Safe parts of South America?
September 11, 2007 6:23 AM   Subscribe

Where are the safest places to travel to in South America, if you're alone?

My Australian brother (22 years old) is in Sweden and he's sick of the cold weather. He's been waiting around for his friend to come with him to South America. But now his friend can't make it til December. He wants to leave now, but he has heard it is dangerous to go to South America alone. Is it? Where are the safest places? I'll welcome as much information as you can give me, down to specific sites of accommodation.

He's monolingual, by the way.
posted by mjao to Travel & Transportation (22 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
There should also preferably be some good surf.
posted by mjao at 6:42 AM on September 11, 2007

I traveled in Peru for two months and thought it was very safe. Went to Bolivia for a couple of days and thought it was a little dodgy. They say that La Paz is dangerous for travelers (there have been quite a few backpacker kidnappings there). Argentina is supposed to be very nice and backpacker friendly. There is good surfing in northern Peru and Ecuador.
posted by billysumday at 6:50 AM on September 11, 2007

Also, your brother should check out the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree Forum - it is very, very helpful, and you can ask about really specific things.
posted by billysumday at 6:52 AM on September 11, 2007

I have traveled a bit in south Brazil, north Argentina and Uruguay. Short answer : No, it's not dangerous.

Longer answer : No, it's dangerous if you use a bit of common sense, e.g. don't stray too far off the beaten path, avoid certain areas of the big cities (especially at night), avoid too brazen displays of wealth...

If you travel alone, I would advise to travel light so as no too be too burdened by your bags and to be light on your feet. A 40l backpack can be sufficient.

As to locations, why not buy a ticket to Buenos Aires? One of the most 'European' points of entries to South America, and as such a good place to get your bearings in a new continent.

On the 'gringo trail' you're bound to meet fellow travellers, especially in youth hostels e.g., with whom you can tag along for a while.
posted by pj_rivera at 6:53 AM on September 11, 2007

I want to echo everything pj_rivera said. Any of the countries in South America will have neighborhoods and sometimes whole regions that are unsafe for a foreigner. But there is no country in South America that is too dangerous to consider visiting as long as you follow basic rules of good judgment.
posted by Forktine at 7:25 AM on September 11, 2007

Without any language skills whatsoever, S. America is going to be a bit of a tough place to travel. If one only visits capitals and major cities, some english might be found, but it should not be counted on.

As far as safety goes, S. America's bad reputation is unwarranted, but I would stay away from the areas of Colombia and Venezuela if traveling cross-country, as guerillas and corruption of police make that an iffy task.

I personally found Peru and Ecuador to be interesting and safe, and the NE part of Brazil is safe as well in my experience. I have heard that Chile is very safe, albeit more expensive, but have not traveled there.
posted by eas98 at 7:30 AM on September 11, 2007

The last comments by pj_rivera, Forktine and eas98 are good, sensible advice. I'd add that for the most part, people in Latin America are very gracious and appreciative when people make an effort to speak Spanish or Portuguese, however imperfectly.

Even if he's never studied the languages, learning phrasebook phrases to help with ordering food and getting around will go a long way in demonstrating that you're trying.
posted by umbĂș at 8:05 AM on September 11, 2007

or rather, that he's trying.
posted by umbĂș at 8:05 AM on September 11, 2007

I used to work for a travel guide company and (although our staff is too small for much statistical significance) a disproportionate number of bad things happened to our researchers in Peru, and it's not just crime and terrorism; some of the mountain roads can also be pretty dangerous. This isn't to say that there aren't safe parts of the country or that some of this isn't out of date, but it always pays to be careful.
posted by phoenixy at 8:10 AM on September 11, 2007

Has he considered Costa Rica? Safe, easy to travel, easy to get by with English. Massive amounts of fun to be had. (Nothing against S America, I went to Costa Rica last December & I'm thinking about going to Chile this December.)

