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5 Fundamental Safety Tips for Backpacking in South America and Beyond

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.

Further Information

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. They are 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.

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Slideshow & Video for: 7 Things Every Backpacker should have in his Backpack

Due to the wide success and great resonance on my post 7 Things Every Backpacker should have in his Backpack, I put together a video and a slideshow. Enjoy! Feedback welcome!

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6 Useful Tips for Travelling with a Bus in South America


Travelling by bus is the common way to travel in South America. I travelled only by bus and once by plane. Here are some general tips and hints. Yet, there is sometimes a huge difference between the buses in different countries depening on their development stage and/or tourism level. Thus, I added an additional post about the different countries, we know about: Travelling by Bus in South America – Different Countries

Know what you need on the ride and get it beforehand

Usually a bus ride takes about 5-15 hours, so it is good to know what you need beforehand. I always bring some food and water. Most trips include a breakfast, food and drinks, but this could be a cookie with a small cup of tea, which might not be enough. Check out the package list for convenience and safety, about what you should definitely bring.

The travelling outfit

Usually, when I board a bus I put my most practical and worst clothes on. First, practical means good and many pockets (deep, ideally with zippers or another way to close them) on my trousers and comfortable. I have a special trouser in greenish, with many pockets and I can detach the legs of with zippers to make it medium or very short. Second, worst clothes, well usually you are rich compared to the locals, thus I prefer to look more like a poor traveller than a rich one.

Should you keep your valuables with you or in the cargo bay – short checklist

First of all, in South America it is quite common that you need your passport / ID card even within the borders of one and the same country. Thus, when travelling with a bus I recommend to keep your passport always with you.

-Do you travel alone? Yes, 1 point for the cargo bay.
-Do you travel with another person or a group that you trust and keeps an eye on your stuff too? Yes, 2 points for keeping it with you in the bus.
-Is it a long ride? Yes, 1 point for the cargoy bay.
-Are you tired or do you fall fast asleep? Yes, 2 points for the cargo bay.

-Do you have the possibility to really secure your stuff in the bus, e.g., small backpack with lock and a chain to mount it to your place? Yes, 3 points for keeping it with you in the bus.
-Do you travel with a secure bus company with strong regulations special staff, vouchers, etc.? (Like the first class of the Cruz del Sur fleet in Peru? Yes, 5 points for the cargo bay.
-You like peace of mind, while sitting in the bus and tired of watching your stuff? Yes, 3 points for the cargo bay.

In my case, I nearly always put a vast amount of my valuables in the backpack that was stored in the cargo bay.

Know what you should take with you in the bus

Well, check what you need, then what you want and then what you could need.
My list is as follows:
-Something to drink
-Something to eat
-Hygenie stuff
-Something to entertain me (book(s), mp3player)
-My Camera

To get some ideas about what you should have with you, check out: The package list for convenience and safety and 7 Things every Backpacker should have in his Backpack.

Check and/or determine where they put your backpack

This is necessary if you are travelling with a bus that carries liquids or stuff that can run out. If they put your backpack below a bag of eggs and these eggs break, well bad luck. I heard from some travellers that insisted that their backpacks are put on the top of the bus to avoid such situations. Personally I think this is only necessary in a very few occassions. If you want to be on the safe side you can always put your rain gear around your backpack everytime it is stored in the bus.

Watch your stuff

Watch your stuff before it it stored in the bus.
Watch your stuff while you are in the bus.

Depending on the security level also watch it after it was stored in the bus AND everytime the bus stops. (I only did this in Bolivia). In Peru, Chile and Argentina I always got vouchers for my stuff and they bus stops and service was quite organized, thus after I gave them my backpack I was pretty sure that it is safe and it was always. In Argentina I once forgot my hat, while changing a bus and then they asked who forgot it. Wow, I was pretty amazed about that.
Yet, in Bolivia the service and security is quite different – also depening on the bus company – there I always watched my stuff, right before the moment we took off and at every stop we took a look at the cargo bay. Sometimes even leaving the bus.

Further information for your pocket

I would highly recommend you to get some books about traveling in South America for your trip that you can read while on the bus. I prefer the Lonely Planet, cause it’s structured to get the most important information fast. It is ideal to skim or read in the bus or whatever vehicle you are traveling.

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Travelling by Bus in South America – Different Countries


This is an addition to the post: 6 Useful Tips for Travelling with a Bus in South America.

