Thousands of people visit South America every day without incident, yet some are not so lucky. The question we are often asked, ‘Is South America safe for travellers?‘ We examine this from two sides: personal and health.
For us, we followed the tips listed below and had almost no South America safety issues.
Statistics don’t tell the whole story. There are things we, as travellers, can do to hopefully stay safe even in countries or cities considered ‘dangerous’. On the flip side, bad things happen in ‘safe’ countries too, especially when people let their guard down.
Table of Contents[Hide][Show]
Is South America safe? Personal safety tips+−
- Travel Insurance
- With the tips above, we found South America safe. Would you?
Is South America safe? Personal safety tips
I love Rio de Janeiro, but if I chose my travel destinations by statistics, I would have stayed away. Check out this video:
South America safety tips on theft
Pickpockets work in teams throughout South America. One will distract you while the other robs you.
A current scam in Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia is for someone to spill something on you. While one person helps you clean up, another takes your belongings.
As much as we hate losing our things, we share the most frequent advice we have seen: let the thieves have what they want. Fighting back can escalate a simple robbery to violence.
Safety tips to prevent yourself from becoming a victim of petty crime:
- Carry only what you need, especially in Brazil.
- Have empty hands when you walk down the street.
- If you have a purse or backpack, carry it in the front with the strap crossing your body and the bag under your arm.
- Keep your expensive camera in a backpack or zippered pocket except when you want to take a shot. The best advice is not to bring it at all, but as a photographer, I want my camera with me. The only cities I didn’t bring my mirrorless camera to were in Brazil; I brought an unbranded predecessor to the Olympus TG6 to Rio de Janeiro and Santos.
- Avoid wearing expensive-looking jewellery, especially in Peru and Brazil. A passenger on our ship had his watch sliced off his arm (without injury) while walking around in Rio de Janerio.
- I know this one sounds crazy, but don’t use mobile phones in public. Thieves grab them right out of people’s hands. This is common in Argentina and Brazil. A family friend seated on a public bus in Santa Fe, Argentina had her phone grabbed by another passenger as he exited the bus.
Check out this phone snatch . . .
South America safety tips on money and identifications
- Keep your cash in multiple pockets, and only reach into the pocket with the proper amount for what you need to purchase. Never pull out a wad of money.
- In most countries, carry only one credit card with you. The exception is Argentina where unreliable ATMs and credit purchase machines may work with an alternate card.
- Choose ATMs that are inside banks or other buildings, and whenever possible, take out money only in the daytime. Express kidnappings occur in Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru, in which a victim must withdraw ATM funds for release.
- Keep your passport in a safe place (hotel safe) and carry a photocopy for identification purposes, except where required by law to have an original passport.
- Many people choose to use passport and money holders (travel wallets) that also have RFID blocking. These are worn under clothes and either around the neck or at the waist.
South America safety tips on transportation
- If you are driving, keep doors and windows locked, especially at traffic lights in Buenos Aires.
- Book a taxi in advance rather than hailing one on the street. Even then, verify it is your taxi before getting into it.
- In Brazil, choose yellow cabs with meters or uber; in Argentina, get into only clearly-marked ‘radio taxis’ or uber.
- At international airports, the taxi desk inside the main terminal is your safest option.
- When taking long-distance buses, watch the driver or handler load your luggage and seal the compartment before boarding the bus.
South America safety tips on political gatherings
Protests, demonstrations, and strikes are a frequent occurrence in South America, even in generally safe towns like La Serena (Chile). While they may look interesting at first, they often turn violent rather quickly. In Santiago (Chile) and in Brazil, police have used tear gas or water cannons to break up the crowds.
The best advice we were given is to avoid public demonstrations and never try to pass the protest. We simply turned and walked away when we came upon one.
More South America safety tips
- Speak the local language if you can. And if not, try not to shout or draw too much attention to yourself.
- Never leave your drink or food unattended to avoid getting it spiked, which can lead to being robbed and/or assaulted.
- In Bolivia, criminals have been known to dress as police officers. Unless you are presented with a formal document with your name on it, do not follow the ‘officer.’
- If you are considering travel to Colombia, Ecuador, or Venezuela, we recommend reading your country’s advisories (see next section for links) and taking the necessary precautions for a safe journey.
Is South America Safe? Health safety tips
Dengue, zika, chikungunya, and other tropical diseases
The information on this page was current at the time of publishing. However, we recommend checking one of the following several months before you travel and again before you go for current conditions:
- Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Traveler’s health list by country.
