Over the years, most of what you’d hear about South America were reports of ceaseless violence, political turmoil, and drug trafficking.
When you hear the news, it seems as if places to avoid in South America are too great in number, and that traveling there should be postponed altogether. For that reason, we have comprised this overview of some of the places that you should actually avoid, with some of them that just require you to be extra cautious.
South America Travel Warnings
United States Department of State has issued a Level 2 warning for most of the South American countries.
The exception is Venezuela, for which they’ve deposited a Level 4 warning due to extremely high crime ratings and political unrest. What this means is that there’s a realistic chance of harm coming to you and that you should not travel there. Level 2 warnings are not as terrible, but they also underline the need to remain careful and observant of your surroundings.
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Unsafe Places to Travel in South America
1. Buenaventura, Colombia
Never one of the safest of places to begin with, Buenaventura constantly sees an increase in violent crimes that spill over to surrounding rural areas as well.
Don’t be fooled by anyone telling you how the situation has been improving. The truth is, there have been only marginal changes to the lives of the oppressed locals who have to live under the constant watch of armed guards. Buenaventura was, and still is, one of the most dangerous places in Colombia, but also South America.
Kidnappings, torture, extortion, and murder are commonplace crimes often associated with drug trafficking rings. After gruesome fighting in the war on guerillas, many paramilitary formations continued operating in the area instead of disbanding. They started preying on civilians and threatening violence to anyone who dares oppose them. Needless to say, tourists are not spared and are equally frequently kidnapped or straight up murdered.
Buenaventura is the largest port city in Colombia, which is always an interesting prospect for drug trafficking. Unless the situation changes drastically, avoid it altogether for the time being.
2. Caracas, Venezuela
Not only is Caracas on the list of dangerous places in South America but it’s also one of the most dangerous capital cities in the world.
Recent political unrest has only further stirred the volatile economic situation in the country. As is the case in such trying times, levels of petty crimes increase drastically. Confidence won’t do you any good here – if you decide to travel in South America, avoid Venezuela at all costs.
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What’s more alarming than anything else is that there are barely any safe havens left. Streets, parks, and transportation are where most of the petty thefts occur, usually by well-organized groups of pickpockets and robbers.
Most parts of the city are poorly patrolled by law enforcing elements, providing little to no backup in case you get in trouble. Moreover, with all the current political instability, they probably won’t even bother to look into the matter and just brush you off. Your stolen goods are as good as gone.
While murder rates of foreigners aren’t that high, they can still happen quite easily. Express kidnappings are the most common way to extort money from visitors nowadays. Unfortunately, you can even get kidnapped from your hotel suite, after which you’ll be taken to an ATM to withdraw all your funds for the perpetrator. Visiting Caracas at this time would be extremely hazardous for your well-being and you should avoid it for now and monitor travel advisories.
3. Cusco, Peru
Not nearly as dangerous as some of the other places on this list, Cusco in Peru can still turn into a tourist nightmare.
Peru is not really one of the safest countries in the world, but the odds are you won’t have any troubles for as long as you use your common sense. If something looks extraordinarily suspicious, then it probably is. While it is generally fine overall with an occasional pickpocket or a scammer here and there, Cusco can show its more unpleasant face during protests. They happen often and then turn violent in the blink of an eye. Another potential problem can arise from the activities of a terrorist group known as the Shining Path. They’ve been known to assault trekkers heading out to Espiritu Pampa in Cusco.
Other than that, you should be alright, stay sharp and behave rationally. Don’t flash money, jewelry or smartphones and avoid walking alone or at night. There’s no need for attracting undue attention. Taking such safety precautions will decrease the chances of a crime interrupting what would otherwise be a dream vacation. The city core of Cusco is overflowing with culture, and it would be a shame not to visit it.
4. Bogota, Colombia
Bogota used to be a crime-ridden nightmare for all the people living there, and maybe even more so for tourists that came on their travel through South America.
Today, the situation is a bit different. There are still certain safety issues that plague the innocents who happen to find themselves in Bogota, but the rates of the most violent crimes have gone down drastically.
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Despite optimistic prognoses, you should still be mindful of where you are and how you behave. The north of the city is a more cosmopolitan, outgoing place with fancy areas such as Zona Rosa, Zona T and Parque 93. The nightlife scene is especially infatuating in these areas, and they aren’t as dangerous at night. However, if you’re staying in La Candelaria, never walk alone or at night. Take a taxi, and keep your valuables tucked away. Gangs of pickpockets and muggers are everywhere, looking for lost and confused tourists, striking when they deem you’re the most vulnerable.
Unfortunately, armed robberies still occur in Bogota, making it one of the most dangerous places in South America. Criminals often strike at hotels themselves, robbing both the guests and the hotel staff. If this was to happen to you, avoid provoking the robbers further and always do what they say.
5. La Paz, Bolivia
Much like plenty of other cities in South America, La Paz suffers the most from occasional protests that turn ugly before you realize what is happening.
