Is South America dangerous?

Is South America Dangerous?

Literally every person I spoke with prior to my first trip to South America in February 2011 echoed the same sentiment: South America is extremely dangerous and you’ll probably get robbed, even if you’re vigilant. In particular, I was advised to avoid visiting La Paz, Buenos Aires and São Paulo.

Incidentally, these three cities are now perhaps my favorites in South America. Guess what else? I didn’t get robbed while visiting any of them! Although I won’t attempt to discredit the popular notion that South America is a dangerous place to travel, I don’t think the threat to travelers like you and I is as dire as some would have you believe.

Need help planning your trip to South America? Hire me as your Travel Coach!

How Dangerous is South America?

When compared to the developed world or other backpacker havens like Southeast Asia, South America can certainly be thought of as dangerous. One root of crime and danger in South America is the corrupt power structures that exist throughout much of the continent: Chile is the only country in South America where bribery is illegal.

The statistics, unfortunately, back up the assertion that South America is dangerous. In Brazil, more than 232 people per million meet their ends violently every year, as compared to 17 in Australia and just 8 in France. And you can just imagine the effect Bolivia’s recent nine per cent increase in cocaine production (which brought the country’s 2009 cocaine production total up to a staggering 113 metric tons) has had on crime there.

Of course, everything is relative: You’re more likely to be killed walking through the inner cities of places like Detroit and St. Louis than you are in Lima or even Rio de Janeiro. Still, it isn’t completely inaccurate to say that South America is dangerous.

Tips for Staying Safe

Wear Mosquito Repellent

Fellow humans aren’t the only danger in South America. Whether we’re talking about malaria, Dengue fever or the Zika virus that has been in the news so much lately, mosquitos can endanger your comfort and even your life. Also, make sure to get a Yellow Fever vaccine before your trip!

Stay Inside at Night

South America is famous for its nightlife, whether you sip pisco rum in Peru, do the tango in Argentina or attend Carnaval in Brazil. When I say “stay inside” at night, I don’t necessarily mean you should stay in your hotel or hostel. Rather, stay enclosed. Don’t walk on the streets and if you take a taxi, have the reception at your hotel or hostel call one for you.

Hang Out With Locals

Another way to enjoy nightlife in South America without putting yourself at risk is to hang out with locals. Although locals aren’t immune from crime and danger in South America, hanging around with someone who obviously has his wits about him makes you much less vulnerable a target for a would-be assailant.

Be Discreet

As a travel photographer, my heart sank when American friends who’d backpacked through Buenos Aires told me I’d be better off leaving my camera in the hostel. My local friend Marianna gave me a better suggestion: Carry a backpack. When in doubt, conceal valuable electronics and opt for the Bohemian look. In South America, diamonds are not a girl’s best friend.

Avoid Illegal Drugs

If you didn’t learn it watching South Park, I’ll remind you here: Drugs are bad, m’kay. Although it’s perfectly legal (for now) to buy and smoke marijuana in places like Amsterdam, purchasing and using weed, cocaine or any other controlled substance in South America places you not only at the mercy of maybe-violent drug dealers, but maybe result in you having to buy your way out of jail — unless, as I mentioned, you happen to be visiting Chile.

What To Do If You Get Robbed in South America

If you ask most of the people I spoke with before visiting South America, I was lucky not to have been robbed when I was there. By contrast, not a single other foreign visitor I met as I traveled from Peru to Brazil mentioned anything about being robbed, at gunpoint or otherwise. I’m not a crime statistics authority, but I would venture to say that your chances of being robbed when you travel in South America are about as low as mine, provided you too keep my above suggestions in mind.

And if you do get robbed traveling in South America? Give the person everything they ask for, particularly if they flash a weapon. Unfortunately, the police probably won’t be of much help, so you should get back to your hotel or hostel as fast as possible and avoid walking wherever you were when you got robbed.

Again, this is a big “if.” Is South America dangerous? Maybe. But you don’t have to be a victim when you travel in South America.

About The Author

is the author of 766 posts on Leave Your Daily Hell. Robert founded Leave Your Daily Hell in 2010 so that other travelers would have an entertaining, reliable source of information, advice and inspiration at their fingertips. Want to travel more often? Subscribe to email updates today!

 

informs, inspires, entertains and empowers travelers like you. My name is Robert and I'm happy you're here!

 
 
 

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Felipe Tamegao April 1, 2012 at 1:41 pm

I must comment that in Brazil bribery is also a crime, not only in Chile. In Brazil it is considered a serious ofense to bribe an officer or any one working in the government. Contrary to the text, do not expect to get out of jail by “buying your pass”, it will only get worse, and much worse.

