Dangers & Annoyances - general tips

An unfortunate reality of traveling in Latin America is avoiding theft and dealing with corrupt officials.  We've got you covered in our dangers and annoyances section, with everything from general tips to keeping your vehicle secured, a step-by-step manual for avoiding bribes, known scams, and location-specific warnings about corrupt cops.   Read more about dealing with corrupt police and location specific corruption in related articles. 

General Tips to Avoid Scams

  • Make sure to keep all valuables in your car locked up and out of sight. Even a pair of sunglasses or a sweatshirt left on the front seat can be enough to get a window smashed, depending on the location.
  • Avoid driving at night if at all possible except for in Canada, U.S.A, Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile.
  • Ask locals as you are driving through any areas if there have been any problems recently on your planned route, but always take advice with a grain of salt or ask multiple people.
  • When driving through cities, roll up your windows and lock your car doors.
  • If you get a flat tire, try to pull over somewhere populated, like a gas station or shopping area. Carrying a canned tire inflator (fix-a-flat) is a great thing to carry to quickly fix a tire in a unsafe location. Consider a small 12volt air pump, fairly reliable ones can be found for as little as $50.00 U.S. and can be handy for inflating your tires after offroad use.
  • If a younger kid asks you for money to 'watch' your parked car, usually a dollar is sufficient and worth the money.
  • Look for hotels with secure parking lots, or hotels that provide a 24 hour security guard (''vigilante'') who can watch your car.
  • Always carry photocopies of your important documents, and if someone asks to see your documents, try showing them the photocopy first.
  • Lock your car doors, even if you step out to talk to a person 10 feet away.
  • If you are driving w/others, declare out loud that you locked the car, and have the other person acknowledge that they heard you. This can save you from forgetting to lock the car, or wondering after walking away whether the car is locked.

Safety When Dealing with Money

When walking around, it is good to have a few small bills to hand over if you have the unfortunate luck to be threatened. Hide the rest of your money in a money belt under your clothes. Many thieves do know about waist money belts so if you're feeling like you're in a dodgy area and wanted to be super tricky you could wear the standard money belt with only a small amount of cash in it and wear one of these real belts with flat zippers sewn in the back. You can also find leg money belts too.

Avoid Getting Scamed By Hotels

Paying for low cost hotels are often a casual affair with no receipts. You may stay in different hotels for months without a problem, but there is a slim chance where you hand over your payment for the room and the next morning it is forgotten. It may be paranoid to create your own receipt log and have the person you pay sign it, but it may help you from getting overcharged or charged twice.

If your hotel, room, or apartment is not very secure, you could have a break-in. Break-ins are common in Guatemala- make sure to hide and if possible lock up valuables in your room. Hide money and valuables in different places to minimize loosing everything.

Scams

Anything out of the ordinary may be a scam, be suspicious when things like that happen. Why would a person care if your car needs repair or that you have dirt on your arm? Here is a small list of scams to watch for. You may want to agree early on the trip of a keyword you can yell out to your fellow travelers if you see something strange going on while pointing at the person causing the scam or distraction.

Specific types of scams

The Flat Tire Bad Samaritan

This scam is a classic in Costa Rica. The scammers place a nail or piece of broken glass under your tire when you are parked somewhere, like outside a store. When you pull away, the tire is punctured and slowly leaks air, causing you to pull over to fix your flat. When you get out to fix the tire, you will be approached by the "Bad Samaritan" who will offer to help you fix your tire while his friends rob you. Look around before getting out of your car if you get a flat, watch your gear closely, and don't allow anyone to help you.

The Cleaner

When you are walking down the street, a well dressed person will come up and help wipe off a smudge of dirt off your arm. What is actually happening is that they are wiping dirt on your arm, distracting you while the accomplice pickpockets you. Be wary of anyone touching you, there may be desensitizing you so you can be pick pocketed. Other variations are people helping you wipe off bird excrement, mustard, or lotion. One person reported that the helpers were innocent old ladies.

Colombian Brake Job

Helpful persons on the side of the road point out that one of your car wheels are leaking oil, and offer to replace the brake shoe and bushing. In fact, they spray oil on the wheel beforehand.

