sense of purpose
Especially at night, I make sure I look like I know where I’m going.
I never put anything of value in my pockets
One of my friends was walking on a busy street when he felt something funny going on in his rear pocket. A woman had her fingers on his wallet.
Another friend was on the Transmilenio and felt that a man was getting a little too close, but he didn’t think much about it – until he got off the bus and found his phone missing from his front pocket.
I keep my valuables in safer places than in pockets.
I keep my bag or purse where I can see it
I always keep my purse in front of me, with zippers zipped. I usually buy purses that have straps that cross my body, making it difficult for someone to take the bag off of me.
I don’t wear flashy jewelry
This is basic, but it has to be said. When we live in safe places, we tend not to take this seriously when traveling, but when visiting a city where people have sticky fingers, leave the jewels at home. I don’t even wear my wedding ring to some areas.
Don’t trust strangers
This is a basic kindergarten skill, but take it seriously. Don’t trust people you don’t know after dark, or if you’re in an isolated place – women and old people included, unfortunately.
ATMs can be dangerous
Another basic one. Don’t go to get cash out of an ATM or bank if you’re alone, it’s dark, or you’ll be in an isolated place.
Keep your eyes on your credit cards
When paying for a meal at a restaurant in Colombia, the waiter will always bring the credit card machine to the table. They should never take your card out of your sight.
Don’t agree to buy anything or accept a service without being told the price beforehand
This sounds basic but happens a lot to trusting people. Once I was with a group of friends coming home from the beach in Venezuela, and we stopped alongside the road to eat at a small restaurant. My friends wanted fried fish, which is a cheap meal. But they didn’t ask before buying, and when the bill came, the owners charged them a ridiculous amount of money for that poor fish – all because they didn’t ask the price first.
So – ask before eating.
Check bills and receipts twice
Restaurants can always slip in an item you didn’t buy, and store clerks sometimes hate to count out exact change. Even utility companies – water, electricity, etc. – will throw in extra charges that you don’t have to pay. Check everything before handing out money.
Taxi drivers can be thieves, too
Sorry, I hate to say that. I’ve had the pleasure of riding with many honest taxi drivers. But in Colombia, the majority try to cheat me out of at least a few pesos. So if you don’t like being cheated, check the taxi meter before paying. There’s always a yellow chart hanging in the taxi that will tell you what you owe. Don’t believe them when they request a surcharge they can’t justify (justifiable surcharges are: an airport ride gets them two extra dollars, holiday, night and weekend rides get them one extra dollar – and those charges are clearly stated on the yellow chart).
Do you have any tips for travelers about how to stay safe?