Of bandits, thieves and gangs
(Security and Safty on the road)
Those whose total life experience has been living in the comfort and "safety" of North America or Europe or Australia may feel a lot of trepedition about venturing off to different countries where tales of robbery, kidnapping and general mahem prevail. At least according to the news.
This is the first thing most who have not travelled to these countries ask, did you have any problems with safety? Surprisingly, I have felt very little danger from others.
You will find many opinions offered about the safety of traveling in Latin America . . . by those who have not been there. Remember, opinions are like belly buttons . . . everybody has one but they are really quite useless.
I was frequently admonished before I left about the dangers of: Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia . . . . and on and on.
When I would tell people in Mexico I was going to Colombia, their eyes would get big as saucers and they would go on and on about the dangers there . . . even suggesting it be avoided it if possible.
When I mentioned to Colombians that I had come through Mexico, their eyes would get big as saucers and they’d be amazed at how lucky I was to have avoided being robbed, mugged, kidnaped or beheaded.
And, the reactions from those at home are many times no different.
How do people become so misinformed? Primarily the media: Newspapers, TV and the internet. The news, like my 100 year old Dad’s dementia, creates its own reality and unfortunately for those who consume that news, that reality many times bears little relationship to what is really going on in these countries. The more sensational the better - that's what keeps people reading the paper, watching the news and clicking on their favorite internet newsfeed.
So, when the only news we are exposed to from a particular country is bad, we naturally think everything is bad there . . . even though some of the events may have occured years ago or had nothing to do with tourists or were drug related.
Follow the money. The media makes money by selling advertising. Their advertising rates are based on the number of people reading and watching. It is easier to sensationalize a murder in Mexico or a kidnapping in Colombia to "sell more papers". Unfortunately, this creates the incorrect image that by going there, you will likely have something bad happen to you.
Most news and editorials about travelling in these countries is prepared by people who have never been there and many times are painting an entire country with the brush of one event again, to sensationalize.
And to make things worse, the State Dept (of most Western countries) are no better and seem to base most of their warnings on the morning news reports. The State Dept will issue general country wide warnings based on an event in one area of the country or events that are not a risk to tourists. Hell, the State Department issued a Travel Warning on all of Canada based on a one night riot in Vancouver after a hockey game.
If you are going to visit these countries, gather your own information and make up your own mind. At least talk to people who are there or have been there. Take a short trip to Mexico. You will get a truer picture of what is going on there and realize there isn't bad guys hiding under every rock.
Having said that, common sense should prevail. I tried to be careful and follow a couple of rules:
1) If possible, don’t ride after dark. Obviously it may be easier for bad guys to operate in the dark but, more importantly, you can't see the road well at night. A poorly marked (or unmarked) bridge out or large pothole or large rock in the road or part of the road slipped away would make for a bad end to the day;
2) Don’t make a habit of hanging out in local bars late at night;
3) Leave the big camera with its fancy lenses locked up when in a town or around a lot of people – stick to the pocket camera (probably best to not be flashing the Smart Phone or Tablet around either as they are very popular things to steal);
4) This might seem obvious but don’t display big wads of cash;
5) Don’t wear much or any jewelry
6) Avoid drugs. Not making a statement on drugs, it's just that you want to avoid the people involved with drugs. They are related to the people causing all the headlines back home.
Be aware and use common sense. That doesn’t mean being paranoid and fantasizing that there is a bad guy in every doorway or in every shadow. If you think somebody is paying too much attention to you, change what you are doing – go into a store, take another street, turn around, find a crowd. 99%+ of the people you come across are good people, are elated you chose to visit their country and will do whatever it takes to prevent tourists being victimized.
Be careful with bags, purses and backpacks. These are prime targets in places where lots of tourists hang around. There are lots of stories of people having their daypacks with their documents, wallets, cameras and fancy phones disappearing at congested tourist attractions and bus stations.
Cash and documents. I usually keep enough cash for the day in one or two pockets. The rest of the cash is hidden on the bike and in my luggage. My passport is always in one of my pockets (pockets in a mesh jacket are not great for passports in a rain storm . . . DAMHIK). Handling cash discreetly and without drawing attention to yourself is the goal. A bit more information about cash security is available on the Money page.
Rely on the advice of locals and local knowledge. Locals are many times aware of any bad guy activity and will tell you roads or places to avoid.
This is a huge topic that is widely discussed. This brief discussion is by no means complete. There are many ways to approach security and some will do it differently than I did. Generally this seemed logical to me and it seemed to work.
Don't get me wrong, the potential for petty crime is probably greater in many parts of Latin America and it is important to be aware. The bottom line is that I found most parts of Latin America are no more dangerous than North America. No place in the world is 100% safe, there are bad guys everywhere. So, be aware, be smart, use common sense and enjoy your trip.