A combination of common sense, caution and up-to-date information will be your best defense against any possible mishap.
While it is necessary for us to issue the below cautions, we would like to emphasize that incidents like those described are suffered by only a very small minority of travelers to Latin America. Many clients have asked us to point out that they felt far safer when in Latin America than they had been led to expect.
We strongly advise you against wearing valuable jewelry or watches. When traveling between destinations, a money belt worn inside your clothes is vital and your travelers checks, credit cards, insurance documents, passport, vaccination certificate, and all cash not needed immediately should be kept in it.
Most hotels have a safe either in the hotel rooms or behind the reception desk. You should make use of these whenever possible (but use your common sense, to satisfy yourself that it is indeed safe). Although your camera is safer (statistically) in your hotel room than on your shoulder, many travel insurance companies will not cover losses resulting from theft from hotel rooms – so please check your policy.
Pick-pocketing and bag slashing can occur in crowded markets, transport terminals and on trains and buses. Be aware that people might be trying to distract your attention (e.g. by squirting shampoo on your bag, shoes or clothes, and offering to help you clean it off) in order to rob you.
Do not carry in your wallet more cash than will meet your immediate requirements. Never carry money in back pockets.
You need to look after your belongings, especially in large cities. Insurance companies take the view that you should be aware of the different circumstances prevailing in Latin America and should take precautions accordingly. If the loss adjusters don’t think you took sufficient care of your belongings before they were stolen, they will be reluctant to pay out.
You will note that the cover provided by travel insurance policies for valuable articles such as cameras and lenses is relatively low. This is because they believe that valuable articles like these should be covered as part of an all-risks policy on your household insurance.
Owing to poverty and the general preconception that tourists are wealthy, street robbery has become an increasing problem in larger urban settlements. Fortunately, even in those cities where street robbery can be a problem, such as Lima in Peru, Rio and São Paulo in Brazil, Bogotá in Colombia, and Guatemala City, actual assault or violence is still extremely rare.
Pick-pocketing and bag snatching is the major problem and is on the rise in some other large cities such as Buenos Aires and Santiago De Chile.
In the unlikely event that you are robbed, report to the nearest police station and ensure you receive a certified copy of the official statement (una denuncia) for insurance claim purposes. There is often a small local charge for this.
In a number of countries across the continent, there have been cases of con-artists posing as plain-clothed police officers asking to see wallets and handbags. You should always establish their identity and secure the presence of an objective witness before being subjected to a search. It is advisable always to empty your own pockets, if requested, to avoid the possibility of having anything ‘planted’ on you.
We have had occasional reports from people who are not traveling in a group having their drinks spiked as a prelude to robbery. Be careful whom you drink with!
If your money is stolen you will find that your insurance loss adjusters will rarely authorize an immediate dispatch of funds.
Escaped to Latin America regularly receives updates from our representatives on the ground. We keep our information as up-to-date as possible on the health and security situation in all countries in Latin America.
For constant up-to-date information on individual countries, we recommend that you refer to the US State Department website www.state.gov/travel
If your baggage has been delayed, you must fill in the appropriate ‘baggage irregularity’ form with the airline responsible. There are specific airline computer codes to describe all types of baggage, and visual aid sheets to assist. Give as much information as you can and ask them to be as specific as possible about which flight your bags are / will be on. Try to get them to give you a print out of the entries they make in the computer. Please note that expensive luggage may be more of a target for thieves.
Regrettably, tour operators such as ourselves have very little influence over the behavior of airlines, and are usually unable to speed up the process whereby the luggage is returned to you.
If you are ultra-cautious, you might consider making a list in advance of everything in your bags (including color, make, size and value of clothes) which will save you a lot of time, if you have to claim on insurance.
It is a good idea to carry as many US dollars cash as your insurance limit will allow – it is easier to change into local currency than travelers checks and you will receive better rates of exchange. Small denominations are easier to change. Some one-dollar bills can be useful for tipping porters or paying fees on borders.
We do not recommend taking any currency other than US dollars – except in Cuba (see Local Currency section below).
