TRAVELING IN
CENTRAL AND SOUTH AMERICA


Tourism in Central and South America is a rich and enlightening experience. From the ancient historical ruins and archaeological sites to the ultra-modern mega-cities. They also come for the exotic wildlife of the rainforest, the mountains of the Andean range, and the beautiful beaches and coastline, the amazing night life and the reverent tradition. Duty free trade zones, bazaars, and black markets abound where one can find virtually anything there heart desires. 

Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Jamaica, the British Virgin Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands, French Guyana, Belize, the Bahamas, Honduras, Panama, El Salvador, Puerto Rico, Uruguay, Cuba, and The Falkands are are reasonably safe, provided tourists and travelers stick to the cities and well travelled attractions. However the same dangers exist here that exist anywhere, street gangs, muggers, pickpockets and con artists. Ocasioanlly their are corporate or ransom kidnappings, and terrorist activities, but these are for the most part kept o a minimum. In the more rural and Islated areas however caution is advised as banditry and rebel movements are on the rise.

Guatemala, Atlantico, Nicaragua, Peru, Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia, and Costa Rica are dangerous, but as long as travelers keep their wits about them and exercise caution they should be safe in the cities and tourist destinations. Outside these areas the dangers are much worse, extreme aggression is rampant towards foreigners and corporations. Rebels, revolutionaries, and organized crime and cartels eager to strike any blow they can against their enemies. Bandits, gangs, and corrupt police and military personnel pose as much of a hazard, rapes, robberies, murder, kidnappings, enslavement, and torture are all serious threats here. Extreme caution should be taken, and it is advised never to travel at night or without an experienced and trustworthy guide, and if at all possible travel in groups of no less than 10. For tourists, even those who came in smaller groups, it shouldn't require much effort to arrange to travel with a larger group heading to similar destinations.

Virtually every travel agency and tourist board on earth recommends against traveling to Suriname, Paraguay, Haiti, Guyana, and the entire territory in and around the Islas De La Sangre for any reason. If travel to these areas is necessary,
hire an armed and experienced escort and a local guide and make your trip as short as possible.

The roads in cities and other metropolitan or corporate areas are usually decent, outside the cities, even in the better developed countries, the roads become something of a nightmare.  Busses are usually so overloaded that people are riding on top with the luggage and hanging off the bumpers, this makes it even more scary when your bus driver is zipping through overgrown dirt roads on the side of a mountain with no safety rails.  Cab drivers in the cities are just as as scary but can be preferable to driving yourself if you don't know the streets.  Flying is safer, but it is advised if you do have to fly that you choose the brightest colored airplane so that you are not mistaken for a spy, or choose one that is able to stay above the ceiling for most
anti-aircraft weapons.  If at all possible avoid any aircraft over 20 years old, especially Chinese or Russian.  In many areas the only way to travel is by boat, be very careful and our best advice is to know how to swim.  Trains are still widely used for long distance travel, and are usually failry safe, though sometimes are targets for rebel or terrorist stops, and trains often have a few or more pickpockets who make their living from the passengers.  It is easy to get lost, always carry a compass and a map of the area, a GPS is nice, but won't always be able to recieve a signal.

Regardless of where you are in Central and South America, some basic practices should be followed. If you are a tourist you have basically painted a target on your chest, especially if you are Caucasian. To most of the population there is little to no difference if you are American, Canadian or European, you are just a white devil that eats babies and tortures old women for fun. Be very careful. Avoid talking about politics or religion to anyone, even if pressed, not only is it apt to start a fight, but you never know who may be listening, and whatever you do do not judge the religions or customs of the people you find yourself surrounded by. Keep your beliefs and opinions to yourself, even when asked about them, always keep an open mind, and smile at everyone. It is a lot harder to rob or kill someone who is nice to you than someone who is an asshole. Be respectful and polite, that guy you just insulted may be the local police chiefs son, or that pretty girl whose butt you just pinched may be the daughter of a local Cartel head. Make yourself aware of the local laws and don't buy illegal goods or engage in illegal activities, while some countries like Mexico or Brazil are more progressive than others and likely to be civilized in their punishments, most countries in Central and South America have little tolerance for those who break the law (such as it may be), and a 5 year stint in a Colombian prison hellhole is a death sentence for most. If this happens there is very little your embassy can do about it. Always ask permission before taking a photograph or video of anyone or anything, never try to sneak it. Never try to take a picture of a government installation, building or soldiers. Never affiliate yourself with anyone in conversation, not even your home country. Always know where your embassy is, and check in as soon as you enter a country or city that has one, and check in again when you leave. When in your hotel always make sure your doors and windows are locked, and it is a good idea to leave your television or radio on, especially when you leave. It is incredibly frequent that hotel rooms get robbed even in the finest hotels. No matter where you are keep your money, credit cards, ID and passport hidden well, on your person, and in separate places. Also keep money in your wallet for bribes. Wear a cheap watch and durable but inexpensive clothing. Remember, the more money it looks like you have the better a target you will make, although just by being foreign you automatically will be assumed to be wealthy. Travel in groups, never alone, and ALWAYS hire a guide. The same goes for drivers. The best place to get a guide or driver is either to have someone in the country you know or trust arrange for one, or go through your hotel. Travel as light as possible, and pay the hotel manager to hold any expensive items. The following tips are excerpted (with slight changes) from Fielding's Danger Guide:


