Last month I celebrated the one year anniversary of an event that made a significant impact on my life and molded me into a more savvy, independent and conscientious traveler. In July 2012, I was mugged by thee individuals on a sunny afternoon while I was walking around in Valparaiso, located around 2 hours away from Santiago de Chile.
After the event, I recounted my story to numerous eager ears only to be welcomed with blank expressions coupled with snide remarks that my actions had made me an easy target.
They were, in part, right. Before reaching Valparaiso I had not bothered to research the dangers of the area and I was walking alone with all my gear, including my expensive DSLR camera, on full display. The experience itself was terrifying but it also forced me to analyze my traveling habits.
In my 10 + years of traveling abroad, I have had my butt handed to me dozens and dozens of times, but thankful escaped rather unscathed. These close calls fed into my growing travel ego that made me believe that I was a smidge more enlightened than other travelers.
I had been there, done it and knew it all. But as my confidence grew, I succumbed to travel sloppiness and more risky behavior, thus elevating my chances of falling into trouble.
Before embarking on any adventure, travelers must first overcome their travel ego and understand that there is always room to grow. There are over 150 different countries in the world, which means that no one can truly be a travel expert.
Accept the fact that traveling can be dangerous and evolve to become a knowledgeable traveler by preparing yourself before your trip and taking precautions overseas so that you can recognize red flags and always react appropriately.
Tips to Stay Safe
My experiences (I was robbed not once, but TWICE in Chile), along with the plethora of stories I've heard from people I've met when traveling, have also taught me several other travel tips. Please excuse the “duh” factors, but some things do need to be repeated:
1. Research the area/city/country before arriving at the destination. My number one mistake when going to Valparaiso was not to research the dangers or warnings of that city. If I had, I would have read that travelers are not advised to climb the hills and instead should stay on the plateau.
I never read the warning and was mugged while climbing the hill. WikiTravel is an excellent resource as it has information about places to drink, sleep, work and also sections about staying safe/healthy and cultural customs of the country/city.
2. Pack Smart! First of all, leave all your jewelry and expensive clothing at home. The more flashy it is, the more you become a target. One horror story I heard in Santiago was about thieves who would rip off women’s earrings if they thought they were valuable.
Secondly, never EVER bring a clutch. Bad idea. No matter how secure you feel it is, clutches are the easiest things to steal (that’s how I got robbed the second time in Chile!). Instead opt for a cross body bag with a zipper.
3. Don’t rush out of the airport. Many times travelers are so excited to get out of the airport that they just jump into the next available airport taxi. Be aware that unofficial airport taxi drivers often have a bad reputation. As a result be extremely wary of the way your taxi driver acts and watch the meter for any suspicious activity.
I often stop off at an information kiosk and ask how much a “fair” taxi price should be before hailing one down. I also ask the driver in advance approximately how much the ride will cost. On the other hand, instead of grabbing your bag and sprinting out the door, take some extra time to ask and look around for different and cheaper options into the city that can ultimately save you time and money.
For example, Chile has two extremely economical options: a bus (USD$4 / one way) or a shared van called Transvip that will drop you off in front of your hostel/hotel for only USD$12 / one way.
4. Once checked into your room, lock up all your OWN stuff. Never trust lockers / safes in hostels and hotels. They are not reliable because it is possible that other unknown individuals may also have copies of the keys.
Use personal locks and never leave any valuables out in the open (even if they are “cleverly” placed under your pillow). For added safety when I am abroad, I lock my valuables in my luggage and I also use a retractable cable lock to secure my luggage to the bed post.
5. Blend in. Your chance of being robbed decreases if you blend in. Even if you stick out like a sore thumb (like I did inChile), there are certain steps that can be taken to enhance your safety. The ultimate goal is not to look/sound like a tourist.
Stopping, glancing around with a confused gaze and/or pulling out a map does attract too much attention. If you are lost just keep walking with a purpose and enter into a café or shop to ask for directions or pull out a map.
To physically blend in wear hoodies/hats that can cover your head or put on a pair of over-sized sunglasses. And if you want to pass for a local, keep foreign languages (like English) at a minimum. Do not announce that you are foreign by speaking loudly in English.
6. If getting robbed, DO NOT fight back. When faced with these types of scenarios, many of us will try our hardest to salvage our beloved items. In Brazil a friend told me a story of a girl that was walking back to the hostel in the afternoon only to be met by a man with a knife.
He grabbed her purse and she started to fight back. He then stabbed her, nearly missing her heart. She spent the next three weeks of her vacation in critical condition in a hospital in Rio de Janeiro. Is that camera really worth it? I don’t think so.
All in all traveling around the world has been the BEST experience and I do not regret anything. These rules are not meant to scare you or try to discourage anyone from traveling. Just use your best judgment and never think that you are invincible. The second you let your guard down, you become susceptible. Be aware, be cautious but most importantly HAVE FUN!