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7 Ways Not to Get Robbed in South America

Posted in: Ecuador Travel, Living in Ecuador, Our Perspective, Our Travels

Update (June 8, 2014): Bryan and I were robbed in Cuenca. Here is our experience – and what you can do to avoid it.

By following these suggestions, we have been able to avoid being victimized by criminals and we feel relatively safe living here. While visiting Cuenca many tourists comment that they actually feel safer here than they do in their home countries.

We also feel safer here than we did when we lived in the States.  We rarely hear of violent crimes involving guns here and we do not see drug dealers or gangs hanging out on every corner.

We have taken following common sense measures to reduce our risk of being victimized by criminals:

  1. We avoid walking the streets at night and we especially avoid the center of town after dark. According to reports in the local papers, the majority of assaults occur in certain parts of the center and near the airport and bus terminal. We know many expats who frequent the center of town at night to enjoy public events such as free concerts and they have never reported to us any problems with crime, but we prefer to stay indoors at night for the most part, just to be on the safe side.  If we do decide to go out at night we call a radio taxi company and avoid hailing a random taxi on the street. We do not take buses after dark.
  2. When we visit the center of town during the day, we always try to be aware of anyone suspicious who may be following us and we never use ATMs located on the street.  It is safer to use banks and ATMs located in malls or shopping centers where one can easily get lost in a store for a while after taking out money.
  3. dont-get-robbedWe try to avoid being easy targets for criminals. For example, we do not wear expensive jewelry and we keep our wallets in our front pockets and the females in our family keep their purses clutched close to their bodies and in sight at all times. We do not carry large amounts of cash and have even resorted to carrying “mug money” in a separate wallet. I carry my debit card and cash in a travel wallet that fits inside my pants so that it is impossible for a pickpocket to rob me. A pickpocket would have to undress me to get to my wallet and I think that I’d notice that.  Some think that it is extreme to wear a hidden wallet, but I’ve never lost my important documents or bank cards using that method. The U.S. Embassy web site advises visitors to carry copies of their passports and to store the originals in a safe place. I cringe when I see foreign visitors with their passports or wallets protruding from their back pockets.
  4. We don’t use expensive electronics in public places. We use inexpensive cell phones that do not attract attention. We also keep our phones tucked safely in an interior coat pocket or in a front pant pocket.
  5. We are cautious if someone approaches us on the street asking for directions or to borrow a pen.  Thieves often work in teams and try to distract an unsuspecting person while the accomplice approaches to snatch valuables.
  6. We have tried to rent houses equipped with security measures such as burglar bars and alarm systems. Also, living on a well lit street is never a bad idea. We sometimes leave lights on in certain rooms when we have to leave the house at night to give the impression that someone is home. We also try to get to know our neighbors.  A watchful neighbor is sometimes the best defense against break-ins.  We hide our valuables, such as computers and important documents, in hard to reach places in the house just in case someone is successful in breaking in. If someone does enter our house we are not going to make it easy for them to rob us.  The presence of an attentive, barking dog also can serve to dissuade a potential burglar.
  7. We have made an effort to learn Spanish and develop friendships with native Ecuadorians. This has served us well as a security measure because in comparison with the expats, the native Cuencanos are much more aware of where the crime prone areas of town are and are happy to share that information with you, provided you can understand Spanish.  If you plan on living in Ecuador, it is good to get out of the “expat bubble” and try to cultivate friendships with natives.  I have heard that some expats feel that it is not that important to learn Spanish, but if you want to be more fully integrated into the community and be able to keep up with current criminal trends, being able to read and speak Spanish proficiently is a big help. Being able to converse fluently in Spanish has helped us not feel isolated and helpless. We know that should the need arise, we can pick up the phone and call the police, ambulance or close friends who can come to our aid in the event of an emergency.

There is no paradise in this world and there are criminals regardless of where you choose to live. Every country has its problems and Ecuador is no exception.

What I can tell you is that right now, the incidence of crime in Cuenca seems to be less in comparison with other major cities in Ecuador.

