South America Travel Diary: The So-Called “Dangers and Annoyances”

(I got this title from the Lonely Planet books because that’s what they called this type of travel advice.)

So far, all I’ve written about are all the amazing things about certain countries in South America. This blog post, however, will be about some of the things we can do as travelers to be more mindful. There are many reasons why various social problems exist in other countries (especially those in the Global South, AKA “developing countries”), and most of the time they’re rooted in various political and economic issues on different scales (let us not forget the deep legacies of colonization or the impacts of unfair trade agreements). Most travelers have an incredible amount of cultural and economic privilege that gives them the ability to visit other countries – which often creates certain dynamics that may even be the reasons for the types of crime that may occur against us.

Of course every country, every city, and every situation is very different. Half of the time it’s about prevention and awareness, and half the time it’s just about luck.

Shopping all day in Las Brujas, La Paz

I love solo traveling. During my times in both Southeast Asia and South America, I met a lot of great people, didn’t fight with anyone on my journey, and had lots of both alone time AND social time. Solo traveling throughout South America was an incredibly amazing and life-changing experience.

Of course, it’s always a good idea to be careful and mindful of what’s going on around us.

#1: THEFT/CRIME

First and foremost, it’s important to think about the context for why theft or crime happens – what are the social problems that may provoke or force people into making such decisions, what is the political and economic situation like in that country, what is the relationship between locals and tourists, etc.? Given these contexts, it’s easier to understand how we as travelers can do preventative work. As someone once said, “Recognize most of the perpetrators of crime…have also been the victims of a system you have benefitted from disproportionately.”

When you’re traveling, theft happens just like it does in other parts of the world. To be real, I oftentimes I feel safer traveling abroad than I do walking around the streets of many US cities. My main problems occurred in the form of stuff stolen out of my checked luggage (baggage checkers came up on my cell phone and some carabiners on my trip to South America).  Just don’t keep your valuables in easily accessible areas or pockets – hide them deep inside your bags.

When I told my parents that I was going to travel through Peru and Bolivia by myself, they were pretty worried (mostly because of hearsay/Hollywood movies/the exaggerated or lying American media). However, it’s good to distinguish between what’s real, and what’s exaggerated or just plain false.

The Rule #1 for Traveling: Get a travel advisory for each country that you’re planning to visit – and mind those warnings.

A few things to be mindful of:

  • Bag slashing, theft, and pickpocketing – TIPS: Always leave money and credit cards in different places and in different bags (even your shoes) so if someone runs off with one of your bags, you still have money and cards stashed somewhere else. You can also wear your daypack on the front of your body to reduce the change of bag slashing. If you have a money purse or a money belt, cover them so that people can’t see them (people know what they are, they’re not stupid). Other tips: Hide photocopies of your passport, your credit cards and bank phone numbers in sealed envelopes in different parts of your bag, so you can access them if things get lost or stolen (and know the numbers to call!).
  • Be smart and keep your bags near you at all times, or lock them up if you can. Sometimes no matter where you are (on a bus, in a restaurant), there’s always an opportunity for theft. I have big metal carabiners to lock my bag to my chair while I’m eating at a restaurant. I also have mini-carabiners, combo luggage, locks and a wire cable to secure not only my bags, but my bag zippers so that people are less likely to open my pockets while my back is turned (get your mini carabiners at REI!). When it comes to buses, I try to keep all my bags down by my seat, instead of in the overhead compartments.
  • Be aware of weird scams, usually in the form of distractions. Mind your own business and move away quickly if you become confused or distracted by someone else’s behavior (says Lonely Planet).
  • At the borders. Hide your money. Hide your valuable belongings. Hide your kids, hide your wife, because you don’t want to be caught looking stupid and confused at the border (a lot is going down during the border, which are great opportunities for people who want to come up on some cash). In some places, corrupt police and government officials may try to get money from you or make you pay extra “fees”. Just walk away like you don’t understand or pretend you have none. OR just do what I do when I’m trying to get out of a bad situation and just cry hysterically. Haha.

