So, you want to visit Central America or South America? Let me show you how it’s done…safely.
Traveling safely is absolutely critical when exploring Central And South America. Backpackers, explorers and adventurers are attracted to the various beautiful countries in these developing regions of the world. However, the freedom to explore and live freely presents a number of dangers.
The main challenge with any travel activity that involves wild adventures is that those adventures are fun because they are relatively dangerous. Traveling to foreign nations is often not much different than bungee jumping, swimming with sharks, or volcano boarding…activities that many people do while they’re traveling.
Collecting postal stamps is also an experience, so why don’t we talk about it? Because it’s boring. (No offense to the five stamp collectors in the world).
What Is The Real Danger?
While most people might worry about getting bitten by a shark or getting lost in a jungle while traveling, the largest and most worrisome threat in Central and South America is actually the criminal activity. Gangs, cartels and individual criminals represent the most horrifying sorts of deaths and disappearances. I’ve already written about a number of scary disappearance stories.
There are three primary ways that people disappear in Latin America:
- Being abducted.
- Getting lost in the jungle.
- Drowning or getting lost at sea.
Disappearing is no laughing matter. There are countless stories of experienced travelers that made only one small error and ended up disappearing forever. To this day, many families suffer the anguish of not knowing where their sons and daughters went.
I live in El Salvador, the smallest country in Central America. I’ve travelled and explored many of the beautiful countries in Latin America. I’ve also heard heartbreaking disappearance stories that happen in Central and South America. Each time I read these stories, my heart sinks for the families of those that went missing.
Realize That Fun Comes With Risks (Fun = Risk)
We’re talking real fun. Exhilarating fun. Experiences that raise your heart rate and make you want grab a quick selfie. Anytime a backpacker is setting off for a new adventure or going out for drinks in a foreign city, risks are present. Fun attracts good people and fun attracts bad people.
It’s inescapable. We, as nomads and backpackers love new experiences. We’re experience junkies. We want to see everything, do everything, experience everything…all within 30 days. We know it’s not possible, but we try anyways.
The goal here isn’t to talk you out of going on crazy adventures. You’re unstoppable. I know that. I am too. However, my goal is to get you to slow down for a second, take a breather and maybe refresh on some tips on how to be careful. You can have fun and reduce your risk. Bear with me. It’s important. Let’s dive in.
Don’t Attract Unwanted Attention
You’re traveling to a new place. You’re going to meet new people. You’re going to be in a lot of pictures. What is your natural instinct? To look good!
Looking good makes us feel good. But you need to be wary of how locals will perceive you. Looking good is great, but looking great is sometimes dangerous. For men, that means ditching the expensive watch and neck chain. For the women, that means keeping your cleavage and buttocks covered up, unless you’re with a group of trusted people. For both, you need to keep your expensive phones in your pockets and cover up your tattoos. Dress down. Don’t be flashy.
Men, you’re at risk of getting beaten up and robbed. Women, you’re at risk of getting raped and robbed. Men and women, you’re both at risk of getting killed if someone sees you alone at night. It’s scary, but you’ll have nothing to fear if you don’t attract unwanted attention. These are latin countries where people have considerably less than you. Many locals earn only $5-10 per day down here. That fancy watch, phone or laptop could pay a local’s bills for months.
Never Go Out At Night Alone
As an extension of what I just said, I just want to be clear. Going out alone at night will undoubtedly lead to danger. Doing it enough times will absolutely lead to you being a victim. Man or woman, attractive or not, rich or poor, walking anywhere alone at night is a bad move. Most crime happens at night. Darkness is danger. Being alone in public at night…is stupid.
When I was in the United States I would often go grocery shopping at night, go for walks or jogs at night, or just drive around in my car with friends. Doing those things is not possible in Latin American countries. You will be a sitting target and eventually someone will take advantage of the opportunity. And if something happens, nobody will realize you’re missing for days, if not weeks.
Go On Adventures With At Least One Friend
The vast majority of disappearances happen when someone is traveling alone. Sure, there have been instances when two or more people disappeared at the same time, but that happens significantly less often.
You don’t have to be with a friend at all times. You’ll be fine in the hostel, while walking in populated public areas during the day, and at restaurants. However, if you’re doing an “adventure”…do yourself a favor and go with a friend. It’ll be safer and more fun. Additionally, simply by being together you’ll deter the vast majority of criminals.
