Mexico – Taylor Fie (2014)

1. Pack light and cheap: Carrying a huge amount of luggage or costly items can cause multiple problems–it can be hard to keep track of multiple bags and might grab the wrong kind of attention, making you susceptible to theft. It’s best to leave valuable things, like nice cameras, jewelry, and watches at home instead of running the risk of losing them.
2. Plan ahead and let others know where you are going: Planning beforehand not only reduces anxiety but keeps you out of dangerous situations as well. My colleagues and I planned a weekend trip to Mexico City the week before, making sure we had reservations and an address for a hostel known to be safe. We mapped out the subway system, jotting down where to get on and off, and figured out what parts of the city were safest. If we needed a taxi, we would ask the front desk worker at the hostel to call a reputable taxi service for us to avoid hailing an unregistered, unmonitored cab. Never travel alone- even with groups, it is best to let others outside the group know your exact travel plans in case of an emergency.
3. Keep your personal belongings close: While out dancing in Mexico, one of my colleagues left her bag containing her wallet and cellphone on a chair at a local hub. When she returned just a few minutes later to get her things, the bag was gone. Always remember that no matter how safe a place seems, it is better to be cautious than to run the risk of losing your belongings. For girls, hip bags with thick straps that loop around the opposite shoulder are a great travel option, because it is hard for thieves to cut the straps or pull the bag off your body. Just remember to carry as little cash as possible and store valuables in different pockets within the bag. Money belts are also a great option, especially when you need to carry a passport or credit/debit cards.
4. Obtain a cell phone and reliable contact information: Telcel and Movistar stores can be found throughout Mexico. You can purchase a relatively cheap phone, a Sim card, and a plan that meets your needs. Calls within Mexico are cheap if you get the right plan! Once you have a phone, input contact information for your host family, friends, and colleagues. Make sure they have your number as well.

Best wishes and safe travels!

Costa Rica – Rebecca Flint (2013)

As far as traveling is concerned, I would consider Costa Rica one of the safest options based on its stable government, low crime rates, and great health care system. That being said, my travel safety tips are focusing on choosing where you are going to travel, with what program you are going to travel, and planning for your trip before you leave. By doing this, you will have a more enjoyable trip, and will not have to worry as much about safety, allowing you to enjoy your experience more!
1. Where to go. In choosing where to travel, you first want to consider the overall safety in the country. is a great website where you can find information on the safety in other countries and specifically Costa Rica. Also, talk to people who have traveled out of the country before about their experiences, recommendations, and any warnings they have. Costa Rica is one of the safest countries I came across during my search. It is also important to consider your ability to speak another language. This will help you to ensure that you can get the information you need even if people do not speak English. If you cannot speak another language, it may be a good idea to consider countries that speak English as a first language or where a lot of people speak English as a second language. In Costa Rica, they speak Spanish. I can speak Spanish fairly well and I found that the more I tried to speak Spanish, even if it wasn’t perfect, the more people were willing to help and explain things to me. This will help make traveling easier and increase your comfort level.
2. Choosing a program. There a multitude of programs you can travel with in just about any country in the world, doing just about anything, so how do you choose? First, start by asking people who have traveled with the programs you may be interested in about them. Talk to the people who run the program and don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions! My thoughts are that traveling with a small group of Americans (2-5 people) or even better, traveling with people from the country you are in are the safest options. When you are in large groups of Americans, you stick out and can be more easily targeted for theft and other crimes. Also, traveling with people from that country increases safety because they know where to avoid, what to expect, and how to interact with the people. I would say that established programs that work with the locals, or are run by the locals tend to be safer because you will know that they are supported by the community and that many other people have gone before you who can validate the safety of the program.
3. Planning before you leave. I would probably consider this the most important part of ensuring that you have a safe trip. Depending on the country you are going to it may differ but here are some general guidelines.
a. Organize all the information on: where you will be staying including addresses, phone numbers and emails where you can be reached while you are there and include those of the people in charge of the program. Have this information with you when you are traveling and leave it with a few family and friends before you leave.
b. Register with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program at this website through the Department of State. Also, if you are a university student, most will have ways to register your trip with the university and will know where you are and be able to keep track of you. This is just another way to ensure that in case something happens, you will be able to get the help that you need.
c. Buy travel insurance. This is another good precaution in case something happens overseas. You will not have to worry about the cost of getting the health care or getting out of the country if need be. It’s inexpensive and will be really helpful if you end up needing it.
d. Get your vaccinations. Check on the CDC website for information about the vaccinations you may need to get before traveling to that specific country. Many times your doctor’s office will not carry vaccinations as they are not given routinely in the US and you will have to go to a place like “Passport Health” to get them. For instance, you may also have to take malaria pills. Ask your doctor if you have any questions. It may also be a good idea to ask your doctor about taking a course of antibiotics with you in case you do get sick while overseas. Bring over the counter medications with you as well such as Pepto-Bismol, antihistamines, anti-diarrheal, and a pain reliever as these are the four essentials I would recommend.
e. Check with your phone company. The last thing you want is to be stuck somewhere without any way to contact someone. Many times your phone will work overseas, but the prices will be high. If your phone does work overseas, consider how much you plan on using it while there. If you are going to be using it a lot you may want to buy an international plan for the duration of your trip, or consider buying a cheap pay as you go phone when you get to your destination. If you do not plan on using your phone other than in case of emergency, just ensure that it will work overseas and carry it charged at all times. Always carry a spare power charge cord.

