Is South America Dangerous For Gringos? – 2017/18 Edition

Is South America dangerous for gringos in 2017-18? Well, that all depends on who you ask. Pretty much anyone that’s been traveling and living in the region for over six months will have a horror story – or at least heard a few.

Some get mugged. Others, like me, get jumped

See, going to the park around dusk is never a great idea in a city you don’t know, especially in Latin America. But it was 5:30 PM and my slight hangover from the night before was still in full effect. I needed some exercise to get the blood flowing and prepare me for the night ahead.

So I called up my buddy and we walked over to the park. We were new to the area but noted the streets seemed especially calm. No one was out and about. Only a few cars were out. A bad sign.

P.S: This article is about safety throughout Latin America. South America, Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean will be discussed.

Still, the thought of crushing some pull-ups, push-ups, and sprints made the park too alluring for caution. We were strong young lads in decent shape – not some lassy with a purse that’s easy to snatch.

We were idiots. The park was surrounded by a 10′ tall chain-link fence. There was a basketball court, soccer goals, and a place to do pull-ups. Everything looked great.

We opened the gate and walked over to the pull-up bars. A few stretches and jumping jacks were done before we heard a commotion coming towards us.

We both looked up from our warm up to see five young fellows sprinting down from the barrio above the park to join us. That can’t be good.

They make it to the gate before we even know what’s going on. They’re yelling, but it’s not too aggressive. I was confused. Maybe they wanted to workout with us.

A few of them kept grabbing their pockets like they had something in them they want us to notice. And then they finally get to us. What didn’t seem too aggressive, got really aggressive really fast.

Luckily they didn’t look this intimidating.

They shoved us. I was able to stay on my feet. My friend fell due to the force of three guys. It was over for him. They started kicking and punching him. One pulled out whatever he had in his pocket as a threat.

My friend stopped even trying to fight back. His shoes, shirt, and shorts were immediately taken from him.

The focus turned to me. The two guys “guarding” me were waiting on the others. One has some shape metal stick thing. It wasn’t a knife, per se. But I wasn’t interested in seeing if it could be rammed through my torso or not.

My friend quickly got back on his feet. We didn’t have our cell phones on us. We didn’t have anything. My boy was standing in his underwear.

I decided to make a go for it. “YO, LET’S GO!” I yelled to my friend. He would be fine. They had no interest in his underwear.

I shoved the guard standing next to me who was closest to the gate and started sprinting. All five guys took off after me.

They knew if I got outside the gate of the park I was free. Luckily, I was faster than these guys. I barely made it out the gate before the chain-link fence was slammed shut. The huge metal door missed my back by about 6″ – give or take.

I looked back while jogging a little further away. My boy was walking out slowly. They weren’t worried about him any longer. They got everything they wanted from him.

We reconvened outside the gate and quickly jogged back to the hotel. Adrenaline was running high, but we got lucky. One pair of old Adidas sneakers, crusty basketball shorts, and a tank top was all we lost. No injuries.

Is South America Dangerous For Gringos? – 2017/18 Edition

My little issue with some park gangbangers in Latin America certainly isn’t the worst of it. Many fellow travelers have found danger lurking around every corner in the region. Here are just a few of the stories I’ve heard:

  • In the Chapinero neighborhood of Bogota, Colombia – a guy attempted to rob my friend with a gun. He stopped him in the street, pointed to the gun in his fanny pack, and demanded his cell phone. My friend promptly tackled him and held him down until the cops came. A gun in a fanny pack isn’t usable. You have to take it out. So my friend decided to take matters into his own hands. Unadvisable.
  • My friend was renting a hotel room in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic while searching for a long-term apartment. The receptionist found out he had valuable electronics and cash in his room. So he booked his gang-banger buddies a room next door and helped them rob my friend. A knock on the door, a gun to the head, and he was out thousands of dollars in valuables.
  • Another buddy had met a seemingly nice girl at a club in a small Colombian town. He talked with her for a bit and then they went on a date. Everything was going well and they ended up back at his apartment. He poured some wine and went to the restroom. Next thing he knows it’s 8 AM and the girl is gone. So are all his electronics, including a MacBook, iPad, and smartphone. 

If we’re being honest, South America can be dangerous. But so can anywhere else in the world. So let’s dive into the statistics and see if Latin America is dangerous when compared with the rest of the world.

The mean streets of Bogota, Colombia.

Don’t Be Scared!

First and foremost, don’t be scared. While the stories above can be intimidating, many travelers spend years in Latin America without a single issue. While the region may be more dangerous than Europe or Asia, there are ways to nearly negate all danger and avoid any issue.

I’ve traveler around Latin America for the better part of three years. I spent a ton of time in “dangerous” countries like Colombia and the Dominican Republic. I’ve stepped foot into places like El Salvador and Honduras.

Outside the story about the park above, I’ve yet to have an issue or feel like I was in any danger.

What the Stats Say?

Now, I’ve been all over Latin America, including:

  • Peru
  • Colombia
  • Ecuador
  • Puerto Rico
  • Dominican Republic
  • Mexico
  • Panama
  • Costa Rica
  • Honduras
  • Nicaragua
  • El Salvador

…While I haven’t been everywhere, I do have a little experience in the region. I know how to get around and I speak some Spanish.

I don’t feel scared when living in the region, but travelers who are about to make their first trip may feel differently.