Neil Hilton August 10, 2012 at 5:09 pm

You have an exceptionally clean, well polished and professional looking website… It looks great =)
I must admit… Even though I currently reside in Las Vegas, NV, I have been considering starting my world travels (whenever that happens! lol) in Europe (I’m from England) and then making may way through Asia and even Africa before maybe checking out South America. I mean, statistically speaking, it is the most dangerous continent on the planet… Which surprised the heck out of me.
But reading your article has made me give it a little more consideration.
I would be traveling using the least amount of money as possible, i.e. couchsurfing, helpxing, etc. so I’m not sure how great of an idea it would be for me to check out South America unless I’m credit card touring… Any thoughts on that?
Thanks for a quality site with great information.

Robert Schrader August 11, 2012 at 1:55 am

Thank you for the kind comment! I have put a lot of work into making it look and sound the way it does, and encouragement such as yours keeps me going.

I do think it’s possible to couch surf in South America, although I haven’t tried it. I am assuming you use couchsurfing.org?

Neil Hilton August 11, 2012 at 12:40 pm

To be honest, I haven’t actually couch surfed anywhere just yet… but yes, I will be using couchsurfing.org when I do.
I’m still working on building some kind of mobile income that can follow me around the world as I travel… and that is proving to be the main thing holding me back (I’m sure I’m not alone on this one, ’tis probably the thing holding most people back!).

And ya know the thing that I always imagine when I think of South America being so dangerous? It’s not random muggings in the street (though it probably should be), it’s being kidnapped and held for ransom. lol. Hopefully would-be South American kidnappers do their homework because there would be no ransom for anyone to give them… I think I may have watched too many Hollywood movies in my time!

Christian January 3, 2013 at 10:36 am

It’s so depressing to read about the dangerous elements of Brazil. I travelled to Fortaleza and Jericoacoara earlier this year, and while I didn’t really enjoy Fortaleza very much, I totally loved Jeri. It was just gorgeous. I felt totally safe in Jeri – maybe it was a false sense of security? I don’t know… It was quiet, it was remote, I was hanging out with locals and I didn’t dress up or carry valuables… In Fortaleza I didn’t feel particularly safe, but I didn’t feel unsafe either.

I do hope that things can improve for Brazil in the coming years, particularly with the Olympics coming. Hoping that increased wealth can trickle down to those who need it…

Thanks for the tips! I’m returning to Brazil next year, so I intend to keep your advice in mind!

... January 17, 2014 at 9:19 pm

I actually disagree with the opinion that South America is dangerous. For example out of South America’s 12 countries, 5 are considered to be as developed as Western European countries (Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, French Guiana, and Suriname). All these countries have smaller crime rates than the U.S and some countries in Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, Brazil is getting closer and closer to being a developed country like the U.S every year. Brazil still has some problems right now but it’s definitely starting to resemble Western Europe in many ways and since Brazil is improving so rapidly I think that by 2016 it will be a developed nation and once Brazil becomes a developed nation no one can really say that South America is dangerous. Venezuela will be the only country you have to worry about and no one says Europe is dangerous just because Russia and Belarus are. I’d say that Russia is actually more dangerous than Brazil, the crime is just as bad, along with pollution, corruption and the fact that Russia actually has a small war going on right now. I think people really need to stop acting like South America is the same as Central America cause South America is way more developed and westernized than Central America.

Cplf23 April 24, 2015 at 4:40 am

None of those countries have smaller crime rates than the U.S. All countries in S.A. have significantly higher homicide rates than the U.S. Chile is the safest country in S.A. Russia is safer than Brazil. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_intentional_homicide_rate

Robert Schrader April 26, 2015 at 1:34 pm

Thanks for providing some additional perspective!

Johaness May 19, 2015 at 8:02 pm

Ok guys, please take seriously a native’s perspective! Just don’t believe in every fact or statistic about South America countries, well statistics here are very manipulated by governments, for example in Venezuela you don’t know exactly how many people are killed by year or month, government just don’t care so be aware of this.
Second, some cities are just hell and some places inside those cities are much hell than the hell itself. Fortaleza, Recife, Salvador… chances of being robbed, not just pickpocket are very high. Probably can’t ever happens to you but it doesn’t means its safe, you are just lucky one.
Sao Paulo and Rio are bigger cities in Brazil, stay away from places fair away the downtown, just stay at most high standard places as possible, those are safest ones, avoid going to any favelas, just don’t think about it.
Avoid countries like venezuela its not a safe country at all people are used to be mugged at airport and stinks! Chile is ok, Argentina, Brazil if you stay away from such places I’d mention here, Uruguay is ok. Just avoid walking at night alone, its not Canada, you can’t do that without risking your own life.

Robert Schrader May 20, 2015 at 9:28 am

Sorry, but when going outside at night is tantamount to risking your life, the place you’re in is not safe.

Brian W. Reed June 4, 2015 at 12:38 am

If you visit South America by your own, try to arrive during the day. You will definitely feel safer than being in a foreign city when it’s already dark. Furthermore, book a hostel which is situated in a safe location.