Prepare well for your trip and there won’t be much to worry about once you get there!

Nicaraugua – Katy Peake (2013)

Firstly, review other Sara’s Wish safety tips! Jen Bishop wrote about educating yourself on where you’ll be traveling to, signing up with the State Department and maintaining contact with people in the US, getting vaccinated, purchasing a cell phone in your host country, using common sense, and having a safety plan in place in case of emergency. Of her tips, I identify especially strongly with purchasing a cell phone and using it to stay in touch with contacts both in the US and in your host country, so that someone knows your location at all times. Also, having an emergency safety plan is incredibly important; I assumed there was a system in place for me in Nicaragua, but I was wrong. I needed an 8-digit ambulance number, and my in-country director informed me that the local private clinic provides better care than the hospital in Rivas. Knowing these things could have made a huge difference in an emergency situation. Take the time to review past recipients’ tips in detail and prepare yourself as thoroughly as possible.
Hilary Robbins also brought up some very valuable points. Knowing your site, as she points out, is incredibly important. Locals can give you insider information on what is and isn’t safe for foreigners, and they also know the easiest travel routes to keep you from getting lost and in a potentially dangerous situation. By learning specifics about your site, and by learning the language, you’ll be more prepared and able to make educated decisions for your safety. Also, as Hilary points out, travel in Managua, Nicaragua requires high vigilance and should be avoided at night. I found buses, in the city and along rural dirt roads, to be safe and did not hear about any accidents or problems.
Here are a few more detailed tips to add on to what previous scholarship recipients have already written about!
Transportation: Although buses are generally safe, avoid taking the last bus of the day anywhere. If the bus breaks down, you could be left in the middle of nowhere without other transportation options. When getting in taxis, especially in Managua, check that the permit number on the front window matches the taxi’s license. Text this number to someone while you’re entering the cab— make it obvious that someone knows where you are! While getting in, make sure that the cab’s seatbelts function correctly. Call someone while in the taxi to let them know where you’re going and when you should arrive. If possible, ask someone you trust (a friend, program director, etc.) if they know of any safe taxi drivers you can call to take you. In rural communities, avoid biking after dark. Dogs tend to be spooked by bikes and are on high alert and ready to bite at night. Even locals walked their bikes past my house after dark. If you must bike after dark, carry a sizeable rock with you that you can throw in the direction of any dangerous animals. As a general rule, try to avoid motorcycles, especially at night and on paved city roads where drivers go fast and weave in and out of lanes. Motorcycle crashes and deaths are a huge problem in Nicaragua. Riding motorcycles, or driving any vehicle, is particularly dangerous at night because many drivers and motorcyclists don’t use headlights and will not see oncoming traffic.
You may experience pressure to ride on the back of a motorcycle to get places in rural communities. As Hilary emphasized, is to discuss safety ahead of time with the people you’ll be working with, and don’t ignore any gut feelings that tell you something is unsafe. There is always alternative transportation, even if it takes longer or is more costly, and it’s worth the conversation if it ends up making you feel more comfortable, or even saving your life.
Health: the sun is very strong in Nicaragua, so drink more water than you think you need to. Pack Gatorade powder to bring with you if you’re worried about dehydration. Wear sunscreen and protect your skin. In terms of food and water, be wary of ice in your drinks and make sure that milk products have been pasteurized. Before traveling, be aware that some things are very hard to get in Nicaragua, or are very expensive. Sunscreen, contact fluid, and tampons are all scarce and costly. Bring any prescription medications with you as well!
Emergency: It’s extremely important that you know where the nearest clinics and hospitals are, and that you have their phone numbers. Also recognize that the police can be unreliable and are particularly absent in rural communities. Your best option might not be to wait around for them to solve a situation for you!
Other: Recognize that the Pacific Ocean can be very, very dangerous. Make sure you consult with locals and knowledgeable individuals before swimming. Rip tides were very common in my community; a fellow intern who was a certified lifeguard admits he almost drowned after getting pulled out by the ocean. At the very least, avoid swimming alone! To avoid robbery, keep money in several different pockets and places. Never leave bags unattended! Have small change ready in one separate pocket to pay for transport. Consider carrying bigger bills and other valuables in a money belt worn around your waist. Generally try not to draw attention, especially in cities. Don’t be obvious about checking your map, plan routes out in advance, walk as though you know where you’re going, and dress inconspicuously.