#1.5: TAXIS 

To preface, many people have visited other countries and have had NO problems with any taxi drivers. I am fortunate to have had nothing but AWESOME and great taxi drivers during my time in both Bolivia and Peru (*knocks on wood*). Most of the drivers that I met were friendly, wise, and just all around great people. Through our conversations, I engaged in some great discussions from local life to national politics. However, I’ve heard about others who have had various challenges with taxis:

  • When it comes to taxis, the most commonplace problem is just getting ripped off on cab fare. The best way to deal with this is to figure out how much a taxi ride costs before agreeing to get into the car. HELL, ask around town to find out how much a typical ride from Point A to point B should cost (like the people at the front desk of your hostel). Don’t forget that taxi fares are negotiable and can be bargained down.
  • Beware of certain types of taxis, especially in the bigger cities. In Arequipa, people rent small yellow taxi cars and use them to temporarily kidnap tourists so that they can force them into depleting their bank accounts.  Use official taxis as much as possible (the ones with phone numbers on the tops of the cars, and official taxi stickers on the windshield – although the latter can be forged too). Ask locals to find out which taxi companies are the most reliable ones. If you are a bit suspicious, you can ask to take a cell phone photo of the taxi’s license plate and then pretend to send the pic to a friend, just to prevent this from possibly occurring. I got the latter tip from Lonely Planet online threads, but I didn’t find it necessary.
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In Arequipa

  • In Southeast Asia, the biggest problem is taxis taking tourists to the wrong hostel for a commission. I haven’t heard of this happening in South America, but one thing is for sure – make sure to know the name of the hostel, its address, its phone number – and if you can – take a photo of the outside of it so that you know what it looks like. It helps to also have a cell phone on you to make calls / take photos when you need to.
  • Tip: Never share a taxi with a stranger (see the movie “Taken”), never let anyone in your taxi (sometimes taxi drivers pretend that a friend needs to come along for the ride).
  • The best thing to do is to have your hostel call for a taxi – both when you need to go to the airport/bus station or when you need to be picked up from the airport. Taxi drivers waiting near the terminals are more likely to be the ones that rip you off. However, if you walk away from the taxis near the gates to the ones on the outside/periphery, they may charge less – but you may run a higher risk of fraud (theft, or worse…).
  • Keep your bags out of sight if you’re in a taxi. People on the outside may try to break in and steal your bags if they can see them.

In general, just use the skills you use at home (without fighting or getting violent) and hustle your way out of your situation: I am totally not above crying, making a fuss, or pretending that I’m mentally ill. If robbed with a weapon, it’s probably best to not run or attack the person – just hand over your stuff (no money is worth getting hurt or killed) but do remember to hide your belongings in different places in case that goes down.

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#2: TRANSPORTATION-RELATED ACCIDENTS

To put things into perspective, car accidents are also frequent (and very deadly) in the United States, so traffic problems can happen pretty much anywhere in the world. Just be aware of local driving rules and customs, and know that it’s worth it to pay more for the nicer buses. Not only will it make your ride much more comfortable (whether it’s a 6 hour bus ride or a 22 hour bus ride, comfort matters), it makes your ride more likely to be safer.

However, even the best bus companies get in accidents. While I liked Cruz Del Sur (arguably the best and most expensive bus company in Peru) a girl I knew met another girl who was riding in one when the bus rolled over into a ditch after the driver fell asleep. While some people got hurt in the accident, at least no one died. To put things into perspective however, drivers shouldn’t be forced to drive those long distances anyway. Working for that long with few or no breaks would be a labor rights violation in the US (workers’ rights = safety and good health for everyone).

Also be aware that some bus routes are more dangerous than others due to trip duration and road conditions (like the ride from Arequipa to Puno, or La Paz to Rurrenabaque) which – if they must be done at all – are better done during the day than at night.

On that last point: When possible, try not to do overnight buses. Your bus is much more likely to get into an accident if your driver falls asleep or can’t see the road that well.

Of all the dangers that I heard about the most during my travels through Peru and Bolivia, the buses were some of the bigger concerns. When I went from Cochabamba to Tupiza by bus in Bolivia, the EXACT same company had an accident on the exact same route just the day before – and 8 people died.(remember however, that many bus drivers have to drive overnight without sleeping for 12-15 hours on end with very few breaks. No wonder some of them drink to ease the pain). Just remember that there’s only so much you can do, beyond flying from city to city. Again, choose the best bus companies with the best records!

