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.
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.
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.