Is Chile Safe For Travelers? 4 Things to Know Before You Go

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Pickpocketing, bag snatching and protests. Our travel safety expert shares his advice on everything you need to know about crime in Chile.

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Plaza de Armas in Santiago, Chile Photo © iStock/wastesoul

Chile is normally a very safe destination for travelers, a well-developed country with plenty of nature and open spaces. However, navigating through its cities can be another story. Here are a few things to be aware of and tips on how to avoid a spoiled vacation.

Is Santiago safe?

While Santiago is far safer than some of its neighboring Latin capitals (Lima, Buenos Aires, La Paz), it pays to be vigilant. By day, Santiago is crowded, full of shoppers, and outside of some of the park areas up on Cerro San Cristobal or Cerro Manquehue (where it’s best not to walk on empty paths if others aren’t around), your main concern is pickpockets or bag snatchers, who may target obvious tourists flashing expensive cameras, jewelry, or phones. Women might want to consider carrying everything in their pockets rather than a purse, or else wear a day pack that can also be turned around and worn on your front if in crowded market or shopping areas.

Like most big South American cities, nighttime is a different story. If you must walk, do so only on streets with other people, or better yet, take taxis. While the advent of internet-taxi services like Uber, Didi, Lyft, and Cabify have made taxi crime somewhat less relevant, it still pays to use the ride services or call radio taxis as opposed to just hailing cabs from the street, especially if you can’t speak Spanish. The bar and club areas in Bellavista and Barrio Brasil are popular nightlife hangouts, but if you go out drinking, like anywhere else, don’t overdo it. It’s preferable to go with a friend, as there have been issues with “friendly” strangers spiking drinks. As a rule of thumb, always take taxis at night, and only carry the money you need, along with a photocopy of your passport as opposed to the real thing.

Is Valparaiso safe?

Most articles you read on Chile safety focus on the big city, and thus Santiago gets all the bad press. However, by far, Valparaiso is the one city in Chile where you will need to be extra-vigilant. Though it’s perhaps Chile’s most beautiful city, receives tons of tourists, and is easily accessed on day trips from Santiago (only 90 minutes by bus from the capital), it has some serious no-go areas and high crime.

As the city is comprised of dozens of hills, many of which are only accessed by funicular “elevators” or narrow winding alleys and steep staircases, there are plenty of spots where you can be watched from above and where there isn’t much police presence nor automobile traffic. The photogenic tourist areas around Cerro Concepcion and Cerro Alegre are safe and tend to have more security presence, but the higher hills without elevators are best avoided. Other than wanting panoramic viewpoints, you don’t have much reason to go to these other spots, but you will certainly be passing through the flat area between Plaza Sotomayor and the Ascensor Artilleria near the harbor, which is a very rough neighborhood even by day. Do not flash any valuables here, keep your phone in your pocket, and better yet, take a taxi to travel through this part of town. The area around the main bus station and anywhere along the port are also not places to linger. Really be alert in this part of Valparaiso, call an Uber, and get to your destination.

Luggage theft in Chile

While bus stations in Chile usually have a security presence, this doesn’t stop thieves from stealing your luggage should you leave your pack unattended or turn your back to it while buying a bus ticket. The old scam of someone spraying or dropping a sticky substance on you and having an accomplice point it out and offer to help, diverting your attention long enough for your bags to be snatched, isn’t as common as it once was, but still does happen.

The northern city of Calama, where almost every traveler will pause to transfer on the way to San Pedro de Atacama, is notorious for bag theft. Keep your bag attached to you at all times in bus stations, and it also pays to ask locals which areas are safe. While my wife and I were waiting for our bus in Calama, I hadn’t gone more than 5ft (1.5m) from my pack to toss out some garbage when a policewoman yelled at me to keep an eye on our bags. Other cities requiring vigilance include Antofagasta, La Serena, Puerto Montt, Villarica, Valparaiso, Iquique, and Viña del Mar.

Protests and demonstrations in Chile

From 2019-2021 Chile saw massive street protests called the Estallido Social (social outburst), beginning with a protest against raising the Santiago metro fare, which boiled over into riots and violent protests against corruption, cost of living increases, and general inequality. However, the Covid pandemic lessened the mass gatherings, and at the end of 2021, one of the student protest leaders won the national election and became president, bringing concessions to the protestor’s demands by the government. While continued economic recession could ignite things again, for now, Chile is peaceful.

