The ranking of the world’s most dangerous cities was listed by the NGO The Civic Council for Public Safety and Penal Justice. It was republished in the blog of Aristgui (http://aristeguinoticias.com/), who also has a news show in CNN Latin America.
The first five:
- San Pedro Sula (Hon)
- Acapulco (Mex)
- Caracas (Vzla)
- Federal District Honduras
- Torredon (Mex)
There is really not much of a surprise for people, who are familiar with the Latin American region. Also that 43 of the first 50 are Latin American cities and only three are not in the western hemisphere (Capetown, Durban, Mandela Bay, all South Africa), is only a bit unexpected. A surprise to me is that there isn’t a city in Western Africa in the list – Lagos (Nigeria) would come to mind.
One of the reasons why the list is so weighted to the Americas lies in its selection criteria: murders per capita. There is nothing about kidnapping, robberies, or assaults, neither sexual nor armed, included in the criteria.
There are three take aways I can gather from studying this list. First, many of the most dangerous cities on this list are in countries with the highest gun ownership. While many countries in Latin America have little control over gun-ownership, the U.S. could have, but refuses to.
Second, apart from cities in Brazil, Venezuela, U.S.A., and South Africa, all other countries and cities are in the midst of drug wars or at least in drug producing or trafficking countries. We need to understand that the people of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, and Colombia don’t have a “drug problem” – it’s the U.S. that has the problem and it is the neighboring countries, which have to suffer the severe consequences.
The third take away is, that this list is only tangently important to travelers of Latin America. For example, I have lived in Medellin several times in the last five years and it’s very safe for tourists, because tourists don’t mingle in the poor (and gang controlled) parts of the city. One simply does not come in contact with drug gangs and their violent ways.
Although some of the numbers are appalling and concerning, they shouldn’t be misunderstood and taken as red dots on a map where one shouldn’t be going. Find out from local sources how bad it actually is.
Somehow the air-travel gods are not meaning well for me this 2013. After loosing my valet at the airport and leaving me stranded in Hamburg, I had to do some rethinking my travel plans. I decided to postpone my Around the World trip until the summer and buy a new ticket in the meantime.
Getting to the airport a couple of weeks later, I was faced with another challenge travelers sometimes have to endure: airport and airline personnel strikes. Sometimes it’s the pilots, sometimes it’s the air traffic controllers. This time it was the airport security personnel, who managed to leave 12,000 travelers in Hamburg stranded!
Strikes are common place in Latin America and come in many forms. But the acceptance and the effectiveness vary wildly between different cultures. General strikes are quite common in some countries and almost a way of life. In Buenos Aires it is totally normal that 50 protesters walk onto a highway for hours during morning traffic and stop thousands of commuters on their way to work. As you can read in the “December the 6th in Buenos Aires” post, subway personnel have no scruples striking when a mass evacuation of whole neighborhoods in underway!
Yesterday’s strike was a bitch and cost me 2 hours of time and a night at a hotel, but I won’t complain. Got myself 15 sec. of fame, as a local tabloid interviewed me about the matter. Surely enough, they completely misquoted me saying that I empathize with the strikers. Nothing could be farther from the truth! What I didn’t say, but thought, is that I wished these people all the possible bad karma of the air-travel gods when they fly on their holidays…
In an infamous “Hachmann Travel Moment”, I missed today’s flight, due to my wallet “getting lost” in between paying the cabdriver and checking-in. After racing to catch up with the cabdriver and searching the cab, retracing my steps (all of the 70 meters), querying the “Lost&Found”, canceling my credit cards, reporting the theft to the Police, I went to cancel my flight. “No problem, your bag will be waiting for you at the baggage claim.”
Only it wasn’t.
After a number of personnel shuttling back and forth to and from the plane, we found out that due to bad communication the bag was never taken off the plane. Well OK, it’s Lufthansa, so my bag would make an extra round trip and by the afternoon it would be delivered it to my place. I didn’t think of it – I had bigger problems.
But here comes the kicker. While I am patiently stating “size and color” of the bag at the baggage service desk , a radio call comes in that they returned the plane, so I can pick up my bag after all! While the proud service woman still smiled at me, it dawned on me that I was the cause for the dreaded “sorry-folks-we-have-to-return-to-get-gate” announcement that everybody hates! Yes, they did have my bag, but they must have also had around 200 very angry and worried passengers on board as well. Because of my ONE bag, the plane returned to the gate 15 min. after departure, surely causing innumerable delays and missed connections for many passengers.
