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Crime in Peru: Opportunistic Theft

Guarding Against Bag Snatchers, Pickpockets and Other Petty Thieves in Peru


Tourist Police in Cusco

Tourist Police in Cusco

Photo © ShashiBellamkonda, flickr.com

Violent crimes against tourists are relatively rare in Peru, but opportunistic theft is common. Even if you are in a seemingly secure environment, with people who appear trustworthy, it's never a good idea to drop your guard completely.

The good news, however, is that you can greatly reduce the risk of petty theft by developing certain habits. The key to guarding against would-be thieves is to deny them easy or overly tempting opportunities.

In Hostels and Hotels

There are various accommodation options in Peru, with varying levels of security. In general, a private hotel room will be more secure than a hostel dorm room. The risk of theft always exists, however, be it from a quick-fingered porter or an opportunistic (and underpaid) housekeeper.

If you are staying in a private room, don't go out with valuables left in clear sight -- cash left on a tabletop is far more tempting than money stashed in the depths of your suitcase or backpack. If your room or hotel reception area is equipped with a safe, use it to secure your passport and other valuable items.

Hostel dorm rooms pose greater problems. Not only do you have the hostel staff to consider, you also have the risk posed by other backpackers (both local and international). A thieving backpacker can strip a dorm room and vacate the premises in minutes -- even if he or she is staying in a different room.

Ideally, your hostel will have a safe deposit box in the reception area (check the hostel website to be sure). Some reception areas also have secure rooms in which you can leave your entire backpack. Without these options, you will have to decide what to leave in your room and what to take with you.

A daypack allows you to carry your valuables with you (camera, wallet, passport etc) without having bulging pockets -- but you'll need to exercise even greater caution in the street (see below). Alternatively, stuff your valuables in the depths of your backpack and slide it under your bed. It's not perfect, but your options are limited without a safe deposit box.

Street Crime in Peru

Snatch theft occurs in both busy and deserted streets. Using a combination of surprise and speed, nimble thieves can grab your gear and disappear in an instant. The best defense is to carry as little as possible -- tourists attract attention, but an apparently empty-handed tourists is a poor target.

Jewelry and expensive watches are an unnecessary luxury in Peru, so leave them at home if you want to avoid problems. If you're carrying a bag or backpack, strap it securely over your shoulder or around your neck -- a bag held loosely in one hand is an open invitation to thieves. Keep laptops, cameras and other expensive gadgets out of sight as you walk around. If you keep your laptop or camera in a specialized carry case or bag, place the case inside a more nondescript backpack.

Pickpockets come in various shapes and sizes, with some operating as opportunistic individuals and others as part of an organized group. Crowded streets tend to attract pickpockets, so be on your guard. Place money and documents in a secure front pocket rather than a back pocket (secure thigh pockets also work well). Alternatively, buy a discreet money belt.

In Cafes and Restaurants

You can also be victim to a snatch theft while sitting in a public place, be it a cafe, restaurant, bar or internet cafe. Never leave anything unattended on your table, especially valuable items such as laptops and cameras. Your bag is also a prime target. Don't leave it hanging loosely from the back of your chair. A good option is to place it on the floor between your feet, with a strap looped around one of your legs.

Public Transport and Opportunistic Crime in Peru

Always be aware of your surroundings when using any form of public transport in Peru. Airports, river ports, bus stations and taxi terminals are notorious for attracting thieves, so keep an extra firm grip on your luggage.

Once you're moving, the risk of theft largely depends on your mode of travel:

  • Airlines in Peru: With your luggage stored below decks and your carry-on bag in the overhead compartment, you can pretty much relax until you arrive at your destination.
  • Long-distance bus travel: You shouldn't have too many problems if you stick with the midrange to top-end bus companies. Your luggage should be reasonably safe below decks. If you take a smaller bag on board with you, don't store it in the overhead compartment. Instead, keep it between your legs and don't let it -- or anything else of value -- out of your sight. For more tips, read Luggage on Buses in Peru.
  • Minibuses: Minibuses (combis) provide a cheap but often uncomfortable way to get around Peru's larger towns and cities. The cramped conditions attract pickpockets and bag snatchers, so exercise caution.
  • Taxis: You should always take officially licensed taxis in Peru. Accepting a ride in an unmarked or suspicious looking taxi can lead to crimes far worse than theft. If you are stuck in traffic or driving slowly down a street, it's a good idea to close your window. Traffic jam thieves snatch bags, hats and other items from within slow moving cars.
  • Riverboats: The risk of theft is minimal if you have your own cabin. If you're sleeping in a hammock on the deck, surrounded by all the other passengers, you might want to sleep with one eye open. Keeping an eye on things is much easier if you're traveling with a companion.
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