[mks_boxquote align=”right” width=”150″ arrow=”0″]“…a little common sense goes a long way. Always trust your instincts”[/mks_boxquote]I have to admit that I was nervous about coming to South America. South America has a reputation for drugs, robberies, and violence: whoever you speak to about the continent will tell you some story of a friend, or a friend-of-a-friend, who has experienced some kind of negative experience in South America. And it never seems to be of the anonymous pick-pocketing variety. No. More the kidnapped-in-a-taxi or held-at-gunpoint kind of story. Nowhere is this more true than in La Paz, Bolivia.
After more than two months in Uruguay, Argentina and Chile, I finally made my way to Bolivia—the poorest of the South American countries that I have visited so far—and the shift in economic climate is vast. La Paz, the elevated Capital of the country, has a reputation, just read the scams section in the Lonely Planet if you don’t believe me. Case in point: when in Buenos Aires I spoke to a young German girl who had fallen victim to the fake taxi/policeman scam just seconds after getting off the bus. This scam involves a ‘helpful’ local escorting a bewildered tourist to a ‘reputable’ taxi. After 12 hours on a bone-shaking, sleep-depriving Bolivian night-bus, the tourist is often happy to accept help. In the German girl’s case, her benefactor was a respectable-looking middle-aged local woman. The helpful local then gets in the taxi alongside the unsuspecting tourist until they are stopped by a ‘policeman’ who demands that all passengers leave the taxi and show their documents. The local willingly obliges and urges the tourist to do the same, at which point the passport, ATM card and cash are removed from the tourist, who may also have to watch the taxi disappear with all their bags and belongings. Thankfully, the girl I spoke to had heard of the scam and although the ordeal was traumatic for her she was quick-witted enough to open the back of the car, grab her bag and make a run for it.
Of course, everywhere has dangers. I lived in a quiet neighbourhood for many years as a child but our house got burgled 3 times in as many years. You have as much chance of getting involved in knife or gun-crime in Birmingham as any developing country. But La Paz has a reputation. In the time I spent there I was with two girls who had separate, terrifying stories. The first took a taxi from outside a large, well-known hostel in the city. This hostel has 24 hour security and taxis that wait outside at night ready to take guests from the bar to the clubs. She got in a taxi alone, following straight after two taxis full of her friends that were headed for a popular club. Her taxi took her up the mountainside to a remote area and stopped. The driver demanded 500 Bolivianos (£50), which she handed over and insisted he take her back to the hostel, which he did. If she had refused, or not had the money with her, her story may not have ended so well.
The second story is even more chilling. A young girl went to a concert with her friends; she had had a few drinks on the way and lost her ticket at the gates. Her friends were already inside the concert area when they realised that she had not been let in and the guards refused to let them out to help her, saying that she had gone to buy another ticket at the gate so her friends waited for her to arrive. The concert ended and there was no sign of her. She did not return to the hostel at all that night and her friends scoured the city, looking in every club to see if she was there. At 9am the next morning she returned to the hostel. After being refused entrance to the concert she had been approached by a group of guys who tried to drag her off—she had grazes the length of her arms and legs—instantly sobering up, she pushed them off and ran. A local family came to her rescue and took her to their home. In the morning they found out the address of the hostel where she was staying and put her in a taxi. They told her how lucky she was. La Paz is not a city for a young girl to be alone—especially when drunk—and she was very, very lucky. Who knows what would have happened to her if that family had not protected her?
I don’t mean to put anybody off visiting La Paz by writing this post. I just wish to reinforce the point that some places require far more caution than others. A large sign in our hostel entrance states that travellers should avoid taking ATM cards or Passports out into the city, and when I asked the reception staff if the local area is safe to walk around she paused, took a breath, and said ‘erm, sometimes. Be careful.’
So here’s the good news. In the 9 days that I have been in La Paz I have not felt threatened or unsafe at any point. I have visited ATM’s and taken out the maximum amount of cash, I have spent an afternoon shopping in busy marketplaces with my camera in my pocket, I have walked back to the hostel in the dark and I have walked the length of the city carrying a brand-new laptop.
The important thing is that I have always been on my guard.
How I kept safe in La Paz.
- I have never walked, or taken a taxi, alone at night.
- I have not flagged down a taxi off the street, but used reputable taxis that have been arranged through the hostel.
- I have kept my money in my inside pocket of my jacket or rolled up and tucked inside my bra.
- When my camera was in my pocket I kept the string around my wrist and my hand in my pocket at all times.
- I have not taken out more money than I need or my ATM card/passport with me other than the times it was strictly necessary. When I took money out I returned immediately to the hostel.
- When visiting markets or ATMs I was always VERY AWARE of who was around me. Be particularly careful of children who can reach low down pockets more easily. If you suspect that anybody is watching you do not take out any money or go into an ATM – you can always go back later!
- Don’t keep anything in your back pockets that you are not willing to be parted with and try to avoid taking a backpack. If you carry it on your back you can’t see if anybody is getting into it and if you carry it on your front then you immediately identify yourself as a tourist!!
- Don’t look at a map or guidebook in the street. If you are lost call into a coffee shop or restaurant (there are plenty), that way you get to sample some of Bolivia’s excellent cakes and pastries whilst trying to figure out where you are away from the watchful eyes of would-be thieves.
- Avoid badly-lit narrow side roads after dark, stick to wider roads with street lighting.
- Look and act confident even if you don’t feel it.
As with anywhere else in South America a little common sense goes a long way and always trust your instincts. Whilst cheap alcohol and easily accessible drugs may tempt many travellers, they also make them very vulnerable—and girls should never, I repeat NEVER, go out alone at night in La Paz. Thankfully the three young women that I met came to no harm but I hope that other girls can avoid the same traumatic experiences.
If you keep your wits about you, La Paz is a great place to explore.
Have you ever been to La Paz? What was your experience of the city? Have you heard of any of these scams, or experienced them? Would you be put off visiting a plcae because of things that you have heard? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. If you think this post may help other travellers then please share!