So with this in mind, I apologize to anyone who traveled out of Hamburg this morning and who (almost certainly) got to Frankfurt late. I can’t believe I am now also one of these nameless troublemakers, who I cursed under my breath over the years!
Everywhere in the world, taxi cabs rules and etiquette are different. For example, you have to explain a New York cabdriver how to get to your destination, because NYC cabdrivers have absolutely no geometrical perception of the mostly rectangular nature of the NY street grid and will drive you to your destination in large circles, if you let them. To varying degrees this is similar or worse in Latin America. But first things first, let’s see what you have to consider and watch out for, when getting your first cab – the cab at the airport.
The days in which you have to haggle with a cabdriver over the cab fare, are over in most Latin American airports. Meters are more and more common these days, and that can be a good thing, if… and that’s a large IF… you have the following aptitudes and habits: 1) plan ahead so that your flight arrives at daylight and you can see where you are going, 2) get some sort of a map ahead of time, or 3) somehow acquire a good sense of direction in a hurry. Or you just bring a smartphone and get yourself a data enabled SIM card at the airport. If there are no prepaid SIM cards, “print” out/save Google maps (in different scales) to your phone before hand to appreciate where the son of a bitch is taking you.
In many airports in Latin America the officials have heeded to the complains by many tourists and created a system of prepaid fixed rates. At the airport they’ll take your money and give a voucher to the driver and they make sure the driver knows where you need to go. Tourists were understandably upset that the drivers conveniently mistaken the local Filth-ton for the Hilton, the hippy High-at for the Hyatt, and the Le Merdien for the Le Meridien, in order to prolong the drive and make more of your money. So prepaying generally saves you a headache.
But prepaying also creates a situation that can be even more dangerous than paying for the extra scenic drive. It makes the cabdriver take the shortest route to your destination, which sometimes involves him backing up onto highway exit ramps against traffic, driving the wrong way down one-way streets, and taking the short cut through the roughest slums in town – just to save on gas.
So, getting from the airport to your hotel can be tricky, but usually one is best advised to stick to the announcements at the airports and roll with the punches – that’s the cost of doing business.
For a long time now, I have annoyed my friends without end about my favorite Latino-band – Los Amigos Invisibles. I really believe that they are the most overlooked and underrated band out of South America.
Founded in 1991, the six members quickly became the favorites in their home country. Their second album “The New Sound of the Venezuelan Gozadera” came out 1998 and is – in my humble view – one of the best albums of a Latin American band. I saw them live in 1999 in Caracas and I was blown away their continuous play over two hours. I bought the album and was amazed by the high quality of the song writing and music production, which in the late 90’s was in Latin America only reserved for superstars like Shakira and Ricky Martin.
“Los Amigos Invisibles is a Venezuelan Band that plays a blend of disco, acid jazz and funk mixed with Latin rhythms.” – Wikipedia
In 2006, I saw them in the best concert I ever attended, opening for Jamiroquai in Caracas. These two bands emulated each other perfectly with their very similar style. I saw them once more in Texas at the Austin City Limits club, in the midst of cowboy boots and 10-gallon hats. I have never seen redneck hicks dance so wildly to music as then.
Over the years, Amigos Invisibles earned a Grammy nomination and won two Latin Grammys. Form your own opinion, here are some of their best hits on YouTube:
The following is a newsletter of an English-language newspaper published in Buenos Aires: The Argentinian Independent. Please, note that the following should not be read with seriousness demeanor or even fright, but with comical disbelieve, because Argentinians always get above themselves and overestimate their collective abilities.
They think of themselves to be as cultural, economical, and technical advanced as their cousins in Europe – the Spanish and Italians. And they do have a lot in common: they have the very same uncanny knack as the Italians to vote somebody silly into office and they have the same determination as the Spaniards in borrowing money they could never repay. What they don’t what to admit is, that they are half Latinos. So while public transportation works in Spain, in Argentina in the best of times it is confusing and undependable, and in the worst of times – well as you will read – bus drivers go on strike at exactly the same time when the Subway isn’t working and a chemical spill and a natural disaster forces people to evacuate downtown!
