How Not to Get Robbed in Central America

Want to know our secret to not getting robbed while travelling in Central America and the rest of the world?

Everyone told us that as tourists, we would be obvious targets in Central America. People who had never even been to that part of the world all had horror stories and travel advice to share. From our safe, friendly and crime-free experiences in Asia, we knew to take their advice with a pinch of salt. But when we landed in San Jose, which is a jungle of razor wire and iron bars, it looked like they might be right…

Half a year later, after travelling around Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama, including trips to the big cities of Managua and San Jose, we’ve not been robbed. In fact, we’ve never felt remotely threatened or had anything taken from us yet. Why? Whilst you should always do your own research, here’s a rundown of “what worked for us” in avoiding becoming the victims of crime in Central America.

Luke in San Jose - Charlie on Travel

Lookin’ Scruffy

I’d like to pretend that looking scruffy is part of my masterplan, but the truth is, I’m just not that interested in spending a lot of time taking care of my appearance. I’m not a fan of waste or shopping, so I won’t buy new clothes until my old ones really wear out. I also have an irrational dislike of going to the hairdressers. Charlie doesn’t wear makeup or jewellery whilst we travel, as there’s really no place for it on the road. Needless to say, we look a bit of a state. But by happy chance, perhaps our appearance has repelled would-be robbers? We certainly don’t look like we have much worth stealing!

Luke walks streets of Granada Nicaragua - how not to get robbed - Charlie on Travel
Scruffy is just my style.

Keepin’ Our Wits About Us

From what I’ve seen, I’m convinced that a majority of robberies that take place in tourist towns couldn’t occur without one important lubricating factor: alcohol. When there are plenty of people who end the night unable to walk in a straight line, why would thieves bother with those who are more alert? Drink a sensible amount in public and carry on in private, if you feel like it. But if you have just got off the plane, it’s a good idea to hold off until you have a better idea of your surroundings. There’s a lot to be said for sharing a $4 bottle of wine in the safety of your hostel after all.

How not to get robbed - drink responsibly - Charlie on Travel
Drinking responsibly and in broad daylight, that’s how I roll.

A Careful Level of Caution…

We practise a number of good safety habits, which are second nature to us by now. Keep your cash in different places, so if one bag gets stolen, you’re not cleared out. Try not to flash your cash by keeping track of where your smaller notes are in your wallet. Hide passports and electronics under the mattress or inside the pillowcase if you don’t have access to a safe, and never leave valuables unattended in an unlocked room.

Don’t leave valuables unattended, or out of sight, at the beach or on the bus either. When it comes to buses, be aware that the driver might want you to make room by putting something on the roof. Make sure that anything that goes on the roof is something that you wouldn’t mind losing! Keep a separate bag with your valuables inside between your knees, and nothing will happen to it.

We are also wary about where we stay, an $8 dorm might seem like a good deal, but if they can’t provide a robust safe and there are people entering and exiting the building all night long, you haven’t exactly saved money if someone walks off with your laptop.

How not to get robbed - Sleeping in safe hostels - Charlie on Travel
The toilet broke in this hostel, but my laptop was secure – can’t have everything.

No Phones, No Problems

We don’t have a phone that could be stolen! It’s one way to minimise risk and thanks to our laptops and Skype, we can communicate with the rest of the world fairly seamlessly without having a phone. The electronics that we do carry are also fairly crime-proof. My laptop, though an expensive piece of kit, is unbranded and scratched to pieces, so it doesn’t look remotely valuable to the untrained eye. Not only that, but combined with the largest powerpack you’ve ever seen it weighs an absolute tonne. I’d like to see someone pick it up and try to make a speedy getaway. Charlie took the opposite approach with a laptop so light and cheap that stealing it would be absolutely pointless.

It’s also a good idea to not have brands that are obviously valuable. Apple products are great targets for thieves because the big Apple logo screams a hefty price tag and an easy onward sale. Same applies to your clothing and your watch, every thief knows that if you have Raybans on your face then you got money in your pocket too.

How not to get robbed - Charlie on Travel blogging in art cafe - Charlie on Travel
Such a cheap laptop that it’s not worth stealing.

