One upcoming biketraveller from Canada got worried about what would happen with him and his friend once crossing into Mexico. He was considering bringing a gun because of all the bad stories he has heard. I would like to share my responses to him here.

My first reaction (other reacted as well, in a similar way):

 

Don’t believe the hype. Unless you want to sell or buy a kilo of drugs, you should not get involved in any drugs violence. We crossed in Tijuana (cycling the regular highway in) and stayed a few days there with some Couch Surfers. We visited the nice market, the beach, the border, a great new museum (one of the very few in our entire trip J) and no problems at all.

Only problem is traffic as it is busy until after Ensenada (and every now and then some oversized US SUV that zooms past too close in the rest of Baja).

Don’t think about bringing a gun. Just think about what will happen with it:

-          You will get checked at one of the hundreds of checkpoints you will see: you will end up in jail

-          You will use it: you will end up in jail

-          It must be close at hand to be useful, so besides any police/army control, also any thief and pickpocket will find it quickly: they might either rob or shoot you with it or worse, a kid might play around and shoot itself. Anyway, you end up in jail or worse.

We crossed all countries from USA-Argentina.  We skipped the known danger zones: Guatemala city, San Salvador (the capital only, we enjoyed the country El Salvador), Paijan, Peru and border (people, it is BORDER, not BOARDER) of French/Guiana-Brasil as there were robbers active that week. Just ask the police and locals and keep your eyes open.

The only thing that happened in 16,000 miles and 21 countries was at the end when a group of kids tried to rob us and showed a gun in Mendoza, Argentina, another known danger place for cyclists. I showed my small pepperspray, which I had bought in San Diego for the infamous Mexican dogs, but never used. Robbers got scared and ran away. Glad I did not have a gun instead of that spray, I might have shot a kid, or vice versa.

Nobody wants to get robbed and some concentrated places are worse than others, but in general all countries are very safe. In the end your freedom and life are more important than some electronics. Don’t risk the exact freedom you gain by cycling by getting in jail in a faraway place because you let yourself get scared by xenophobic media. We have just seen where that leads to… Just enjoy the cultures and people you will meet.

See all trip reports including altitude profiles, Couch addresses used, detailed routes etc on http://WorldOnaBike.com

Let me know if you make it to San Martin de Los Andes, we have an unofficial casa de cyclistas there, catching cyclists from the street J

Cheers, Harry & Ivana

He replied, saw the logic and sillyness of bringing a gun and but still unconvinced asked abut the dangerous zones. My reply:

Hi Matt,

If you are going to skip Mexico, you will skip everything South of Mexico as well as you will meet people who will say that Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia and every other single country in Latin America are ‘even worse’.

So, it would be better to stay in Canada, as the USA is obviously a dangerous place with all the guns and gangs and rapes and unsolved murders. But stay away from the big cities in Canada, as these are all dangerous as well. In fact, riding around your backyard would be safest, but of course, robbers could come and take your friend. Damn, aren’t we safe anywhere?

I repeat: don’t believe the hype. Of course I cannot guarantee nothing will happen anywhere, but I travelled with my fiancée for nearly 3 years without any serious problems. In fact I have never even heard of any biketraveller, male or female, being raped or murdered anywhere, ever.
Read Barbara Savage’s ‘Miles from Nowhere’, a biketravellers classic. She got killed at the end of her trip around the world.
By a car in the USA.
I have climbed, cycled and travelled in dozens of other ‘dangerous’ countries and I am still here. Strange eh?

Other tourists have been murdered, robbed and/or raped in all major cities and all tourist places in all countries, including Canada and USA. In Vancouver you cannot leave your bike unlocked or locked but unattended for a second, while in most small towns in Latin America you can.
So now what? Get a mirror on your bike, not a gun, wear a smile and enjoy Mexico (and everything south), it is wonderful and I have not heard any cyclist that went there say otherwise. It’s like Colombia: US tv (yes, you watch that in Canada as well) says Colombia is dangerous and full of shooting drugdealers.
This results in 2 groups of biketravellers:
1) 1: those that think for themselves, travel and agree that it is one of the highlights of their trip
2) 2: Those that don’t go there at all.
Which one do you prefer and which one should you believe?

