10 tips to avoid theft in South America

Sunday 1st May 2016

Now that I have presented to you the content of my backpack, let’s see how to minimise the risks of getting the content of your backpack stolen in South America!!! 😀

For the ones who read the first articles of my blog, you will remember how scared and paranoid I was when I landed in Cartagena, Colombia. I had been told soooo many stories of theft about South America that I almost cancelled my tickets and thought about going again to South-East Asia instead!! Ahahahah. It took me a long time before I got out of my room on the first morning I was there. I had never felt like this, that scared.

5 months and 3 weeks later and I flew out of South America from Sao Paulo with nothing stolen. Phew. But I did meet lots lots of people who got their stuff stolen, either before I met them or even after I met them, or people who had stories of other people getting their stuff stolen. Let me share with you here a couple of stories and little tips that I learnt on the way.

The first thing that is interesting to think of is that there are 3 different categories of theft. This is a concept that Yann, the boyfriend of Amanda told me about that he had come up with. I met both of them in Bariloche mid-November and we spent two days hanging out together in El Bolson afterwards. One of our conversation during our day walking around El Bolson was about theft in South America. Yann explained to me his concept: There are three categories of theft.

Category 1: Theft without interaction.
This is when someone steals something from you without you even noticing.

We could actually break it down in 2 sub-categories:
Category 1.a – You have the thing on you and don’t notice someone is stealing / stole you.

Story 1 – Martina, my travel buddy in Ciudad Perdida, Minca and San Gil in Colombia that I met again on my last day of travel in Munich, got her small point-and-shoot camera stolen from her jacket’s pocket in Bogota. She was in a shop. Took it out. Took a photo. Put it back in the pocket. She got out of the shop and noticed her camera was gone.

Story 2 – Patrick, my travel buddy during the 2 weeks in the Galapagos. When he landed in Buenos Aires, three days before to get back to Switzerland, Patrick took a local bus from the airport to the city. When boarding the plane, he had put his passport in his pant pocket without thinking about it too much and when landing he had left it there. During the bus ride, his passport got stolen from his opened pant pocket. He went to the Switzerland’s Ambassy where they gave him a travel permit which enabled him to get back to Switzerland without his passeport. Luckily, his flight back did not involve a flight through America which does not accept this travel permit, otherwise he would have had to book a new flight not going through that territory.

Other stories. I met some people who told me other stories. Like the girl who is in the bus and puts her camera at her feet below the seat in front of her. She falls asleep. She wakes up. Her camera is gone. There is often this rumour that people can slice your small backpack with a cutter / sharp knife, steal your purse without you even noticing that your backpack has been sliced and your purse gone but I didn’t meet anyone to who this happened or who told me meeting someone to who that happened.

Category 1.b – You leave the stuff somewhere for a bit of time and come back and it is gone. That often happens in shared dorms but not only there.

Story 1 – Matt, one of my hiking buddy in Huaraz told us during the Santa Cruz trek how in Cusco, a few days before he came to Huaraz, he had left his small backpack next to his bed in the dorm room at the hostel and gone for brekky. He came back, grabbed his small backpack and went into the bus off to somewhere. Later on arrival he looked into his small backpack. His small camera was gone along with a few other things.

Story 2 – Fredrik, my travel buddy from Sweden that I met in Mendoza, then on the bus ride from Valparaison to Pucon, then with who I travelled for one week from Chiloe to Chaiten to Futaleufu and that I saw again in Puerto Natales. After Puerto Natales, just before flying out to New Zealand to continue his travels, he left his iPhone to charge in a dorm room. Went for a shower. Came back to the room. Someone had stolen his iPhone. He lost 3 weeks of photos that he had not backed up yet.

Story 3 – Gal, the travel buddy from Israel that I met in El Cocuy National Park where he was with his girlfriend Amber. Just before she came from Israel to travel with him, he was on a minibus in Central America where they had put his backpack full of his hiking stuff on the minibus rooftop and when they arrived at destination, oh, what a surprise, the backpack had fallen from the bus! How strange! People know Israelis hike a lot and hiking gears can be quite expensive. That one may be a hard theft to avoid though. It can be bad luck.

