- Reviewed: 8 April 2015, 15:39 NZST
- Still current at: 17 January 2022
Violent crime is a significant problem in a number of South American countries. "Express kidnappings", where people are abducted and forced to withdraw money from ATMs, occur in many countries. Illegal armed groups and criminals involved in drug-related activity have a presence in a range of South American countries, including Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela. Drug cartels and criminal gangs also have a major presence across parts of Central America and violence associated with these groups can occur without warning.
Several Central American countries have very high levels of violent crime. Honduras, El Salvador, Belize and Guatemala consistently have some of the highest homicide rates in the world. Much of this violence is drug and gang-related and tourists and foreigners are rarely involved, although there is the potential to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Travellers are more likely to be affected by petty crime, which is common in most Central and South American countries.
Criminal and terrorist groups have in the past been linked with terrorist attacks, kidnapping and other serious violence. Foreigners have been caught up in kidnappings and bombings in a number of Central and South American countries, most notably in Colombia and Peru.
Medical facilities in Central and South America vary widely in quality. In large cities and tourist areas, clinics often provide high quality care for routine and emergency issues. In smaller centres or rural areas access to supplies and a standard of medical care similar to New Zealand is likely to be more difficult to find. New Zealanders travelling or resident in Central or South America should hold a comprehensive travel insurance policy that includes provision for medical evacuation by air.
A number of mosquito-borne illnesses, including Dengue fever, Chikungunya, Malaria and Zika virus, are common throughout parts of Central and South America. Travellers are advised to use insect repellent, wear protective clothing, and stay in lodgings where there are mosquito screens on windows and doors. The Ministry of Health website contains more advice on avoiding mosquito bites while travelling.
In some South American countries, especially Peru and Ecuador, shamans and other individuals offer ‘spiritual cleansing’ rituals which involve serving Ayahuasca tea. This tea contains dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which is a hallucinogen. While not illegal, ayahuasca tourism is not regulated and consumption of the tea does present certain risks. Although deaths from ayahuasca remain uncommon, there have been reports of psychological damage, and assault, theft and rape of people under the influence.
The Andes mountain range is a prominent feature of South American geography and many parts of the continent are above 2500m. This includes some urban areas, such as Bogotá (2640m), Quito (2850m), Cuzco (3399) and La Paz (3690m). Additionally many tourist attractions, like Macchu Picchu, Lake Titicaca and Colca Canyon are found above this altitude. Travellers who ascend to altitudes greater than 2500m, especially if the ascent is rapid, are at risk of developing altitude sickness.
Altitude sickness can affect anyone, even those who are physically fit, and in certain circumstances can be life-threatening. Those more at risk may have had altitude sickness before, have health problems that affect their breathing or who exercise or drink alcohol before adjusting to the altitude. If you plan to travel to high altitude areas, you should consult your doctor prior to travel and get advice specific to your medical situation.
A number of countries in South America are large producers of cocaine and other narcotics. There are severe penalties for drug trafficking and you should make sure that you are aware of the contents of all of your bags, particularly when crossing international borders. You should also never agree to carry items or luggage for others or become involved in the trafficking of drugs of any kind. Harsh penalties apply for those convicted of drug related crimes and the standard of prisons is very different to what you’d find in New Zealand and they are often very over crowded. New Zealand does not have prisoner transfer agreements so if convicted you will have to serve your sentence in a foreign prison in difficult conditions.
Each year the Caribbean region experiences hurricanes and these storms have the potential to create high winds, heavy rains and flooding, resulting in widespread damage to countries on the Caribbean coast. The hurricane season normally runs from June to November and the risk level varies between countries, as well as from season to season.
New Zealanders are advised to monitor local and international weather reports to keep up to date with developments. If you are staying in a hotel, you should follow the guidance of hotel management or your tour operator. Otherwise, heed any instructions issued by the local authorities. Do not go outdoors during a hurricane and remain well away from the sea. For further information, including on the likely path of a hurricane, visit http://www.nhc.noaa.gov.