As requested:

Known places to be careful in in Latin America /Panam:


- All border zones in all countries. Don’t be paranoid, just watch out as logically these are zones with more than average amounts of people that are poor and want to emigrate, but cannot cross, and smugglers and scam artists.
- All poor barrios in all bigger cities, from Vancouver to Bariloche. Common sense: people moving to the city without a job or income do this as they seek opportunities. Don’t be one.
- Guatemala city: we travelled 3 months in Guate without a problem, but got picked up and dropped off every time we had to cross the capital. One of my good friends lives there and he is going to emigrate. It is a mess with traffic anyway which definitely is dangerous.
- Parts of Belize city. Ask.
- San Salvador (capital) and mara country surrounding it. Ask locals. If they won’t answer, you are already inside mara territory. Great country by the way.
- Be careful in all bigger cities on the Carribean coast (Limon, Costa Rica & Colon, Panama for example)
- Paijan, Peru: avoid it all together, search for previous long discussions here and on http://biketravellers.com
- Border zone French Guiana-Brazil
- Caracas, Venezuela, especially the poor barrios on the way to the airport and the centre
- People have been robbed in tourist and larger towns and local buses in Bolivia and Peru (especially the coastal area), but ‘only’ theft/pickpockets as far as I know and no repeats in certain places.
- Mendoza, Argentina: great city and recommended, but attacks (robberies) have occurred on exits/entrances on all sides.
- Buenos Aires, ask.
- Brazil: ask locals about the major cities.

Don’t ask anybody not actually living there. Definitely not foreigners (so don’t ask USA citizens about Mexico, Mexicans about Guatemala etc) as everybody is addicted to the fear-economy and the accompanying TV-channels and crappy ‘newspapers’. Usually people who moved out need to justify their decision, so they will talk bad about what they left behind.

In general, locals will know what goes on. Note that very often, locals do not travel more than 20 km from their towns, and so even their advice about the big city or next province will be skewed. Get good maps and ask officials. A great local official in El Salvador showed me all the roads to avoid (both from a viewpoint as well as on a map), and then invited us to stay. Read local newspapers

When it doubt of safety in certain places: move. You will develop a new sense, which usually can be trusted. When all is good, show it: smile, talk with people, learn from them and teach them, as most of them also think that all foreigners are scary etc. Always keep your eyes open and be aware that a poor cyclist from up north owns more than a regular Latin worker will be able to get. Don’t insult people by telling them you are just a poor cyclist when your bike costs more than their house. That awareness should lead to respect, not fear and sometimes caution, not paranoia. Read about the history of the country and understand it. Speak the language, show respect.

Don’t show your expensive camera, netbook, iPod and sunglasses if not absolutely needed. Better to take a few printed photos of your family and home to show than to open up your computer. Don’t make honest people go dishonest. Better even: don’t take anything with you that you cannot live without as risk of things breaking, melting or sinking are much bigger than it getting stolen anyway.

I has discussed this with Ivana many times and we agreed that statistically very probably we must have waved hello to many people that would have robbed us if gotten a chance, but automatically waved and smiled back. We have passed thousands of people carrying large machetes. Your smile will disarm them. If you act like a scared dog afraid of everything or as an aggressive pitbull guarding your belongings then you will attract wrong attention in any place in the world.

Your mission as a cyclist is not to confirm prejudice and xenophobia, but to show the world that there are other ways to do things than to get a bigger SUV and larger TV to watch scare-tv inside 4 concrete walls that ‘need guns for protection’.
Don’t give a reason for the naysayers to say ‘I told you so’, so be aware of the situations you are in, don’t tempt honest people to be dishonest, don’t enable dishonest people and enjoy all the good parts. In a few years you will write emails like this yourself.

Now stop making excuses and get on a bike ;)
Cheers, Harry

http://WorldOnaBike.com