During my 10 months in South America, I listened to multiple people’s stories of getting robbed, yet I had no trouble of my own. From these stories, I concluded that:
People do sometimes do some stupid stuff!
I’m not saying that everyone who experiences theft was acting ignorantly…(one guy had someone stick a gun to his temple outside a bus stop and demanded all his belongings. I would highly recommend doing what the gunman says in such a situation), but the majority of people who did get mugged were obviously not thinking too clearly when they headed out that day.
So, after listening to many stories, here is some common-sense advice to not get mugged while traveling in South America (or pretty much anywhere).
DON’T KEEP EVERYTHING ON YOU
Yes, during travel days you cannot help this. But if you are just running down the street form your hostel to go grab dinner you do not need your passport, credit cards, bank cards, other ID’s, and every penny you have. Take $10 or $20 (or whatever is appropriate for your dinning choice).
DON’T GO TO THE ATM AT NIGHT.
Especially at 2 am and drunk. (I knew someone who did. guess what? They took 10 steps before they were robbed). Go to the ATM in the morning, after the sun comes up, and the military are around (like 9am to noon-ish).
Once you get your money – go straight back to the hostel to dump the extra money and your bank card!
ASK MILITARY OR POLICE FOR HELP.
If you need to use the ATM, especially one on a street, and there is a sketchy looking guy standing out front of it, ask the military or police to escort you. Pointing to the ATM and saying ‘Yo necessito‘ (‘I need’) and ‘No se ‘ (‘I don’t know’ – while you are pointing to the sketchy man) is usually all you need.
The military watched me at the ATM one morning when I was in this exact situation, then escorted me back to my hostel (where I locked up the unneeded portion of my money).
The military and police are very helpful and friendly to tourists.
They want us to have good experiences so we tell out friends and bring more tourism. I know some places you need to be weary of uniformed men, but in most places, they don’t bother tourists.
DON’T WALK DOWN DARK SHORTCUTS
A couple guys I talked too actually got mugged from doing just this. Instead of walking down the lighted main streets (where there are parking attendants and military on the corners) they took a ONE BLOCK shortcut through a dark road to get back to the hostel, and SURPRISE these 2 guys got mugged by a group of 5 guys. When I asked if they would have taken that same kind of shortcut back home, their response was “Are you kidding me? We’d never do that where we live!”.
My question is WHY THE HELL WOULD YOU DO IT TRAVELING THEN?
If its dangerous and dumb to do back home, its probably dangerous and dumb to do anywhere else.
MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE NIGHT STREET PARKING ATTENDANTS
These guys park cars on the street each night, and ‘own’ that section of street between about 5 pm and 3 am. If you say hi to them as you walk by, smile, and maybe start a small chat, or joke with them a bit…you have just become their friend. (and you don’t necessarily need to speak Spanish to do so. My Spanish sucks, yet I became friends with a bunch of the attendants in Quito just by smiling and saying “Hi” every day).
That way, when you are walking back to the hostel alone one night, the attendant in the wheelchair, who ‘owns the street’ a block from your hostel, will stop you, warn you of the group of boys he saw mug someone earlier, then chase after said boys while waving a stick, distracting said boys, while motioning for you to pass behind him safely.
SAY HI TO THE JUNKIES IN THE MORNING (this is particularly useful in Quito)
No really, this works. Look them in the eye if they start to walk toward you, or are obviously checking out your pockets. If they do start to approach you, wave and with a big, cheery smile say “HOLA!”. They are not used to people being nice to them, or talking to them.
Most of them get 1. Freaked out because they don’t know how to respond to someone being nice and 2. You have just acknowledged them and looked them in the eye, making it harder for them to swiftly and inconspicuously swipe your money.
YOU DON’T SPEAK SPANISH OR ENGLISH
Pretend you don’t speak Spanish, or English. If you know any amt of another language besides Spanish or English, just talk in that – even if you are just saying food items or random nonsense. I mean, how many people honestly speak any Croatian in South America?
This works for beggars too (who sometimes will then rob you if you pull out money). Beggars and thieves can’t demand money from someone who has ‘no idea’ what is going on.
Playing dumb helps a lot.
USE REFLECTIONS AND MAKE EXAGGERATED GESTURES
If you feel someone may be coming up behind you, exaggeratedly look at your reflection in store window. Start fixing your hair if you feel silly….but use reflections to to see who is behind you (you will notice locals doing this too. You should be doing it as well. If it turns out its just an innocent person walking down the same street, just smile when you catch that person’s eyes. They wont get offended. And does it really matter if they did)
STOP AND TURN AROUND
If you think you are being followed, and there is no place to check it out in a reflection, stop and turn around and watch the people walk by you, or jump into a store for a minute.