RANDOM ENCOUNTER GENERATOR

HOW TO SURVIVE BEING A WESTERN DEVIL

Whether you accept it or not, if you are of European extraction, or were raised on T-bones and Pepsis or even wear Eddie Bauer gear, you will be taken for a Yank, Russian, or Euro in most of Central and South America. 

Even the African-American traveler finds himself being simply a rich American when he looks for his roots in black Africa. In all cases, understand that along with your American Tourister luggage and Nikes, you carry a different kind of baggage. About 200 years of imperialism, covert action, warfare, occupation and political interference. Also a large part of the world just resents the fact that you are so damned affluent and healthy, and they're not. You may not have bombed Nicaragua, smart-bombed innocent Colombian children, overthrown every Central American dictator, or cut down the rain forests to grow cows for your Big Macs, but the chances are good you will be blamed for it.


  • Learn or try to use the local language even if only to say "thank you" and "excuse me." Even learning the phrase, "I love your wonderful country," can get you a lot farther than, "Why the hell don't you retards learn to speak American?" 
  • Dress conservatively, stay away from obvious American, European, or Japanese brands and logos and do not wear signs of wealth (gold watches, jewelry, expensive cameras, etc.). 
  • Call the local embassy to find out the do's and don'ts. 
  • Don't wear American flag pins, hand out Uncle Sam decals or argue foreign policy. Focus on learning rather than expostulating. 
  • Be compassionate, understanding and noncommittal about the current situation of the country. If you are a target of an anti-American diatribe, ask the person to tell you what he would do if he was President of the United States. He will probably be too shocked at your passive intellectual response to stay angry. 
  • Simple items like sunglasses, air-conditioned cars and lack of language skills can create barriers and misunderstanding. 
  • Say hello to everyone you meet on the street and in the course of your travels. Look people straight in the eye and smile. Be polite, patient and helpful. 

