I have made over 30 trips to South America buying alpaca and wool, sometimes carrying a lot of money (before ATMs). Other than the odd arrest, police shakedown or minor con, so far I have never been robbed. I credit this to a lot of vigilance and a generous helping of luck.
Fortunately, most theft in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia is not violent. It’s more like a game. It is usually effected by skillful thieves who wait for or create a moment of inattentiveness on your part to separate you peacefully from your belongings. Give them credit for their creativity and professionalism, but don’t give them you stuff.* Here are some tips for staying safe.
YOUR AWARENESS IS YOUR BEST DEFENSE: Always keep looking in four directions around bus and train stations. Keep an eye out for people lounging around who seem to be watching you and look them in the eye. When walking on the street, occasionally glance behind you, scan upcoming doorways and alleys and don’t let anyone walk behind you (step aside and let them pass). Markets, transit stations and remote ruins are places to be extra careful.
HOLD ON TO IT: When you are in a public place, don’t hang your purse/backpack over your chair or leave it sitting on the ground next to you (loop it through a chair leg, if necessary, and keep it in contact with your feet). In a crowded area, don’t even even put it down next to you: hold it on your lap.
ONE BAG TO RULE THEM ALL: Carry one bag. Thieves often work in groups and if you have two bags, thieves may grab a bag each and run in opposite directions. You can’t chase everybody.
DON’T FLASH YOUR MONEY: If you’re going out to a market, keep your walking-around money in a closed pocket and your reserve money in a money belt beneath your clothes. If you need your reserve money, go to a private place (like a bathroom) and get some out there.
DON’T LEAVE MONEY LYING AROUND YOUR HOTEL ROOM: Put it in the safe or hide it.
SCAMS: I could write a book on this, but here are some prominent ones to beware of:
OH, YOU’RE DIRTY! Someone surreptitiously smears something on you, a confederate (usually a woman) notices it and offers to clean you off, meanwhile, the thief takes off with your bag. Remedy: If someone offers to “help” you in this way, don’t stop, keep walking out of the area and clean it yourself later.
I’M YOUR OLD FRIEND IN NEED : This one is bizarre, but surprisingly effective. Someone approaches you and pretends they know you, but you can’t remember them. As you struggle to remember, they key off what you are saying and fill in the blanks until you’re sure that you do know them. Then they tell you a hard-luck story and ask for money. I gave up 6 bucks by one such short story-artist in Lima in 1986 and I’ve never forgotten it. Remedy: Enjoy the story, but hold on to your wallet.
THE GANG’S ALL HERE: You’re in a crowded street festival or market. Suddenly you’re densely crowded by what seems to be a whole family, from Grandma to Grandson. They’re all smiling at you: isn’t that nice! Afterward, you realize that someone picked your pocket or cut your bag with a razor and took out your wallet. Remedy: don’t carry money to festivals, avoid crowds, if you feel crowded, move away quickly.
MY FRIEND WANTS TO RIDE IN THE TAXI WITH US : This is an invitation to armed robbery and it can end your trip right there, or worse. Remedy: If you are flagging a taxi on the street or taking an unauthorized taxi at a transit point NEVER put your bags in the trunk. Keep them on the seat with you and get out immediately if anyone else gets in the cab. Don’t discuss it, don’t pay the fare. Walk away quickly. This is most likely to happen when you arrive at the airport.
Avoiding petty ripoffs:
All the above being said, some of my best experiences in South America involved following suspicious people down alleys or hooking up with individuals that seemed sketchy but turned out to be wonderful. I’ve had people chase me down the street to return the pouch containing my passport and money, hand me bills I had dropped and had people safeguard my computer, passport, plane tickets and $6000 in cash when I left my knapsack in a restaurant. Be careful, but keep an open heart and look to the best in people and you will be surprised and delighted.
*Crime in Argentina, Columbia, Venezuela and Brazil is far more violent. If you are confronted in those countries, comply immediately and fully. It’s only money.
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