Is backpacking as a woman alone dangerous? Is traveling alone with a small child risky? My family and friends back in São Paulo, a city in Brazil with about 20 million people, think that I am courageous and that I could be safer back home. I think that any city with a traffic light is too big and has too many problems and dangers to be livable.
I lived in a few paradises already which were all very touristy. Now, in Costa Rica, another country, I live in exactly the same kind of place I was living before in Brazil: tropical beach, lots of tourists and lots of locals from all over the world.
One thing is for sure: where there´s tourism, there´s crime. Where there´s people with a lot, there´s people with less ¨working¨ their way around the stuff. It´s simple mathematics.
There are some precautions you have to take anywhere you go to, traveling or not.
From my experience, I can say that in all the places I lived and traveled to, petty crime abound.
Unfortunately, in Puerto Viejo, where I´m living for one year (but am on a surf trip on the Pacific at the moment) there´s more than that. There´s dudes with machetes or guns at a curve at night (not even late at night, just after dark). I haven´t seen any. I hear the stories.
That´s why I don´t go back home late with my bike. It´s really fucked up that I can´t ride my bike by myself for 5 minutes back home when I go out at night, but I take a taxi instead of taking the risk.
There´s a lot of cameras stolen at the beach, this is classic. It´s almost the stolen person´s fault to leave their camera unattended for a swim in a place like this. I´m guilty of this too, I had a wallet stolen once in my home town in Brazil just like that.
My neighbor in Puerto Viejo just moved next to my house because he was in a place that got broken into several times. This is not the first story of this kind.
So, what can we do to be safe?
Pretty little, actually. We can never be completely safe.
There are a few basic safety rules:
1. Never leaving your things alone in public places.
2. Being careful with the house you rent (asking safety questions to the owner and possibly anyone who lives in the street).
3. When in a hotel, asking if it´s safe to leave electronics in the room and where it´s better to do so. Have in mind that no hotel is safe either. Right now, I´m at a camping site and I leave my backpack with important stuff in a locked room. The owner of the place told me to not leave anything in my tent and I simly ask him to put it there and give it to me a few times a day.
4. On buses in Costa Rica, always carry your bag in your lap, nowhere else. It´s normal that people ride standing and get off anywhere on the road, so thieves steal backpacks of people relaxed listening to ipods or sleeping. I´ve heard so much of this and was present at one episode (right after having some money and my credit card stolen at the border with Nicaragua). I think it happens every day in Costa Rica. I´m glad I was told this at my first stop here, or this computer that I´m typing now could have been gone a long time ago (I´m usually very distracted on bus rides, but not without my bag in my lap now).
5. Avoid walking alone at night or at deserted areas in the daytime. Yeah, it´s sad, if you want to be really safe, don´t walk too far away from people at amazing beaches. Never assume you are alone. I was once in Brazil, walking with a friend at noon at a deserted beach and then we were robbed by a crack head with gun in hand and all.
6. Not leaving your bike unlocked.
7. Asking the locals about safety in the area (like the bus situation in Costa Rica, you need inside information to know what to expect and how to prevent things).
Don´t rely on data given by authorities or newspapers, because these lie all the time.
In Puerto Viejo, if you get robbed and you go to the police station, they´ll ask you to go to another city to put it on the record. How many people do you think that besides the hassle of being robbed travel to another city to do so? I think very few, that´s why the records of crime in Puerto Viejo must be much lower than the reality. If you go to the police station and ask about safety, I don´t think they´ll tell you anything accurate (I didn´t check this information, mind you, as a Latin American, I think the police is useless if not more dangerous than criminals).
8. Hiding your valuable items in the house when you are gone. No hiding is thief-proof, but it might save your stuff in the case of a break in (but then, who knows).
9. Use copies of your documents with you and have them all scanned, just in case. Have the number of your credit card or bank and maybe your embassy online for yourself as well.
These are just some basic safety rules, you can come up with more if you think about the subject (or if you visit forums about the place where you want to go).
You might make all the safer choices and still get mugged. That´s how unfair life on our planet is. And unfortunately, it´s even less fair for the guy who robes you.
You can only go a bit far in preventing anything from happening to you and your things.
This is why at the moment I only have cheap electronics. If my computer gets robbed I buy another one the next day, just like that. My insurance is having the money to replace it. The same for my shitty camera.
I feel for the people who need expensive items (hello Mac Book Pro owners), because really, there´s little you can do to prevent completely it to be taken from you.
I don´t follow the safety rules all the time. I almost never lock my bike, for instance.
I trust that nothing bad will happen.
And when something bad happens, it´s still more or less smooth, as in nothing really bad happens.
I take my precautions, and I trust. I don´t think there´s anything else you can do about safety.
I just met a band traveling from Mexico to Argentina on a van. They have their instruments and their mac books with them. They camp and they stay in cheap places, always with safety in their minds and doing their best to prevent the worse, but being somewhat adventurous as well. So far, they´ve been good about it.
How can you make traveling (or living anywhere) safe?
I´d say travel wherever you feel like (except maybe for war zones, you should handle security fine), be alert, make yourself informed, trust that things will be fine and have fun. And if something bad happens, deal with it and move on.