Why we don’t have travel insurance…

If lottery tickets are an unofficial tax on those people that can’t do maths, then travel insurance is a tax on the overly fearful. For insurance companies to stay afloat, they have to take quite a bit more money than they pay out. In other words, travel insurance is not necessary for the vast majority of tourists.

Travel insurance may seem like a good deal, but keep a close eye on the small print. I nearly ended up paying £30 a month for insurance that wouldn’t cover my electronics! Excluding electronics, my entire bag is barely worth more than £30. When I enquired how much it would be to cover all my electronics, the total skyrocketed. I quickly worked out that my travel insurance payments would equal the value of my stuff in a little under five months. I decided against it and eight months of travel later my electronics are all still working fine – phew!

That being said, there are some rare cases where you might want to consider travel insurance. For example if you rent a car, motor insurance is must. If not being covered would leave you sleepless, then you’re not just paying for the cover, you are paying for the peace of mind and that’s worth having. I have friends and brothers that are just plain clumsy. They drop, lose or drown their phones at least three times a year. If you aren’t careful and you’re planning to party hard during your trip, then travel insurance instantly becomes a much better deal because the chances of breakages are that much higher.

Lukes broken nexus - Charlie on Travel
Broken devices suck, though on the plus side no one wants to steal something that’s broken.

Don’t let crime be part of your travel adventure!

I was a little hesitant to write this post because I didn’t want to contribute to a negative internet trend. When it comes to other people, we are far more likely to get online and rant about the one rare time we were a victim of crime than we are to mention the small acts of kindness that we experience everyday.

In Vietnam, we were warned that we were entering a country with the world’s greatest pickpockets and scam artists. To some extent this coloured our view of the place before we got there and we were distrustful of locals who were simply being friendly. At the end of our travels there, we had lost nothing of value*, except perhaps a chance of building more trusting relationships with some of the local people.

In short, we meet far more people on the road who help us rather than harm us. We are given extra helpings of food, just that little bit more smoothie, free desserts, useful advice, lifts down the road, discounts and even beds for the night too often to even count. The surprising truth about crime in our experience of Central America is that there’s so little, not that there’s so much.

How not to get robbed - Hmong Tribe in Sapa - Charlie on Travel (2)
This was our lovely trekking guide in Sapa.

If you are considering a trip abroad, don’t let an overblown fear of crime hold you back! At the risk of sounding like a hopeless dreamer, though one with years of travel experience under his belt to be fair, I suggest that if you are willing to open your eyes and see for yourself, then you’ll quickly find that there are more good people than bad out there.

*In the interests of total transparency, we did lose one (cheap) bracelet in Vietnam that may have been stolen, and one beer from a hostel fridge in Panama. Still not bad!

What’s your experience with crime when travelling? Do you have any other tips to share on how not to get robbed abroad?

Luke Nicholson

Luke is Charlie's partner and long-term travel companion. Though currently working as an online marketer, Luke is also a CELTA qualified ESL teacher, experienced house sitter and avid video gamer. He loves howler monkeys too.

11 thoughts to “How Not to Get Robbed in Central America”

  1. Great post and great advice. I think we were also super lucky in CA because, aside from my camera, it was pretty clear we were not traveling with money! I think the only places I really felt unsafe were in San Jose (seriously, why so sketch?!) and Guatemala City, but still – nothing happened!
    Polly recently posted…2014 Moscow Winter Clothing FundraiserMy Profile

    1. Hey Polly – thanks! Oh yeah, it makes such a difference if it doesn’t look like you’re carrying much money for sure. We definitely look that way, and also can’t withdraw more than £200 from an ATM at any one time anyway, so we’re actually never really carrying much at all. San Jose is so sketchy in places, such a shame, I’ve heard a lot of people say that about Guatemala City so am feeling a bit apprehensive about heading there (fingers crossed though!)