Buses in Perú

In Perú I mostly travelled with Cruz del Sur. It is more like travelling with an airplane than a bus ride from the organization and safety features. At least if you take the first two classes. I travelled with all three classes, between the first (Cruzero) and second class (Imperial) there is only a slight difference. The third class (Ideal) is also really good, but it depends where you travelled before and what you want. The first two classes do non-stop travel (with on-board breakfast/lunch/dinner), thus you don’t even have to think about your backpack on the whole ride.
I only travelled with Cruz del Sur in Perú, thus I don’t know anything about the other companies. I heard that Cruz del Sur is overrated, but this was from a female backpacker who travelled Bolivia on her own for a few weeks, thus she was well experienced and hardend than most other backpackers out there.
Note, when you travel with the first two classes of Cruz del Sur that the passengers are mostly higher middle-to-upper class Peruvians and tourists.

Buses in Chile and Argentina

Good quality, good service and secure. It is the common way to travel for most people in these countries and it is also quite cheap for them. In Argentina have a bit of tip ready for the person who takes out the backpack of the bus and checks your voucher. I think 0,25 to 0,50 Pesos were common, just take a look what the other people give him.

Buses in Bolivia

Bolivia is always a great adventure and so are the buses and the roads. The buses are not really comfortable, cleanliness is limited and I watched my stuff very closely. Especially, since the country is very poor and I am really rich compared to nearly everyone there. I always boarded the bus after I took a look, where my backpack was stored and that most other people boarded the bus. Also I couldn’t determine a difference between most bus companies in less touristic areas. Only in Salar de Uyuni there are one or two special agencies that provide high quality buses, I don’t know the names but it is quite easy to find them.
Another thing, the leaving times are quite strange. When I was in Tupiza (Southern Bolivia), I needed a ride from there to Sucre, well all companies were leaving at the same time to Sucre and they did it only once a day!? Thus, it is better to check beforehand. Don’t assume – like I did – that they each company leaves at another time.

Further Information

For further information about traveling with a bus or specific routes, I would recommend the following books. These are made by backpackers for backpackers and contain loads of information in a well organized manner. I can highly recommend them.

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7 Things every Backpacker should have in his Backpack

Backpack San Pedro de Atacama (Chile) These are the 7 things you should have with you on a backpacking trip:

Rain-wear for you and your backpack

In case it gets rainy or you have to put your backpack somewhere that you don’t consider “dry enough”.

Additional money in a hard currency

I always have some USD and EURos hidden somewhere in my backpack and/or clothes, which I don’t use for “daily payment”. This is for several reasons. First, it can be considered a hard currency, thus (nearly) everyone takes it. Second, in case of emergency you have something left in order to get out of harms way (fast transport, secure place, good doctor, etc.). Third, peace of mind, I never ever used it, so far.

Additional small backpack/rucksack/handbag

I use this for several things. When travelling on the bus, the backpack is stored in the “cargo bay”, thus I put my food, books, etc. in my small rucksack. While exploring a city, I use it to put in my camera, food and a map. Also it is great for shopping. There are many more situations, where you don’t want to run around with your big backpack or where it is inaccessible.

Some padlocks

For safety, security and peace of mind. One of the first thing I do in a hostel is: I get a locker, put all valuable stuff in it and lock it. I recommend having a small, medium and a big padlock. Since every hostel has different lockers. Also you can lock your backpack or other equipment too, if you like, I don’t. They are cheap, small and extremely practical.

First aid kit

A first aid kit while travelling can save your day. Its mostly to treat inconveniences and slight “injuries” fast and effective. Some patches, some stuff for your digestion and an anti-infective agent. Check my package list for safety and convenience for hints about other things you should put in.

Extra food and some water

Especially on long trips you should always have some extra food and water with you. The bus could break down, a road block could force a delay, etc. Also you can share it with fellow backpackers and/or natives.

Something to entertain you

This could be anything a live-journal, a book, a MacBook, a mp3player etc. While travelling you will wait for transport, being in transit or sometimes you just want to have a “break” from all the adventures and cultures. Then you want something familiar from “home” or just something that helps you to relax. I stick to books and mp3s. In case, it is something expensive: be aware that you can use it appropriately – I would not get out a MacBook in a Bolivian bus, cause it could be the value of all other passengers yearly salary summed up…
If you are looking for good book suggestions check out Books to Read while Traveling from The Art of Backpacking.

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