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Bolivia has a slightly unfair rep for being a dangerous place to travel. Many people imagine South America, particularly the poorer Andean nations, as being akin to the wild west – a violent and lawless wasteland. These preconceptions are entirely unfounded, as Bolivia is a relatively safe country to visit. However, there are some precautions a traveler can take to reduce the likelihood of running into trouble.
Violent crime is far less prevalent in Bolivia than it is in neighboring countries such as Brazil, Peru and Argentina. If proper precautions are taken, the chances of being mugged or worse are really quite slim. Most assaults happen at night when there are no witnesses, so when the streets start to empty out it’s best to jump in a taxi. A typical taxi ride costs just a couple of dollars so there really is no excuse to be wandering around deserted streets at night.
Petty theft is by far the biggest crime committed against tourists in Bolivia. While robbers can be quite crafty, a little common sense and awareness will avoid almost all attempts at relieving you of your belongings. Pay particular attention to scams involving theft by distraction. A typical scenario will entail the victim suddenly becoming dirty with accidentally spilled food or drink. A ‘friendly’ local will offer to help clean up the mess while an accomplice swoops in and pickpockets the wallet of the distracted victim. If you find yourself unexpectedly covered in something, simply guard your belongings and move away as quickly as possible.
The other common petty theft strategy is a robber running past, snatching an item of value and bolting away at lightning speed. Always ensure expensive cameras and backpacks are strapped to a body part to deter would-be-thieves. A common variation occurs in restaurants and cafés, where easily distracted diners need look away for just a second while their bags are snatched away from underneath their seat. Again, when dining in crowded restaurants keep valuables safely inside your pockets and bags wrapped around a limb.
The taxi industry in Bolivia is unregulated, meaning anyone can put a taxi sign on their windshield and pick up passengers at will. These unregulated drivers are mostly hardworking, honest people, but unfortunately some have been known to kidnap passengers to extort them for money. For this reason, it’s always advisable to take a regulated taxi with a sign on the roof indicating their company name and phone number. Better yet, get your hotel to call one for you or send for an Uber.
A common scam that has long existed in Bolivia (and elsewhere) is the fake policeman routine. A local will approach you claiming to be undercover police and request that you show identification or consent to a search. They will then plant drugs or accuse you of some other crime and insist on joining them in an unmarked car en route to the nearest police station. In reality, Bolivian police are aware of this scam and are under strict instructions not to bother tourists unless they are in danger or clearly committing a crime. If you are approached by dubious police, simply refuse to comply and make a scene. The scammers will disappear in no time.
You don’t have to dress like a hobo on purpose, but take it easy on the flashy brand name clothing and expensive looking jewelry. Combined with your obvious gringo looks, dressing up makes you a prime target for opportunistic thieves.
Tourism is poorly regulated in Bolivia so some companies try to maximize profits by compromising on safety. When selecting a tour company – especially for adventure tourism – always go for one with a tried and tested safety record. The best operators tend to be recommended in major travel guides and receive consistently good online reviews. Reputable companies in Bolivia include Kanoo Tours, Nick’s Adventures Bolivia (travel agencies), Gravity Bolivia (mountain biking) as well as Red Planet and Tupiza Tours (Salar de Uyuni), among others.