  2. Great tips guys and I totally agree with you, sometimes though no matter how hard you try to be careful and mix with the locals to not be an easy target, it might just happens like it would happen everywhere else, in our hometown or country.
    We had travel insurance at the beginning of our trip and it was not for the technology we carry with us, which is quite old and probably not worth a lot anyway, but it was mainly to be covered in case of health issues. In some countries hospital and medical care is very expensive so we thought it was worth to have travel insurance which thankfully we never needed to use it, but you’ll never know I guess.
    Franca recently posted…How To Travel Long Term On A BudgetMy Profile

    1. Oh yes, you’re completely right, there’s definitely a big element of chance going on too. We’re still very wary and know that we’ve also been lucky for the past 2 years to have not had any bad experiences while travelling. Realistically though, we know it could happen.

      Yes, we thought about organising travel insurance for health issues but just found that it was waaay too expensive and that we’d be better off paying the one-off amount we need to and flying right back to the UK for our NHS healthcare. We just hope that nothing will ever happen where that’s not an option!

    2. Yes – that’s a very good point about covering your medical bills. I was considering writing anther paragraph on that, but in the end I decided that when it comes to healthcare people are better off making their own decisions.

      I actually have hemophilia (a blood condition), which makes travel insurance pretty much prohibitively expensive for me. It’s much better that I carry my own medicine and take good care of myself rather than spend a fortune on something that I *might* not ever need. I also have Charlie to thank, because she gently reminds me not to climb on high things or jump off tall things without thinking – which sounds boring, but it’s really not as boring as the days spent recovering in hospital beds that I used to go through each year!

      Lastly – sorry to ramble – I have a confession: my mum took out medical insurance for me for my first month of travel in Costa Rica. I didn’t ask her to, but I also didn’t want to stop her as I know she worries less when I’m covered. Would I take out travel insurance if I didn’t have a supportive family that I could always return to back home, or if I had someone that was dependent on my income? I have to admit, it would be much more likely!

  3. Hi,
    We’ve been to Costa Rica this May and have also been to South East Asia. As we have a lot of equipment carrying with us (smartphones, tablet, cameras etc.) on our travels, we always try, exactly as you mentionned it, not to show all our stuff to the world…We’ve been to a hostel in La Fortuna (CR) where we had no safe at all. So we started to hide our belongings (values) all over the room and nothing has been stolen. In fact, we’ve been never victims of robbery, so far. Sometimes people just overreact with their fear of being robbed. We also made the experience that we could have made a lot more friends or get more in touch with the locals while skipping this fear and just be more open to everyone. Of course, you always have to judge for yourself if you can trust a person or not, but we’ve never made a bad experience so far. Happy travels! Tascha & Patrick
    Patascha recently posted…How can I avoid food poisoning during my travels?My Profile

    1. Hi Tascha & Patrick,

      Yes, definitely an essential part of being careful when travelling with expensive devices. We always hide our things, though I’m sure if someone really wanted to it would be super easy to steal them, nonetheless I think that not having everything on display if someone was to by chance have a peek through the window goes a long way!

      So glad to hear that you’ve also avoided robbery while travelling! Happy travels to you too!

  4. I think T-shirts with “Scruffy is my style” quote would sell massively well among the hipsterish community :)

    Most of the people warned me in the same way before traveling to India, however just like you, guys, I didn’t have anything stolen and had no health insurance (sorry, Mom).

    I wear really simple (and yeah, scruffy too) clothes when traveling and don’t care for jewelry or any other valuable things. Guess, it is one of the best strategies applicable anywhere in the world. Do not show off and you won’t be seen as an easy target. Another point, I have two credit cards kept separately just in case anything goes wrong with the primary one. It’s nice to know you won’t suddenly get cut off your funds :)
    Elena@Elena’s Travelgram recently posted…France Unknown: Introducing You To BesanconMy Profile

    1. Absolutely, having two credit/debit cards is essential! Between us Charlie and I have two, but if I was ever to travel on my own I’d certainly bring a back up. We met a lovely Austrian guy who was stranded in Leon due to someone in New York using his card fraudulently – and even if you’re not a victim of fraud, banks simply love to block cards that are used in multiple foreign countries.

    1. Hi John, thanks for stopping by and reading. That fear of being affected by crime etc is really difficult for a lot of people to overcome, but you’re right, you really need to be careful not to let that prevent you from incredible experiences. I hope everyone can find that balance somehow!

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