Lastly, promise yourself something: even if you decide to go on an adventure alone, you’ll tell people exactly where you are going. That’s important. Tell your friends, family, and other travelers. There’s a lot of wonderful people, especially women, that want to prove to the world that they’re independent and can handle things alone. And they do and they can. There’s no doubt that any woman or man can do it. But it’s also dangerous. These are latin countries, where the culture is different and crime is high. You will be handling everything alone (and without help) if you disappear and nobody knows where you are.
As a final mention regarding women – most women will be fine solo-traveling. It’s a rewarding experience that all men and women should have. Do it! That said, it’s important to be cautious and make good decisions. I’ve read too many stories of solo-travelers disappearing. Please don’t be one of them.
Research The Areas You Visit (Before Visiting)
Most places in Central and South America are relatively safe. But there’s always a few areas in each country that are known to be particularly dangerous. People that have disappeared often ventured off into shady areas that they were not aware were extremely dangerous. Normal-looking roads, pretty countryside, picturesque farmland, small cities, friendly towns…all can be extremely dangerous without you knowing. It’s not always obvious.
The reason these places are so dangerous is often because crime organizations control territories. Gangs and cartels often have members that look like normal people and these people keep an eye on their “territory”. It’s very hard to decipher whom you can trust. It’s hard for me, too, and I’ve lived here for multiple years. Unfortunately, criminals have even been busted for wearing false police uniforms. It’s very uncommon, but again, it’s something to be aware of.
Communicate Often With People You Trust
Send an email or text message to your family. Tell them where you’re staying (name/address of hostel). Send a note to a friend in Facebook Messenger. Tell them where you are going and with whom you are going with. Keep people posted if plans change. Just keep people informed so they know whats going on.
Without communication, you’re screwed if you go missing. Worse, people may not even know you are missing. It may take days or weeks before someone realizes you’re missing. It’s disturbing, but that’s sadly the consequence of not having regular communication with people that care about you. Therefore, please do yourself a favor and communicate often with friends and family before you go on wild adventures.
Keep Your Phone On You At All Times
Your phone is your lifeline in the event that something goes wrong. Charge it up during the evening and keep it on you at all times. Although cell phones can be annoying at times, they’re incredibly helpful, as any experienced traveler knows. You can use Maps.Me for downloading offline maps, WhatsApp for communicating internationally, Google Translate for translating foreign languages, and many other great phone apps.
Also, sometimes people use location tracker Apps. Using a location tracker app is definitely suggested. This apps essentially pinpoints your location and shares your location with whomever you choose. Just be aware that using a phone app like this tends to drain your battery a little faster, because it’s sharing your location with friends/family 24 hours a day. Therefore, it’s a good idea to buy a new phone with a new battery before you set off on a trip abroad. That will ensure your battery is strong.
If someone tries to separate you from your phone, be very cautious. That sort of behavior is inappropriate and could be downright dangerous. Always keep your phone charged and always keep it with you. Hostels are often safe and free from theft, but it’s never a good idea to test people’s trustworthiness. Don’t put your phone down where someone can take it.
Don’t Get Into Vehicles Alone
Sometimes you’ll need to take a taxi or a “collectivo” bus. However, doing so alone is dangerous, especially when you’re unsure of the route you need to take to get where you are going. You don’t know who taxi cabs are involved with. While 9 out of 10 taxi drivers will be completely safe, it only takes one taxi driver to be in-debt with a shady organization for you to be an unfortunate victim. It’s extremely uncommon for taxi’s to be mixed up with the “bad guys” but it happens.
I often suggest that people use Uber or a taxi service that’s recommended by the hostel or hotel. These are significantly better options than taking a random taxi. In El Salvador, the country where I live, it’s considered dangerous to take a taxi.
If you’re traveling with a friend, you’ll likely be fine when using taxicabs. Just be aware that they’ll may jack up the fee and charge you more. I’ve had it happen to me more than once. Now I use Uber in El Salvador.
Tell Your Family Whom You Are Traveling With
Slow down – this isn’t what you’d expect. I’m not saying to tell your family everybody that you meet. That would be rather annoying and uncomfortable to do. So let me explain…
If you go missing, your family will have no idea whom to contact. Obviously they’ll contact the hostel and the police. But your family will feel 1000x’s better if they have a local friend to contact. A friend can provide critical information, and perhaps even help to track you down rather quickly in a pinch.
