Last Updated on September 18, 2019 by Jeremy
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Prior to having our backpack stolen in Peru, we thought the country would be one of the more tourist friendly and safest in the region.
This opinion came to be because, as travelers, we're constantly bombarded with the fact that so many destinations around the world are considered “unsafe.” Nearby countries like Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Colombia all have this connotation blasted regularly, and not a day goes by where you hear warnings to travelers in the region. Ask any random person why they wouldn't want to visit, and odds are good the first thing they're going to say is “it isn't safe” regardless of if they know why or not.
Peru, on the other hand, is relatively quiet in this respect and seemingly gives the perception as being a destination safe for all visitors. With ad campaigns blasting left and right, the tourist board and other agencies do a very good job at making Peru the must visit destination in South America. Where so much negativity comes out from other nearby countries, Peru seems to be that shining beacon calling visitors from far away to enjoy a safe and wonderful holiday in an otherwise lesser-traveled region of the world.
Sadly, this projection is simply not true.
Peru is no better than the rest in terms of safety for both locals and visitors alike, and this disconnect is very troubling to us.
A Consciousness to the Rich?
The main problem is that the vast majority of travelers to Peru come in solely to take a Machu Picchu tour– admittedly one of the most beautiful archaeological parks we've ever seen. If you limit your travels only to visiting this destination, and make all of your long-distance travels by air, you will certainly fall into the pattern of thinking that Peru is an incredibly safe country.
In Cusco, for example, there are so many upscale hotels, restaurants, and neighborhoods that you cannot walk down a city block without getting caught on a handful of CCTV cameras that are no doubt being manned by a real person 24/7. Cops patrol all the time, English speaking workers are plentiful, and overall you would think you are well protected other than the taxi drivers trying to rip you off (successfully too, I might add).
Go to any other city in Peru, especially to the public bus stations, and you'll see the complete opposite side of the spectrum.
There is hardly any security to be found.
It seems a bid odd to us that one city can be such an outlier in modern security, yet every other one we visited is virtually devoid of anything remotely comparable.
But it doesn't take long after arriving to understand why Cusco gets the special treatment. Most of the visitors who travel to Cusco are only traveling to Cusco. These travelers are affluent, likely making their first (and probably only) trip to South America, and are just staying long enough to visit Machu Picchu and leave again. It sounds crazy, but if you have visited Machu Picchu before you likely saw this for yourself.
That backpacker who actually wants to see Peru outside of Machu Picchu? Well, it is painfully clear that you're on your own.
Bus Station Thefts, Overnight Hijackings, and More, All in Peru!
Well, now that we've got the feel-good aspect of this post out of the way in telling you how sheltered and protected you'll be in Cusco, it is time to talk about the rest of the country. One you've probably never heard of before.
If this sounds shocking to you, welcome to our world! Until our backpack was stolen in Puno we had never even heard of this as an issue in Peru. It is widely publicized in Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, and just about every other country in the north, but not so much in Peru.
But let's tell you what all we saw or heard about while in Peru, shall we?
- Four bags stolen within an hour at Puno's bus station, half from locals. No cops patrolling until after the thefts and no CCTV evidence available.
- Five travelers with stolen passports at the US Embassy in Lima, all from bus stations.
- Two more travelers with stolen passports at the Peruvian Immigration Office, also from bus stations.
- Multiple contacts on social media from people who had their bags stolen, in, you guessed it, Peruvian bus stations!
- One story about a hijacking on Cruz del Sur night bus (the top-rated company in Peru) where bags were stolen, guns were waved, and women were touched inappropriately to get valuables “hidden” in their underwear.
With the exception to the last story, which is the most unfortunate on the list and sadly a regular occurrence in the region, without seeking it out you'll never hear anything about the safety of bus stations in Peru. You'll hear about it in every other country happening quite frequently, but not Peru, and it is pretty obvious why that is.
As one of the most visited destinations in the region, if news got out to affluent visitors that public transit in the country is not safe, the allure of visiting would go down significantly. It would be game over for Peru's tourism if it started to get the reputation its neighbors like Colombia and Bolivia have, and unfortunately it is one that it absolutely deserves.
It is because of this that we are still so pissed off about it more than a year later.
Peru Has A Long, Long Way to Go
In the end I'll say it one more time:
Peru, quit trying to be something you're not.
If you want to play tourism in the big leagues you cannot allow this stream of theft and armed robberies to occur, even if it doesn't happen to the affluent travelers who come just to visit Machu Picchu. It is not like it isn't predictable. We just outlined over 10 cases of bag snatches in bus stations all executed with a similar style, and the mobilized bus hijackings are completely unacceptable.
You know which groups do this, you know how they do it, and so far it seems like you are turning a blind eye to what is going on.
But, considering the behavior of the cops we met in Puno while filing our police report and how they were more interested in getting us to leave than actually receive a report, perhaps there is a reason why you are turning a blind eye to it altogether. I suspect we'll never know on that one.
A Bit of a Disclaimer
I am not writing this post to discourage anyone from visiting Peru. Although we were angry most of the time during our visit, I would be going against my better judgment in saying there aren't a lot of cool things to see- both at Machu Picchu and throughout the country. Will we go back? Most likely. Should you go? Of course. Just be sure to maintain extra vigilance during your travels as Peru is not the safe country it makes itself out to be, and is instead no different than its neighbors you hear about much more frequently.
If we're going to be honest about safety everywhere else in South America, it is time Peru is treated like everyone else.
About the Author: Jeremy is a full-time travel writer based in Pittsburgh and primary author of this site. He has been to 70+ countries on five continents and seeks out new food, adventure activities, and off-the-beaten-path experiences wherever he travels.