Obviously it's fairly touristy but, speaking as a Seattleite, it does help with that weather bug.
posted by Wood at 8:22 AM on September 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think you should generally ignore anybody who tells you that whole continents are "unsafe." A lot depends on how he plans to get around, what kind of budget he's looking at, is he generally a trouble magnet, and the like.
I'd say that he should do research into individual countries and regions from people who live there and have been there recently and pay attention to their recent histories. Columbia is in the midst of a 40 year war and kidnapping for ransom isn't too unusual. But I just got back from a Panama, right next door, and can't wait to return.
And he should definitely learn some spanish.
posted by history is a weapon at 9:25 AM on September 11, 2007

I second Costa Rica. He could go around Costa Rica/Panama and then meet up with his friend for further adventures.
posted by sweetkid at 10:17 AM on September 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

Costa Rica and Guatemala are pretty darn safe and have an English-speaking infrastructure that boggles the mind. They are in Central America, not South, but would provide some of the same qualities.

I do not have first-hand experience in South America, but would imagine it is hit-and-miss but probably not actually dangerous in too many places. Also, if one stays in the right hostel-type properties, once can pick up traveling companions fairly easily.
posted by Mozzie at 10:49 AM on September 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

Seconding Panama, Guatemala and Costa Rica and adding Belize for good measure. Admitted not South America, but safe, plenty of English speakers (especially in Belize where everyone spoke it) and lots of fun.

If you're brother is single, then definitely Panama. Sexiest women I've seen north of Brazil.
posted by JaredSeth at 11:05 AM on September 11, 2007

Florianopolis, Brasil. My wife was an exchange student there about 10 years ago. Good surfing too from what I hear as well. Keep in mind this was 10 years ago. Maybe research on Thorn Tree forums as previously recommended.
posted by philad at 11:32 AM on September 11, 2007

I will have to disagree with those who are recommending Costa Rica and other Central American countries.

Having been to countries in both sections, I'd have to say that S. America is without a doubt the more interesting of the two, both geographically as well as culturally.

Additionally, CA has other factors working against it. First, it suffers from a 'gringo effect'. That is, due to its close proximity to the US, there are a. many Americans traveling there and b. a sizable criminal element that have come together to prey on said Americans. Also, these regions tend to be very hot.

So yeah, CA offers more of a safety net in that English is a bit more prevalent (particularly Costa Rica), but that comes at a price, not the least of which is that these places are much less exotic than their SA counterparts.
posted by eas98 at 12:22 PM on September 11, 2007

Thirding Panama etc. I spent nine days solo in Panama without trouble, and in Panama City it was fairly easy to find people who speak English.
posted by fings at 1:33 PM on September 11, 2007

I highly recommend Peru. It's quite safe, as long as you stay away from the dodgy neighbourhoods of Lima, and apart from Cuzco, it's not very touristy. Beautiful beautiful country.
It might help to know a little Spanish though, just to get around.
posted by snoogles at 3:25 PM on September 11, 2007

Chile is pretty safe, especially for a guy. There are some cool coastal cities like Vina del Mar. Buenos Aires wasn't too bad, but after dark can get a little dodgy, probably much safer for a guy though than a girl. I have heard things get worse once you get out of the city safety wise, but I don't have much to back that up.
posted by whoaali at 5:20 PM on September 11, 2007

I second Florianopolis. I've heard great things, the surfing is supposed to be amazing, and if there's a surf community there, my guess is that English might be okay.
posted by bijou at 6:04 PM on September 11, 2007

Thanks everyone! My brother has some further questions. He did want to know about some potentially illegal activity but I don't think it's kosher to ask that here!

He is also single, as JaredSeth mentioned above, so thanks for the advice on places where a language barrier won't be such a problem.

Somebody told him that in Guatemala you can stay with a family for cheap and they will teach you Spanish? If this is true, is there a website or anything where he can set this up? (I've directed him to the Thorn Tree forum but I don't think he's visited yet.)
posted by mjao at 6:43 PM on September 11, 2007

mjao, there are Spanish language immersion programs all over Guatemala and yes, they're pretty reasonably priced (some for less than $200 a week including room and board). I've thought about taking my wife for a couple weeks since what little Spanish she speaks she butchers.

Here's a list of some schools, but you should just be able to google "Guatemala spanish immersion" for more.
posted by JaredSeth at 7:48 PM on September 11, 2007

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