How to NOT get Robbed in Latin America

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.

Bavaria Park, Bogota

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.

Train trip from Bogota to Zipaquirá
Happy traveler

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?

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0 thoughts on “How to NOT get Robbed in Latin America”

  1. Great list – thanks! It has actually never occurred to me to worry about my credit card when it is taken behind the scenes at a restaurant. Good tip.
    One thing I would add is to be extra alert for pickpockets and thieves (and hustlers, of course) at airports.

  2. Very sage advice. One of the ones I would add is to split your cash between pockets so you might have some left after being pick-pocketed! This happened to my father in a market, he had all his cash in one pocket and then it was all gone.

    1. Good point. I know people that do that – before entering an area that might be dangerous they not only split their money up among pockets, but they even tuck some in their socks or shoes. It certainly makes it harder for the thief to get it all!

  3. Love this blog! The world is such a fabulous place when you know how to manage the risks. I have three others I generally try to follow: 1. Try to know where you are and where you’re going. You increase your chances of a negative encounter when you’re lost. 2. Control the volume of your voice when you’re having a nice time chatting with a friend. Loud speaking in a foreign language or with an accent draws attention because it tends to indicate you’re involved in conversation and don’t have that extra eye on your surroundings. It’s not that you shouldn’t enjoy friendly conversations, just also be self-aware. 3. Usually people who want to rob you will follow you and study you for a couple blocks, use that time to your advantage by being aware of who’s around you. If you think you’ve got a lurker, switch sides of the street, stop into a store, or talk to the doorman of an apartment and see how the person reacts.

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