Travel Safety Warnings-Valid or Exaggerated?

I’m no stranger to foreign cities with bad reputations for being dangerous. When I studied abroad in Costa Rica during college I didn’t live at the beach or near a cloud forest. Rather I lived in San Jose, a nitty gritty urban jungle. Prior to traveling in Costa Rica, I had read some negative reports about crime ย there-vicious purse snatchings, muggings, express kidnappings (when an assailant kidnaps you and takes you to the nearest ATM where you are then forced to withdraw large sums of money)-all things that had left me feeling incredibly worried and paranoid. Once I arrived I was inundated with even more of these accounts, the most disturbing involving a foreign student like myself who was robbed and sexually assaulted at her host parents’ house by a neighbor who watched her comings and goings in order to time his crime just right.

My first host family’s home in Costa Rica was in a decent enough looking neighborhood (well, for Central America that is), but the actual house was anything but safe and secure. While there was a fence, it was barely taller than I am (around five feet so easily scalable), and the front door was anything but iron clad. I also slept on the ground floor facing the street and if you know me, I have an intense paranoia of sleeping on the ground floor of any domicile. When I changed host families about a month later, I moved to a much more secure house, one whose gate (most houses in San Jose have gates due to the large number of robberies) was entirely too high to scale. Also, it had not one but two doors that a wolf most certainly would not have been able to blow down. As for San Jose, the scariest moment I ever encountered there was not walking the streets by myself or returning home in the evening, but rather at the end of a cab ride outside of my host family’s house in the early afternoon. The taxi driver told me that I owed more than what appeared on the maria (San Jose cab drivers are infamous for not wanting to start the maria or sometimes claiming it wasย roto-broken). When I attempted to say this to him, he became instantly menacing and started to say all sorts of unflattering things to me. Not knowing if he was armed or even mentally unstable, I paid him what he wanted and quickly exited the taxi. I thought to myself that haggling over some colones (Costa Rica’s form of currency) was not worth getting caught up into a potentially dangerous situation.

I’ve written countless times before about Mexico City, a place with one of the largest populations in the world and also a city that I feel that unfairly receives a bad reputation year after year. When I travel I never traverse in bad areas and so I can’t speak to Mexico City’s dangerous barrios (neighborhoods). And yet, in the United States, how many tourists go deep into the heart of the Bronx, where there are nothing but run down housing projects and derelict streets? In Rio de Janiero, how many tourists venture into a favela (slum neighborhood), without an organized tour for protection? The same can be said for innumerable cities around the world that have abnormally large populations. As a visiting tourist to Mexico City on three different occasions, I never felt unsafe, even when traveling on the subway near midnight following an RBD concert at the city’s Palacio de Deportes arena.

As for places to travel to next year, I’ve often considered Ecuador as it’s one of the least expensive flights to South America from the United States. In addition, it looks like it would have a lot to offer to visitors including the capital city of Quito. It has one of the least altered and best preserved historic centers in the Americas. However, it also has a reputation as being an incredibly dangerous place, even in areas frequented by tourists such as the Old Town, home to the city’s colonial and Republican/Independence era architecture, dating as far back as the 16th century. Sadly, it’s not just random travel forums where I’ve read these reports. I recently borrowed the Moon guidebook to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands and the author’s advice on caution and safety in Quito is a bit intimidating-“Quito has rising crime rates, and although you shouldn’t be alarmed, bear in mind that there is more crime against visitors here than in any other region of Ecuador.” I’ve read on some travel boards that visitors should not carry around a large camera but rather a smaller, less conspicuous one (i.e. a point and shoot type that can fit into one’s pocket, but not necessarily what a serious photographer enjoys using). I’ve also seen people claiming Quito to be one of the most dangerous cities in Latin America, surpassing even a place like Bogota, which mildly surprised me. A co-worker traveled to Ecuador last year and while she and her fiance had no issues while there, not to mention an overall great time, her precautions left me slightly leery, especially her saying that what we consider in the United States to be a small purse/bag, is considered a “prime target.”