So, in order to read the article with the right attitude, you must think like the Argentinians. They are convinced they live in a modern city in a civilized way. They know that there’s tremendous corruption, but they’ll vote for that silly woman again, because she was the wife of the last president. Then they are surprised when a corrupted and financially starved public sector neglects its duties. Rain and flood drainage hasn’t been maintained for years and firemen being ill-trained for a Hazmat emergency…
So with no further ado…
Imagine this: you take a cab, which brings you to your destination and the meter shows – let’s say… 35 pesos, and let that be the equivalent of around $7. You give the cabdriver a bill of 50 pesos. “No senor! I don’t have change for a fifty!” Then he empties every possible pocket, looks into the dashboard compartment, and maybe even under the seat. After a little while he just to shrugs his shoulders, telling you he really does not have the equivalent of $3 in change. You wait. He looks at you in the mirror, but no reaction. “Then we have go to make change,” he puts the car into gear and takes off until he stops at the next kiosk, “here you can make change.” Here I can make change – not him.
This type of situation I have been in many times in Latin America. You might suspect this is a little squeeze, a way to make an extra buck on a “tip”, but not at all. It’s not a trick. This is a universal issue in Latin America and it’s especially prevalent in all small-scale cash businesses. I guess, that’s because they’re all not thinking for a second about cash management and therefore, create numerous of these situations. They just think it’s tough luck and assume you understand.
But not always do these ‘lack of change’ situations become annoying, sometimes they’re just hilarious. When a friend of mine visited me a few weeks ago in Argentina, we took a domestic flight early in the morning. She went to buy two packs cigarettes at an airport kiosk and came back amazed – the kiosk owner just gave her two packs for free, because he didn’t have change! Ok, ok… I know what you’re thinking. Because she’s really pretty blond from Germany, who does not speak Spanish, he was more inclined to give her something for free. I agree to a point. Though, I’d rather not make the sale, or even better; I’d get some change!
Sometimes you find cute situations of that kind. The other day, faced with the lack of change, I had a kiosk woman try something on me nobody had tried since grammar school – she offered me candy as change! “Here pick one…” For a moment there, I was looking for a white van before I accepted my “change”.
Of course, there are other service stupidities that a traveler will be confronted daily. Most of them, by the way, not the fault of the employees, but that fault of rigid management rules, enforced vigorously.
15 Units or Less
One of these happened to me a few months ago in Argentina. In a supermarket, I mistakenly went to the “15 units or less line” with 17 units. Naturally, the cashier made me leave 2 items behind! I was dumbfounded, but she was dead serious. With a bit of relieve, I left the expensive and weighty wine bottles. I was actually really happy to shed some weight, since I had to carry my groceries home, but the store lost about $30 in revenues…
Fake your own Signature
There are many hoops to jump through, if you want to open a bank account anywhere in the world, so I was concerned when I tried banks in Guatemala. I expected the banks would insist on proof of local residence or any form of local ID in order open an account, which of course I didn’t have. One bank didn’t have such requirements, but they almost rejected me anyway. They had an issue with my signature. I couldn’t sign exactly the way like the signature shows in my passport. Turns out, my passport’s scanned signature was not showing part of the twirl in my second ‘h’ of my last name. But they insisted that I signed exactly like it! You might think no big deal, but it’s really is difficult to fabricate your own signature. I did a good 50 signatures, all of them rejected by the bank manager. I was flabbergasted and started to look for the hidden camera. Surely some candid-camera talk show host would jump out and everyone would have a laugh at my expense. But it didn’t happen – I was really supposed to forge my own signature (I guess until forever) to imitate what is clearly just a bad scan! After finally finding a few signatures different enough from my real one, it took them almost two weeks to deem one a “well enough resemblance” to be used and allowed me to open the account… Thank you very much, you’re so kind to have me give you money to make money with!
Signaling is an important way to communicate with your fellow members in your typical Latin American traffic chaos. It is being done in a variety of ways with a variety of dangerous outcomes – so now, pay attention and learn the one and only rule of signaling in Latin America:
Whatever you have learned about signaling in your perspective home countries, it either does not apply, will be interpreted wrongly, or will be used conversely in Latin America.