Story 3 – A Canadian guy who came a few days at Casa Elemento when I was volonteering there had this story about Brazil. He was in Rio at the beach. He puts his purse on his towel, folds the towel, kind of hiding it. He goes into the water for literally 60 seconds, not more. Just to get a dip. He comes back to his towel. His purse is gone.

Story 4 – A guy I walked briefly with during Torres del Paine told me that story where he hiked to a waterfall, asked some people if they could watch his stuff while he was going for a swim. Came back from the swim. Looked into his bag and his camera was gone. The people were still there and said they had not noticed anyone doing anything. They were probably the thieves but he could not prove it. Even more frustrating.

TIP 1: Always zip your pockets. Never leave a valuable on you in a thin or unzipped pocket.
TIP 2: If you can, travel with a small backpack which is hard to slice with a cutter. Too thin material increase the risk of someone slicing it easily and getting your valuable out.
TIP 3: Never leave a valuable in a shared dorm while you go away. Always leave it locked in the safety locker and recharge it while you are in the room. People may look nice but as the saying goes “Thieves also travel.”
TIP 4: If you can, and if you feel something is a bit dodgy, ask to keep your backpack with you in the minibus in which you are travelling rather than having it on the rooftop or make sure if it is on the rooftop that it is really tightly attached so that the driver can not use the excuse that it fell from the rooftop.

Category 2: Theft with interaction but no aggressiveness
This is when someone steals something from you while their accomplice is distracting you.

Story 1 – Patrick told me that story. In Arica, in the bus station, he saw this photographer who was very panicked. The guy had put his stuff on the ground. He got distracted by some guys coming to talk to him. The minute after, his small backpack was gone, which contained very expensive camera gears, camera lenses, flash, batteries, memory cards, all his expensive professional equipment. Gone.

Story 2 – Someone told me that story of a German couple waiting at a bus station. The guy waits with the 2 big backpacks on the floor. He has his small backpack on him. His girlfriend goes to the toilets. He waits. Probably looking at his phone. Someone comes and chats to him. During that time, an accomplice steals one of the big backpacks.

Story 3 – Helen, the French girl I met at the hostel in Valparaiso and with who I took the bus to Pucon and with who I spent three days in Pucon, and with her two super cool friends Aurelie and Laetitia we reopened the ascent of the Villarica volcano in November, that legendary awesome day we spent there. Helen told me that story where she was on a bus between Uyuni and La Paz I think or between Potosi and La Paz. The bus had a breakdown. People get out. Some local people in the crowd she was in suggests to her to share a taxi to go to La Paz. She says ok, why not. She gets into a taxi with one person at the front sitting next to the driver, and two other people at the back. The taxi goes and at some point some policemen stop the taxi and ask to control her small backpack as well as everyone else backpack. She doesn’t think about it further. She feels something is not right, but she feels she can’t do much about it. So she accepts. While controlling her small backpack, they quickly steal her small camera from it.

Story 4 – What they call the “mustard trick” in Peru. The one I personally find the most fascinating. I had heard it from several travel books and people but never met anyone to who it had happened until Allyson, a really cool American girl I met in Mendoza with who I really clicked, told me it had happened to her. Here is how the story goes. She arrives at the bus station in Antofagasta, in the North of Chile, after a long 15-hour bus ride. It is around midnight. She is tired. She has another bus to connect to somewhere else, and walks up the stairs to go to the other platform. Suddenly she feels some cold on her leg but doesn’t actually react because she is just too tired. Then a Chilean girl comes to her when she arrives at the top of the stairs and talks to her. She looks very friendly. She tells her: “Hey, it sounds like someone poured something on you! I have some tissues, let me help to clean this up. Ah wait put your backpack down, that will be easier.” This is not even 30 seconds. Allyson doesn’t even realise what is going on. She never heard of the mustard story. She puts her backpack down. She looks away for 5 seconds. An accomplice of the girl grabs the backpack with Allyson not even noticing. The Chilean girl says: “All good, all cleaned.” She says good-bye with a big smile and leaves. Allyson notices that her small backpack his gone. Now the very interesting thing is the rest of the story. Allyson doesn’t know about that trick. She asks people around: Hey, someone stole my small backpack. Did you see anything? People pretend they didn’t see anything. They can’t say much probably, they are locals and could get into trouble if they talked. But my favourite part of the story is that Allyson keeps searching and spots the Chilean girl! She walks to her and says: “Hey, cool to see you. I was wondering, someone stole my backpack while you were helping me out. Did you see anything?” And the Chilean girl hides her surprise of seeing her, smiles and replies: “No sorry, I didn’t see anything. What happened?” Allyson tells her a bit. The Chilean girl replies “Ah ok. Well sorry for you. I didn’t see anything.” And then she walks away. Probably for good this time! The very sad thing in this story was that Allyson had her computer AND her x-drive in the small backpack.