When we read the reports of violent crimes committed on a regular basis in the States, we often comment that we are glad to be living in Ecuador and not in the U.S.

Of course when we lived in the U.S. and heard daily news reports of violent crimes and murders, we became used to it and were not affected that much.  We never considered leaving the States or moving to another area to avoid crime. We just took all the necessary safety precautions and went about with our daily routine.

We do the same here and are able to lead a relatively safe and calm life.  I think that is about the best we can expect regardless of where we live in this world.

This is a guest post by an American expat living in Cuenca since 2007. 

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Meet the Author

Dena Haines is co-editor of GringosAbroad - Ecuador's largest blog for expats and travelers. She is a travel blogger and content marketer. She is also co-founder of ClickLikeThis (GoPro tutorial blog) and Storyteller Media (content marketing for travel brands). Work with GringosAbroad.

20 comments… add one
  • TerryDarc Jun 15, 2014, 7:06 pm

    Great suggestions, Bryan!
    Rule #1 if you can’t afford to lose it, don’t take it. I always put money more than $20, say, into my waste wallet and carry “mug money” as you suggest. My credit cards go in there and I never carry my passport unless it’s out of the airport to my hotel. There, I am at risk. I always carry a color copy of my passport and every hotel or whatever accept that without fail.

    Rule #2- Never let out of your sight AND contract anything you’d like not to lose – like your daypack. Don’t put it under the table or any distance away. Put it on the table or wrap it around your leg. If you have to leave it in the market or store in a locker, don’t put anything inside it.

    Rule #3 – I’ve got two cameras. One on a waste pouch that I can afford to lose. The other for trips only comes out on trips and I carry it with me. Computer? Ditto.

    Thanks for the other advice, Bryan. It’s a big help.

  • dancebert Apr 26, 2014, 11:58 pm

    Excellent blog, it’s answered many of my questions about Cuenca and Ecuador.

    FYI – you often use the verb ‘rob’ to describe theft or burglary. Rob means to take by force or threat of force. It presents an inaccurate picture in your posts on crime.

    • Bryan Haines May 2, 2014, 6:35 pm

      Actually rob doesn’t always mean by force. According to Merriam Webster “rob” is defined as: “to take money or property from (a person or a place) illegally and sometimes by using force, violence, or threats”.

      And what makes you think that violent crime doesn’t exist in Ecuador? We were robbed at gunpoint / knifepoint a couple of years ago, in Cuenca.

  • Stewart Feb 11, 2014, 7:46 am

    Not sure about the parks in Cuenca, but in Quito it’s definitely different than in Florida where we’re from.

    I have a cousin that goes jogging around Parque de La Carolina at 5:30am with friends, and the park next
    to my work, “Parque El Ejido” has a sign on a post that says “Siteo Seguro” meaning safe place.
    At work they made a joke saying it’s only safe if you’re holding on to the post.

    These are city parks which are really different from residential neighborhood parks, still we don’t let our
    kids just, “go to the park” in the neighborhood. If they go it’s with an adult. Still they haven’t gone at all.

    In the urban parks there are police patrolling the streets along the perimeter which is usually safe, but
    still follow all the precautions listed above.

    Good ideas.

  • Kevin Feb 9, 2014, 2:22 pm

    Great article and info re crime and comments from all are very good. I lived in Ireland for 20 years and all the precautions suggested by Dena are also valid there, especially in Dublin, Cork, Galway and Limerick (Stab City in the local vernacular :))
    I’m really looking forward to heading down to Ecuador study Spanish for three months starting in September. I’m currently using the Pimsleur Method but realize I have to live the language to get it.

