During the two weeks I was in South America, I managed to have a quick, good trip without any incidents of pickpocketing, or mugging.
Petty theft around Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires isn’t out of the ordinary. I didn’t see any incidents, but I did meet several people who themselves had been victims once I got to Buenos Aires.
Four people at my hostel got robbed while they were in Buenos Aires, only one was somewhat violent – a guy got wrestled to the ground for his iPhone, but onlookers interceded and scared the thief away.
Flashing expensive gadgets in public and looking like a clueless tourist with money to lose will obviously will make you any easy pick. However, there are ways to avoid making yourself a target.
Do as locals do. As I walked down the streets of Buenos Aires, especially down the crowded Florida street, I realized that nearly all of the local ladies were wearing their purses crossbody, with one hand securing it in place. In Rio, my Brazilian friend NEVER wore a purse, but always kept her cash in her front pockets. She never brought more than what she’d need for that particular outing.
When you get lost, fake it, and duck into a hotel to ask for directions. Hopelessly lost, I BS’ed my way around Congreso Plaza with backpack, daypack in tow for a solid 20 minutes before I stumbled across a hotel. It wasn’t MY hotel, mind you, but I knew if I smiled sweetly at the man behind the front desk, he would have no choice but to at least point in the direction of Avenida de Mayo, where my hostel was located. It worked. Although stumbling around hopelessly for 20 minutes felt like an eternity, I never appeared flustered, nor did I pull out a map in exasperation.
If you’re paranoid like me but despite money belts, make a hidden pocket. Jasmine of Jasmine Wanders offered a great, cheap tip: take a small, drawstring pouch and a large safety pin. Put money or credit cards inside, and then pin the pocket to the inside of your jeans or skirt. When I wore a dress, I slid the entire pouch in the bra area of my dress. (Obviously, it was a little more noticeable when I was trying to hide a credit card, ha!)
Don’t be afraid to ask for help – but be smart with who you ask. Opting for the $2.50 bus ride as opposed to an $80 cab ride, I found myself wandering around aimlessly for the specific bus stop I needed. After checking all the bus stops, and not finding the one for my bus line, I spotted a middle-aged lady who I judged to be American. She was more than willing to help, and she even gave me a heads up to use coins for the bus, rather than bills.
Read up on scams. It’s only a scam if you’re ignorant! A popular scam in Buenos Aires is the “distraction” technique, and it comes in many variations. Someone approaches you, asking for directions in broken English, only you recognize their accent is very thick, and Argentinian. As you try to wrap your brain around why they’re asking you, an accomplice to the lost person reaches into your bag that you’re not watching and darts away before you realize it (this exact scam happened to a couple staying at my hostel). Be wary of anyone who suddenly invades your personal space, distracting you. Also, watch out for suddenly having a mysterious mustard/”bird dropping” land on your purse/backpack – this is another distraction scam – someone will magically appear and offer to “help you”, but really, they want to make off with your bag!
Finally – be normal, and don’t let your guard down. Just as you wouldn’t prance around with wads of cash in your hand through your hometown, don’t do it in foreign places. Be aware of your surroundings, but also recognize no one’s invincible: don’t bring anything with you that you can’t afford to lose.