HOW TO SURVIVE WAR ZONES 

Remember that small wars are not a carefully planned or predictable activity. More importantly, land mines, shells, stray bullets and booby traps have no political affiliation or mercy. Keep the following in mind.
  • Contact people who have returned or are currently in the hot zone. Do not trust the representations of rebel or government contacts. Check it out yourself. 
  • Avoid politics, do not challenge the beliefs of your host, be firm but not belligerent about getting what you need. Talking politics with soldiers is like reading Playboy with the Pope. It kills time, but is probably not a rewarding pastime. 
  • Do not engage in intrigue or meetings that are not in public view. They still shoot spies. Do accept any invitations for dinner, tea or social activities. Getting to know your hosts is important. Do not gossip or lie. 
  • Travel only under the permission of the controlling party. In many cases you will need multiple permission from officers, politicians and the regional commander. 
  • Remember that a letter of safe passage from a freedom group presented to an army check point could be your death warrant. Understand and learn the zones of control and protocol for changing sides during active hostilities. 
  • Carry plenty of identification, articles, letters of recommendation and character references. It may not keep you out of jail, but it may delay your captors long enough to effect an escape. 
  • Bring photographs of your family, friends, house, dog or car. Carry articles you have written or ones that mention you. A photo ID is important, but even a high school yearbook can provide more proof. 
  • Check in with the embassy, military intelligence, local businessmen and bartenders. Do not misrepresent yourself, exaggerate or tell white lies. Keep your story simple and consistent. 
  • Dress and act conservatively. Be quietly engaging, affable and listen a lot. Your actions will indicate your intentions as the locals weigh their interest in helping you. It may take a few days for the locals to check you out before they offer any assistance. 
  • Remember that it is very unusual for noncombatants to be wandering around areas of conflict. If you are traveling make sure you have the name of a person that you wish to see, an end destination and a reason for passing through. 
  • Understand where the front lines are, the general rules of engagement, meet with journalists and photographers (usually found at the hotel bar) to understand the local threats. 
  • Carry a lot of money hidden in various places, be ready to leave or evacuate at any time. This means traveling very light. Choose a place to sleep that would be survivable in case of a rocket or shell attack. 
  • Visit with the local Red Cross, UN, Embassy and other relief workers to understand the situation. They are an excellent source of health information and may be your only ticket out. 
  • If warranted buy and wear an armored vest or flak jacket . Carry your blood type and critical info (name, country, phone, local contact, allergies,) on a laminated card or written on your vest. Wear a Medic-Alert bracelet. 
  • Carry a first aid kit with syringes, antibiotics, IV needles, anesthetics and pain killers as well as the usual medication. It might be wise to use auto inject syringes. Discuss any prescriptions with your doctor in advance. 
  • Understand and learn the effect, range and consequences of guns, land mines, mortars, snipers and other machines of war. 
  • Get life and health (and KRE if relevant) insurance and don't lie. Tell them the specific country you will be traveling to. Also check with the emergency evacuation services to see if they can go into a war zone to pull you out. 
  • Carry a military style medical manual to aid in treating field wounds. Take a first aid class and understand the effects and treatment of bullet wounds and other major trauma. 

HOW TO SURVIVE REVOLUTIONARY PLACES 

Although no one can predict a sudden change in government, there are some things that could keep you from appearing on CNN wearing a blindfold.
  • Check in with the embassy to understand the current situation and to facilitate your evacuation if needed. Remember that the local government will downplay the danger posed by revolutionary groups. 
  • Stay away from main squares, the main boulevards, government buildings, embassies, radio stations, military installations, the airport, harbor, banks and shopping centers. All are key targets during takeovers or coups. 
  • If trouble starts, call or have someone contact the embassy immediately with your location. Stay off the streets, and if necessary move only in daylight in groups. Stay in a large hotel with an inside room on the second or third floor. Convert foreign currency into Western currency if possible. Book a flight out. 
  • Understand the various methods of rapid departure. Collect flight schedules, train information and ask about private hires of cars and planes. Do not travel by land if possible. 
  • Do not discuss opinions about the former regime or the current one. Plead ignorance while you wait to see who wins. 
  • Keep your money in US dollars and demand to pay in U.S. currency. Do not depend on credit cards or travelers checks and don't be afraid to demand a discount since who knows what the old money will be worth. 
  • Do not trust the police or army. Remember that there will be many summary executions, beatings and arrests during the first few days of a coup or revolution. 
  • Hire a local driver/guide/interpreter to travel around town and or to go out at night. Don't be shy about hiring bodyguards for your residence or family. 
  • Listen (or have your guide listen) to the local radio station or TV station. Have him update you on any developments or street buzz. When the embassy has set up transport make your move with your bodyguards or guides. 

