I am planning an extended trip to Central America and one thing that keeps cropping up is safety. The web is rife with stories of muggings, rapes, petty theft and worse. But is this just clickbait, press scaremongering or fake news? Should I really be worried about how to stay safe backpacking in Central America?
How safe is Central America?
According to the Global Safety Index by Numbeo the countries we plan to visit rank as follows:
|Country||Safety Index (Higher denotes safer)||Ranking|
For comparison, I have included the world’s safest country and the United Kingdom, United States and Canada. The results may be somewhat surprising. Panama ranks above the United States and Nicaragua ranks just below. On the face of these figures, maybe those reports about safety in Central America are somewhat exaggerated.
Regardless of the figures it pays to adopt a cautious attitude. Take some basic precautions and hopefully you will avoid becoming the subject of an headline in the papers. So here are a bunch of top tips to keep you and your valuables safe when backpacking in Central America.
Keeping you safe backpacking in Central America
Limit alcohol intake
Admittedly this is a rather puritan approach especially when you are on vacation. However for solo travellers this is probably the most important tip to abide by. We let our guards down when we drink and that makes us an easier target.
The increase in use of date rate drugs in recent years is also a concern although rape rates are much higher in North America than they are in Central America (Source: International Statistics on Crime, page 26). Invest in a drink cap for just £10.99 to protect against this likelihood.
Share your itinerary of Central America
Let people know where you are going. If you plan your itinerary on an app like Wanderlog, you can share it with family and friends. This way, people know where you should be and can at least alert the authorities if you don’t show up when you should. This is reliant on your friends and family checking in
The Sitata app goes a stage further and automatically notifies family and friends when you reach your destination. This means much timelier notifications should you not arrive at a destination and means the authorities will be alerted much sooner.
This app also offers a wealth of other features to help you stay safe including;
- Real time monitoring of news outlets to provide updates on outbreaks of disease, civil unrest or violence based on your itinerary or location
- Access to English speaking doctors who specialise in travel medicine
- A chat facility to provide assistance for lost passports or life threatening emergencies
Carry a personal alarm
A small personal alarm is a worthwhile deterrent in the event that you find yourself in a pickle. In a threatening situation, simply activate the device and a high pitched squeal will hopefully be sufficient to save you. There are hundreds to select from but this colourful personal alarm includes a flashlight and costs £11.99.
If you would like to invest a little more money for additional protection, then Care Go could be a better option. Designed for carers, this also doubles as an excellent safety investment for travellers. For £33.99, you get;
- SOS notifications with real time GPS so emergency contacts can arrange assistance should you need it
- Emergency contacts receive critical alerts even if their phone is on silent
- If travelling alone, you can activate live tracker feature for emergency contacts if you have any concerns about a particular situation you are in
- Care Go also acts as a Bluetooth tracker for keys, phones, purses and other valuables. OMG I think my peri-menopausal brain definitely needs one of these!!
- It has a built in rechargeable battery which only takes an hour to fully recharge and has a life span of a year
It also looks pretty cute!
Pepper spray is not legal in the UK but there are other options. Safety spray is legal and although it does not incapacitate, it does mark your assailant as it covers them in a coloured dye. This dye remains visible for a few days and the idea is that the police can track down your assailant.
I am not sure personally how useful this will be. It is an extra piece of kit to carry and you will have to react very quickly to use it successfully. Furthermore, are you or the police really motivated to find your attacker? If you are happy to lose valuable space in your backpack for safety spray, here is one option from Amazon for £9.99.
Carry a Swiss Army knife
This item may serve as protection but also has endless other uses including a nail file, scissors, package opener etc. Depending on how much you want to invest, you can select from a vast array on Amazon.
This all singing and dancing Swiss army knife costs £59.70.
Carry a Torch
Not only will a torch give you additional confidence when it is dark, but it will also be a practical aid if you suffer from unreliable electricity supplies.
You can buy a standalone torch or one like I mentioned previously that incorporates a personal alarm.
This torch costs just £8.99.
Keeping your valuables safe backpacking in Central America
Of course, you also want to keep your valuables safe when backpacking in Central America. Unless you plan to carry them with you at all time, you will need to invest in some items to protect them. Two essential items to safeguard your valuables when you travel through Central America is a lock and a backpack protector.
Although the latter is expensive, the steel mesh wraps around your bag and prevents someone from slashing your bag. If you want to leave your items safely behind, you can wrap the Pacsafe around the bag, lock it up and chain it to something immovable for additional protection.
You can pick up combination locks for just £8.99 on Amazon.
Anti-theft day pack
It also pays to invest in an anti-theft backpack such as this one from XD Elle which has
- A built in SOS alarm which triggers a loud alarm to scare away any attackers
- A second alarm button which sends a silent alarm through the APP on your connected phone to up to 3 people notifying them of your exact location
- Hidden zippers and pockets
The Pacsafe anti-theft backpack also has some cool features including RFID protection, slashguard protection and secure zippers.
A travel belt is an ideal bit of kit as an alternative to pickpocket proof clothing although it may be a bit more evident in the event of a serious mugging. This slim, discreet one is very similiar to one that Jason and I have. Jason even wears it when we run and swears it does not rub! I believe him as he is usually a real moaning minnie if I ask him to carry anything!!!
In addition to anti-theft backpacks you can also purchase anti-theft clothing with hidden pockets for phones and other key valuables. This is highly preferable to putting passports and phones in a separate bag. Check out a wide range on the ScottEvest store on Amazon as they have multiple products with a vast number of pockets to suit your needs. I particularly love this ladies jacket but am not sure I love the price!!
Apps for safety
Finally, there are a few other apps worth mentioning that can help you stay safe during your travels.
Covid 19 travel tracker
The Covid 19 travel tracker provides in depth information about each country and its Covid status. This includes prevalence of the disease and what status the UK government has given it (although that should become a thing of the past when Uk restrictions are fully lifted in March 2022.)
Geosure is similar to Sitata but is a more localised version. It offers travellers;
- Access to accurate safety information for all popular destinations and major global cities down to neighbourhood level
- Rates each destination on a scale for safety and provides a GeoSafeScore which may help with trip planning
- These scores incorporate data from crime statistics, economic and political data feeds, tourism and travel alerts.
I am somewhat unconvinced by the claims of B Safe. The premise sounds reasonable as you can trigger an SOS with voice alone, even if your phone is in your pocket, jacket, or purse. That SOS notifies your selected guardians of your current location. Sounds promising right?
The app then goes on to promise that your guardians will be able to ‘see and hear everything that is happening in real-time via live streaming. Audio and video are automatically recorded and will be instantly sent to the guardians’. Surely the latter is reliant on you actually having the camera on and filming which seems somewhat unlikely to me if you fear for your life. I guess audio is better than nothing! Furthermore, what if you drunkenly trigger this app and your parents witness something naughty that they can never unsee!!
I have packed into this a raft of items that can you help you and your valuables stay safe. Ultimately however your best line of defence is always common sense. Do not flash your cash, expensive jewellery or designer gear and listen to your instincts. That way, you might never need to rely on any of these devices.
As always I would love to hear any additional tips you have so have your say in the comments.