If you would like to increase your safety odds, ride on the bottom deck of a two story bus, and/or be seated near the back. Both of those things will help you avoid problems, should an accident actually occur.

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#3: TOURS AND TOUR COMPANIES

From what I heard, booking a tour is just like getting a tattoo artist: you want a reasonable price, but you also don’t want to get a cheap one (especially when it comes to extreme sports). For example, cheaper mountain bike tours mean cheaper gear and brakes that may not be fully functional (very problematic on “The World’s Most Dangerous Road”). At the very least, don’t bargain down the price, you’ll get what you pay for. See point #4 too.

Not all tour companies are created equal. Some tour companies are not official. Do some research online (or through the recommendations of other tourists) and ask for their certification. You can also do some Google/Lonely Planet research and look up reviews of the companies online. (Don’t knock the hustle, however. Everyone’s gotta find a way to make a living…)

The other thing I’ve heard is don’t go on a tour by yourself (*ahem* solo travelers). Robberies, assaults and worse have been known to happen once in a while on these one-on-one trips (in which no other tourists are with you on your trip).

I personally didn’t have any problems with tours or safety during my travels through Peru and Bolivia, but I did have a problem with getting ripped off – just a little bit – when it came to paying for the tours that I booked. That’s not that big of a deal to me. Better safe than sorry! At least I paid for the high quality tours.

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#4: THE RAINY SEASON

While I was traveling during South America’s summer, I didn’t realize beforehand that it would be the rainy season – or just how bad rain could be for a vacation (I’ve hiked and camped in the rain before – but this is different). Rain makes every journey more unpleasant, if not impossible:

  • The buses in South America were sometimes dangerous enough: roads hugging high mountainsides, a lack of road infrastructure (including a lack of asphalt), and driver fatigue (long distances + high altitude + sleepiness = a potentially lethal combination). Add in some rain and bad weather, and you can add on yet another safety hazard to the equation.

When one of my friends wanted to take a bus from La Paz to Corioco, a local guy warned her that buses going that way (especially at night) are really dangerous due to the frequency of car and bus accidents. Also, most highways in Bolivia are UNPAVED dirt roads, so check the road conditions before you choose a method of transportation (during the rainy season, everyone flies to Rurrenabaque from La Paz because a more expensive 45 min flight is much better than a 22 – 56 hour bus trip on unpaved dirt roads).

  • Tours are not as enjoyable with rain, and can sometimes be unbearable. In Sucre, some of my friends complained that their rainy overnight trek was kind of unbearable at times. For other tours, while it’s sometimes nice to get a cool rain shower in the middle of a Pampas or jungle trek (where the heat and humidity can be suffering), rain puddles breed HELLA MOSQUITOS. In the winter, where some areas are just as warm but have much less water, there are way fewer mosquitoes (as well as more anaconda sightings and less dolphin sightings). I brought my homemade hippie natural bug spray – it’s not enough. Get a lot of bug spray with DEET in it. Mine had a seemingly illegal 98% DEET, which appalled many people who saw my bottle of REI “Jungle Juice” (it works well on skin, but you need the spray if you want to coat your clothing. Bug spray does nothing underneath clothes, which I learned the hard way.)
  • Tours are sometimes much more dangerous, if not impossible. Many people who visit La Paz want to do the “World’s Most Dangerous Road” bike tour, in which you mountain bike down and old (and unused) road in the middle of some of the most amazing and scenic jungle in the world. However, Lonely Planet warns against tour companies that offer this trip in the rainy season of January and February (people still die on the WMDR, usually due to carelessness, high speed bike accidents, and “falling off the side of the road”.). During my time in Bolivia, some tourists became stranded in the middle of the Salar de Uyuni when their jeep got stuck in the salt-covered mud after some long rains – they had to be rescued after a day or two. A week after this incident happened, I went on my own Salar de Uyuni tour – and my trip turned out great (even though a few of the things on the trip weren’t possible due to the rains). Just remember – it’s better to be safe than sorry.
  • While South America is known for its adventure sports (mountaineering and climbing, to hiking and river rafting), these things are much more difficult (again – if not impossible) with more precipitation. Before I did the Inca Trail, I heard that a couple of guys paid just 15 soles (about $6US) to do a white water rafting trip in Peru. They hit a lot of bad rapids and all the boats turned over. I think the guides survived, but two of the men died (the rest were never found). And then of course there’s my Machu Picchu trip, in which people not only fall over the edge of the trails (AHEM), one year the mudslides were so bad that a whole group of campers hit mudslides, killing everyone. One year the rains were so bad, my guides and everyone else actually had to be airlifted out of the mountains by helicopter. He’s never been in a plane before, but he’s been in a helicopter.

