This post is based on my experience of travelling in South America where I visited Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru and Colombia.
I travelled around South America for five months and I did not get mugged. None of my property got stolen. I did not have my bag sliced while on a bus in Bolivia. As far as I am aware I was not even close to getting robbed at any point.
Did I fail as a traveller, or more importantly, as a travel blogger?
Most travel bloggers seem to have a story, a popular post about how something went terribly wrong while they were travelling, which although hard at the time, taught them a valuable lesson— I do not have such a story, unless you count getting harassed by an old woman in Vietnam while her grandchild deftly slipped around the back and took my cheap, nasty phone from my bag—I would have given it to her if she’d asked nicely. But that story is more embarrassing than a hardcore traveller’s tale.
Before my trip, I was worried about travelling in South America.
You just hear so many stories, and they often involve guns, knives and assailants in balaclavas.
It doesn’t matter how many people tell you otherwise; before you have been there you just know that South America is a dangerous place because it has always been a dangerous place. Besides, all the people who have never been there tell you that it is.
Except that now it isn’t. Nowhere near as dangerous as it used to be at any rate.
Medellin in Colombia has made a complete transition from the drug-trafficking, kidnapping central that it used to be. So why are people still so damn afraid?
As with anywhere else in the world, South America has its dangerous parts, and every city has shady neighbourhoods. If you wander into these areas then you are asking for trouble. Even heavily populated tourist areas can conceal dangerous people and pickpockets.
But then so does the city that you live in.
Recently I spoke to somebody who planned a trip during the summer of 2011. Just before she was due to visit her destination it was beset by troubles: riots in the streets, shops burned down in the night, people cowering inside their homes afraid of the mobs outside. Violent attacks in broad daylight, the police battling for days to regain control. Her friends begged her not to go; it was too dangerous, they said.
Where was this terrifying place? Egypt? Libya? The Favelas of Rio de Janeiro?
No. It was London – you know, the London that will host millions of foreign tourists at the Olympic Games this year. How many of those will worry that London is a dangerous city?
I am not saying that just because I did not have any problems in South America then it is a completely safe place: it would be irresponsible to say such a thing. Of course I met people who had been robbed, I heard of camera snatches, cloned ATM cards, emptied bank accounts, and I met travellers who had ended up in potentially dangerous situations. Thankfully I did not meet anybody who had been physically hurt, once the valuables were handed over the victims were left alone.
Despite these stories I would like to shake off the common belief that South America is full of violent criminals. Crime exists in South America as anywhere else in the world but a beautiful country like Colombia should not be forever stigmatised by its past. Imagine if every country was treated according to the crimes of its past, where would Britain stand then? Or Germany? The USA?
Some of the places that I visited in South America are also some of the areas that tourists are often warned about, places such as Retiro Bus Station – Buenos Aires, La Boca – Buenos Aires; Valparaiso – Chile; Cerro San Cristobal – Santiago de Chile; La Paz – Bolivia; La Candelaria – Bogota; Medellin – Colombia, and Taganga – Colombia.
In all of the South American countries that I visited, the only time I ever felt truly concerned about my safety was walking around Buenos Aires at night. Ironically, this was the city in which I had expected to feel the most safe when I planned my trip. Even so, I did not encounter a situation in which I felt threatened or intimidated.
Maybe I was just lucky when I travelled in South America.
Maybe I just never happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Maybe the precautions I took kept me safe.
Or maybe the tide is turning in South America and people who visit there will finally see that it is a continent of beautiful, honest and hard-working people no longer allowing the minority of criminals to tarnish their reputation.
I certainly hope to see fewer ‘I Got Robbed in South America’ blog posts in the future and see more people venturing to this beautiful continent.