  • David Akins Jan 28, 2013, 6:22 am

    Doug/Bryan, basically everything you said to do as a precaution, I do when I am in Jacksonville, Florida, Atlanta, Georgia, Miami, Florida, or Rome, Georgia (my home growing up). Some may not take such precautions in the U.S., but I feel they are experiencing a false sense of security. I have an advantage, even though 60 years old, of being 6’4-1/2″, 245 lbs without much fat on me (I workout 16 hours per week of fairly intense exercises), former Marine and am normally a foot taller than most Ecuadorians, it is wise to always be ‘aware of one’s surroundings’. When traveling (exploring) other towns that I have not visited, I prefer having at least one other couple (safety in numbers) with my wife and myself. I can only advise others to not slide into that false sense of security. The practice of being ‘aware of one’s surroundings’ becomes a habit after at while and does not distract from exploring new places. When in the U.S., I have one further measure that I take that I don’t in Ecuador. In the U.S., I have a concealed weapons permit and take advantage of the constitutional right to bear arms. If that right is repealed in the U.S., I will probably not return to my home country for a visit.

  • Robert Dec 31, 2012, 10:00 am

    The U.S. sucks ! Period ! Anyone that thinks the U.S. to be a viable option for someone to lead a safe lifestyle must have voted for Obama . All I can see is someone trying to convince people to stay where they will no doubt become a victim of violent crime at some point . Just because you are unable or unwilling to leave the U.S. cesspool , please do not try and take innocents down with you . Once again , the U.S. sucks , unless you are a criminal !!

  • Bruce Apr 9, 2012, 2:34 pm

    Thanks for the great information Doug. I have read a lot of your posts and enjoy them all. In reponse to Andrew Hibbert I would take the very small risk that my kids might be abducted in Ecuador than have them shot in a US school. Consider these, and they are just since 2010.

    Feb 22, 2012: Armin Jahr Elementary School
    Jan 04, 2012: Cummings Middle School
    Oct 24, 2011: Cape Fear High School
    Apr 26, 2011: Miami Norland Senior High School
    Feb 02, 2011: Louisiana Schnell Elementary School
    Jan 18, 2011: Gardena High School
    Jan 05, 2011: Millard South High School
    Nov 29, 2010: Marinette High School
    Oct 25, 2010: Payne Elementary School
    Oct 11, 2010: Armijo High School
    Oct 08, 2010: Kelly Elementary School
    Oct 03, 2010: Mid-Atlantic Christian University
    Sep 28, 2010: University of Texas at Austin
    Sep 21, 2010: Socastee High School
    Sep 16, 2010: St. Theodore Holy Family School
    Sep 07, 2010: Las Cruces High School
    Sep 07, 2010: Mumford High School
    Aug 18, 2010: Burke High School
    May 18, 2010: South Gate High School
    Apr 28, 2010: Woodrow Wilson High School
    Mar 09, 2010: Ohio State University
    Feb 26, 2010: Birney Elementary School
    Feb 23, 2010: Deer Creek Middle School
    Feb 19, 2010: Northern Illinois University
    Feb 12, 2010: University of Alabama
    Feb 10, 2010: Inskip Elementary School
    Feb 05, 2010: Discovery Middle School
    Jan 20, 2010: Livingston High School
    Jan 07, 2010: Esperanza Community Collegial Academy

    Then on top of those are the ones with multiple deaths:
    2007-04-16: Virginia Tech – 33 fatalities Blacksburg, VA
    1999-04-20: Columbine High School – 15 fatalities Littleton, CO
    2005-03-21: Red Lake High School – 8 fatalities Red Lake, MN

    In response to David Swain, before you get all upset about a single “horrific story” about an elderly lady in Ecuador, try looking at the daily news in the US. For example: 3 shot dead at Minn. day care; Tulsa shooting suspects Jake England and Alvin Watts arrested in connection with Friday’s shooting spree that left three dead and two wounded; seven people are dead and three are injured after a gunman entered a classroom at an independent university in Oakland this morning and opened fire; arrest of four suspects for the senseless killing of three young convenience store employees during an armed robbery; and Quebec man, 76, shot and killed in Florida.

