Is it safe to visit South America? The latest travel advice for Bolivia, Chile, Argentina and Ecuador
Last month it was Chile, when demonstrations over public transport became a flashpoint for widespread resentment against economic inequalities. Before that it was unrest among students and indigenous groups in Ecuador over austerity and tax. There have been protests against mining firms in Peru, too.
Then there were the fires over summer in Brazil’s Amazon region and president Jair Bolsonaro’s non-response. Meanwhile, in Venezuela...
For those planning a visit to South America this summer –a season just getting started on that side of the Equator –allthe heated headlines might come as a bit of a downer. Who wants to fly into a logjam of blockades and marches? Who wants to try to enjoy themselves when so many people seem to be deeply discontented?
Should I stay or should I go?
A regular visitor to Latin America, I get lots of eyewitness accounts from friends and colleagues. Via social media I learned of a British family who omitted to read the news and found themselves almost being tear-gassed on an open-top bus tour of Santiago, Chile (military training on dad’s part ensured a quick exit from the scene).
Just yesterday, a friend on a group holiday in Bolivia was surprised to wake up in La Paz to find their hotel shuttered.
Neither of these were particularly fazed by the events. British tour operators remain relatively sanguine, too. None are calling for major cancellations or even protracted postponements.
“The resignation of Morales seems likely to reduce tensions in Bolivia considerably, though how this will play out will be unclear for a few more days,” says John Thirtle, director at Geodyssey.
“Definitely wait-and-see, but the likelihood is that plans need not be changed.”
In Chile, demonstrations continue but the airports are operating as normal, most of Santiago is calm, and travel is unfettered. That said, today (Nov 12), a national strike of public sector workers is planned, which could lead to some disruption.
“We had passengers arrive in Santiago airport during the big demos a couple of weeks ago,” says David Horwell, owner of Select Latin America.
“They were OK, so long as they avoided the hotspots in downtown Santiago. They went up to San Pedro [de Atacama] and crossed the border to Salta without issues. I would continue to send people there if they are seasoned travellers and so long as the FCO don’t advise against it.”
Democracy in action
What visitors from the UK, Western Europe and the US need to bear in mind is that all of these countries are relatively new to modern democracy. Dictatorships and de facto military governments dominated public life from the Second World War right through to the Eighties. Argentina had six successful military coups between 1930 and 1983. Chile only got shot of Pinochet in 1990 (he remained army commander in chief till 1998). Civil reaction to anything that looks like state-sponsored repression is inevitably heightened.
A friend who runs a tourism business in Bolivia and who is broadly supportive of the toppling of Morales, puts it succinctly: “People like me in their forties have lived through dictatorships. We don’t want that back and the kids don’t want it either –they won’t be managed by anyone.”
Though the current upheavals look widespread and dramatic, Latin America has been here before. Peru had a kind of coup as recently 1992. In 2001, Argentina had five presidents in ten days. Colombia only signed its peace deal with the FARC in 2016.
“The view on the ground is always less hysterical than in the press,” says Oliver Balch, who travelled across the region during the 2000s while researching his book Viva South America! (Faber, 2009). “Protest is part of the culture of Latin America. Most marches aren’t violent. They are passionate, intergenerational affairs.
“It’s about direct democracy, making sure your elected officials hear your voice. It’s a very Latin way of political participation. Both police and protestors know their respective roles and play them out accordingly. So, while it can turn violent, this is the exception rather than the rule. Think of it like going to a football match as a keen supporter. There may be a thuggish element, but most people chant the songs, wave their flags and then go home peacefully.”
Geodyssey’s John Thirtle adds: “It's important to remember that the FCO advice is just that –advice. I had an interesting chat with the outgoing head of the consular service, who was keen to stress that they try to pitch the advice at the least experienced traveller who may not have much awareness of events and may have few resources on hand if they need to change their itinerary.
“All these recent Latin American incidents are in the category of ‘possible disruption’ rather than any physical danger."
Presently calm, for once, so long as you’re not a peso note (inflation is being held down by draconian currency controls). A new president will be sworn in on December 10.
Thewholecountrywent“orange”overnightontheForeignandCommonwealthOfficewebsite, meaning it “advise(s) against all but essential travel to Bolivia. If you’re in Bolivia, you should keep your departure options under review.” The rainy season falls now so it’s low season for travellers and rural roads are as likely to be blocked by mudslides as protests.
Audley Travel, which –like most tour operators –follows FCO advice, says it is now re-routing clients away from Bolivia. It added: “The majority of our clients have booked trips that combine time in Bolivia with Chile and/or Peru, so alternative routings involve spending more time in these countries.”
A simmering peace, of sorts. Bolsonaro manages to generate almost as bad a foreign press for Brazil by his behaviour and outbursts as would any coup d’etat. Now that former left-wing president Lula is out again, there’s an increased likelihood of discord and demonstrations.
Major protests, scenes of looting, and a crackdown by security forces –with at least 18 fatalities –have tarnished Chile’s image as South America’s stable nation. Protests in Santiago are ongoing, though a state of emergency was lifted at midnight on October 27. The FCO hasnot, to date, changed its travel advice significantly. The land border between Mendoza and Chile is currently being closed overnight.
A deal was struck mid-October, ending the faceoff between president Lenin Moreno and indigenous leaders. The FCO had initially advised against travel butlifteditswarningsonOctober24. The Latin American Travel Association, which represents a large number UK tour firms, reports that “theprotests had a dramatic short-term impact on visitor arrivals (28.6% drop year-on-year the week after the protests started, and a 40.5% drop the following week), however following government negotiations, the bookings recovered very quickly (climbing to -4.3% year-on-year between 17 and 23 October). This indicates the resilience of the region for inbound travel.”
The FCO continues to advise against travel close to Ecuador’s border with Colombia. It says: “Guerrilla groups, drug traffickers and criminal gangs are active and there is a risk of kidnapping and a high risk of crime. Foreigners, including oil workers, are potential targets.”
Following a constitutional crisis that began at the end of September, during which president Martin Vizcarra dissolvedcongress, only to be suspended by the same congress for “permanent moral incapacity”, Peru has scheduled legislative elections for January 26, 2020.
Some 55,000 people marched through Montevideo on October 22. Some commentators wondered if thissmall buffer state would also kick off, but the protests were against a proposed security reform. The assembly of mostly young people was peaceful and well organised. Uruguay faces a run off on November 24, after presidential elections on October 27 were inconclusive.
The country’s borders with Brazil and Colombia are FCO red-listed –i.e. all travel is a bad idea. “TheFCOadviseagainstallbutessentialtravelto the remaining areas of Venezuela, due to ongoing crime and instability,” it says.