- World Health Organization (WHO) International Travel and Health
- Your country’s travel advisories (these pages include both health and political advisories):
- Australia: Smart Traveller
- Canada: Travel Advice and Advisories
- New Zealand: Safe Travel
- United Kingdom: Foreign Travel Advice
- United States: U.S. Department of State – Travel Advisories
If you are travelling into rainforests in the dengue fever regions, my advice includes a strong insect repellent. Heed the warnings, or suffer the consequences. I used an “all-natural insect repellent” in the Brazilian rainforest and was in a hospital specializing in tropical diseases seven days later.
Yellow Fever: If you opt for the yellow fever vaccine, be sure to carry your documentation. I needed mine at the hospital, and with my symptoms, it kept me from six days of isolation.
Can I drink tap water in South America?
South American water safety levels differ by country and sometimes by city. Both diseases (like cholera, typhoid or giardia) and other microorganisms determine water safety. Remember, if the local water is unsafe, so are the ice cubes, coffee, tea, and produce washed in the water. Even teeth brushing can require caution.
The water in all of Uruguay and in large cities of Argentina, Chile, Colombia, and Suriname is safe to drink. However, in rural areas, locals may be able to drink tap water without problems, whereas tourists may get sick from the unfamiliar microorganisms in the water.
The tap water in the high desert of Chile and Argentina has high mineral counts that can cause kidney problems and should be avoided. Also, water is never considered safe in:
- Brazil (Although some say it’s okay in Rio de Janeiro and Saõ Paulo)
- French Guyana
If in doubt, drink bottled water. Better still is to travel with an environmentally friendly self-filtering water bottle. If you purchase water bottles locally, be sure to open them yourself. We saw a man on a side road near the Brazil / Paraguay border refilling water bottles from a hose.
We don’t leave New Zealand without travel insurance, and for South America, we made sure it included medical evacuation by air. Thankfully, we didn’t need that clause.
Aside from my trip to the hospital above, we have ended up in hospital emergency rooms on three other continents and had a wallet stolen in the USA, resulting in a missed flight. We use an insurance aggregator to find the best policy for our situation.
See our South American itinerary.
wow! what a treasure trove of info! Thanks !!!! Great photos needless to say!
Oh my gosh- this is one of the best blog posts I’ve ever seen. I’m pinning this and sharing this with all of my friends and followers who contact me about travel in South America. This is such an informative guide with amazing info!!
I agree about the petty crime too. Although we always want to have our belongings like cameras and phones on us, there are some cities around South America (and many other places) where it just doesn’t make sense. Still, if someone’s trying to steal something (ANYTHING) just give it to them, like you said. It’s better to avoid a situation escalating. This happened to me several times around Santiago. Thankfully there the crime is mostly petty.
Thank you for sharing this! It’s amazing
Great tips shared by you and your video is really great but i am really shocked to see what’s happening there because i never heard about this in south america But yes i will be careful while traveling to this country
A lot of good tips here. It’s always important to be aware of your surroundings no matter where you travel, but it is true that some places are more relaxed than others. Thank you for sharing this very important information.
Great tips – I’ve loved travelling around South America but I was backpacking and by the time I got there everything looked a little worse for wear. The jewellery is a great tip. For a solo woman I wore a cheap ring as a wedding ring it was advice given to me by friends from Argentina that they always did whilst travelling solo too!
I think a lot of these apply to any new place that you visit. Having said that, some of your tips are invaluable – like the ones on where to get a taxi at the airport. Imagine getting duped when you arrive otherwise.
Little Wandering Wren
I have not been to South America for years, but my kids have all travelled extensively throughout South America – Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil over the past 5 years without any personal safety issues. My son, however, had a push bike accident on Death Rd Bolivia, had an x-ray in Bolivia, took a 24 hr bus ride to get a CT scan in Peru, where we elected to get him back to Australia for surgery. He had travel insurance which stopped the moment he landed on Australian soil, he was well looked after in South America. He had now had 2 surgeries, we are 15,000 AUD out of pocket & still counting as there will be another surgery to come. It was an expensive but memorable gap year and he loved South America until the accident!
This is a well-written post. There is no question that safety can be at risk in some South American cities. We were definitely warned by our local hosts to be extremely careful in Quito & I’m glad we took that advice seriously.
Great article. There are places in South America I would not go to now. Venesuela is one of those places. I live in Cuenca Ecuador. It is safe. And we have safe water. Our water is clean and treated water. You can drink the water in Cuenca (I do every day). Cuenca is also a very safe, university town with more than 650,000 residents. I feel safer here than anywhere in the US. That being said, you could get pickpocketed here just as anywhere else. In Cuenca small children board public busses to go to school alone. I think living in Cuenca is similar to living in the US in the 40’s and 50’s as far as safety. Most people traveling to Ecuador only visit Quito or the Galapogos. I want to tell them they are missing out if they do not visit Cuenca! Our downtown is all a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Sorry but reading your post doesn’t make me want to go to South America anytime soon. It sounds like a scary place, even though I’m sure it’s also a beautiful place. I think I’ll stick with Italy. I’m also concerned about the Dominican Republic now. Hearing all the issues makes me uncomfortable thinking about traveling to such places.
