Tips for travelling to South America and how to stay safe abroad

Getting Around By Joanne Poh Mar 11, 2020

This article was created in partnership with Western Union.

Travelling to South America can be an alluring idea, especially for those looking to escape a cold European winter. Whether you’d like to dance the tango in Argentina or hike to Machu Picchu in Peru, your South American adventure is sure to include encounters with some of the world’s warmest and friendliest people.

However, when travelling to South America, it is wise to stay alert and aware of your surroundings, given that crime can be a problem in certain regions, as noted by Le Monde. That being said, prudent adventurers should have no trouble enjoying their South American travel and stay. Here are some trips for a safe and memorable experience.

Know what to pack

Other than booking your flights and accommodation, you’ll want to ensure you have packed everything you need for the trip. Research your destination ahead of time and think about the activities you would most like to participate in; that way, you know what to take with you.

Climates in South America can vary dramatically even within a single country, so you may need a mixture of clothing for both warm and cold weather. If you intend to go hiking or participate in outdoor activities, you’ll need to have equipment such as hiking shoes, socks and clothes. You’ll also need a universal adaptor to charge your devices.

Make sure you are covered by travel insurance before you depart. You want to ensure that you’ll be compensated if you get robbed, fall ill or get into an accident.

Learn some Spanish

With the exception of Brazil, where Portuguese is spoken, most South American countries are Spanish-speaking. Learning the basics of the Spanish language will go a long way in helping you connect with locals, get things done and enjoy your stay in South America.

If you don’t have much time to devote to learning the language, use an app like Duolingo or a self-study course like Assimil, designed to teach you the basics in a few weeks or months.

Know where you can drink tap water

Tap water is generally OK to drink in big cities in South American countries such as Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Uruguay — but notably, it’s not in others, such as Peru, Ecuador, Paraguay and Venezuela. You should always be careful when drinking tap water in rural areas.

In places where tap water is unsafe to drink, you will have to either rely on bottled water or bring along your own water filter or water purification product.

Avoid carrying large amounts of cash

Petty crime can be an issue in many parts of South America, so you’ll need to be very careful with your money and valuables. It’s always a good idea to carry as little cash as you can, and to leave all your valuables, including your passport and credit cards, at your accommodation.

To avoid having to carry a lot of cash around with you, use an ATM card to withdraw cash at your destination or withdraw money periodically at bank branches as you travel. Watch out for counterfeit bills, which might be given to you as change or even handed to you over the counter by money changers.

If you need to make a payment to a bank account in South America or elsewhere, you can use the Western Union® app to send money electronically — a quick and reliable method.

Staying safe

Although it can differ greatly depending on where you’re going, crime levels in many South American countries are likely to be higher than what you are used to in Europe. Some countries, such as Argentina and Chile, are relatively safe, although petty crime can still be a problem. Others, such as Colombia and Brazil, will require higher levels of caution.

No matter where you are in South America, do not dress expensively or wear costly jewellery or watches. It is also a good idea to avoid using your smartphone in public places. If you need to bring valuables with you, you may want to consider using a money belt to wear under your clothes.

Avoid wandering around in deserted areas, and when on public transport, always keep your bags in your lap rather than in luggage storage areas or overhead racks.

It is a better idea to call for taxis, rather than hail them on the street. In case you have no way to call a taxi, familiarise yourself with the major taxi companies operating in the country, and ensure that the name and contact number of the company are displayed prominently on the vehicle.

Learning a few key phrases or simply keeping your smartphone in your pocket can make all the difference when travelling to South America. Whether you’re exploring the heights of the Chilean Patagonia or relaxing on the beach in Cartagena, Colombia, caution can be your best companion.