Often I think of South America as “The Forgotten Continent.” Not because it is unknown, nor because it is barren – home to the world’s driest desert, the second highest mountain range in the world, the nearest point to Antarctica, various tropical jungles and cultural artefacts that go back 5,000 years – diversity is unavoidable here.
More so because there are still relatively few backpackers there.
Let me clarify – yes there are a lot, but you don’t have the same swarms as you do at European hotspots, or as many naive, young, party-fueled tourists in this continent that you do in Asia. Who you typically see are the explorer type who are there seeking nature and astonishing history.
Mainstream media doesn’t show much about South American news stories either, except the occasional natural disaster like a Chilean volcano erupting, or FARC conflict in Colombia, or an economic disaster such as in Venezuela.
The truth is that South America has a bad reputation.
And yes, historically it is easy to see why. Her history is riddled with Spanish and Portuguese colonialism, which left astonishingly beautiful architecture… as well as murder, wars, enslavement and abuse of indigenous cultures. Various dictatorships continent-wide sent many innocents to mysterious deaths and tortures, and are relatively recent (like Chile in the ’70s). Then we see the illegal deforestation destroying the habitat of countless species in the Amazon, not to mention the indigenous hunter-gatherer groups who still live there and are struggling. for survival. Countless drug and gang conflicts across the North of the continent is commonplace (in fact, one of Bolivia’s biggest drug producers was actually a prison in La Paz). There are high rates of poverty and displacement, especially in Colombia. There are crimes both serious and petty. Corruption left, right and centre (pun intended).
Economic crises are nothing new… a year ago, Venezuela had an official exchange rate of $1 USD to 7 bolivares and a black market rate of $1 to 700 bolivares. To put that into perspective, a tank of petrol costs about 3 bolivares (it’s basically free). The country often runs out of toiletries and a close friend of mine got robbed of her soap, but not her laptop or iPhone that were laying on her bed. If that doesn’t paint an astounding picture of desperation, I’m not sure what does.
And people won’t let you forget it.
Many have become so accustomed to these stories and histories of crime that they think you crazy for going. From home, it is stereotypes and out-dated opinions like Colombia being too unsafe for tourists, or surely you’ll be kidnapped in Peru?! Bolivia with its poverty and political instability is obviously out of the question. Rio de Janeiro? You’ll be mugged at knife-point. You can definitely not go as a European-looking woman. No no no, again and again.
In South America itself you’ll be told that everywhere is dangerous. EVERY week in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador I was warned, even lectured, by a well-intentioned stranger who said it is too dangerous to do such-and-such. I’ve been robbed in New Zealand, my companion in Germany, and more was taken than in South America (yes, I was robbed crossing into Ecuador). You ask passerby’s for the bus route and they will insist on you taking an official taxi (for 10 times the price, only during the middle of the day, in safe parts of town).
People here are just trying to be helpful, I understand.
But don’t trust everything you hear. Often it is simply learnt and repeated information (by locals and foreigner alike). Neither parties have backpacked (or even BEEN) to these places or countries themselves. They underestimate your street-smart, the fact that yes you have travelled before, and no, we don’t need you to remind us on basic instinct.
Really, as a backpacker, South America is safe.
The chances of you getting into trouble are very slim – normal precautions prevail in 99% of cases. You learn pretty quickly to take caution, read up on dangers, and most importantly – trust your gut feelings. If you hear gunshots in Venezuela, you run. You don’t stray into the “Red zones” in Colombia where armed conflict is possible. Importantly, remember there are always other foreigners around you, reminding you that there’s no need to be nervous.
The backpackers that you meet here are the brave, the hardy, the long-term vagabonds who wanted to escape the tourists. The campers, the artists. The mountain climbers. They travel by form of performing on the street or crafting artesanias, they couchsurf, or they (like us) go as cheap as possible. They are not bothered by the bugs, the lack of hot water on freezing days, the altitude sickness.
The most dangerous part of South America, completely honestly, are the dogs in Peru. Take pepper spray as a precaution if you are trekking in rural areas – some packs won’t back off without it.