Story 5 – When waiting for the 6am bus for Uyuni in Calama at 5.30am, I saw 2 guys standing next to us keeping an eye on the backpack put on the floor of the woman who was on my left. They were just waiting for an occasion to steal her. They also waited next to the bus when other foreigners arrived but none of them made a mistake so they didn’t manage to steal anything and went away that day with empty hands.

TIP 5: Put your computer in your small backpack, and your x-drive in the big backpack.  That way, if someone steals your small backpack or your big backpack, often it will be one or the other but rarely both, then you have a copy of your photos in the other pack. If possible, do regular backups on micro SD cards that you ship home if you shoot RAW or to the clouds if your photos are not too heavy.

TIP 6: In any transport terminal, bus, train, plane, always keep a very vigilant eye on your stuff. Pay attention to the people around you three times more than anywhere else as that’s where most of the thefts happen. Observe the people. Who is doing what. People who hang around doing nothing and especially have NO luggage may be suspicious.

TIP 7: Do not put your backpacks on the ground when waiting for a bus or a train. Ever. If you apply this rule, you can’t get your stuff stolen by the trick of someone distracting you. I repeat: Do not ever put your stuff on the ground. This rule should be ingrained in your brain each time you are in a bus station or train station, in particular in a bus station and say NO if someone approaches you and distracts you and asks you to do so. Always keep in mind that they may look friendly but they may not be.

Category 3 – Theft with interaction and aggressiveness
This is the one where it can be bad luck. The only way of minimising the risk of this happening to you is to be aware of the danger.

Story 1 – Mendoza. I got there in the evening at the same time as Lisa, an Irish girl. We chatted, went for dinner together and talked about renting some bicycles the next day together and going from one winery to another winery doing some wine tasting. We came back to the dorm and chatted to a group of 6 British guys and girls who were travelling together and asked them if they wanted to come with us. They said they were already going for horse riding the next day. Then they told us: “Actually girls, maybe you shouldn’t do that. A week ago, two Irish girls were alone in the countryside cycling their bicycle from one winery to another. One guy on his motorbike came and pushed one of them from her bicycle and stole both their bags and cameras. So maybe not a good idea!” After hearing that, we decided to change our plan and not take the risk. I joined those guys for the horse-riding while Lisa decided to do the half-day organised wine tour in the afternoon.

Story 2 – Santiago de Chile. San Cristobal hill. I met a really cool Australian girl, Kate, during the graffiti tour in Valparaiso, with who I clicked a lot and with who I travelled the next 2 days in Valparaiso. She told me that just a few days before she had gone to San Cristobal hilltop in Santiago to admire the view from there which is quite famous and the three of them had walked back down the hill through the winding walkway down. Then they had run into a guy who had a knife and threatened them and asked them to give him their bags. They were scared and had had to do so. She had lost her camera only but one of the girl had everything in her small backpack because she was scared of getting her stuff stolen in the hostel, so she lost her computer, tablet, phone, x-drive, passport, credit cards, cash, everything and was really shocked about her loss. Now, the thing is I had heard that this hill can be pretty unsafe, especially the walkway and asked Kate if no one had warned her about that and she said that none of the locals they talked to had told them. That’s pretty bad luck that that day, this happened to them. Especially three girls together.

Story 3 – Iquitos. I had gone to the jungle with 2 Canadian sisters, Rachel and Katie and 4 Germans. After our 5-day jungle trip, Rachel and Katie stayed longer in Iquitos. The next day, or day after next, they were on the motorbike taxi, each behind one motorbike taxi driver. At some point at a light, Rachel took her smartphone out to take a picture. One guy on his motorbike came from nowhere, grabbed her phone, pushed her and drove away. Her phone was gone and when she was pushed, she fell from the bike and got a little bit injured. Lucky it wasn’t too much. It could have been worse.

