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The threat of violent crime in most of Peru is no greater than many of the world's major cities. Traveling around Peru is relatively safe, and the rebel element has been largely disbanded. The Peru of today is a far cry from the militaristic repression, rebellion, corruption and terror of its history.
But, the key to staying safe is being prepared for any issues that might come your way. These are the things you need to know about crime, scams and safety in Peru.
Despite this continuing improvement, poverty is still a problem in Peru, so there's no guarantee you won't fall foul of local crime. Peru is unfortunately infamous for petty crime, even among its South American neighbors. This doesn't mean you need to be forever clutching your valuables to your chest, but you should practice your street smarts.
Here are some tips to keep your valuables safe:
Distraction is a favored technique of petty criminals around the world. An elderly woman distracts you by spraying sauce or paint on your clothing, falling in front of you, or dropping change at your feet. Thieves then use a razor to cut bags open, swoop in and grab any loose luggage or simply snatch and run.
Beware of groups working at tourist hotspots, crowded markets, bus depots and even in hotel lobbies.
Some travelers have had their passports, wallets and other possessions pilfered while sleeping on the bus. It may be slightly uncomfortable, but try to keep your wallet and passport on you while you're snoozing.
Credit card fraud is widespread in Peru so always keep your card in sight when making purchases and if the shop assistant is taking too long to give you a receipt, there's a good chance they are skimming your card. Keep an eye on suspicious transactions in your bank account while traveling and after you arrive home.
ATM fraud is also common throughout Peru so avoid withdrawing money at night or from dodgy looking parts of town.
Counterfeit notes are becoming more widely circulated. If you need to exchange money, only use reputable places such as banks or foreign exchanges within hotels. Avoid exchanging money on the streets as the risk of receiving counterfeit money increases as does being robbed for your dollars. You may be also not given the exact amount of money exchanged due to slight of hand tricks by the money changer.
Although far less common, there are a few overt thievery techniques to be mindful of as well.
"Express kidnappings" have become more frequent, as the frightening practice spreads across South America. Travelers are held against their will and forced to tour the city's ATMs, extracting as much cash as the thugs can squeeze out of your account.
Having a separate traveling account you can top-up as needed means you won't be left penniless if this happens to you. It's also a good way to make sure card skimmers can't bankrupt you behind your back.
In most cases the victim is released quickly after the withdrawal limit is reached although some have been held for several days until the account is well and truly emptied. Never fight back against your kidnappers. Things can be replaced, but you can't.
The Sacsayhuaman ruins that overlook Cusco are notorious for muggings. The sunset and sunrise views may be beautiful but they're also prime time for bandits. If you do head up there, make sure you're in a group.
There have also been reports of "strangle muggings" in Cusco, Arequipa and Lima in which lone travelers are put in a choke hold from behind and relieved of their possessions while unconscious.
These, like regular muggings, tend to occur on dark, quiet areas when the victim is alone. For this reason wandering by yourself isn't a great idea, especially at night. Even if you're traveling with a group it's a good idea to take a taxi after sundown.
Armed criminals have also been known to target visitors while cruising in the Amazon region. Check with your cruise company or boat tour operator what their security arrangements are. Many have armed police onboard their vessels 24/7 for the safety of passengers and staff.
Local police and coast guards have also increased their presence along the rivers throughout the region including checkpoints and high speed boats in the event of an emergency.
Women travelers can feel generally confident whilst in Peru, but should expect to draw a little attention, especially if traveling alone. Fortunately, this attention often manifests itself as protective treatment from locals.
However sometimes you may get some unwanted advances or comments from smooth talking locals known as bricheros. These are usually abandoned as soon as you express your discomfort but if you feel unsafe, talk to a security guard or duck into a shop or restaurant.
Despite this, there have been cases of female tourists being raped in the past few years. Women should be particularly careful to avoid isolated areas and should not get into cabs alone. Hitchhiking is also a bad idea.
Groping does happen on the cramped minibuses (combis). Should it unfortunately happen, let the driver or ticket seller know. There is also nothing wrong with causing a scene to embarass the offender in front of other passengers.
Be aware of the possibility of drink spiking as well. Hallucinogenic plants, generally part of traditional shamanic rituals, have been used render tourists senseless before a robbery or assault. Never leave your drink unattended and don't drink anything you didn't buy yourself, or at least see poured.
If traveling out of the city areas to more rural areas, dress more conservatively. Some female travelers also wear a ring on their hand to show they are married (whether they are really or not) to thwart any potential Peruvian casanovas.
You won't have to look far to find a member of the Peruvian police force. Hopefully your only contact with them will be while traveling through borders and control points.
Most of the time you'll pass through without a problem, but there is a chance they'll want to check your luggage. These searches are rare but very thorough and can be frustratingly slow.
Despite this, always go out of your way to be polite and cooperative in these situations. The police are there to help you but some of Peru's law enforcement has a tendency to regard foreigners as either drug runners or political subversives, particularly near the cocaine-plagued Colombian border.
As a side note, possession of any drugs is considered a very serious offence in Peru, carrying lengthy jail sentences.
If you are the victim of a theft or assault, the Policia de Turismo (Tourism Police) should be your first port of call. Established specially to protect you and the lucrative tourism industry, they speak at least some English and are trained in handling all sorts of crimes against tourists.
The nearest POLTUR office will be able to provide case reports if something is stolen and will contact your embassy in the event of any more serious crimes.
Due to a string of false reporting of theft around tourist spots, you may be questioned quite sternly about your testimony. They may even search your hotel room. Don't be offended by this, they're just doing their job. Again, being polite and cooperative is the best way to speed up the process and get you back to your holiday.
If you have any complaints about a hotel, tour company, bus company or even customs agents, the Servicio de Proteccion al Turista, or INDECOPI, has a 24-hour hotline and staff who speak both English and Spanish.
Despite constant reports and rumours about the danger of traveling overland in Peru, there is really very little to be worried about.
The country's two major rebel organisations, the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) and Tupac Amaro Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) have largely dissipated. There has been no major attack or activity in a tourist area since 2002 and what few rebels remain seem to be scattered in the country's remote north. Many government travel advisories have issued a "Do not travel" notice regarding areas near the Colombian border due to narcotics trafficking and occasional insurgent activity from across the border.
The US Bureau of Diplomatic Security reports that visitors hiking near Choquequirao ruins have been held up and robbed by armed bandits affliated with politically motivated groups.
Rarely, buses traversing these remote jungle areas may be stopped, but these seizures are more likely to result in some strangely generous "voluntary donations" than any hostage taking.
Although visitors have been injured in past incidents, neither group has focused on using foreigners to make political statements.
Nevertheless, roaming bandits and the pattern of armed holdups in the past indicate traveling overland by night is not your best option, especially in the north.
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Listen to Episode 9 of The World Nomads Podcast. We chat about alternative treks to Machu Picchu, incredible surfing on the coast, and travel health in Peru.
How to pick a reputable company, how to prevent altitude sickness, and other safety tips before you reach Machu Picchu.
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