90% of the time, if you look someone in the eye, they wont rob you. Pickpockets don’t want to noticed.
THE TIME AND TESTED DUMMY MONEY
(aka. make it obvious you have some money in one place so people don’t focus on your big backpack or pocket with the real loot; for me..this is my rather expensive DSLR camera I carry in my bag.)
HIDE THE REAL LOOT
I hide my camera in my bag, under a jacket, sweater, or items from the food store. You are just using your bag to go shopping. Plus, it’s Quito, weather changes instantly. It’s not strange to have a sweater with you in the morning when its hot and sunny, because you never know when its suddenly going to drop 30 degrees and start down pouring. And that way, if you open your bag people just see boring, non-moneymaking items in it. And you can easily pull your camera or whatever out from under your jacket if you want to photo. I use this trick when traveling from one photo spot to the next.
TAKE A TAXI
The few extra bucks is totally worth the money sometimes
DON’T BE A DUMBASS
Don’t flash money or bank cards, don’t walk down empty side streets drunk at 3 am, don’t start talking loudly about money, or your camera, or in general, especially if you see a group of sketchy looking people. Don’t walk around listening to your iPod and texting on the phone, rummaging thru your bag, etc.
You are so much more likely to get robbed if you are already distracted with something. If you walk determined too (like you have a purpose: head up, sort of hurried, and with an air of confidence) people are more likely to leave you alone. Have the ‘I’m busy, don’t fuck with me‘ look on your face. Muggers like someone who looks more meek or lost.
GO IN A GROUP
OK, I suck at this rule, but it helps to be part of a large crowd of friends.
CROSS THE STREET
Yes, I will blatantly cross the street away from a group of people sometimes. Why do I care if they get offended. I’m almost always walking around by myself. Don’t act like you are scared of them, just that you need to get to the other side of the road at that specific moment to get where you want to go. They don’t know. And again, do you care if they do?
SAFETY PINS YOUR MONEY INSIDE YOUR PANTS
I wrote about this before on Traveldudes.org. If you fold your money in half, stick a large safety pin through the fold of the money, and then safety pin this money to the inside lining of your pants, it is pretty impossible for any pickpocket to get it without you feeling it.
Pickpocketers want easy money and to not get caught.
For extra safety, you can safety pin the outside of your pocket shut too. This makes it visibly more difficult to steal your money, and the few extra seconds it takes to get your money out, is worth having it be there when you need it. This will not; however, stop someone who comes up to you with a knife or a gun. See next tip…
IF SOMEONE REALLY WANTS YOUR MONEY, GIVE IT TO THEM.
If someone puts a gun to your head and asks for money, give it to them. If you are following step 1, you don’t have much money on you , and your life is worth way more than the $10 they will get. If it a travel day, where you have no choice but to keep everything on you (ie: great day for a taxi pickup), you should not have anymore than a drivers license (or copy) and around $10- $20. Giving over your money sucks…but big deal…. it’s $10.
ALWAYS KEEP A FEW BUCKS ON YOU
If you have zero money, many times thieves will beat you up, because they don’t believe you are walking around with nothing. (It happened to one guy I talked to). Having $5 or $10 on you is enough, that if you are going to get robbed, this will please the mugger, and you will get away unhurt.
Most south American cities really aren’t anymore dangerous than any other major city. Don’t do things here you wouldn’t do back home. I would say Caracas is definitly the most dangerous city I’ve been to, but very few travelers go there anyway. And couchsurf there. The few hostels are in very dangerous areas.
If someone really wants your money bad enough, they will get it. Just don’t make it easy for them.
I am not going to say I have never felt I was being watched or in danger of getting robbed. Quite the opposite. I am well aware that a single, small, white female, with a very expensive camera, makes me a target. I have used the above tricks multiple times when I felt like, or have obviously been, followed or watched. During my past 10 months in South America (knock on wood) I was not mugged.
But I also insured everything just in case.
I’s like to give a special thank you to Carole Terwilliger Meyers from Travels With Carole and Kirsty Bennetts from Travel Shots for providing the photographs fro this piece.
About Dani Blanchette
I am a freelance travel and music photographer and creator of GoingNomadic.com.
I love music, food, and exploring cities without guidebooks. I’ve flown a helicopter, hitchhiked down the east coast USA, and once snuck into the back of a zoo (in Serbia) and pet a lion.
I am always up for an adventure, and sometimes I videotape them.