Meeting friends in new cities is inevitable. It’s part of the experience to meet new people. And if you become good friends with someone, someone that you can trust, it’s a good idea to share their facebook profile/link with your family. Even something simple, like:
“Hey Mom! This is the facebook profile of my new friend Stephanie. We met at Laguna Azul Lounge. We’re going to the Beach at El Tunco today and should be home around 5 pm.”
The goal isn’t to get into your personal life. The goal is to give your family someone to contact in the event that you stop answering your messages for any reason. Although your new friend certainly won’t be an expert on you, your new friend can certainly offer some input as to where you were last seen and perhaps other helpful information.
Have A Plan With Your Family
Realistically, it’s impossible to create a plan for every bad situation. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about creating a basic plan with two simple parts:
- Decide how often you’ll communicate with your family.
- Decide what will happen if you do not communicate with your family for “x” amount of time.
The goal here is to reinforce good communication and ensure that your family knows what’s going on. Second, if your communication stops, your family will know to take action.
For example, if your parents don’t hear from you for 3 days, they’ll know to contact your hostel and any friends. If your hostel or friends haven’t seen you, your parents will know to contact the police. That’s it. Simple, right?
You’d be shocked at how many travelers don’t have a clear and concise plan like this with their family. And that’s scary because it’s absolutely critical that your family knows when to feel confident about contacting the police. With a plan like this, it tells your parents “This is the plan. Something is wrong. I must take action”.
Having a plan also adds a level of responsibility onto you, the traveler.
Having a plan says that you are responsible for routinely communicating with your family and telling them what’s going on. It also tells you, the traveler, that if you don’t communicate with your family then you can expect them to call the hostel, then the police. AND THAT’S GOOD! If you do go missing, you’ll have the reassurance that someone is looking for you! How scary would it be if you went missing and had no reassurance that someone was searching for you to ensure that you are safe?
Respect The Locals (Part 1)
Giving respect will keep you out of trouble. Respect is important here. If locals sense disrespect from you, you’re more likely to run into problems. Using “Buenos dias”, “Buenas tardes” and “Buenas noches” can go a very long way. It’s akin to showing recognition and respect for their local language and for them individually.
Central and South America have incredibly diverse populations. The Spanish language is even distinctly different in some places. Foolish people may think that everywhere in South America is “like Mexico”. I assure you that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, many locals would be offended by that. Keep those opinions to yourself.
Latino men and women have a great amount of pride for their country. Each country is surprisingly different. In El Salvador where I live, there are no burritos or tacos, most people don’t know how to dance Salsa, you won’t find Mariachi guitarists here and there are no “collectivo” busses (which are very common in Mexico).
The point is, every country is different. And it’s important to respect those differences when traveling between countries.
Respect The Locals (Part 2)
I’m just going to cut to the chase on this one – be aware of bar and club behavior. Dancing is more sexual here.
If you’re a pretty girl, be ready to receive attention. You’ll get stares, you might get whistles and your ass might get grabbed while you’re dancing. This is a different culture where some men push their limits. Be flattered and move away from them if you’re uncomfortable. Moving away is completely fine. However, it’s a bad idea to mock or laugh at someone that’s showing interest in you.
The men in Latin America often have lot of pride and a lower tolerance for, what they consider to be, disrespect from a woman. The latina women that live here know how to handle these men, and they do so in a rather strict way. But you…are different. You are a foreign girl in his country. That’s how he will see it. I’m offering this advice to you so that you stay safe. If a latino man feels insulted by a pretty foreign girl, there’s a chance that it won’t end well for anybody. It’s best just to remove yourself from the situation. Relax, it’s unlikely for bad things to happen. I’m just offering some advice to keep you safe and out of trouble.
Regarding you guy travelers – same thing goes. Be respectful. Don’t be a drunk moron. If you dance with local Latina women, respect them. They will like you even more if you respect them and carry yourself well. Be a gentleman. You are in their country, and if you piss them off somehow, you will know. Latina women are fierce…and they’re not afraid to speak up or even slap you. Remember, they’ve been dealing with machismo latino guys their entire lives.
A Final Word On Traveling Safely
Backpacking abroad is a blast. I’ve done it many times and will continue to do it. In fact, I hope to do it with my future children someday (I currently do not have children). Traveling and backpacking teaches many important life lessons, such as self-reliance, navigation, planning, cultural differences, history, and many other valuable lessons.
Just don’t forget to balance safety with fun. Don’t take risks. Play it safe.