Here are some basic rules I followed – most of the time – during my eleven (3 + 3 + 5) months traveling and living in various South American countries (Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, Bolivia and Chile). These rules are guidelines and are not set in stone. I have deviated from the quite a few times, especially the one about not traveling alone. But one thing is for sure, don’t get too cocky. I got only scammed once in my eleven months and guess what it was in 10th or 11th in South America, when my Spanish was at its best and was pretty confident that this would just be another border crossing like the twenty or something I had before wrong… the land border between Ecuador and Perú wasn’t just another border…
Don’t paint a bullseye on your back
What do I mean by that? Don’t make yourself a(n easy) target. Don’t flash your mp3player, credit card, camera, etc. around in certain areas. Better don’t take them with you, if you don’t need them. I met people who went out in Arequipa (Peru) for drinks with their credit cards, you can only pay in cash there anyway. There were hard metal lockers in the Hostel.
I personally have the theory that a lot of stuff that “got stolen” was actually lost in a drunken stupor by many people.
You are not at home, don’t leave your wallet/cell phone on the table
This seems so obvious, but it happened quite often to wide range of different people. When I stayed in Tena (Ecuador) it was quite “amusing” how many friends of mine – who stayed their for years or were even born there – got their cell phones stolen repeatedly. Usually they put it on a table or the bar and suddenly their stuff is gone. Maybe I am paranoid control freak, but even in secure countries like Austria and Germany, when I put my wallet on the table I put my fucking hand on it or at least my Mark I eyeballs.
If you go into an unknown area be alert, awake and sober or bring someone along
People see if you are alert or just an easy target stumbling down the road. Usually every city has some pretty safe places for going out and living connected with safe and less safe means of transportation. If you plan into venturing into an abandoned train yard, it is probably better to be sober and look around, because people could live there. The same goes for going out, usually most backpackers go out in groups anyway and look out for themselves.
Don’t travel alone on long rides, border crossings and in dangerous areas
Most people would advise you that you shouldn’t do anything alone in South America anyways, except going for a piss. Well, even that can be quite complicated if you have a large backpack on your back and a small one in your hand in a fucking small toilet stall in the middle of nowhere. But back on the track. If you are going on a long bus ride, like twelve or more hours it is better to find someone to help you out just in case, usually you won’t be alone a such a long bus ride anyway. Changing seats isn’t that much of a deal and if it is, it is usually a quite safe place anyway. (Usually the more organized and control freaky people are, the more safe the place is.) I strongly advise anyone to group up in border crossings, because these are usually hectic, irritating as fuck (even after my 20 crossings or something) and annoying. Usually, you have to leave your transport several times and the transport itself are usually group taxis, make sure that at least one other person in this taxi is a “gringo/a” (“dude/gal who isn’t from South America”).
Don’t get too cocky
Yeah, this one is for me. I was my third time in South America and it was my longest trip so far, my Spanish was pretty decent at that time and I had ventured around in Ecuador for about 4 months. I was on my way from Ecuador to Perú and I thought “well, just another border crossing what could go wrong, I have seen it all”… wrong I hadn’t. The land border between Ecuador and Perú is a fucking mess. The actual border line goes right through a fucking city, which was pretty irritating to me, because usually the crossing is in no-mans-land. If I had done my homework or brought some backup – there were plenty of other backpackers at the border station to team up with – I guess I could have saved me quite some trouble.
Afterwards a friend of mine, who has a Masters in Math, told me that was the only border he got ripped off too with a fake calculator when he wanted to change some money… that only made me feel slightly better.
Every country is a bit different, I would highly recommend you to get some further information about traveling in South America in general or even better for each specific country you will visit. I recommend the following books for your backpack. The a very well organized and catered to the backpacker, while you sit on the plane, bus, train, etc. you can read about the city you are going next.