Guatemala – Jen Bishop (2010)

Jen Bishop is a medical student at the University of Colorado. Jen traveled to rural Guatemala where she educated community health workers on improved nutritional practices, early childhood health interventions, etc. Jen received $1500 from Sara’s Wish Foundation.

Here are Jen’s travel safety tips:

Guatemala is an unbelievably beautiful place with many volcanoes to climb, lakes to visit and some of the most incredible Mayan ruins in Central America. Unfortunately, among all the natural beauty, there is a significant amount of poverty and need. Although the other countries in Central and South America continue to make progress against stunting (poor growth and a marker of chronic malnutrition), Guatemala has not followed suit. There are a multitude of NGOs working to combat this tragedy and many opportunities to volunteer and lend a hand. As well, Antigua Guatemala is home to a myriad of Spanish language immersion programs and a wonderful place to learn the language.

Guatemala has a rich history and blend of Mayan and Spanish culture, and unfortunately a relatively recent history of political turmoil. Its civil war ended in 1996, and although there are is not a present risk, the aftermath of the war still permeates the western highland region. Many of the indigenous Mayans are skeptical of outsiders and also the military. For that reason, it is important to know where you go, especially if it is a more rural region because there are many small communities that are closed to outsiders. Finally, Guatemala City is the largest city in Central America (since Mexico technically is not part of Central America, but rather North America). This title comes with the associated risks of urban high-volume living including significant danger/red zones (parts of the city that are not tourist appropriate). Check the state department website before travel around the city (see link below).

Although there are certain dangers to travel in Guatemala, that is not unlike other developing nations. It does not prohibit travel to this gorgeous place, but does make smart decision making a priority. Here are a number of things to consider so your trip is fantastic and problem free.

1) Prepare before you leave, know the circumstances of where you are going.

Educate yourself about the location you will be staying. Also, make sure you have a plan for when you arrive. Since most arrive to Guatemala City, it is important to have safe and reliable transportation arranged ahead of time. Try to speak with your local contacts if you are going to be working or staying for longer about safety concerns, so you can prepare accordingly. Spanish is the national language of Guatemala, but many of the rural regions speak different dialects of Mayan languages. Although English is understood by many people in the tourist locations, there are definitely areas where Spanish is needed to communicate.

2) Sign-up with the State Department so they know where you are.

The US State Department website has good resources about their warning regarding travel to any region or country in the world. Although this is a conservative perspective, it is good to educate yourself on their perceived risks. They also provide an online registry to put your contact information, duration of your stay and where you will be staying in case of emergency or natural disaster. It is called the “STEP”- Smart Traveler Enrollment Program.

3) Have emergency contacts in the US who know where you are.

