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How To Backpack And Travel Safely In South America

May 12, 2008
Becoming a victim of crime is a possibility no matter where you travel nowadays - even when you stay at home! However, being aware of some of the popular scams and tricks that criminals and opportunists use to victimize tourists can help avoid problems that could ruin a good trip.

South America is a popular destination for world travellers and especially for backpackers, adventure enthusiasts and those taking a gap year. The country certainly has plenty to offer and a wonderful variety of landscapes from tropical beaches to the spectacular Andes Mountains, Amazon rainforest, Iguazu Falls, active volcanoes, and fascinating wildlife of the Galapagos Islands. Many travellers choose to take in the exciting and colourful fiestas and carnivals, or visit the sites of ancient civilizations. (Tip: To avoid disappointment, tickets to visit the Inca Trail and ruins at Machu Picchu should be purchased in advance).

The best travel advice is to do lots of research and set off armed with as much knowledge as possible. Take a quality guide book and Spanish and Portuguese phrase books. Chances are that nothing bad will happen but, unfortunately, travellers are vulnerable and criminals know it. They will take any opportunity to separate you from your money and possessions! The most common crimes anywhere in the world involve theft and pickpockets and theft of passports is a huge problem worldwide. Care should be taken in places where it is easy to be distracted and forget to watch your belongings, such as airports, internet cafes, on public transport or while renting a car. Avoid using public transport at night or walking alone at night in isolated areas.

Thieves have been known to target tourists by pretending to be police officers, tour operators, taxi drivers, or other officials (for example, a real police officer will never ask to see your wallet!) Taxis should be booked in advance with a reputable company, when possible. So called 'express kidnappings' are a problem in some areas where victims have been held captive and their bank accounts emptied before they are released. Female travellers should be especially cautious, especially when walking alone at night, on public transport, and in isolated areas, as rapes have been reported. Be on guard also for spiking of drinks - a problem which has become more prevalent. Avoid accepting drinks from strangers, leaving drinks unattended, and make sure that they are poured in plain view.

Be aware that many shops, bars, restaurants, and hotels may not accept credit cards in South American countries. Watch for counterfeit money and bogus ATM machines. In Peru, in particular, some ATM machines do not release credit and debit cards automatically unless a button is pushed - and instructions are not always written in English! It goes without saying that travellers should avoid all contact with illegal drugs or drug trafficking as the penalties are severe, involving imprisonment for long periods in extremely unpleasant conditions.

All travellers, especially those with pre-existing medical conditions, should have a thorough check-up and necessary vaccinations before leaving home. Diseases like yellow fever, dengue fever, cholera, and malaria are problematic in many areas. Evidence of valid inoculations may be required to travel between some countries in South America.

The above tips are just a sample of the knowledge travellers should be armed with before setting off. The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office 'Know before You Go' campaign is an excellent resource for travellers. Their 'Travel Advice by Country' section contains current travel updates and advisories and the Travellers Checklist is another useful tool. Young travellers should pay attention to their Gap Year information. Avoid attracting the attention of police, keep the locals happy, and impress your travel companions with your awareness of local customs, laws and expected etiquette for each country.

Adventure travellers and adrenalin junkies will find plenty of outdoor activities and thrills. Activities like kayaking, white water rafting, surfing, hiking, mountain biking and mountaineering are popular. Care should be taken to ensure that the correct travel insurance policy is purchased which will provide cover for any potentially hazardous sports activities. Chile and Argentina are popular destinations for downhill skiing during the UK summer months and, again; don't forget that additional insurance coverage may be needed.

Many areas in South America are remote with limited access to good emergency medical facilities. If a medical emergency should arise, medical care or evacuation and repatriation may be necessary. Without comprehensive travel insurance the costs could be astronomical and mean the end of any further world travel plans for a very long time!
About the Author
Jean Andrews is a freelance writer living in the UK. She regularly contributes articles for TIA Ltd who offer backpackers travel insurance.
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