I know. It’s an over-simplification, but at least it will get you in the right mindset, before you are so foolish to get into your car and drive down to Tijuana. I will use P.J. O’Rourke’s “Holidays in Hell” as an example of what I mean:
The natives do, however, have an elaborate set of signals used to convey information to the traffic around them. For example, if you’re trying to pass someone and he blinks his left turn signal, it means go ahead. Either that or it means a large truck is coming around the bend, and you’ll get killed if you try. You’ll find out in a moment. – P.J. O’Rourke
Or (much less likely, but still possible) that someone is actually signaling correctly. He’s driving an 18-wheeler and he’s about to pass another 18-wheeler, shoving you off the road, if you try to pass him. In Central America, truck drivers do this kind courtesy signaling often, but I could never quite bring myself to trust someone else with my safety. I verify myself, if the road is “clear”.
In general, when a Latinos try to make a turn, pass a car, or just cut in front of you, they might use a variety of signals, but hardly ever the actual signaling lights. Beware of the guy in an old car on the right-most lane, who frantically waves his left arm out of the window: he is about to make a left turn cutting across all lanes, expecting everyone to come to a full stop in the meantime.
One thing is for sure; Latinos refuse to spend any money on their cars that would improve the safety for them or for you. Usually, if something brakes, they fix it themselves, or get the aid of other men who stopped to help. For example, it is well known, that Venezuela’s population is about 25 million and that it has 12.5 million mechanics. Wherever you go, there’s always a car on the side of the road with three guys under the hood and two more discussing the merits of duck tape for fixing the radiator. What does that have to do with signaling or safety lights? No matter how talented these grease monkeys are, they cannot fix the lights on a car after a crash. And since no one ever spends money on car safety, they will drive around for years with only one headlight and no taillights. So, never assume that the single headlight coming at you is a motorbike!
But if it was so simple… Often too many lights can be an equally dangerous problem:
Signaling is further complicated by festive decoration found on many vehicles. It can be hard to tell a hazard flasher from a string of Christmas-tree lights wrapped around the bumper, and brake lights can easily be confused with a dozen red Jesus statuettes and the ten stuffed animals with blinking eyes on the package shelf. – P.J. O’Rourke
I know what you’re thinking and no, Venezuelans are not so ingenuous as to convert those plastic Jesuses into taillights.
Of course, the most important signal in Latin America is the horn. Although, P.J. makes references to Egypt, his comments (as usual) hold true for most Latin American countries as well.
It’s important to understand that in the Third World most driving is done with the horn, or “Egyptian Brake Pedal”, as it is known. There is a precise and complicated etiquette of horn use. Honk your horn only under the following circumstances:
1. When anything blocks the road.
2. When anything doesn’t.
3. When anything might.
4. At red lights.
5. At green lights.
6. At all other times.
- P.J. O’Rourke
In Venezuela they have an interesting definition of what an “instant” is: it’s the time that elapses between the traffic light turning green and the guy behind you frantically using his “Egyptian Brake Pedal” – a time-span so short, that it’s impossible to measure with the human senses. In Argentina I found, the horn has a dual purpose. Argentines generally obey all of P.J.’s rules, but the horn is also used to prove one’s existence. Not unlike a flock of geese nervously quacking while flying to convey that they are in formation, the Argentines will tap their horns to signal the traffic all around that they’re only about an inch away from your right back fender.
To surmise, whenever I land in a Latin country, which I have not previously visited, I try as quickly as possible to study the driving behavior and the methods of signaling. Furthermore, I also try to assess the general condition of the cars on the road: If the cars look new and or expensive, I can be reasonably sure, that they will cut me off, because they think they’re busy or just too important to signal; if the cars look old or busted, I am damn sure, that the drivers will cut me off, because they don’t give a shit.
This is a decent summary for all people who have asked me over the years about Guatemala and all the Guatemalan destinations with nice photos – once one can sort through all the ads.
The main places (if you have only about 10 -14 days) are: Antigua, Lago Atitlan, Tikal. Do not stay in Guatemala City but look for a hotel directly in Antigua which you can use as base camp for all other destinations. There are many travel agents and organizers in Antigua, if you want to change you activities.
In Latin America, you sometimes will find yourself in a situation, where someone tries to take advantage of the fact that you are not familiar with local customs and cultural norms. When it comes to apartment rental websites for example, I wasn’t aware that in Buenos Aires, it’s apparently acceptable to take photos in angles so you can’t see decisive short-comings or to simply photoshop them away. They hope that the tourists – straight off the airplane with their luggage in hand – are so desperate that they will sign any lease, because they see themselves sleeping under a bridge for a couple of nights. Don’t. Get a hotel room and go apartment hunting the next day.
