If you’ve never visited Latin America previously, it is natural to wonder if traveling there might be dangerous. Certainly, news reports don’t do the place any favors; on the basis of these alone, you could be forgiven for thinking that you'll find gangs, drugs, violence and crime on every corner.
Such problems do, of course, exist in some parts of Latin America. However, it would be a huge mistake to avoid visiting the entire region as a result of fears about these issues. For the most part, Latin America’s security problems are highly localized and are concentrated in areas where tourists rarely venture.
Outside of a few troubled spots, “the only risk”, as the slogan for Colombia’s tourist board goes, “is wanting to stay”.
The Problem of Armchair Experts
I’ve spent a total of about five years in Latin America, including extended periods in countries and areas thought to be ‘high risk’. And in the overwhelming majority of areas, and for the overwhelming majority of the time, I have felt very safe. The interactions I've had with people living in these countries have not been the source of risk, fear and danger that some might have you believe. Rather, they have proved to be some of the greatest and most enjoyable aspects of travelling in Latin America.
Often those who warn about the apparent risks of visiting are not qualified to make such comments
Sadly, many people miss out on such experiences because, somewhere along the line, they have gotten the idea that Latin America is “dangerous” and have decided to stay away. Often, this is because they've been warned about the apparent risks of visiting by people who aren't really qualified to make any such comments. I've lost count of the number of times that I've been told authoritatively that such-and-such a place is “dangerous” by someone who has never even been to the country or area that they're talking about.
And it is not just those from outside Latin America who are guilty of doing this. In many cases, it is wealthy Latin Americans who are wariest of all about travel to slightly more exotic places. When, a couple of years back, I booked a trip to Mexico, it was my Colombian friends who were most enthusiastic in their warnings about the dangers I was supposedly exposing myself to. As I later sipped on my ice-cold beer, gazing out over the turquoise waters and white sands of Yucatan, I confess I struggled to see exactly what they had been fussing about.
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Perceptions and Reality
OK, so perhaps that is a slightly frivolous example. But my general point still stands that there is often a huge gulf between the perceived risks of travelling somewhere and the reality of doing so.
The case of Mexico is highly illustrative of this gap in perceptions. This is a country which is often held up by outsiders as the archetypal example of a “dangerous” Latin American country and one that is reportedly overrun with extremely brutal, drug-fueled, violence. Undeniably, there are some small parts of Mexico where this is the case. But it may surprise you to hear much of the country actually outperforms (the more violent) parts of the US in terms of security.
It may surprise you to hear that much of Mexico actually outperforms parts of the US in terms of security
In 2013, for example, murder rates registered in the US cities of Detroit, New Orleans, Baltimore and St. Louis were several times higher than they were in the vast majority of Mexico. Some of these urban centers even registered crime levels which exceeded those recorded in those most notorious hotbeds of cartel violence, Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana.
Yet, I don't recall ever having heard of someone being advised against all travel to New Orleans or Detroit (or even to the whole of the US) because of the high rates of violence recorded in some cities. Why? Because everyone knows that problems in these areas are concentrated in particular neighborhoods, and that violence largely affects young males in deprived areas. It is not unleashed at random on anyone who happens to be passing through.
The same holds true for much of Latin America. Problems do exist, but provided you exercise some standard precautions (e.g. not going into bad areas alone at night etc.) you shouldn’t get into any trouble.
Safe or Not?
That being said, there are a few places in the region which I would struggle to recommend as bastions of security. Few foreigners who have passed through the cities of Caracas in Venezuela, Tegucigalpa in Honduras and Guatemala City, for example, will speak highly of them. All these places felt rather unsafe to me and I was pleased to leave them behind. (In fact, skipping them altogether would be no great loss, not least because they don’t contain a great deal of tourist attractions.)
Some visitors, guidebooks and security agencies err on the side of caution when it comes to taking night buses in the region. Personally, I’ve never paid much heed to these warnings and have regularly traveled on them. The only problems I’ve ever encountered on night buses have been the restrictive leg room and ferocious air conditioning. Not pleasant certainly, but far from dangerous.
There are a few remote areas of a couple of countries which are not particularly wise to visit
More seriously, there are a few remote areas of a couple of countries which are not particularly wise to visit (the jungle area between Panama and Colombia is one such example). It should be said though that these are the kinds of places that are generally located far off the typical tourist trail, meaning you are highly unlikely to come across them by accident. If you think you might be going to such an area, it would be sensible to first check the travel advice of your local government before visiting.
If you strongly object to ever coming across any area which feels even a little dodgy, then you'd probably do best to stick to travel in countries like Argentina, Cuba, Chile, Costa Rica, Peru and Uruguay which have the safest feel to them. Staying on the most popular tourist routes and visiting the larger attractions might also be advisable. Such areas tend to have the greatest police presence as governments are keen to ensure that foreign visitors (and their money) keep coming into the country. This should provide additional comfort if you are of a nervous disposition.
If you’ve never been to Latin America, my only recommendation is that you shouldn’t let yourself be deterred from visiting by negative news coverage or hearsay about the supposed dangers of coming here. Some countries do have political problems and you should exercise some common sense precautions, but this is no basis to write the whole place off. Instead, take some time to do your own research to gain a much more nuanced view of safety and security issues in Latin America.
There is a great deal to discover in this wonderful and diverse region. Take the plunge, and I’ve little doubt that you will be pleasantly surprised by how easily and comfortably you can explore it all.