Common problems in Bolivia are pickpocketing and express kidnappings, with the latter one being less and less prominently expressed in the last couple of years. In order to avoid trouble, travelers are advised to steer clear of areas such as San Pedro and El Alto. Plaza Isabel La Católica, Plaza del Estudiante, and Plaza San Francisco have a bit of a bad reputation when it comes to kidnappings. Even though this type of crime is on a decline, you should still skip visiting these spots at least for the time being.
Among all the places to avoid in South America, La Paz is by far one of the most easygoing cities with expeditiously decreasing crime rates. But, as is the case with any major city, avoid drawing attention to yourself by exposing too much of your material well-being. Stay in groups and far away from drugs. Bolivia has the ubiquitous drug problem so characteristic of Latin America, and also a set of strict laws that could extend your stay in this country for at least eight years.
6. Colombian Borders
While we will focus on Colombian borders for this item on the list, the same can be said about many other border crossings between countries of South America. They are some of the most dangerous places, often controlled by drug rings and paramilitary formation that would love to get some hostages.
For a long while now, Colombia has struggled with guerrilla fighters on its northern border with Panama. As we’ve already mentioned, most countries in Latin America have this kind of problem at one of their borders at least. Outer, rural areas are a hotbed of illegal activities, mostly fueled by drug wars between opposed clans.
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With the constantly rising political instability in Venezuela, the entire place is too dangerous and should be avoided. Brazil has even closed down its border with Venezuela in order to prevent fleeing masses from trampling into its country.
7. Quito, Ecuador
Quito’s safety record has increased substantially over the years. It is a good place to visit in South America and the one you’re most likely not going to regret, at least in comparison to other countries.
However, you should always exercise caution and avoid unsafe areas that exist no matter where you are and can’t really be attributed to the violence of South America. Centro Historico is the riskiest place to be at, especially at night. Dangerous places are few and far in between but all the rules that apply to all the poor capital of the world apply to Quito as well.
Be humble, don’t brag about your material goods in poorer spots of the city and you’ll be just fine.
8. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
The city of carnivals, long, sandy beaches and beautiful people has garnered a particularly nasty reputation in the last couple of years.
While most of it is absolute hogwash, there are certain spots where you’d like to be keenly aware of your surroundings. Suspicious strangers approaching you are always a harrowing sign of you about to be pickpocketed or mugged. These two are by far the most common kinds of crime, at least while travelers are involved. Other than that, Rio de Janeiro destinations mostly populated by tourists are an awesome, safe place with a lot to see and do.
Naturally, this is discounting favelas which are a complete nightmare for unsuspecting civilians. Take our word of advice, and don’t challenge the faith by heading in that direction. More often than not, people go missing there, kidnapped or murdered. Keep your wits about you, and your stay in Rio will be one of the most memorable trips ever.
9. Maturin, Venezuela
According to Numbeo, Maturin is high on the list of places to avoid in South America. Rampant crime rates are thwarting even the slightest prospect of successful travel to this city and it doesn’t look like it’s going to get better any time soon.
If not absolutely necessary, avoid travel to Maturin at the moment. Even though it’s not quite as crime-ridden as Caracas, it’s not that better either. The rate of violent, despicable crimes is at an all-time high and everyone suffers it equally. Don’t expect special treatment just because you’re a tourist. As a matter of fact, that will further inconvenience you because little help will be given to you if anything were to happen. Pickpockets are cruising the streets, looking for easy marks. They often target the people in buses or use fake taxis to perform express kidnappings.
Such an inhospitable environment should really persuade you to postpone any plans you might have about visiting Maturin, at least for the time being.
The switching of their currency in 2018, combined with hyperinflation is creating waves of desperate people that just want to survive. What seems to be the biggest issue are the indifferent police officers that might not only reject helping you but also add insult to injury and try to get you to bribe them. Stay away from Venezuela for the time being, there are way too many beautiful places to visit where you won’t have to stick your neck out just because you feel like traveling.
10. Natal, Brazil
Our last entry for today is also the worst one. Rio Grande do Norte is a Brazilian state in the northeast. The capital of the state, Natal, is the crib of some of the most violent crimes in Brazil at the moment.
There’s no making sure you’re safe here and your security would truly be compromised and out of your hands. In Natal, you could become a victim of a most heinous crime, especially murder. The bloody conflict between Sindicato do Crime and PCC, two rival gangs vying for control over the territory of Natal (and the prison), has gotten out of hand, with 23 murders taking place in just one weekend.
Such violent and gruesome crimes care not for the lives they’re taking. Travelers can get in a crossfire in a matter of seconds and it’s not likely they would get out of it alive. Natal is a war zone, and it’s probably going to remain that way until drastic changes take place. Until then, avoid a trip there at all costs.
Most of the entries today are slowly becoming safer with a few exceptions. However, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take certain precautions in order to ensure your good health during your stay. One misstep and you’ll find yourselves in an ugly part of town and it’ll probably be late by then. Avoid the more dangerous places if you can, and be vigilant without a break in others. Thread carefully and have a safe journey!