HOW TO SURVIVE BRUTAL DICTATORSHIPS 

Ever want to see Killing Fields Part 2? How about Colombia. What about watching live executions on Friday Night Live? Go to Bolivia or Haiti. You haven't traveled until you've been to the world's last "It's my party and I'll rule if I want to" countries. Here are a few tips to keep you safe:
  • Do not discuss politics with anyone. Usually there are no politics to discuss anyway. Do not continue conversations started by strangers, just smile and say "No comprendo." Yes, you can be paranoid in these places. 
  • Try not to talk to locals, they will be questioned later or come under suspicion. Use your guide to select charming visitors to associate with. There really isn't much to talk about in these places anyway. If people stuff letters or postcards in to your hands, do not tell your guide or mail them in-country. They will expect you to mail them once outside the country. 
  • Most autocratic countries employ or encourage spying on foreigners. Do not be surprised if you are not only followed but your tails may even argue over who gets to follow you. At least you won't be mugged or pickpocketed. 
  • On the down side, expect to have your room and your luggage searched while you are out. Remember those letters people stuffed in your hand? 
  • Telephone and mail are subject to interception and/or monitoring. Be careful what you say. Make sure your room is very secure when you are in it. 
  • Any violation of the law (imagined or real) will result in severe penalties. There is very little your consulate, lawyer or senator can do for you since you are subject to the laws (or lack of laws) of the country you are in. Stay away from drugs. 
  • If you are a journalist, activist, eco-activist or infomercial host you will be considered a threat, not only by the local government, but in many cases by your own. Contact the freedom groups listed in the back of the book to understand what the risks are. The concept of rights, fair trial, or fair treatment are slim to none. 
  • If you are truly concerned about conditions in these countries, contact the Red Cross, Amnesty International or Reporters Without Frontiers to see what you can do to help. (See our reference section in the back.) 

HOW TO SURVIVE NASTY PLACES 

Many tourists are surprised to find themselves victims of attack and extortion in "recovering" regions where tour prices are low and the crowds at the temples are slim. Be aware that banditry is a very real danger in most of Central and South America. Corruption (this assumes that there was a noncorrupt infrastructure to begin with) can range from ticket clerks mooching spare change to soldiers threatening to lift all of your possessions at military checkpoints.
  • Understand that bribery is normal in many countries, but do not confuse this with theft.  Bluster, Negotiate, Smile, Gift or Ignore are the watchwords here. Cheap gifts  can defuse many situations, smiling and talking gibberish can go a lot further than a "Fuck Off" and storming away. 
  • Understand that soldiers at checkpoints are often hungry, sick and impoverished. They will shoot if you don't stop. They can also work themselves into a frenzy if you piss them off. Be cool, smile and just keep talking. 
  • Meet with and discuss the situation with local embassy staff. Ask them specifically what to do if you are arrested, followed or hassled. Carry their card or at least number and address on you while in country. Ask them for names of military commanders, politicians or anybody important. Write it down. Who you know will help. A name on a piece of paper has more weight than just saying the name. 
  • Stay within well-defined tourist routes, lock all luggage and belongings in a secure place. Expect and prepare for everything you own to be stolen. 
  • Never travel in the country alone. Use a local guide to navigate check points and police. Always hire a driver recommended by someone you trust. 
  • Stay inside major cities at major hotels, eat at well-known, large restaurants. Never travel or go out late at night. Phone ahead to tell people you are coming over and call them again when you arrive home safely. 
  • Fly between cities and pre-arrange transportation from the airport to the hotel. 
  • Prepare for constant intimidation from police and military. Be firm about your innocence and try to lead them to your embassy or safe place. Find and remember to drop the name of a local bigwig if you are frog-marched at gunpoint. 
  • Remember that police will try to keep items removed during a search. So show them your wallet, watch for important papers but do not hand anything to them. If the soldier takes your passport into a bunker or building, walk with him (he will wave you back), but insist that you have important information for his superior. 
  • Keep abreast of the political and military situation. Keep in mind that kidnapping, extortion and murder are very real possibilities. 

HOW TO SURVIVE MINIBUSES 

There is a reason for the multitude of religious symbols, slogans and prayers painted on Third World buses. Once they cram their doors shut and the wobbly wheels start forward, your life is in the hands of a supreme being. If you travel via small buses, remember the following:
  • Don't travel at night. Most Third World minibuses make New York taxis seem tame. 
  • Avoid mountainous areas and/or winter conditions. Fly if necessary. 
  • Bring water and food with you, plan for the unexpected, delays and diversions. 
  • Ask whether the route goes through areas frequented by bandits or terrorist groups. You may be surprised to find out who controls the countryside. 
  • Sit near an exit or on top. At least make sure you are near an open window. Follow the DP rule: Be friends with everyone, your seat mate might be a rebel commander. 
  • There is a reason why you paid 83¢ to travel. You don't buy a lot of brake pads and clutches with that pocket change. 
  • Remember your rooftop luggage is prey for rummagers, slashers and thieves. Put your luggage in a standard trash bag, a canvas duffle or under everyone else's. 
  • Shirt slashers wait for you to doze off and slip out your money pouches. Put your money in your shoes if necessary. 