If you Google around, you’ll find a lot of stats that claim South America is a third-world hell-hole filled with corruption and violence. Just look at these stats:

  • 43 out of the 50 most dangerous cities in the world are in Latin America. (Source)
  • 19 of the 50 most dangerous cities in the world are in Brazil, 8 are in Mexico, and 7 in Venezuela. (Source)
  • Every city that made the “Top 10” on the list is in Latin America. (Source)

That’s a lot of violence if you ask me. There’s no denying that Latin America is the most dangerous region in the world outside war zones.

Most people in Latin America are good-hearted and like to have a good time.

What the U.S. Department of State Says?

The U.S Department of State tends to agree. Just look at what they say about places like Colombia and Venezuela. According to Travel.State.Gov, travelers in Colombia should:

“Tens of thousands of U.S. citizens safely visit Colombia each year for tourism, business, university studies, and volunteer work.  Security in Colombia has improved significantly in recent years, including in tourist and business travel destinations such as Bogota, Cartagena, Barranquilla, Medellin, and Cali.  However, violence linked to narco-trafficking continues to affect some rural and urban areas.”

Here’s the advisory from the U.S. Department of State offers for a truly dangerous country, Venezuela:

“The U.S. Department of State warns U.S. citizens against travel to Venezuela due to violent crime, social unrest, and pervasive food and medicine shortages. All U.S. direct-hire personnel and their families assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Caracas are subject to an embassy movement policy that limits their travel within Caracas and other parts of the country. These security measures may restrict the services the Embassy can provide. Country-wide shortages of food, water, medicine, electricity, and other basic goods have led to social unrest, including violence and looting. Security forces have arrested individuals, including U.S. citizens, and detained them for long periods with little or no evidence of a crime.”

*Source: U.S. Department of State

As you can see, the U.S. Government believes these countries can be dangerous, too. However, with a little precaution, you’ll find traveling in the region fairly safe.

The Most Important Safety Tip For Travelers in Latin America

If you plan to visit South America, there’s one thing you should always do…

Research any neighborhood you’ll be staying in. Before you decide to book a hotel or Airbnb in a city, always find out which neighborhoods are safe and which ones are not.

You’re much better off spending a little more to stay in a nice neighborhood than trying to save a few bucks by staying in an off-the-beaten-path location.

For example, in Cali, Colombia – the neighborhood Granada is fairly safe. Yet it’s next door to the center of the city, which is quite dangerous.

You can find hotels and apartments in Granada for $25-30 a night, but rentals in the center may only be $10-20 a night. While it may be tempting, don’t do it! Spend more on accommodation in nicer areas. You’ll be much safer and have a better overall travel experience.

Personally, I always stay in Airbnb rentals. I try to find centrally located apartments that have doormen, are in walkable neighborhoods, and have a number of reviews vouching for the safety of the rental.

Click here to get $40 off your first Airbnb rental!

Is Latin America Safe? – 3 More Safety Tips

Alright, so you still want to travel around Latin America. Maybe a unique South American culture allures you. Maybe you want to hit some Caribbean beaches. Or maybe the Mayan Ruins fascinate you.

Whatever it is, you’re ready to hit the road and explore the “most dangerous region in the world” for yourself. Do it!

Just make sure to follow a few of these travel tips:

~ Learn the Language

This is HUGE! While a criminal isn’t going to stop robbing you just because you bust out a few words of Spanish, speaking the language allows you a better sense of your surroundings and can help you escape sticky situations – once you realize whats going on.

The vast majority of countries in Latin and South America speak Spanish. Brazil, the largest and most dangerous country in the region, speaks Portuguese.

Whatever country you plan to spend a lot of time in, try to pick up some of the language before you go.

If you’re looking to learn a little Spanish, I recommend this program. Click here to learn more about the highly-effective program.

~ Avoid the Degenerates

Is South America dangerous? If you do dumb stuff, yes. If you’re truly concerned about safety in Latin America, try to avoid drugs and prostitutes.

When you head to a dangerous foreign country where you don’t speak the local language and plan to do drugs and pay for sex – you’re almost asking for some type of trouble.

If you stay away from these two vices, you’ll vastly reduce the risk of problems in Latin America.

~ Dress Nice, But Low-Key

In many South American cities, you see gringos rolling around in flip-flops and tank tops. This attracts attention as many locals dress well all throughout the day – sometimes in jeans when it’s 90 degrees Fahrenheit. What does attention attract? Well, it can attract the criminals.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have other travelers rolling around in custom suits and fancy watches. I can’t advise this, either. You become a target if you look too wealthy, too.

You want to dress nice, but not too fancy. I typically wear an outfit like this:

While there’s nothing too fancy this attire, these type outfits look good and won’t stand out too much – a good thing when safety is of concern.

The Verdict: Is South America Dangerous? 

Overall, Latin and South America are dangerous. There’s no denying that. However, most of the violence revolves around the drug trade and petty crime. If you’re a tourist, the worst that’ll happen to you is someone decides to rob you – unless you’re acting like a degenerate.

Latin America isn’t a travel destination for individuals without a little street smarts and common sense. But the region certainly isn’t as dangerous as some portray it to be. With a little precaution, you should have no issue staying safe in Latin and South America.

Click here to learn more!

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Jake D

Travel junkie turned blogger. Location independent. From the Midwest, but often based in Latin America. Big on beaches, rumba, and rum. Addicted to the gym. Committed to showing a different style of travel - one that involves actually interacting with locals and exploring different cultures.

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