Pictures I’ve seen of Quito look stunning, the true epitome of a beautifully preserved Spanish colonial city. I know that the tourism sector clearly wants to increase the number of visitors to Quito; the September 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler featured a full page advertisement on the capital, complete with persuasive text and accompanying images to make you want to come and visit.

There are cities that I know are dangerous-Kabul, Baghdad, Mogadishu. Then there are cities I know have dangerous areas but should not be written off entirely. I’m sure Quito falls into the latter category. While I fully subscribe to the belief that the best experiences in traveling are had upon stepping outside of one’s comfort zone, the droves of safety warnings on Quito, “el peligroso” (Quito, the dangerous one) has me wondering. Is the negative hype just another Mexico City or San Jose? Or is it valid?


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  • Reply
    October 16, 2012 at 1:42 am

    Very interesting about Quito…a former student of mine is traveling through South America working on coffee farms to earn his keep at various host homes. His first couple of days were alone in Quito. Long story short, he met a seemingly nice family hiking (they even had small kids) who invited him out to dinner. They drugged his food, robbed him and left him out of it in the middle of Quito at night. Thankfully, police found him and got him back to his hotel. This could have had such a horrible ending, and all who know him are thankful he is safe. But…Quito is dangerous. Especially for a young, trusting traveler who is going it alone!

  • Reply
    the red headed traveler
    October 16, 2012 at 2:04 am

    Ahh, just what I did not want to hear when trying to plan next year’s vacation! On a more serious note I know that even in what are considered the safest of cities, people of the lowest “pecking order” still exist. That’s terrible about what happened to your former student but thankfully he was okay! One can only imagine travelers like him who did not make it out intact when caught up in a terrible situation. To me it’s sad though that low life individuals like that give a city or a country such a bad reputation when obviously there still exist plenty of good people.

  • Reply
    October 16, 2012 at 4:58 am

    We didn’t find Quito too bad. But we didn’t go out alone at night and we pre-read about where to stay. I regret not spending more time in Equador based on people’s opinions (who had traveled there before). Every time we get asked “Isn’t it dangerous there?” my husband loves to reply around Ivan Milat and the backpack kidnappings (and murders) in Sydney. It can happen any time, any where but you can’t sit at home and not experience things. Travel smart, be careful after dark and talk to others who have been there before (and there is always someone!).

  • Reply
    the red headed traveler
    October 16, 2012 at 9:28 pm

    For me, nightlife isn’t a big draw (I’m usually too tired at the end of the day from all the touring I did to paint the town red) and so between that and now as an adult and having ample funds to not have to stay in sketchy neighborhoods, I’m sure Quito is just like any other big city. And yes, hearing firsthand experiences from someone about a destination is definitely the best travel prep you can have.

  • Reply
    January 17, 2015 at 10:25 am

    I am travelling to Colombia and Ecuador next month. Previously, I have been to Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo, Rio and Mexico City. 95% of the time, I felt safe and never at threat in all these cities (touch wood!). There was one time a taxi driver rippedme off in Buenos Aires. In Sao Paulo at night there were some guys in a pick up truck were yelling and laughing a sinister laugh at me while driving by (!). And I did see a homeless man try to carjack a car at night in Sao Paulo, but the drivers drove away ( your allowed to drive through red lights in SP at night, long as its safe to do so. This is to avoid a car jacking. Apart from the SP experiences, everything went smoothly. Before leaving for these plqces, I did some pre planning. I read up on what areas to avoid ( in lonely planet). I also withdrew money in the daytime at a busy ATM, i never carried a bag, wallet, watch, any jewelery, etc. i just had some cash for the day in my pocket. I stayed in busy areas, and didnt venture out too much at night. If i did, i stayed near the hotel and kept to busy streets. For me, it was well worth going to these places!

    • Reply
      January 19, 2015 at 9:08 am

      Thanks for commenting Evren. It sounds like you’ve had a vast array of experiences in Latin America (like me) and never really had any issues due to always practicing common sense. I’m the same way-I don’t really go out at night too much because in my case, I’m too tired from having toured all day ๐Ÿ™‚ I hope that you have a wonderful time in Colombia and Ecuador-those are two countries I would love to visit one day!

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