Brain@MapDestinations

Martin Krotki April 7, 2016 at 7:28 am

I am Chilean, and this blog is a piece of shit and have a huge lack of respect putting everyone in the same bag. Stay enclosed because everyone will be after you hahaha no one will give a fuck about you!! Signs of violent crime are all over South America!!?? FUCK YOU! go to Chile and you will be safer than your own shitty place so fuck you! (again) You are just such a pussy!

Robert Schrader April 7, 2016 at 7:29 am

Hm, your language sounds pretty violent. 🙂

Martin Krotki April 7, 2016 at 7:32 am

wikipedia…such a great source hahaha

Martin Krotki April 7, 2016 at 7:33 am

indeed, just sick of ignorants like the idiot that wrote this crap having a completely wrong vision about South America where there are different countries, cultures and races. Not all South America is the same and this idiot that wrote this should be shame, what a bunch of rubbish.

Martin Krotki April 7, 2016 at 7:42 am

Sick of ignorants having a completely wrong vision about South America where there are different countries, cultures and races. Not all South America is the same and this idiot that wrote this should be shame, what a bunch of rubbish. I am from Chilean Patagonia and for sure is much safer than your own shitty place. You Sir, are just a pussy.

Cplf23 April 7, 2016 at 12:25 pm

It was sourced from the united nations. Here is the report. https://www.unodc.org/gsh/

Ema Newton June 19, 2016 at 12:37 am

i traveled a year and a half in south america backpacking with lots of other latin travelers and my mum is uruguayan (have been to uruguay over 5 times) i think south america is more dangerous than my home country australia, but that definately shouldnt stop you from travelling there!!! My two pieces of advice are;
1) never take unnecessary risks! simple. take a backpack out, not a hand bag, and put it on both shoulders. keep a hidden pouch for your money. don’t take a taxi by yourself. etc.etc i would personally also add don’t hitchhike unless youve got a male with you or are three (or more) girls (or at least 2 very competent/confident/ spanish speaking girls) – (and always in the daytime ) -best/safest hitchhiking is definitely in ecuador!!! very easy lifts, also peru – i found it hard to get lifts in colombia. youve probably heard it all before so you know what to do, just make sure you do it! even if you dont care if you loose your bag/possessions, remember that you may be put a risk in the process. i believe a big difference between south american crime and australian crime is that people will go to more violent extremes to get what they want. be aware (not paranoid), and try to travel in a group where possible
2) TALK TO THE LOCALS!!!! this might be hard if you dont speak spanish, but if thats the case then ask the people working at your hostel! this is my biggest piece of advice because while south america in general is more dangerous than australia, and some countries such as colombia/ venezuela are more dangerous than than say, peru/ecuador, there are always exceptions, so don’t be fooled! some places in colombia i stayed were very rural / community oriented and extremely safe. on the other hand, other places in ecuador were extremely dangerous. it all depends where you are and furthermore, i STRESS that within a certain town/city there is almost always areas which are more dangerous than others!
i remember one particular town we stayed at in ecuador which was a very relaxed place full of fishermen and with a fair few tourists was completely safe during the daytime and nighttime! but that was only in the main part of town . as soon as you crossed the bridge out the back end of town it entered a very very dangerous slum where we were severely warned not to go!!!! we heard many bad stories and friend of mine were badly beaten up and robbed there, in a place that wouldve been very unexpected by me if i had not spoken to people and heard about it! i myself didnt enter any slums, even though i speak spanish just being white and blonde i was always very intimidated, and if you dont speak spanish you are kidding yourself going into those places!!! even in the daytime in slums where friends had been heaps of times and gotten to know the guys there, they arent always safe.. try to talk to the latin artesans/travellers if youre after drugs, they will charge you a bit more for being the middle man but its worth it, even a lot of them wont want to go asking about some slums unless theyre local.

if you are worried that not speaking the language will put you at a higher risk, i dont think thats true. just make sure you are talking to people and have other means of being informed! there are certainly lots of english speaking travelers over there so try to give each other direction! travelers are friends, we are all experiencing similar hardships, so you’l be surprised with the ease in which people are willing to support other strangers, it is so comforting when youre far from home! 🙂 good luck

Ema Newton June 19, 2016 at 12:49 am

i might also add, i would routinely find out about the dangerous parts of town as soon as you arrived in a new place. ask people at the bus station, or as soon as you get off the bus. talk to many people, not just one. one person might lie or not really know, so better to get a wide range of opinions and dont go off with people who offer to show you places!!!!!!! you have to analyse the people you meet, be confident and really ask yourself whether they are trustworthy people, chat with them a while and try to get a sense of who they are before randomly wandering off with them to let them show you a hostel or something!

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