HOW TO SURVIVE TAXIS 

  • Choose your cab rather than let them choose you. 
  • Never get into a taxi with another passenger already inside. 
  • Do not take gypsy cabs; ask the airline people how much it should cost to go to your city and then agree upon a fare before you get in. 
  • Keep your luggage in the back seat, not in the trunk. 
  • Memorize the local words for "no," "yes," "stop here" and "how much?" 
  • Have the hotel doorman or guide negotiate cab fares in advance. 
  • It is a global law that cabbies never carry change. Ask if the driver has change before you hand him a big bill. 
  • Many cabbies will rent themselves out for flat fees. Do not be afraid to negotiate the services of a trusted cabby as guide, chauffeur and protector of baggage. 
  • Do not tell cabbies where you are going, when you are leaving or any other particulars that could be of interest to bad people. 

HOW TO SURVIVE AUTOMOBILES 

There is little to be said that hasn't been said in every driver's education class. Speed, booze, bad roads, and other drivers kill. Driving in the Third World is not safe, so if possible check out the local Hertz Rent-A-Yak.
  • Be familiar with local road warning signs and laws. 
  • Avoid driving yourself if possible. Nobody gets up in the morning and plans on having an accident. The fact that you are rubbernecking or checking maps while on the wrong side of the road dramatically increases your chances of an accident. Flying is safer than driving. 
  • Avoid driving in inclement weather conditions, night time or especially on weekends. Fog kills, rain kills, drunks kill, other tourists kill. It is estimated that after midnight on Friday and Saturday nights in rural America, three out of five drivers on the road have been drinking. That means if you are one of the sober ones, pray that the other sober driver is coming the other way. 
  • Stay off the road in high-risk countries. You may think the Italians, Portuguese and Spaniards display amazing bravado as they skid around winding mountain roads. The accident rate says they are just lousy drivers. 
  • Reduce your speed. To see the difference in impact at various speeds, try running as fast as you can into the nearest wall. Now walk slowly and do it again. See how much better that is? 
  • Wear a seat belt, rent bigger cars, drive during daylight, use freeways, carry a map and a good road guide, etc. You're not listening are you? 
  • If you can hire a driver with car, do so. Contact tour companies, embassy staff and hotel concierges. Many countries provide a driver when you rent a car, so make sure you feel comfortable with him. Try a one-day city tour first to see if the chemistry and his driving skills are to your tastes. 
  • Don't drive tired or while suffering from jet lag. Don't pull off to the side of the road to nap, don't leave possessions in plain sight, and try to park in lighted areas. I can see you're not listening, so just do whatever the hell you are going to do, but don't say I didn't warn you. 

HOW TO SURVIVE BOATS 

It is hard to provide general safety tips considering the wide range of waterborne craft travelers can take. Large cruise ships have very different safety problems when compared to pirogues. Here is a starting list.
  • Know how to swim, or at least how to float. Panic kills. 
  • Wear or have quick access to a life preserver. Don't assume that the large chest labeled "Life Preservers" actually has usable life preservers in it. Look. 
  • Do not take overcrowded boats. Charter your own or ask when the boat will be less crowded. Overcrowding and rough seas are the number one reason for sinking of small and medium sized ships. 
  • Avoid travel in rough weather, during monsoon or hurricane season. 
  • Stay off the water in areas frequented by pirates. 
  • In cold weather remember where the covered life rafts are. Understand the effects and prevention of hypothermia.   Not a big problem for Africa, but still good advice none the less.
  • On large ships pay attention to safety and lifeboat briefings and practice going from your cabin to the lifeboat station with your eyes closed. 
  • Keep a small carry-on or backpack with your money, papers and minor survival gear (water, energy bars, hat, compass and map). Make it waterproof and a potential life preserver by using one or two garbage bags as a liner. 
  • Prepare and bring items to prevent seasickness, sunburn, glare and chapped skin. 
  • Bring binoculars, books, coastal maps, pens and a journal to pass away the time. 