Border Fee Fakeout

Not only do you often need to deal with border officials who themselves are corrupt, there are people lurking at borders to take advantage of unwary travelers. In general do not give anyone money or your documents unless they are wearing a uniform or are displaying some sort of badge. If someone comes up to you with a sheaf of printed forms or tickets and tells you that you need to pay for something fishy like a 'parking fee' or a 'transit fee,' make sure they're legit. Ask a uniformed officer if you need to pay the fee before doing so.

Read more about how to avoid getting scammed by the police, and location specific police corruption

Wed, 12/15/2010 - 19:09
Anonymous (not verified)

Try dressing as a priest

The best way i know to not have to bribe corrupt police officers is to have "driving clothes" Everytime you are going to travel through sketchy or high risk areas, put on a priest or nun outfit........IT may sound funny......but in Latin America you would have to be a real big asshole to solicit a bribe from a priest.
-- Seth Allan Ames

Wed, 12/15/2010 - 19:10

How to avoid a scam

I have been living and driving around Latin America - started in Colombia 2 years ago headed for Argentina - for some time now and I have a much more hippy-type profiling for ploicemen and a method to avoid the naughty scams. Policemen, basically have two modes;mode one is agressive policamn - this is the one to evade rapidly and the second is nice Mr Helpful Policeman which is the guy you want to talk to. I used to hate being pulled over all the time and having to "blag" some story out and chew the fat with the babylon for 10 minutes befrore going on my way. But I found a way of avoiding even the 10 minute bullshit chat. ASK the policeman for help - either directions to get to a small town nearby (nothing too taxing!) or gas station or house where there is an illegal stash of gasolina! Works every time - without failure. It also helps if you have a good sense of humour and speak spanish...good luck!

Mon, 09/28/2015 - 10:05 (Reply to #2)

how to avoid a scam

Hello AfricanKillerBee.

what do you mean by telling the cop there is a "illegal stash of Gasolina"?

thanks, 

Sun, 02/27/2011 - 17:42
Anonymous (not verified)

#3 Official Pass Port Case.

We drove to Southern Mexico several times and each time my husband carried his passport in a cover that he received while in the mylitary - it has a big beautiful eagle on it.  When we got to check stations the policia would look at it and flag us on immediately with a semi salute. 

I think one can buy this Pass Port cover.  good luck - We will be making another trip to Central America via car April 2011. 

Tue, 03/15/2011 - 22:43 (Reply to #4)

Driving from California to Peru

I'm military retired too -- USAF.  I'll use that trick.  Thanks.  Do you have a specific advice you can give me about planning a trip from California to Peru?

Mon, 05/23/2011 - 12:45

Bribes and Scamming

Since arriving in Mexico a month ago we've been stopped twice by police attempting to get a bribe.  We genuinely don't speak Spanish (apart from a few words we're picking up as we go).  So the first time we managed to get out of the bribe with patiently not understanding what he was saying on our part as he gave up after about an hour.  He was on his own (the car he had been in had driven off) and he couldn't get his mobile phone to work to get a translater and when he did manage to get another phone he only got someone who barely spoke English.  The alleged offence was for driving in Mexico city on a day when we were not allowed to (because they have a smog law there banning certain number plates on certain days).  We knew we were not breaking the law so we were prepared to stick it out.  

The second time we were stopped was for allegedly not stopping at a pedestrian crossing.  The policeman told us it would cost us 3,000 pesos.  He had already ascertained we would be in Acapulco for only that day and so told us we would have to come back the next day to pay the fine (and get our licence back).  We'd actually only given him our out of date International Driving Licence so if we didn't get it back it wasn't a problem.  However when he said 3,000 pesos I gasped in genuine shock (I'd just drawn that exact amount from an ATM and it was our entire budget for a fortnight) and laughed loudly, which I then turned into some hysterical crying as I remembered reading a Drive the Americas story of doing the same thing.  The police took Paul to the back of the car and offered a deal.  In between sobs I mimed that if we had to pay 3,000 pesos I would not be able to eat for two weeks.  Paul said I was crying because we had no money.  After about 10 minutes he gave us the licence back and said he would let us off because we were tourists.