An eye-opener for sure. We’ve not really travelled outside of Europe and the U.S (apart from Costa rica which at the time was really safe) so this was all new to me. I can’t believe that BBC news clip! Great post and I hope it gets into the right hands as it’s really informative.
All sounds like sensible advice. The personal safety stuff you could apply to anywhere, I’ve felt way more vulnerable in places like Rome or Los Angeles than I ever felt when I was in Peru. The insect repellent advice is one to heed though, despite being pretty vile stuff DEET still seems to be the most effective (at least for me), that and wearing long clothing if you’re in the jungle!
I hope your illness didn’t affect your trip too much, Rhonda. There are lots of useful tips here for keeping save while travelling. We were very lucky during our trips to Brazil and Peru – we haven’t had any bad experiences travelling in South America.
Super useful tips and personal insight – thanks for sharing Rhonda. Paying attention to your surroundings and researching what issues are happening locally where you’re headed are always important no matter where you travel. Definitely going to get the appropriate vaccines when we finally get to explore South America. Cheers from Scandinavia!
I’m so thrilled to read this! So glad that many women are finally speaking up about South America. It’s my home for 3 years and I have also written extensively about this topic. Vaccines are definitely something that a lot of travellers miss. And of course I totally agree that travel insurance is the most valuable investment for a South American trip!
I lived in Ecuador for three months and, though I never felt unsafe, we did have very specific rules about where we could and could not go. The safety protocols definitely wouldn’t stop me from traveling to South America again.
Far out! Getting the watch sliced off your wrist is some serious thieving. These are all great tips to remind yourself of before travelling to South America. Sometimes it’s easy to forget these things when you’ve been travelling in countries that don’t have these issues to such an extent.
I did not know that you have to be so careful while traveling in South America. The video of the phone getting snatched is really scary. Anyways, it is better to be careful while traveling anywhere in that case. Thanks for your tips.
Yikes! You make South America sound like a place to be very cautious. Of course, this is a good thing any where you go. It’s too bad that locals sometimes prey on tourists. It’s probably better to not sick out too much. I caught Zika when we lived in Martinique a couple of years ago. That was horrible. I’m sure having to go to a hospital while in a different country was not awesome, although Martinique was. I hope you’re feeling better.
I’ve never felt unsafe in South America although I’m travelling by myself as a woman. However, I’m fluent in Spanish, this might help a bit since I don’t feel vulnerable – and the vibe you’re sending out is quite important. Of course, your safety tips are really good.
As a matter of fact, I have the feeling that Central America is more dangerous than South America. I used to live in Honduras – and would not do it again.
Wow. I think I’ll skip the trip!
Agreed – the statistics don’t tell the whole story and bad things happen in safe countries as well. We certainly do need to be careful anywhere in the world, especially as women. One of the biggest issues is the media. It often only shares a single story which instills fears and makes us paint the countries with one brush stroke – which we commonly do that for the Global South (previously called the third world countries or developing countries). And, for people from the Global North, we’re quick to judge and fear more of the petty crimes in the Global South (compared to Global North) due to racial bias as well – whether it is consciously or unconsciously. If anyone notices, there are more many safety tips blog posts for the Global South than the Global North. I’m not saying I wouldn’t be scared at all because I would be. I’m just saying since it’s something that we should all think about too.
South America has such a confusingly bad reputation for safety, however I found it to be one of the most safe areas I’ve ever travelled. Obviously some areas are worse than others, but Peru was certainly safe. Bolivia…Well, it had a few bad spots, but that was mainly in La Paz
Lyn aka The Travelling Lindfields
We have travelled to Argentina, Chile and Uruguay quite a few times and never had any real issues. In Buenos Aires we were victims of the ‘bird poo’ scam where you get sprayed with something nasty and a helpful passerby offers to clean you off and relieve you of your wallet, camera, purse or other valuables at the same time. Luckily we didn’t lose anything, although we still aren’t sure why. We had the same scam tried on us in Mexico City. I later discovered my handbag had been opened but there was nothing in it except a few tissues so it was a bit worrying but that was all.
Many, many years ago we travelled around the world with two young boys going to such hotspots of petty crime as London, Paris and New York (they were hotspots in those days). On the very last day of our nine month trip hubby had his wallet stolen in Hamilton, New Zealand – it just shows you need to keep up your guard no matter where you are.