HOW TO SURVIVE FLYING 

Despite all the unnerving statistics, if you have a choice of transportation when traveling long distances, jump on a plane.  Yes, it is dangerous but not as dangerous as enduring the kaleidoscope of misery and misfortune that awaits you on the ground.
  • Stick to U.S.-based carriers with good safety records. 
  • Fly between major airports on nonstop flights. 
  • Avoid bad weather or flying at night. 
  • You can sit in the back if you want (the rear 10 rows are usually intact in case of ground impact but the passengers are dead) or above the wing (you may get thrown clear, seat and all) or near an exit (easier egress in case of fire or emergency landing) might be just as advisable. 
  • Avoid small charter aircraft, dirt strips and non-instrument fields. 
  • The smaller the plane the higher the risk. The poorer the country, same deal except when foreign carriers operate airplanes in Third World countries. 
  • Avoid national carriers that are not allowed to fly into the United States. 
  • Avoid military cargo flights, tagging along on combat missions, or flying over active combat or insurgence areas like Colombia and Venzuela. 
  • Avoid older Soviet or Chinese-made aircraft or helicopters. 
  • Kroll puts out a monthly Airport and Airline Watch with enough hair-raising tales of smoke filled cabins, blown tires, near misses and hijackings to keep you glued firmly to the ground. $195 per year (703) 319-8050. 
  • After all this, remember that travel by airliner is the safest method of transportation and that your odds of surviving a plane crash are about 50 percent. 
  • If you are still terrified, remember you can buy flight insurance at 150 airports around the U.S. You can get half a million dollars of insurance for $16.65 or you can spend the same amount on four stiff drinks. We recommend the former, but usually end up doing the latter. 

HOW TO SURVIVE TRAINS 

  • Ask locals whether the train is a target for bandits (this is appropriate in  Central and South America where terrorists, bandits and insurgents regularly target trains). 
  • Beware of train routes where thieves are known to ride as passengers. Sleep with the window cracked open to avoid being gassed. 
  • Stash your valuables in secret spots making it more difficult for robbers to locate your belongings. 
  • The back of the train is traditionally the safest area in the event of a collision. Unless, of course, your train is rear ended. 
  • Keep your luggage with you at all times if possible. Be nice to the conductor and he will keep an eye out for you. 
  • Trains are preferable to buses or cars when traveling through mountainous areas, deserts and jungles. 

TIPS ON SURVIVING BUSINESS TRAVEL 

  • Con artists wait at airports, banks and tourist attractions. Be affable but do not go anywhere with your charming new friend. 
  • Enterprising desk clerks will sell your room key to equally enterprising prostitutes. Go straight downstairs until she is removed. If you stay to convince her to leave, she may yell rape and then you have the local cops to pay off as well as the desk clerk and the girl. 
  • Avoid restaurants frequented by expats and tourists. Don't make reservations in your own name. Do not sit outside. 
  • Dress in business attire or carry a briefcase only when necessary. Have your driver watch your back as you enter buildings or your hotel. 
  • Make copies of important papers, separate your credit cards in case you lose your wallet, keep the numbers, expiration dates and the phone numbers to order replacements. 
  • Do not show your name, country or hotel ID on luggage or clothing. When a clerk asks for your room number write it down for him. 
  • Do not discuss plans, accommodations, finances or politics with strangers. 
  • Wear a cheap watch (or just show the band outward). If driving, wear your watch on the arm inside the car. Leave jewelry at home or in the hotel safe. 
  • Get used to sitting near emergency exits, memorize fire escape routes in the dark, locking your doors and being aware at all times. 
  • Kidnappers need prior warning, routine schedules or tip-offs to do their dirty work. Vary your schedule, change walking routes and don't be shy about changing hotel rooms or assigned cabs. 
  • Stay away from the front or back of the plane (terrorists use these areas to control the aircraft). Avoid aisle seats unless you want to volunteer for execution. 
  • Do not carry unmarked prescription drugs. 
  • Leave questionable reading material at home (i.e., Playboy, political materials, or magazines). 
  • Carry small gifts for customs, drivers and other people you meet. 
  • When you call with your plans assume someone is listening. 
  • Watch your drink being poured. 
  • Do not hang the "Make Up Room" sign on your hotel room door. Rather, use the "Do Not Disturb" sign. Keep the TV or radio on even when you leave. Contact housekeeping and tell them you don't want your room cleaned up.

(Written by Deric "D" Bernier, and excerpted without permission from Fielding's Danger Finder.)