I know this all sounds really scary and dangerous, but to be honest – the biggest thing to do is to just be aware of potential dangers and just plan your trip activities around them. I didn’t have any problems with ANY of my tours during my time in South America. And more often than not, you won’t either.

When it comes to traveling, it’s always helpful to play it safe and to not do anything risky. Stop racing down “The World’s Most Dangerous Road”. Don’t try to act all macho and do dangerous things, just because you think that it makes you look “cool”. One girl that I met in Sucre once told me that a guy on one of her tours was riding an ATV like a madman and had to jump off of it before he accidentally drove it off a cliff. If you don’t do reckless things you should be fine most of the time.

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#5: ILLNESS, DISEASES, AND SUCH

My General Tips:

  • Look up travel advisories and warnings for every country that you’re planning to visit. They usually list the potential illnesses and diseases for each city and/or region (such as malaria, yellow feaver, etc.)
  • Get all your vaccinations done at least a month and a half beforehand (sometimes appointments are hard to book), and know how to take all your meds (I took my altitude pills incorrectly, with disastrous results).
  • Keep the directions to your meds handy, which is good not only for dosage directions and warnings, but also good for the police and the authorities that might question your unmarked pills. Also know in which areas you need to take your malaria meds (Take them only when necessary; they can give you nightmares when you take them).
  • Many people that I met during my travels got altitude sickness (it doesn’t matter how fit you are, everyone is different. Some even got it when their plane landed in Cusco). Buy the altitude meds for soroche/soroji that you can take at any time (the red and white capped ones). Take your altitude pills a day before ascent and just be ready and alert for headaches, shortness of breath, weakness, fatigue, dizziness, diarrhea, vomiting, etc. Approach high altitude cities gently and SLOWLY (walk slowly, and if your symptoms worsen, descend immediately). Know the signs of extreme sickness (especially altitude sickness, which can be lethal if you stop breathing or your brain explodes).
  • Bring small snacks if you’re afraid of getting hungry, and carry vitamin packets and electrolyte powder so you can add them to your water bottles.
  • One big thing is to have a friend or a contact handy (get to know your hostel receptionist) who can take you to the hospital if it gets really bad (this happened to Lizzie in La Paz).
  • Take Pepto Bismal in a preventative way (I had a bottle that I chugged every morning and every night). Luckily, there are drug stores all over Peru.
  • Don’t forget coca leaves, coca tea and coca candy – a very useful local solution (especially when you use a bit of bicarbonate soda as a catalyst for the coca leaves)! Apparently sugar is also good for nausea.
  • Wash your hands a lot, carry toilet paper and hand sanitizer everywhere, and buy MOSQUITO REPELLANT. Most diseases will come about from mosquitoes or dirtiness.
  • Some people get sick (like a flu or a cold) when the weather changes drastically (i.e. from hot to cold). Just know your body: I got a bit of a cold when I wasn’t getting much sleep and the weather got colder in Copacabana, and I got really sick hiking el Camino Inka when I didn’t dress warmly enough. Bundle up and be prepared! I wish I had brought more Nyquil and Dayquil with me on this trip.
  • I carry two first aid kits: one is in my pack (the full one), and a mini one is in my day pack (especially good for plane rides, when I somehow get cuts on my hands).
  • Bring a water bottle everywhere! It’s also good to bring your own water/water filter so you don’t have to contribute to water bottle trash and the water shortages.

(Speaking of mosquito bites, I just got six new ones on my legs while writing the first few paragraphs of this blog entry.)

