I spent last year traveling through Latin America, from Mexico right down to Patagonia. Judging from some of the reactions of my family and friends before I left (and throughout my travels), Latin America is a place where danger lurks around every corner. Let your guard down just once and you’ll pay the price.
Thankfully, however, I’m pleased to state this has not been the case. I was a lone female visiting some pretty dodgy places – I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t felt a little apprehensive on some occasions. But in terms of actual bad things happening? Nada. Nothing. Not one story to report. The worst thing that happened was being ripped off by a Cancun cab driver at 5 A.M. Not exactly the end of the world.
Pretending that backpacking, whether solo or with friends, doesn’t come with risks is silly. Muggings, thefts and accidents can and do occur; traffic jams and unanticipated delays will probably, at some point, disrupt your plans. But with some simple planning and research, it’s easier than you think to stay safe and secure while on the road. Here are my three most useful travel hacks to stay safe.
1. Keep a clear head
Beginning my tips by saying “Don’t get drunk” isn’t going to make me very popular. And I’m well aware that one of the main points of backpacking is to have fun, to experience new things and meet new people. And often those new experiences and new friends lead to drinking a lot. And I mean a LOT. While there is nothing wrong with a couple of drinks, getting wasted can lead to many problems.
I’ve stayed at many a hostel where guests are actively encouraged (read “pressured”) to keep drinking. No one wants to let the team down or appear boring, so most people oblige. Another shot or three can’t hurt, can it?
Yes, it absolutely can. Almost all incidents where I’ve heard about other backpackers getting into trouble, have been because they’ve been drinking. And drinking can lead to very poor decision making.
No one thinks it’s a good idea to wander along the beaches of Rio de Janeiro at night when they’re sober – but when you’re drunk, it seems romantic. I’ve lost count of the accidents I’ve heard about where people have done dumb things because they’ve been drunk – from driving motorbikes to going tubing while totally smashed… it leads to trouble.
I’m not saying don’t have a few drinks, if you want to. Do have a drink, but keep a clear head and pace yourself. This is particularly important if you are traveling alone, because there’s no one there who can pull you back when you’re about to do something really dumb.
2. Talk to locals about the risks
If you’re heading to a notoriously dangerous place, chances are you’ve done a fair bit of research yourself. Take Medellin in Colombia, for example. I’d read countless articles about the cocaine cartels and Pablo Escobar, and the gang violence that almost ripped Colombia apart… but it turns out that Medellin today is pretty safe. I spent a month there and didn’t feel uneasy once.
The thing you should be researching is the smaller things – like scams. You’re much more likely to be targeted by petty thieves after a quick penny than a big time crook, but these small scams often aren’t reported much. No one knows the risks of an area better than a local, so speak to employees at your accommodation about what to look out for.
When I was in Santiago, Chile, a local told me that a girl had been mugged the week before, and that I should carry a “dummy wallet” – a small purse with a few worthless cards and a small amount of cash in it. Then, if I was ever mugged, I could oblige and hand over my purse without losing everything. I never got mugged, but I sure felt a lot safer walking around the streets of Santiago.
3. Do the boring stuff
It’s a given that before you go to a new country, you want to research the fun stuff. Which restaurants will you eat at? Where are the most beautiful beaches? Which neighborhood has the coolest nightlife? I can spend hours looking at travel blogs, planning routes and making fun itineraries, but before you do all that, stop – and get the boring stuff out of the way first.
The boring stuff means things like getting insurance, then making sure it covers everything. Writing down the serial number of your electronic belongings. Backing up and photocopying your travel documents. Take it from me – this can be invaluable.
If anything happens, this stuff is vital. If you’re injured, or a flight is delayed and you miss your connection, you’ll need your insurance number and policy details. If your laptop or phone is stolen, having the serial number is more helpful than I can explain. I learnt that the hard way, when I lost my camera and nothing could be done.
Sorting this stuff is boring but it doesn’t have to take long. Do it all at once and get it over with; read one of the many travel safety guides around, make a list and tick it off. It really is so simple. Then, and only then, can you get stuck into all the fun stuff!