It is becoming increasingly more expensive to change travelers checks into US dollars cash. This can usually be done in Asunción (Paraguay), Montevideo (Uruguay), La Paz (Bolivia), Cusco (Peru) and Panama City. In Brazil, this service is only possible in very few main offices of the state bank (Banco do Brasil), and should not be relied on. Otherwise, you would have to convert via the local currency, thereby losing money on two transactions.
Do not take from your home country, or accept as change in Latin America, any US dollar notes that are dirty, damaged (even a tiny rip) or defaced. You will not be able to spend or exchange them.
There are many counterfeit $50 and $100 dollar bills in circulation in South America, especially in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. There have even been (very rare) cases when banks have issued forgeries to customers. It is extremely difficult to spot a forged bill, but you should be aware that they may be slightly discolored, printed on inferior paper, or lacking a watermark.
$100 bills are not generally accepted in Colombia; and those whose serial number begins with CB are routinely refused in the rest of Latin America.
2. Credit and Debit Cards
Credit cards are widely accepted to make payments in larger hotels, better restaurants, souvenir shops and stores, and to obtain cash advances. They are also acceptable as ‘proof of funds’ at borders.
Visa is the most widely accepted for both purchases and cash advances, followed by MasterCard.
American Express is not as widely accepted, but can be used to purchase additional travelers checks, should you run out, at American Express offices.
Credit card purchases are charged at the official rate of exchange, which can be lower than that generally available in exchange houses. There may also be taxes or surcharges added (around 5%).
Cash advances are straightforward on Visa, MasterCard and American Express in most countries. Advances are increasingly available using ATMs (cajero electronico), for which Cirrus, Maestro, Plus and Delta cards may also be used. The rate of exchange is often the most favorable, and long bank queues can be avoided.
Before leaving, you should check with your bank or credit card company whether they impose any handling charges. Make sure you have a separate note of the number and validity of your cards, as well as the phone numbers to call should they be lost or stolen.
It is also worthwhile advising your bank that you intend to use your card abroad (and in which countries). Some banks detect an irregular spending pattern, assume the card stolen and suspend the account. Check your account carefully on return from Latin America to ascertain that payments for the card are legitimate.
Despite it being theoretically possible to ‘live’ off your credit card, we advise you to take sufficient funds in cash and travelers checks for the following reasons:
• In some places, it can be difficult and time consuming to obtain a cash advance.
• When a currency is unstable, credit card transactions may be temporarily suspended.
• If a credit card is lost, it usually takes at least four working days to have a replacement sent, and this service is not always available.
• ATMs often run out of cash, or are out of order.
3. Local Currency
It is not advisable to try to acquire Latin American currency before traveling. If a currency is available in High Street banks or foreign exchange outlets, the exchange rate is usually very poor (nor will they be interested in buying any Latin American currency back, when you return).
Strikes notwithstanding, you should be able to change dollars and / or travelers checks at the airport / land frontier, upon arrival.
In Central America, small denominations of US $ cash are often as readily accepted as the local currency.
If traveling between neighboring countries in Latin America, any surplus local currencies can usually be exchanged into the next local currency … but normally only at border posts or airports, and at a loss. It is best not to have too much local currency left over at the end of your trip.
It is not always easy to buy back dollars, though this facility has improved over the past few years. In some countries such as Venezuela, you will need to keep your official exchange slips in order to change money back.
Currencies have stabilized as governments have adopted more monetarist policies, and the once ubiquitous black market has now virtually disappeared from the streets of Latin America. There is also a far smaller variation in exchange rates on offer at different types of outlet (e.g. banks, exchange houses, souvenir shops, airports etc) than previously.
It may be a good idea to pack a small calculator so when you change US $ cash at the exchange rate of the day, you can work out how much you should receive for yourself. This could work as a deterrent to avoid scams.
4. Travelers Checks
Take travelers checks in US dollars only (American Express is by far the most widely accepted) which you should be able to order from your home bank, as long as you give them sufficient notice. It is advisable to take a variety of denominations.
Do not forget to bring the receipt of purchase with you (carried separately), as you will need this in the event of checks being lost or stolen. Occasionally, banks ask to see these receipts before cashing your checks.
Travelers checks are increasingly less favored by travelers, who find their use cumbersome in comparison with bank cards. Travelers checks are becoming harder to cash and the charges levied higher.