    If you really want to compare countries such as Ecuador with the US then try looking at the UN statistics for 7 major crime categories around the world. Adding the incidences per 100,000 population together Ecuador scores about 106, Canada about 531, and the USA about 1206. Looking at the numbers I would rather live in Ecuador where there is only about 8 percent of the crime the US has. It’s a lot safer.

  • Andrew Hibbert Feb 8, 2012, 2:13 pm

    So let me get this straight: in order to save a few hundred bucks a month, folks should consider relocating to a foreign country where HVAC is not common, it is considered dangerous to be out after dark and if you do go out, you’re likely to have your house or apt burgled, car & bus drivers are reckless, taxi drivers conspire with hoodlums to rob you, money & other common items carried in a wallet must be hidden, the police & other officials are corrupt, a complicated & confusing legal system, you must speak fluent Spanish in order not to be taken advantage of and must bargain down inflated gringo prices on a daily basis; I’m sorry, what’s so good about Ecuador? For most potential expatriates, the foregoing list which doesn’t contain anywhere near all of the pitfalls and dangers, would be enough to more than offset any of the savings and advantages that exist. Most of these negatives exist in any country, except that in a country like Ecuador, an expat from the US or Canada is much more likely to be identified & victimized just because of their appearance, lack of communication skills, and perceived wealth. The weather is much better than Canada, but there are many places in the US that are both cheap to live and have good weather such as Arizona and Florida.

    All this being said, the information contained in this blog is very helpful and balanced for the most part.

    • Jim Cohoon Feb 8, 2012, 3:48 pm

      Interesting reply Andrew. As I try to make sense of it, I sit here at my computer enjoying a thunder storm and thinking about how much I enjoy many different things here in Ecuador. Florida has nice weather but it is a very expensive place to live if you have kids and the wages are noticably low there. I can’t comment on Arizona. I gotta wonder if maybe your interpretation of the comments here is a little overblown. Even after being robbed of necklace our daughter was back in Centro and yesterday my wife and two daughters were in Centro and were targeted(being followed). But they responded properly and the guy lost interest. It’s just a different way of life, I life I consider much superior to the life we had in Canada.

      • Andrew Hibbert Feb 8, 2012, 9:50 pm

        Jim, I respect your decision to expat to Ecuador or any other country of your choosing. I just don’t think that most people in your position realize that once victimized in a third world country, you will be further victimized by the unavailability of redress in either the criminal or civil systems of a country like Ecuador. Most crimes (unless very serious) go without follow-up or prosecution. Don’t even think of suing another party for damages. These things become very expensive tradeoffs for $200 apartments and $100 grocery bills.

        Further, people that relocate to other countries should do so because they really love the culture of that country and plan to assimilate and contribute to it. I have read almost no comments on this blog about close Ecuadorian friends, or how people have joined clubs or associations. What I read about is a lot of people afraid to ride buses or go out of their homes, language and cultural barriers, and home schooling of children. Trust me, I wouldn’t send my child to a school where s/he could easily be abducted, either. Loss of freedom and fear are not worth lots of spring-like days and cheap apartments that have multiple gates and bars on the windows (at least to most people).

        No one has mentioned or seems to care that the government of Ecuador, while currently stable, has a long history of instability and military coups. Three presidents prior to Correa were forced to resign (1997, 2000, 2005) to avoid widespread protests from becoming government overthrows. Police and the military clashed in 2010, less than two years ago. The Constitution is less than five years old, with many unresolved conflicts and many clauses remain unimplemented. I doubt many expats in Ecuador know these facts.

        All I’m saying is that there are many issues besides weather and cheap rooms/eats that everyone should consider before relocating. You can’t learn or experience all you need to know even if you spend two or three months before moving. In other words, have an exit strategy.

