- Si yo fuera ladron, a ti te robaria. (If I were a thief, I’d rob you.)
- Con cuidado que tu tienes cara de gringo. (Be careful. You look like an American.)
I guess I really shouldn’t be surprised I hear comments like these at least every week. I’m extremely red-headed and attract attention whether I want to or not, especially in Latin America. It would be nearly impossible to wear dark contact lenses and dye all the hair on my body to fit in, but so far it hasn’t been a problem. We’ve traveled in chicken buses in Nicaragua, walked down sketchy streets at night in San Jose, Costa Rica, and found our back to our room through the dark streets of Havana. We’ve traveled all of Colombia from north to south by bus, taken wrong turns, and felt the hairs on the back of our necks stand up more than once, but, so far, besides the occasional rip-off at a store, we have been blessed with a problem-free trip.
So what have we done to stay safe? Traveling has been a wonderful experience, but when you’re always the new kid on the block, you have to keep your wits about you. We are constantly learning the rules of the game in every new city, town, and village we visit. Being new makes you a target, yes, but with some precaution you can mostly leave your worries behind and enjoy the privilege of seeing our beautiful world.
- Don’t bring anything you can’t afford to lose.
- This one’s pretty simple. Things will be lost, broken, or stolen. Be ready for that and don’t bring anything you couldn’t afford to lose.
- Don’t look too nice.
- When we set out we didn’t bring anything we wouldn’t mind being lost, broken, ripped, or stained. Over the last several months, several of those things have happened. We do have a nice-ish outfit each for date nights and such, but generally we try not to stand out. I’ve let my hair and beard grow to adopt the “ragged traveler” look and Andrea wears less jewelry than she did back home.
- Bring locks!
- We both have a few number-lock padlocks each. We use them to lock our smaller bags with our valuables so they can’t be open, as well as to secure lockers we use at various hostels.
- Do you research before showing up.
- Know how far the bus station is from your hostel/hotel/AirBnb.
- Even if you don’t have a hostel/hotel booked, have an idea of the neighborhood you’re going to and how far it is. Know what areas to avoid, etc.
- Understand your wealth not in relation to your hometown, but in local terms.
- Andrea’s phone is crappy by American standards. Nothing to look at , no one would blink an eye in the US and/or Mexico. However, in Manaus her phone was not common and mine was even less so.
- It is important to constantly evaluate yourself and your belongings in relation to those around you.
Out and about:
- Avoid walking around with your big backpacks.
- When we first arrive in a city, we like to have a destination in mind. Even if we don’t stay there, we have a hostel mapped out and go in that direction to see if we find any better prices along the way. If hostels are far from the bus station, we take an Uber, taxi, bus, etc.
- Walking around with your big bag makes you a target, especially in sketchy neighborhoods. You’re big, slow, and presumably carrying all valuables you own.
- Avoid sketchy areas.
- This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s definitely the best piece of advice I can give you. Andrea has a much better sense for this than I do, but we’re constantly aware of our surroundings.
- We ask locals about how safe different neighborhoods are, we pay attention to when sunset is, and we watch the people around us. If no one has their cell phone out, or people are walking fast with their heads down, we do the same.
- We don’t usually plan to be out after dark unless we know the area is safe, and even then we don’t tend to wander aimlessly.
- Look like you have a purpose.
- Even when we’re in a brand new city and have no idea where we are, we don’t walk around looking at every street sign.
- If we’re lost, we typically find a safe, secluded corner to pull out the cell phone and orient ourselves on the map. With Project Fi, we usually have signal. We walk confidently and only stop for directions at shops or restaurants, unless it is absolutely necessary to to check the phone while walking.
- Don’t bring much.
- When we’re out and about for the day, we try to leave everything important back at the hostel. Unless we know the route to a safe coffee shop, the computers always stay back and we never take out passports or anything like that, unless it’s to get a visa.
- We usually take water, sunscreen, hat, phones, and maybe Kindles if we find a nice place to read, but that’s usually about it!
- Split up your valuables.
- I keep a “decoy wallet” in my front pocket with just enough cash to get by, an old expired ID, a cancelled debit card, and a couple of expired credit cards. I used to use an old one that was starting to fall apart, but a friend’s mother made a super resilient, but cheap-looking one several months ago with a coffee bag and duct tape. I’ve never had to use it, but the idea is that if I get robbed, I can give up this decoy wallet with enough cash to satisfy my attacker without handing over any critical pieces of ID or credit cards.
- I always wear a money belt under my pants with a very compact wallet containing emergency cash (bigger bills), my real ATM card, real ID, and a backup credit card.
- I also keep an emergency Visa gift card, ID, and credit card wrapped inside my clothing inside my big bag that I NEVER take out with me. That way, even if my decoy and real wallet are stolen, I can still prove who I am and have a little cash to live off while I get everything replaced.
- Andrea and I each have an ATM card, but only ever use one. The second card is hidden away and we only plan to use it if the first one is stolen or cloned. (The latter has actually happened and we were still able to get out cash thanks to this strategy. Also, a big hurray for fraud protection!)
- Keep your valuables close.
- When traveling from city to city with our big backpacks, Andrea and I also carry along smaller bags that contain most of our valuables. When traveling on buses, you typically have to leave your big back in a luggage storage area, but we keep the smaller bags with us at all times, even when getting off the bus for food or restroom breaks.
- This is more important in some countries than others, but petty theft in buses is quite common, so never place anything truly valuable in the overhead compartment.
- Since we travel as a couple, we can take turns standing guard over our things while the other person goes to ask about ticket prices, use the restroom, or buy food.
- We use Life360 so our families can always see where we are in case anything happens.
- Uber around. Whenever we need to go far and don’t have a good public transport option, we opt for Uber instead of a taxi as it’s almost always cheaper, is tracked, and doesn’t require cash.
- Do NOT keep banking apps on your phone, and do NOT save banking passwords on your browser.
- Enable text-message notifications for all credit and debit cards if you can. That way, if you card is stolen or cloned, you’ll know almost immediately. (We had a card cloned while in Peru and had to go through quite a process to get the cash back.)
- Data Safety
- Encrypt your phone.
- Use a finger-print lock, not a number or pattern lock, if you can.
- Use a VPN for sensitive internet traffic. We haven’t had any issues, but it’s always a good idea to have some protection when you’re not at home.
In the end, you’re always taking some degree of risk by traveling. Outside your normal routine, there are innumerable things that you have no control over and could go wrong. You definitely have to have a little faith in the world, but you have to take your precautions as well. The number one rule is to not bring anything that you couldn’t stand to lose. Things break, get lost, and could even be stolen. Once you’ve decided what’s worth bringing, you have to be alert and pay attention to your surroundings. Common street sense is your biggest ally here, so avoid an area if it looks sketchy. If there’s no other way, have confidence and head towards your destination with positive outcomes in mind.