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Travel Safety in Developing Countries

Posted May 03 2010 6:00am
Many of our guides spend a great deal of time traveling in developing nations. As tourists with expensive climbing and photography equipment, we are definitely seen as targets. Most of us who have spent significant amounts of time in South America or Asia have encountered some petty crime.

We spend time in cities as well as in open camps near the mountains. Each of the two environments have their own circumstances. In order to be safe and avoid theft, one must "follow the rules" in each of these environments. Following is a list of precautions that should be undertaken in any foreign environment:
  1. Many guides make a photocopy of their passports and carry it around the city. They put the passport itself in a hotel safe that they feel comfortable with.

  2. Use a money belt or money necklace. If you don't feel comfortable with the hotel safe, carry your passport in the money belt/necklace.

  3. When you first arrive in a country, be sure that you know what the currency looks like. One of our guides was once given change in play money shortly after he got off the plane in Bolivia.

  4. If you elect to wear a small backpack around the city, place luggage locks on the zippers. In crowds, wear the backpack on the front of your body so that you can see it. People will often try to open zippers when you are still. In extreme cases they may even attempt to cut open the bottom of the pack with a knife.

  5. As ATMs become more popular throughout the world, it has become easier to obtain money in developing countries with a debit card. This keeps one from carrying massive amounts of cash or hard-to-convert travelers checks. If you do choose to go this route, talk to your bank first. They may give you a list of "safe" ATMs in a city. If you don't have such a list, make sure that you use an ATM attached to a bank and be sure that you are aware of your surroundings before putting your card into the machine. Do not use a machine if there are any suspicious characters around.

  6. Beware of fake police and fake taxis. If someone flashes you a badge and then wants to see your money, be suspicious. If a taxi doesn't have appropriate documentation in the window, be suspicious.

  7. No matter how much you trust it, do not leave expensive items out in your hotel room.

  8. Do not wear expensive looking jewelry in public.

  9. You may choose to wear a "decoy wallet." In other words, you have a wallet that distracts a potential thief from going for the real thing. Never put your wallet in your back pocket. Even zippered pockets can be opened or cut by experienced thieves.

  10. Women should try not to respond to local men that approach them for no apparent reason in foreign countries, especially in patriarchal cultures. Even a curt "no" may be construed as the start of a conversation.

  11. Be wary of new romantic relationships with people in developing countries.

  12. If you pay for your hotel room in advance, be sure to obtain receipts.

  13. Beware of circumstances where people need help or are trying to help you. In other words, if somebody is trying to hand you a baby for some reason or is trying to help remove bird dung from your shoulder, be suspicious and watch your bags closely.

  14. Do not wander around a city in a developing country at the middle of the night while intoxicated.

  15. When camping underneath the mountains in a developing country, hire a cook. If you can, try to get one from a local outfitter. The cook will double as a camp guard while you are in the mountains.

  16. Be sure to bring all of you gear inside the vestibule of your tent at night. Do not leave anything of value outside.

  17. If you use animals to carry gear on your expedition, be sure that they are loaded appropriately. Don't let them put a sleeping bag on one animal and a tent on another so that they can charge you for more animals. In addition to this, make sure you know how many animals you hired. Sometimes locals don't keep track and round up in their estimations.
On AAI trips, the guides will always orient you to the particular dangers of a given city or camp. If you elect to climb in foriegn countries without a guide who is "in-the-know," then be sure to research the tourist oriented scams of your destination before you leave.

Traveling and climbing in developing countries can be incredibly exciting. But the excitement dissipates when something is stolen. Always keep your eyes open and be smart. This is the best way to keep your vacation on the right track.

--Jason D. Martin

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