        • Jim Cohoon Feb 8, 2012, 11:05 pm

          Well said Andrew. I mean that will all due respect. Currently we have close Ecaudorian friends. We were victimized in Ecuador and will continue to be victimized as long as we choose to spend time in certain areas of Cuenca, such as the Centro area. But we are perfectly safe in our residential area, and no, it’s not a Gringo gated community. As for riding buses, no, we are not afraid, except for those blasted coastal guys who dress up as clowns. For the most part and I mean the most part, Ecuadorians are excellent people to be around…. even on buses. I wish could go out of my home more, but lately I’m working a lot, when I’m not working I am not afraid of 99% of Cuenca. Regarding $200 rent and $100 grocery bills, no, that’s not our reality. We pay under $300 for rent and about $15 per day for groceries for our family of 4.

          And yes, we really, really love the culture here. But many may not embrace it as we and other Gringos have. We’re not special. In my case I am just not interested in most of the North American culture and life style. So far we’re doing great, or doing O.K with some things.

          I think your post is very valid and applies to many, many North Americans.

          As for military coups….I don’t have much to say. Your comment on having an exit strategy is very good. In my case, I trust my Ecuadorian friends implicitly.

  • Jim Cohoon Jan 30, 2012, 9:19 am

    Don’t wear gold.
    Our daughter got robbed of a small gold locket she got from her grandmother. I stood there and watched her put it on before leaving the house without thinking about what she was doing, she admitted later she never thought about it either. We never wear gold in public. She got off the bus on Calle Larga and a epileptic alcoholic grabbed it off her neck. They caught the guy fairly quickly, but the locket was not found. It should be noted this thief was at a point of desperation. When being interrogated at the police station they had to give him some alcohol to keep him from going into “the shakes” as they say. And because of humanitarian laws he cannot be imprisoned as the theft was under $500.

  • Jim Cohoon Oct 9, 2011, 9:20 pm

    Wow, it’s been awhile since I’ve heard anyone reference Greenwood, Nova Scotia! hometown as a kid. Anyways, I pretty much follow all of the advice above except for bringing out my Ipod to read the map or check my notes for addresses etc. I guess I figure if they’re big enough to take it from me they can have it. Aside from that, I’m keeping it. We’ve been in Cuenca just under 3 months and my non sugar coated review would be that I don’t like many of the taxi drivers and most of the bus drivers and the bad driving habits of Ecuadorians in Cuenca. But that’s about it. And really those issues are mostly culture shock issues. I’ll get over it in time. But I will say this, I have every intention of staying in Ecuador. It is a much nicer place to live than the places I’ve lived in Canada. I love living in Ecuador as does my family.

  • David Swain Aug 30, 2011, 3:23 am

    I have been researching Equador as a possible place to live for the past 8 months and have read many website about how wonderful it is in Equador but nowhere has there been any mention of how bad the crime is and that it is on the increase! I have just read a horrific story of a 69yr old woman attacked in Otavalo days later in Cuenca she was assaulted and her camera and bag was stolen whilst walking in Calle Larga at 6pm and the police were not interested, finally on the bus back to Quito to catch an early flight home she was robbed on the bus!! also read ” Equador emerges as hub for international crime ”
    It seems as if everyone is sugar coating the life in Equador.

    • Bryan Haines Sep 6, 2011, 6:47 pm

      Hi David,

      As you commented about the “only positive” spin you’ve noticed, you need to balance that with some “only negative” posts too. Some people can only see one side. As you will notice on our blog, we discuss the realities of life here. There is crime, and bizarre things do happen. As they do in every country. In small towns outside of Cuenca, the locals talk about the increase of crime. In the small town of Greenwood, Nova Scotia (Canada) where we are from, the “locals” (my old neighbors) also talk about the increase of crime. In both small towns, there are armed robberies, assaults, drugs and stolen cars. But more in my hometown then here in Ecuador. If someone thinks Ecuador is unique, they only need to pickup their local hometown paper and see what goes on just down the street.

      Because of being either naive, arrogant or stupid some foreigners create a higher risk of crime for themselves – by flashing cash, electronics or other signs of wealth. But this attitude can create problems in any country – not just Ecuador.

      I would love to hear your feedback. We work hard not to sugar coat life in Ecuador.


  • elmonica Mar 29, 2011, 11:43 am

    Some Good Advise.

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