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Sadly, South America’s history has often been marred by stories of political corruption and violence. However, the continent has experienced a slow climb upwards. Now a sought-after destination for tourism, it’s natural for people to wonder just how safe the continent is. Sure, like anywhere there are places to go and places not to go, so it’s always necessary to take precautions before a trip. That said, we’ve done our own research, and with the statistics of global safety indexes, peace ratings, and governmental travel advisories, have ranked the safest countries in South America.
Venezuela for a long time has had the reputation of being one of the most physically beautiful and culturally warm countries in all of South America. It’s very unfortunate then that they are at the bottom of our list. Recently, Venezuela has been inflicted with crippling inflation and political corruption. The combination of these two has caused starvation, extreme (sometimes violent) unrest, and a mass exodus of citizens to other countries. Understandably, the situation has caused desperation and this feeling has unsurprisingly brought a spike in crime. The United States Department of State currently lists Venezuela as a place to strictly not travel to under any situation.
Colombia’s ascension from the cellar of safety has been well documented and inspiring. There any many people alive who can still vividly remember the stories of violence and drug trafficking that plagued the nation. However, things have undoubtedly improved drastically — Medellin, just 25 years ago, was the world’s most dangerous city but is now a hotspot for backpacking in South America and a budding destination for tech companies. Nonetheless, the improvements should not mask some of the very real problems that still exist. Notoriously corrupt, distrust in the government remains high, especially with hundreds of targeted killings in recent years that seem politically motivated. The potential for local terrorism is still high as well. Travelers should be realistic about the potential for petty crime and be sure research regions and parts of cities that shouldn’t be visited. Despite the trouble, Colombia remains in the top 40 of the happiest countries on Earth.
Part of the northeastern reaches of South America that is often forgotten about, not many travelers make it to Guyana (or French Guiana and Suriname). With its general obscurity, there are some conflicting reports on where Guyana should be on this list. However, anyone visiting Guyana will surely spend some time in the capital Georgetown. According to recent reports pickpocketing, armed robbery, and assault are not uncommon crimes targeting tourists.
According to the recently released 2018 version of the Global Peace Index, Brazil is the third lowest rated country in South America, just above Venezuela and Colombia. Much of the country is relatively safe for tourists, as it has been a popular destination for years and a solid tourist infrastructure is in place. With that in mind, crimes like “snatch and grabs” and robberies are still very real threats to tourists, especially during popular events like Carnival. Many people traveling to Brazil are eager to visit favelas and low-income neighborhoods in Brazilian cities like Rio de Janeiro, but this puts people at a much higher risk of becoming a victim of a crime, even while on a tour. Best to stick closer to the harbor of Rio de Janeiro.
Another very off-the-beaten-path destination, Suriname is not necessarily dangerous but it is definitely recommended more so for experienced travelers seeking an adventure. Paramaribo, the capital, is a mid-sized city with very limited support for tourists and could be a place that requires increased caution at night. Most likely though, as a tourist expect confused stares more than anything. A country that is mostly a tropical jungle, the biggest threats are mosquito-borne diseases like Zika, malaria, and yellow fever.
Because of its popularity with tourists, some travelers may be surprised to find Peru in the bottom half of this list. However, Peru does have some serious concerns surrounding citizen security and some parts of the country must be avoided. In the east Andes region of the country, a minimal police presence allows for rampant illegal activity including unregulated mining and narco-trafficking. While that area is easily avoided, muggings in major cities are also an issue. Tourists should keep track of their belongings, especially passports and electronics. With the correct amount of caution, Peru is definitely still a viable travel hotspot.
7. French Guiana
French Guiana is not technically a country. Instead, it is still a territory overseen by the French government but it’s safety is still relevant to this. Having the backing of a European economy at times can be beneficial, although the country as a whole is not wealthy. French Guiana is not a large country, Cayenne, the de facto capital, only has about 60,000 citizens, and the most common crime is petty street crime like nighttime robberies. Demonstrations in French Guiana are somewhat common and while they are intended to be peaceful, they can be confrontational, especially if an outsider tries to get involved.
Unfortunately, poverty and crime tend to go hand-in-hand, but despite being one of the poorer countries in South America, Bolivia is very tourist-friendly. Perhaps the highest crime here compared to other countries is ATM-related crimes, so be sure to be vigilant while taking money out. One thing people also need to be aware of is the altitude. The capital La Paz is a full 11,942 feet above sea level, enough to make anyone a little woozy. Use caution during the first few days when physically exerting yourself and while adjusting to the altitude. Even Bolivia’s famous Yungas Road (aka the Death Road) has improved, taking it from the scariest place in the world to drive to a generally normal mountain road.
When it comes to Ecuadorian crime, the majority is non-violent. Some big cities like Quito require tourists to watch their wallets but not to an alarming extent. Tourists should generally feel safe as the country employs a special police force for tourists and travelers who feel threatened, are lost, or experience trouble of any kind. One threat to overall tourist wellbeing is physical health. While visiting, be aware that none of the tap water is safe to drink and food poisoning is very common, so come prepared. Also the borders of Ecuador, especially on the Colombian border, should be avoided.
Grouped very closely with Ecuador on the Global Peace Index, there are very few precautions listed on the travel information site for the USSD. Since Paraguay is not a country often visited by tourists, there are not as many areas in the major cities where targeting tourists is easy. The country itself does have some problems with petty crime and kidnapping but those have declined significantly and affect local farming families more than anyone else. Perhaps the most direct word of caution from the US government to travelers is “be careful around large gatherings, such as soccer matches”. Yes, South Americans are passionate about soccer; so don’t wear a rival jersey to the wrong game just to be different.
The top three countries of our list are on a different tier. Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile — the southernmost countries — enjoy a higher degree of safety. Buenos Aires, like other major cities, has some areas to avoid but is generally safe for tourists. In the northern regions of the country, like Salta, there is a small risk of dengue fever so bring bug spray. If a tourist does happen to experience an injury or illness, the health care system in Argentina is excellent and free for everyone. Recently, the country has experienced economic regression and because of this decline, there has been a rise in political unease. While the situation should be monitored, it has not caused any major problems so far.
Widely talked about alongside Chile as one of the safest places in South America, Uruguay also has a widespread reputation as the most “chill” country on the continent. Highly regarded for its laidback atmosphere, even in Montevideo, that’s usually associated with the café culture of Western Europe, Uruguayans enjoy the finer things in life. The country also enjoys a positive relationship with their government, in part because 96% of all Uruguayans vote in voluntary democratic elections. Another advantage that Uruguay has over many other countries in South America is that they are not at risk of sudden natural disasters. While it may be overlooked by many as a place to “seek out”, Uruguay has numerous attractions, beaches, and friendly people that make it worth visiting.
Incredibly safe by any global region’s standards, Chile often ranks in the top 25-30 countries in the whole world for safety. Crime rates are low and tourists are welcomed to towns and cities in Chile. Known for breathtaking National Parks and stunning hiking routes through Patagonia, plus other wild regions, make sure to bring a good hiking guide; getting lost might bring the safety rating down a smidge. Chile’s greatest threat has been, and probably will always be, earthquakes. Yet, because quakes are the least predictable natural disaster and not a constant occurrence, tourists shouldn’t worry too much.