These are some very useful tips. I’ve not been to South America yet, but I will defintely get there at some point. I was nearly pickpocketed in Barcelona, thankfully I was to what was going on and didn’t lose anything. Since then, I’ve been a lot more careful about what I take out with me, when I’m travelling. I also bought an anti-theft backpack, so no one can get in my backpack and my tiems are safe! Excellent tips, thanks for sharing!
These are really helpful tips. I can second making sure you use RFID protection for your documents. We’ve had a couple of issues having credit card numbers stolen, although the incidents happened while we were traveling in the United States. I pinned this so I can read it again if we have a trip to South America.
Hello! My name is Maria Ines and I live in Santiago. I am an experienced traveler who came across your post on Twitter, so decided to give it a go. First of all, some advice is pretty spot on, especially being careful with jewerly and valuable items. Those are precautions I take also when I travel, especially to big cities such as Paris, Madrid, Rome and Barcelona. I’ve seen tons of robberies there, more than in my city I have to say. Second, I do believe your post encloses one huge continent into advices that are not right for every country. Like, you can totally drink tap water in Chile and Argentina, and common crime is a thing, like in every big city. Or for your visit to Brazil, you must get vaccines, at least for yellow fever, not for the rest.
What I would advice to everyone coming here is 1) learn some words in Spanish, if not to communicate, at least to be polite (there’s nothing more invasive than a tourist speaking you like you have to know their language), 2) know your whereabouts, if you’re hiking, take your precautions or if visiting rural areas, research about transport first, and 3) don’t leave your luggage unattended. I don’t think these are tips just to travel to South America. And my best advice is this: let people surprise you. Don’t go to the most touristic places, there’s nothing authentic there.
I’ve been to Brazil and had no issues in the cities or smaller regional areas – but basically common sense and being aware of your surroundings and people around you is always crucial especially in very crowded venues. Great tips meanwhile.
South America is not a country I’ve been to as yet so the whole vulnerability I am yet to face, although we do have plans to take a camper van north to south. I think any country can be dangerous if you’re not mindful and as full time travellers we are constantly taking mindful precautions. As a friend once said – ‘Be prepared not paranoid.’ Great article. Kx
Really good tips here so thanks for sharing. I’ve been to Argentina, Peru, Bolivia & Ecuador & not had any problems (but I know I also abide by many of these rules anyway). Brazil has been on my list but have to admit that concerns over safety have put off so far. Really useful.
I travelled to South America in the 90s and the warnings were dire. Argentina wasn’t too bad, the peso was indexed on the US dollar at the time and there weren’t that many tourists at the time. I also went to Venezuela which had a terrible reputation. Somehow, I didn’t have a single problem but I was extremely careful. Those tips are very comprehensive though, thank you for sharing.
I’ve had chikungunya and it is not pleasant at all and you still feel the effects of it a year later so that is something to make sure you avoid if you can. Great tips and lovely photos.
Interesting post about safety. This is valid for South America but can easily be used in other parts of the world. However, these problems should not keep us away from exploring certain parts of the world. With the tips you have listed we can try to minimise the risk and keep enjoying the beauty of certain countries. Thanks for sharing.
What? Let the thieves have what they want? How about what they want is my expensive camera? Well, I know what you are saying: better stay out of trouble and get away with your life, but that doesn’t sound too encouraging. I’ve never been in Brazil, but from all I’ve heard petty theft is way worse there than in Argentina or Chile. When we traveled to Buenos Aires 15 years ago, we felt pretty safe. I wonder if I’d feel the same today. After reading your post, I don’t feel too eager to travel to South America anymore, but you posted some excellent advice here.
Rhonda, thank you for sharing your tips – many people can be put off to visit South America due to their perceived level of risk, so I think your post helps to clarify actions they can take to minimise those risks.
Ryan K Biddulph
Smart tips Rhonda. For someone like me who grew up living by urban areas, this is common sense 😉 But other folks need know blending in and not flashing anything are easy ways to be safe in South America. Mainly in big cities. Once you head to more remote areas, still be on your toes, but enjoy the more laid back vibe.
L. Diane Wolfe
We watched a special on deadly animals in South America. The mosquito alone took the continent off my husband’s list. I’d still like to see Rio though.
Alex J. Cavanaugh
Watched both videos. The one with the film crew was really bold on the part of the thief.
The health issues worry me more. So many crazy diseases.
Although well intentioned, this article gives the impression that South America has to be explored with more caution than other places. This is simply not the case!
After our 4 year overland journey from south to north through South America I can say that it’s no more dangerous than some US or European destinations. For example, petty theft is more rampant in Barcelona and Milan than any Latin American city.
Wow. Those videos are crazy. I think they make a good point.