While protests did take place in all cities across Chile, Santiago was the site of most of the violence, mainly around Plaza Baquedano. As a visitor, it’s never a wise idea to meddle in local politics, and should you find yourself caught up in a protest or demonstration, it’s best just move on as quick as you can, and not try to play local journalist and start shooting videos or filming the event

Conclusion

While petty theft, pickpocketing, and muggings can occur in Chile, if you keep your street smarts and don’t flash your valuables, you ought to be fine. Perhaps of more concern might be Chile’s position on the Pacific Ring of Fire, prone to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis.

Make sure to familiarize yourself with general earthquake or tsunami safety procedures if you haven’t already.

A prepared traveler is a safer traveler.

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3 Comments

  • Grant said

    I just read about the statistics in 2020 and there are 333 victims of crime for every 1000 people... most countries that is per 100.000 people... wow... bad...really bad

    Reply

  • Javier F said

    Hi guys,

    I was born in Chile, left for the USA when I was 12 and returned when I turned 36. I have been living down here since.
    The problem with Chile is isolation until recently.
    Chile was a country that pulled itself up from its bootstraps, has overcome many challenges on its own and rarely has had a significan influx of foreigners. Basically, it was almost an island to itself. Regardless of what you have read, Chile does things its own way (this should sound very familiar to most Americans).
    What does this mean?
    Chileans developed some bad habits, such as dishonesty and theft because before modernity came, all business was managed with endless paperwork and disconnects between public entities (for an extreme example, watch the movie White Tiger). This left room for outright abuse, especially by those who had more resources. The status quo was always accepted. Technology and immigration are now catching up to Chile, leaving in evidence more and more structural issues such as an inadequate justice system and no resources for immigrants.
    It is my hope that accountability and traceabilty of those who commit crimes improves. Meanwhile, we have persistent and sometimes violent crimes in large cities. Most Chileans have not had the opportunity to visit large countries where true ghettos of immigrants exist and are shocked to see such reality within it. Chile is growing up. It will take some time, probably a couple of generations for it to improve, meanwhile, things are a little rocky. However, it seems unlikely it will return to the "good old" days. I also don´t believe our politicians (no matter how unprepared they seem at times) will let it go down the drain.
    If you plan to visit, use common sense. Dress smart, don´t overdress or use ridiculous outfits (think: cargo shorts with hawaiian print shirts and explorer hat - use a baseball cap instead) nor go around looking so grungy that you don´t blend with the rest of the population. There is a middle ground that will help you move about the big city almost unnoticed. If you look around you and feel observed or seem to stand out, go to the nearest shop, get a plain tee shirt, jeans and embark on a journey of inconspicousness. You will be fine. Save your bravado, your outward personality for personal interactions, but while in public move quickly and avoid stopping to take photos during days with crowds. Sundays are the best for that.
    Chile continues to be the best kept secret, and that helps keep most of its charm intact. This was noticed by many of our neighbors from Argentina, Perú, Bolivia and now Colombia and Venezuela. Even folks from Haiti decided that coming to Chile was worth the risk of moving to a country whose language they did not speak and where the climate was much harsher than the Caribbean.
    If you come down this way, come in the fall or spring, avoid the crowds of winter skiiing and summer (especially now that we are under a global Covid-19 pandemic). Chile has immunized about 1/3 of the population so far.

    Reply

  • Aaron Manuel Schatz Correa said

    Chile never was as safe as tourists think. my best advice for you all is: 1) if you believe you can do the same things you do in your country you are lost!!. 2) If you think you can be wiser than the thief, you will fail. 3) First of all, don't get too close with strangers, keep valuable things into your bag (safely closed) Thieves plans are centered in electronic devices: cameras, cellphones, etc. or wallets. Keep them out of sight and don't show them, try to talk out of the streets (even buses or metro stations) 4) Chilenian Police (carabineros) is really good but slooooow, so do not expect too much from them 5) avoid going anywere alone, you can find good friends here willing to help, accept company and you will see it make sense after all. 6) Don't go out with your passport or all you money, separe it in differents places and carry it in small amounts

    Reply

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