Danger Is Part Of The Package (Welcome To South America)

One of the questions that comes across my mind often is “Is _____ dangerous?”

By “_____”, I’m thinking of a number of places in South America I haven’t been to yet.

Specifically, these days I am thinking about Venezuela, a country which I have been curious about for some time, and which sits just across the border from Colombia, where I’ve been spending most of my time.

I’ve heard a number of really bad stories related to Venezuela, from robberies and kidnappings to blatant police corruption and extortion. These are all from people I have met face-to-face.

These types of stories make me hesitate to visit Venezuela, as they well should. No one should enter a country blindly, without considering the realities of a place.

But it got me thinking…

Danger is part of the package when it comes to South America.

I mean, really, honestly, truthfully… it’s just part of the package.

It’s what you get. It’s part of the deal.

I mean, I really hope that one day the people of South America will just give up committing crimes, especially petty theft which seems to be rampant across the continent.

But there’s really no sense in expecting a ‘day of recompense’ will occur, that everyone will suddenly get their ‘just desserts’, or that the whole atmosphere of life will change.

Danger is part of the package. Plan on it.

Anyone who tells you otherwise is either ignorant or is not being truthful.

I’m Serious…

If you’re a little new to all of this, let me rattle off the top of my head a few stories I’ve come across…

First, there was a mass killing in the Envigado neighborhood over New Years. Envigado is known as one of the nicer neighborhoods in the Medellin metro area, and is where many foreigners stay when they come to visit.

Yet, did anyone ever tell you that Oficina de Envigado, a gang descended from Pablo Escobar’s groups, still has a presence there? Did anyone tell you about the 9 people who were murdered one night?

Second, I was talking with an Asian man who had been living in Medellin for a number of years. He had bought a motorcycle to get around the city. Guess what happened to him?

One day, while he was riding through town, he was surrounded at a stoplight by 4 other motos. They threw him off his bike while it was running, got on it, and rode off before he knew what happened. This was in Medellin at an ordinary stoplight.

Third, I talked to a Latino man who was visiting Medellin during his travels through the country. In the span of 4 days he was here, he was robbed at gunpoint not once, but twice. This happened in a span of 4 days to a native Spanish speaker, who does not look like a gringo, and who was simply walking through the streets of the city.

Or how about my buddy whose bag was ripped open and looted of $3000 worth of photography equipment on an Ecuadorian bus? Or the American tourist who was found in a trash can along the coast? (Ecuador is really high on my naughty list when it comes to being robbed or jipped.)

Or how about the traveler I met who had no problems with anything until they were robbed at gunpoint in Santiago, which these days is purported to be the safest capital in South America?

Or how about the other traveler I met who was physically assaulted and tackled from behind in Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro? He was held facedown against the concrete with a gun to his head while the assailant demanded his wallet.

Or for god sakes what about the Colombian woman I met who was kidnapped by a normal looking taxi directly in front of Bogotá‘s zona rosa? If you’ve been there, you know it– Zona T.

These are all stories I can quote off the top of my head without too much difficulty. I have heard dozens and dozens of stories like them.

Comments like “Well, it’s like that in any part of the world” are simply ignorant.

It is NOT like that in any part of the world.

In many parts of the world, people actually are peaceful and not given to crimes such as these. Petty theft is not as rampant in other parts of the world.

Yes, and I know, South America is not the ONLY place where petty crime is a constant worry.

But it’s naive to believe that there’s some kind of equal distribution of danger across all geography on the planet, or that South America does NOT have a serious problem with theft… The city I grew up in in the US, for example, is simply not the same as Ecuador in this regard. Period.

So, if you are planning visiting South America, make sure you take some ordinary precautions, most especially don’t appear worth robbing, and when possible don’t carry a lot on you.

However…

Once you’ve gotten use to taking a few precautions, you really don’t think about all the possibilities of getting robbed or assaulted on a daily basis unless you venture wayyy off the beaten path. There’s often safety in numbers, and just by going with other people to wherever you’re going, you’re probably not going to have too many problems.

I’ve written this post to get your attention… It’s not like you need to become paranoid about everyone and everything down here. You gotta keep your head up and live moment to moment.

Danger is part of the package… But so is beauty.

There’s a great life to be lived down here that you learn to accept things as they come and deal with the (sometimes harsh) realities of where you are.

Besides…

Danger + Beauty = Adventure.

Guess that means I’ll see you in Venezuela? 😉

  • Scott Harrison

    Nice post. I’m a Colombian adoptee living in Bogotá. I’ve been here for two months. I have not had a problem, but I’m not really exposing myself all that much. My daily activities include going to the notaria to get my papers up to date and getting a cedula. I want to get out more, but I know what I’m dealing with.