The smart Japanese kids on my trip who covered themselves from head to toe

The smart Japanese kids on my trip who covered themselves from head to toe

#6: ABOVE ALL, BE PREPARED AND JUST HAVE COMMON SENSE

Life is a gamble. Sometimes you win when the odds are against you, and sometimes you lose when you have more favorable odds. You just never know. All you can do is know what’s up and hope for the best – or avoid potentially bad situations completely.

Rules can be bent and we all make mistakes from time to time, but general rules probably include things like:

  • Don’t do drugs (unless you’re willing to do jail time in a foreign country)
  • Avoid altercations and fights as much as possible (you don’t have home field advantage)
  • Don’t pet or feed the animals
  • Don’t eat (a lot of) raw vegetables (food is best when “Peeled, Packaged, or Piping hot”). I got e.coli in Lima from a bad salad. No more large quantities of raw vegetables for me!
  • Make sure your water is purified (you can even bring a filter or pills).
  • Be careful when going places by yourself at night. Be alert and aware of your surroundings at all time (I act like I’m walking through the streets of Oakland when I travel).
  • Know the areas and neighborhoods to avoid (ask your hostel, a tourist info booth, or other locals). In La Paz for example, they say that women should be aware that they will probably be hassled badly, with or without a man friend.
  • Do a search online about each country’s travel warnings (from terrorism to diseases – and carry those guides with you).
  • Have a guide book handy for all your resources from the history of the country to the best hostels and hospitals in the area.
  • Learn the local langue as best as you can before and during your trip. At the very least, know how to say the following three words: 1. Please. 2. Thank you 3. bathroom (VERY IMPORTANT)
  • Do everything and plan everything way in advance (especially things like Visas) and know that travel takes much longer in other places (some trains or buses only run on two days of the week).
  • Know holidays and the days if and when the city shuts down (for example, I found out just yesterday that during Election Day in Rurrenabaque (today) EVERYTHING shuts down except the hostels. You can’t buy anything anywhere til about 5 pm!
  • I use a PacSafe bag (a cloth and mesh bag that can be locked with a cable) where I store all my valuables, from my passport to my computer. Makes leaving my bag at the hostel much more stress-free.
  • Pay attention to your intuition, be on the defensive, and be wary of scams.
  • I made front and back copies of all my credit cards and passports and saved that document in my email. If anything happens, I have friends and fam that can access my records (password protected).
  • Tell your credit card and bank companies way in advance that you’ll be traveling, and to which countries (including aiport stopovers). If you want, add a personal “Ambassador” that can access or change your account information in case you aren’t able to (like a trusted family member or friend).
  • Carry phone cards or a cell with you if your stuff gets lost or stolen. AND program each city/country/municipality’s emergency numbers (tourist police, hospitals, your home country’s embassy) into your cell phone address book. My biggest mistake was not unlocking my Peruvian cell phone before I left for Bolivia, which renders my phone now completely useless until I return to Peru.
  • Know which towns have ATM’s, and which don’t so you can get money in advance. Get money out in large amounts so that the $5 withdrawl fees don’t add up so much over time! (on that note, know how much it costs to do a credit card cash advance, and if your bank charges extra fees). Have at least TWO ATM cards from two different banks, and don’t forget your PIN numbers. And, know the exchange rates of each country (so you know what’s a good and bad exchange rate, and what $100 Bolivianos really means in $US Dollars)
  • Be friendly and smile. It helps to make friends

AND don’t forget that above all: a positive and can-do attitude, a good grasp of gratitude, and a sense of humor are all definitely needed. Confidence (not arrogance or ignorance) is also a great tool to have under your belt. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger (and wiser)!

Happy (and safe) travels!!

Ninja jump #2

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4 thoughts on “South America Travel Diary: The So-Called “Dangers and Annoyances”

  1. Janet says:

    Good information. I don’t know if studying abroad is different from traveling, but I’d like to print these precautions for my son before he leaves for school abroad.

  2. I don’t know much about Melbourne, but I’m sure it’s very different from South America. You can look up information from a LP book on Australia, or go to LonelyPlanet.com. You can also get travel advisories from your embassy (should also be able to find them online). Good luck!

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