Before you start to worry, nothing bad happened to us while travelling. However we heard several first-hand accounts of theft, robbery and even a mugging in just three weeks.
We weren’t really concerned about safety until Buenos Aires (BA), when our taxi driver from the airport spent the entire 40 minute journey cautioning us about the many ways in which BA cabbies can rip you off. It’s worth noting that we ignored all the taxi touts at the terminal (there are lots of them, they are aggressive and some say “official, official” while waving a definitely non-official taxi card in your face) and made our way to the official Airport taxi service, which has a blue booth just outside the arrivals hall. You pay your fixed-price fare to the city at the booth and then wait until the driver arrives to pick up the receipt and take you to your car. The kiosk attendant warned us to stay very close to the booth in case a false “driver” attempted to come and pick us up. Thank you to Lonely Planet for that advice – as we later heard, it might well have saved us from misery later on.
There is a big problem with counterfeit banknotes in Argentina, usually with AR$50 and AR$100 notes but all notes apart from AR$2 and AR$5 may be false. The most common taxi driver con is when you go to pay for your fare (which would usually only be AR$10-25) with a AR$50 or AR$100 note. The driver takes your note, secretly switches it for a fake note then hands the fake one back to you and says he doesn’t have enough change. You then pay with smaller bills and the driver pockets your genuine 50/100 as well. Our driver suggested we write down the last two serial numbers on the note before handing it over, that way you would ensure you got the same note back. We tried a different tack, ALWAYS ensuring we had the correct amount in small notes or coins, and did not have any problems.
Another method of outright theft is for the driver to simply zoom off with your bags still in the boot if you get out of the car before him. Our driver recommended we not exit the car until the driver had turned off the engine and got out of the driver’s seat. We were also advised not to travel with the windows down, as a stranger on foot could reach into the car and grab your bag. He admitted this had actually happened to him six months earlier while waiting at traffic lights. He was convincingly scary, and for the first three days in BA we walked everywhere, not even taking a train!
You might think the concerns are overblown, but we heard two accounts of robbery by taxi driver while in BA. One from a young guy who went out one night, did the right thing by getting a taxi back to the hostel but was threatened and robbed by the driver on the way. Another older man we struck up conversation with in a cafe said that he had been robbed by a driver who picked him up at the airport. He followed one of the touts who promised to take him into town for a fixed price of AR$100, but instead drove to somewhere in the grimy suburbs and demanded AR$200 before continuing further. The man paid, fearing even worse treatment if he did not.
The most serious account happened during our second stay in Valparaiso in Chile. Chile is considered one of the safest countries in South America, and we certainly never felt in danger at any time. Of course you still need to be sensible: don’t travel to dodgier areas at night, or take a taxi if you do, don’t carry too much money on you, hold your bags close at all times, etc. Tori, a tall and young American woman was out taking photographs in the impossibly picturesque streets of Valparaiso. She was alone and she was holding a very expensive camera by her side, but it was mid-afternoon on a moderately busy street only a very short distance from the hostel, so on balance should have been safe.
Tori was approached by three youths who asked if they could bum some cigarettes. She obliged and carried on walking down the street. Suddenly she was grabbed from behind and the cigarettes shoved in her mouth, a hand held roughly over her face. Shocked but quick to react, she pulled a knife from her pocket and stabbed one of the attackers in the arm which caused them to push her to the ground and run off with the camera. Fortunately some police officers were nearby and they managed to catch the kid with the camera, which was returned to Tori. They also took her to the hospital where she was attended to for some large scrapes and scratches, but otherwise unhurt apart from the shock.
In another story also heard in Valpo, two Australians travelling together through South America for over four months had no problems anywhere until just three weeks from home, when their room was broken into and their valuables stolen (including passports). Pickpockets are also a threat on the metro and around tourist areas of the bigger cities, apparently, but we didn’t hear any stories of falling victim to them.
We were very glad that nothing happened to us, though as we were travelling together we were much safer than if we were alone. I will seriously consider extra measures when travelling by myself through Asia, such as carrying a second “sacrificial” wallet with not much in it in case I get robbed. Stuart, who has travelled extensively through Asia, had done similar things for years because even the old standard of a money belt is pretty obvious these days.
But don’t let the fears worry you too much that you don’t consider visiting South America – it’s great! Everyone we met while travelling, whether on a short trip like our or a six month odyssey around the entire continent, absolutely loved it and would happily see more if they could. I’m in that boat: I’ve already pencilled in various two-month itineraries that would allow me to visit Peru-Bolivia-Ecuador, or Argentina-Uruguay-Paraguay, or Brazil-Surinam-French Guiana…