Many of our friends have asked about our safety traveling in South America, and indeed, many South Americans have warned us of dangers, both specific and general. Yet we gave traveled for over a year without an incident of any real substance. Certainly, we have discussed the matter often enough; and have had a couple of odd conversations with the local officials; and met some volunteer security fund-raisers toting rifles; but we have not been either threatened or robbed. Just lucky perhaps; but these are some of our thoughts in this space.
We are country folk who grew up in open spaces. We delight in the calm and grandeur of remote places. We feel safer in these places, where people are sparse and nature is nature. People have often asked "but there is no-one to call when you need help!?". We don't really see it that way.
We travel as well prepared as we can be, to avoid or mitigate the challenges we are likely to encounter. We have a strong well maintained vehicle; we carry spares and tools; and we have some experience in using them - learnt by using them. We also have vehicle recovery gear that we are familiar with. We have extra water, fuel, hiking gear and satellite comms if it should come to that. We enjoy the feeling of being self reliant.
The human threat feels more real to us than the challenges of nature. We feel more at risk in cities where there are many people. We visit cities to resupply, but make some distance by night fall. We figure that there are only a few "bad eggs" and the less people that know where we are overnight, the better. We get off the main road, and if possible, get out of sight. Usually only a couple of locals know we are there, and we are gone by morning. Also, we spend most of our travels well off the tourist route - so we are often received with curiosity rather than opportunity.
We keep valuable documents locked away, and offer copies in the first instance when requested. We keep our various communication options to hand; mobile phone with local SIM, sat-phone, & SPOT device. We do not carry a fire-arm.
As we travel we offer a big friendly wave to all we meet. We strike up conversations with our fragmented Spanish, a laugh and a grin with whom ever we meet. We brandish maps of Australia and South America on our vehicle. As Australians we feel welcome.
We encountered police and military road checkpoints on a daily basis in Peru and Bolivia. In central tropical Peru the volunteer security fund-raisers were prevalent. We approached all of these encounters with the same open friendly enthusiasm, and felt that it assisted our passage. On a couple of occasions we had a longer, more earnest conversation; but our Spanish degraded to a frustrating degree; and we passed intact.
To date there have been some sketchy roads and fellow drivers, but we have not felt directly threatened. There have been instances when we have been on alert; traversing a couple of shanty-towns, and once my hackles were raised (out in the desert of all places), but we have not been stopped.
So we have traveled safely in South America, and tentatively conclude that the safety concerns are partly 'fear of the unknown', partly real, and largely manageable with common sense and preparation. We also ground ourselves in the risks traversed by our adventurous parents, and other explorers in still earlier times.