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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?