Our main experience so far has been border bribes in Central Asian countries.  Our tip for those has been to have patience.  When they ask to search the car at a border (in the hope of getting a bribe instead), just say 'where do you want us to go'?  Realising we had just done an illegal u-turn in Siberia, right in front of the police, we neatly pulled up in front of them and asked them for directions.  The told us we'd done an illegal u-turn but let us off when we managed to convince them it was so we could turn around to see them.  Stopped in Siberia again, this time we think for having a muddy car (the police do on the spot fines in Siberia for having dirty cars) we immediately asked them the way to the an hotel (which is what we were genuinely looking for).  So confused by their presence being welcomed they were temporarily speechless, then said to follow them.  No fine.

General tips - stay calm (sobbing aside), stay resolute, don't change your story, have patience, weigh up your time against the cost (it can easily take up to an hour to resolve these things without paying).   Be clear of your principles - either (a) corruption is wrong and avoid paying at all costs or (b) corruption is how it works here but I'll try and get away with paying as little as I can.

Some people believe that bribery and corruption is the way the local economy works.  We happen to believe it is an example of how it doesn't work - compared to local commercial exchanges bribes are large sums of money and end up in the hands of people who are both dishonest and untrustworthy whereas otherwise the same money could be fed into commercial enterprises of honest hardworking locals.

Thu, 08/30/2012 - 18:42

PETROL STATION SCAM MEXICO-Pemex

Always check that the meter is on zero before the PEMEX employee starts the fuel pump – and then watch him/listen to the pump!

This is how we were (almost) cheated: When we pulled up to the pump, the guy came over as usual but also another 3 guys came over from the other pumps, pretending to be interested in the car and asking us if we needed any help to find the road etc. Then, before charging any fuel, the pump guy said that unfortunately the machine printing the receipts was broken so he would not be able to print us a receipt with the amount of liters pumped and the cost. We said ok and told the guy to start pumping. As the guy started pumping we were distracted by the other guys who were looking inside the car, asking questions – all friendly but too much friendly! And suddenly the pump stopped and the pump guy said: I charged the 100 pesos you asked! We told him no, we asked a full tank. He said ah sorry, my mistake, and started again the pump. But in between, the pump had been zeroed so he had to add the first 100 pesos to the final bill. We paid and we left….but then we started thinking about the situation. We checked our fuel calculations on our computer (km vs fuel) and realized that it was impossible that the guy had charged us so many liters. He never charged fuel for the first 100 pesos! We were only 10 minutes down the road so we turned back and went to complain. The pump guy had left for lunch (with the 100 pesos!) but the other guys gave us back the 100 pesos after we in perfect Spanish told them what had happened, that I worked in Veracruz in the oil business and that a big PEMEX boss was a very good friend of me! Pay attention to Pemex gas stations!

Fri, 03/22/2013 - 16:22

border help

In several border check ins/check outs we encountered a complete lack of directions.  where do we go first?  immigration, car registration permits, insurance, fumigation?  where????  there are fellows wearing badges that will flag you down and offer you assistance for tips only.  they can be very helpful.  but do not give them your documents or money for fees.  instead GO WITH THEM and hand over your documents and pay the fee directly to the authority.  these assistance will fleece you otherwise.  a dollar for the man; a dollar in his pocket.

Sun, 03/22/2015 - 07:56

Avoid Norman Yelland

Do not hire Norman Yelland as your guide on a PanAm Hwy trip south of the USA.  He looks good on paper, but in reality was the worst traveling experience ever.  His itinerary is not flexible and there's no time to "stop and smell the roses" along the route, because he does not want to pay the money for pleasant camping places beyond roadside truck stops.  Horrible experience.  You'd be better off traveling by yourself.  The fee he charges is a total ripoff.

Thu, 04/06/2017 - 06:18

Avoid this thief in Panama city- KARLOZ

A warning about a crook in Panama city. He acts as if he would be a car mechanic and a car salesman. In reality he is a crook. Avoid any business with him.

His name is Karloz and he is from Colomba. Lives in the suburbs of Panama city. He will contact you in person to buy your car. He will promise payment before you leave, will wait till the day of your flight and never pay.

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