Story 4 – Lima. Walking around in a dodgy neighbourhood with Matt, my Huaraz travel buddy I mentioned earlier higher up. On the second day in Lima, which was the last day in Peru for Matt before he was flying back to New York, we took a taxi to go to a market so he could buy some gifts to bring back to people. The taxi dropped us at the wrong market. We walked around the streets and could sense that we were in a dodgy area, where people were looking at us with acute attention. I spotted some guys looking a bit too much at my camera bag. The area was vibrant, buzzying with an amazing life and atmosphere and I was very tempted to get my camera out and take photos but I could sense that this would be a very bad idea and that I would probably never get to see these photos. So we walked away from this area very quickly until we felt that we had arrived in a safer and quieter area. Sometimes your intuition may be wrong, sometimes a setup looks a bit dodgy but is not, but it is always the same, better be safe than sorry and listen to your intuition.

TIP 8: Wherever you go, every day, always ask the hostel where you are staying:”Hey, I am planning to go to this spot and that spot. Is it safe? Is it also safe during the night? Anything I should know about?” Don’t ask only the hostel but other travellers who have been there a bit already. They will usually be able to tell you from their own experience or from the experience other people told them. It helps you get a sense of the place where you arrived. That can help minimise the risks of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. You may have some bad luck one day, but at least you can minimise the risk.

TIP 9: Do not get your valuable out on the streets unless you feel safe to do so, in particular your phone and your camera. It also goes without saying that you should never wear any jewel or any expensive watch or any expensive sunglasses in South America. Keep a low profile.

TIP 10: This is the final tip which is: Listen to your intuition.
One thing that Yann also brought to my attention during that chat we had was that: “Hey, did you notice when people tell you those stories? Not always, but often, when people got stolen, in particular in the Category 2 and 3 type of thefts, they had a sense that something wrong was going on. They felt that something wrong was happening. And still, it was in their subconscious and they didn’t act upon it. They didn’t move away enough quickly. They didn’t say NO to the person distracting them or grabbed their backpack by instinct. Their instinct remained dormant. It’s strange,no?” That was an interesting comment. When something bad is happening, not always, I agree, but often…we feel it. And sometimes, it is this one second, this one move, that will save you from being stolen that you can do. So become aware of your surroundings, of the people around you, get to feel the places and with some common sense, you may survive South America with nothing stolen. Sometimes you may not. Shit happens. The good thing with most of these thefts is that we rarely, very rarely hear about stories of people who got injured or hurt or beaten when they got stolen. People survive. And if you get a good travel insurance (TIP 11?) then it will just be things to replace. So backup your photos as much as you can!! And give a chance to this continent if you still haven’t been there yet, because it is an absolutely amazing place to discover. Very few locals steal and the ones who don’t steal hate them as much as you do and are very sad that some people of their country steal because that gives a bad image of tourism. Most people there are amazingly friendly and welcoming. And sometimes you can run into some opposite situation, like the one where I forgot my merino bra and merino shirt in Bariloche and some girls brought it down to El Calafate and I picked that parcel up at the hotel three weeks later. How great was that!

So a summary of these 10 tips to avoid theft in South America:

TIP 1: Always zip your pockets.
TIP 2: Travel with thick material backpack if you can that is hard to slice.
TIP 3: Never leave a valuable in a shared dorm while you go away.
TIP 4: If you can, keep your backpack close to you rather than on the rooftop of a minibus.
TIP 5: Put your computer in your small backpack, and your x-drive in the big backpack.
TIP 6: In any transport terminal, bus, train, plane, always keep a very vigilant eye on your stuff and pay attention to the people around you.
TIP 7: Do not put your backpacks on the ground when waiting for a bus or a train. Ever.
Do not trust people coming to talk to you with random questions.
TIP 8: Always asks locals and other backpackers if the place you are going to walk to is safe.
TIP 9: Do not get your valuable out on the streets unless you feel safe to do so.
TIP 10: Listen to your intuition.


Happy safe travels!