    I feel it is safe here, but it’s safe until it isn’t. I’ve walked everywhere too. My spider sense kicks in when it is time to get off the streets. If all else fails, just go find a coffee vendor and wait until things calm down.

    Hope all is well. As a Colombian citizen, I have the option to stay here for as long as I want and I look the part too even if I don’t speak good Spanish.

    I may check back in at a later date for more stories.

    Scott

    • Hey Scott – Yeah, I’d say having a “spider sense” is a good way of putting it. I feel the same way in Bogotá. Some areas may be normally safe, but you just might hit them on the wrong day. Cool that you’ve made it back to COL!

  • samcarmx

    Sensible post. Caracas is especially dicey–ten cuidado!–and frankly, not too interesting. Try Mérida–university town. The Caribbean beaches are beautiful. The jungle areas to the south are extraordinary. The Spanish is awful, but not as bad as Chilean.

    • Yeah, have heard good things about Merida!

  • disappointed

    it’s easy to talk lightly about the danger until it happens to you. I moved to Medellin just a couple months ago after travelling Colombia for about 1.5 months. Last night (Tuesday) at around 9:45pm on the main strip in Poblado I was robbed (by flash of a gun and aggressive demands) right in front of Parque Poblado. Lost my smartphone, $100 cash, and my nice watch.

    I am highly reconsidering living here after this event. Even if you don’t carry anything of value on you, who the hell wants to worry about having their life threatened with a gun on a regular basis? Not me.

    It’s a shame that robberies like this are so rampant. It’s actually the 3rd robbery I know about in Poblado (the “safest” part of the city) in the last 2 months, one of which I saw from a taxi passing by. My only guess is that the punishment for such crimes is so low that it’s worth the risk, especially when you can just pay the cop off much of the time anyway.

    I undersestimated how incredibly easy it is to rob someone in Colombia/Medellin. Flash a gun (no matter where you are or what time of day/night), ask for everything in their pockets, and risk little legal repercussion. Easy. If they resist just put a bullet in their head.

    • Wow, I’m really sorry to hear this happened to you… Just out of curiosity, did you have your smart phone out when the thieves approached you? … The threat of theft is definitely a factor when considering living in Medellin.

      • disappointed

        no I had nothing out, I was minding my own business just walking and thinking, I wasn’t even paying attention to the thieves when I walked by them. I didn’t even notice they were there until one started talking to me. However I do look “gringo” even though people have told me they weren’t sure if I was or not before I started talking. But I am a 100% caucasion male (28 yrs old) and after this I feel that gringos are definitely targeted here. I don’t exactly look like a pussy either, which is interesting that they chose to rob me over someone else. My only guess is they thought I had money because I was gringo and had a watch on? Are you still in Medellin? I am considering leaving the country or switching cities, not sure yet.

        • Wow, sorry to hear about this man… It possibly could have been the watch that attracted them, but in any case it’s not your fault. I feel for ya man, but thanks for reporting on it so others can know.

  • I recently just returned from 2 weeks in Venezuela’s capital, Caracas. I was there for the Basketball Campeonato which gave me the singlemindedness to overlook the hype surrounding the place.

    I think its important to trust your instincts but to remember people live in these places too. Its not a savage jungle, its a compromise to what you’re used to but to have some faith in the humanity of the larger populace. You also have to know what you’re signing up for, which could be misadventure.

    The problem I dealt with in Venezuela was the parallel market. It was the highest learning curve for a Country I’ve experienced. As far as safety was concerned, I wasn’t aroused by fears of petty theft. The people were warm and generous. The locals know their reputation and realise their lives are an adventure in Survival. When you go to some of these places you have to realise you’re joining the “adventure” with them.

    • Wow, great perspective! I like the idea of joining the locals in their current adventure state… Shifts the focus for sure.

  • Pura Vida Mae

    I have been to Colombia 4 times – no problems – police presence everywhere – I really felt safe there – just some crazy bus drivers and a lot of soot on your face at the end of the day. However in Costa Rica I was robbed at gunpoint with my Colombian girlfriend. Costa Rica is much more dangerous in the fact that everyone has their guard down (oh Colombia is so dangerous they say in Costa Rica). I told my Costa Rican high school students the following day that I was robbed and then asked if any of them have had problems and to my surprise all of them raised their hands – I was flabbergasted – they each told me their stories of being accosted one way or another. Yes, my advice is carry a dummy wallet with some cash to make it semi-ligit and throw that one way and run the other way. Don’t ever guard your stuff or you may be full of huecos.