Once in Buenos Aires, when I had too much of my 6-legged pre-historical roommates sub-leasing the kitchen, I decided not to renew my lease and go on another apartment hunt on the Internet. ByTArgentina.com had the most listings in the price range I was looking for (btw: short-term furnished apartments are massively expensive in relation to other living expenses in Buenos Aires and all landlords require cash upfront, which means for longer-term rentals, like a couple of months, you have to bring wads of cash to be invited to the show). I figured that I should be fine, if I accepted an apartment 20% more expensive than the one I was in.
After three days of roaming the streets and sticking up every cash machine that I could find, to piece together the advance for 2 months of rent and security deposit, I was finally ready to move to the new place. Once I got there, I found myself in an apartment with a nice IKEA-styled living room. Most photos of the apartment were taken of that room, which I immediately realized as soon as I entered the kitchen, because most of the pictures were not taken of the kitchen. There was old rusted refrigerator that closed only after pressing hard against it, and when the landlord checked off ‘pots’ and ‘silverware’ to the list of furnishings, she actually meant one crusted old aluminum pot and three forks, one knife, and no spoons. A perfect sub-lease for my 6-legged pre-historical roommates.
But the most disgusting was the bathroom. I had already been suspicious, because there was only one picture of the bathroom published and it had the shower curtains closed. The metal bathtub had large spots where the paint was chipped off; revealing rusted metal, rust stains, and mildew everywhere. But most concerning was the doorframe. At the bottom, it was so rotten from the humidity that you could actually see through it into the hallway!
When I was checking the shutters, they weren’t going down all the way. It’s very important to have good shutters in your sleeping room due to the crazy, draculan life style in Buenos Aires. So I tugged a little bit at the belt, only to have a ripped end fly through my hand and the shutter crashing down in a big bang! This excited the landlord, who came rushing into the room with dollar signs in her eyes like Scrooge McDuck/Dagobert Duck. When she claimed that I had to pay hundreds of Pesos for the “recently installed” shutters, I lost my temper.
Pointing out that I had to stay at least 4 days in a hotel due to the long weekend before I could rent a new place, I commenced to take photos of all the defects in her “luxury apartment”. This caused the landlord to become physical (!) with me, trying to prevent me from taking those incriminating photos, before pushing me out of the door like a seasoned wife of an adulterer. After imagining my clothing raining down on pedestrians on Santa Fe Ave., so I made sure I had all my bags and made a beeline to the elevator.
But just when I thought it could not get more embarrassing, the scene took one last twist. Down on the street, her husband, who apparently had waited in the car, got into my face as well. He was yelling profanities at the top of his lungs. But once he realized that I had about 2 inches and 30 pounds on him, he stormed away, claiming he would call the police to arrest me. They – surprisingly – never showed.
I ended up renting a beautiful apartment via a brokerage that actually checked the listing details of apartments and screened landlords. I am sure this was a strange untypical incident, but nevertheless, here are the learning points and take-aways:
- Don’t use ByTArgentina.com, because as it turns out, they are the only platform/site that does not verify any of the information that landlords include in their listings.
- In the summer (Dec. – Feb.) you need air-conditioning in the sleeping room. Since you are going to sleep mostly during the day, it can get every hot and the living room units usually can’t handle the large area all the way to the sleeping room.
- You need shutters. It’s something the sites don’t list so look at the sleeping room pictures and try to make out, if they exist. Otherwise, ask the real estate brokers – if they don’t know, don’t even consider the apartment.
- “High-speed Internet” means a slow cable modem. If you to like to move your laptop around and not just sit in one chair in the corner of the living room, it has to say “Wi-Fi”.
- Mistrust apartments without photos of all areas of the kitchen and the bathroom. Only one corner of the kitchen means there’s another corner that’s filthy. Bathrooms with the shower curtains closed are a no-no!
- In general, if the apartment looks clean but 70’s, it hasn’t been renovated since the 70’s, it’s probably filthy, and only the pictures have been “renovated” with Photoshop. Kitchens or bathrooms with a “clean glare” like a bathroom cleaner add, are probably photoshopped as well.
- Outside pictures of buildings might not be pictures of your building, but of your view onto other much more modern buildings across the street.
- Figure out which neighborhood you will frequent. It most likely will be Palermo or Recoleta. Although, cab rides are cheap, they’ll be an add-on to your rent.