Although you are an adult, it is always good to have people in your life who keep tabs on you. Have a number of emergency contacts in the US, or your home country, who have your itinerary and know where you are. Make sure you provide them with a means of contacting you and vice versa. They will be able to help in case of emergency.

4) Get Your Vaccinations and medications.

Vaccinations can be expensive, but they are one of the best investments you can make. Many of the developing world, especially if tropical, have a number of different risks and diseases. The Center For Disease Control (CDC) website has country specific recommendations for vaccinations and malaria prophylaxis. Although Yellow Fever is not required for Guatemala, the customs agency will look for it if you have traveled to other countries in Central America with endemic risk. Therefore, it is also a good idea. Finally, Guatemala is home to many wild dogs, and if you are planning to be somewhere off the beaten path, the Rabies vaccinations are important. Malaria is endemic in some parts of Guatemala, so check the CDC recommendations regarding prophylaxis.

5) Visas:

Currently, there is no visa required for travel to Guatemala from the United States if you stay is less than 3 months. If you are planning to stay for longer than three months there are some options. First, you can apply for a one-time extension for a second 3 month period. This can be a little cumbersome and require trips into Guatemala City, and it is not always reliable. A second option is to leave the country for 72 hours. After this period, there are no restrictions on re-entry and the 3 months begin again. The one caveat to this is that Guatemala participants in the Central American 4 (CA-4) in border control. The CA-4 includes Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador. Therefore, exit for 72 hours must be to a country outside of the CA-4.

6) Make smart decisions when you travel, this sounds simple, but is not always so.

The best way to make a smart decision is to educate yourself about risks and options. Be aware of your surroundings and your belongings, you do not have to walk around in fear, just an added awareness. The most dangerous part of the abroad experience is the travel between destinations. So, when going places, look at multiple options for travel. Sometimes the cheapest is not the safest or the best. Look around at the people selling you deals, and use your common sense. Travel on Guatemalan roads is dangerous by day, but night adds another level of danger for both accidents and crime. So, do not travel at night. Also, make sure the road conditions are passable because the rainy season can add another level of difficulty. Finally, listen to your intuition. If something does not feel right, make a change, your gut is your friend.

7) Get a Cell Phone.

In Guatemala, like many developing countries, cell phones are EVERYWHERE. You can buy a very cheap phone from any of the carriers, TIGO, CLARO or MOVIESTAR. The minutes are prepaid, so just pay as you go. This will allow a way for you to stay in contact with others, and how your emergency contacts can find you. Also, these phones usually have a very cheap rate for international calling to the US.

8) Don’t assume that you understand the cultural context, or the risks, even if they seem irrational.

If you are staying in a small community, especially in the western highland region, it is important to orient yourself with the cultural context. As mentioned in the introduction, many of the communities hold some fear of outsiders and their method of dealing with conflict may look different than what you are used to. At times a misunderstanding can turn into something greater quickly, so make sure to be respectful of the cultural context and educate yourself about the community before assuming that something normal in your home, would be acceptable there. For example, many families are very protective of their children and staring at, touching, pictures or excessive attention to a child can be perceived as a risk to the family. Baby stealing, although it sounds irrational, is an actual fear for some of these families.

9) Don’t assume your travel book or guide is up to date on the safety circumstances.

Especially in the western highlands, the season can take a road that is safe and turn it into a landslide waiting to happen. The rainy season is from about May through September and the land just soaks up the water and then the water carries the land tumbling down the hills. The roads toward the tourist destination Lake Atitlan are notorious for these dangers, so check the current condition before you leave on a trip to this region.

10) Have a Safety Plan:

It is always good to have a safety plan, health plan or an exit plan in case of emergency. There are private travel and health insurance companies that can provide these services. Sometimes they are combined, and others are separate. Regardless, if something occurs, you will have something in place to help you manage your circumstances. Also, know the emergency call number to the embassy and put it in your phone.

11)Don’t ruin your trip with worry, HAVE FUN!

Although there is risk associated with international travel, there is no need to ruin your trip with worry. An international experience is a phenomenal adventure and unique way to build independence, character and open your eyes to a whole new way of living. It is the best experience of my life, and worth every challenge in the journey. So make wise decision, create a safety net for yourself and enjoy the adventure!


– Guatemalan/US Embassies
– US State Department Website
-Center for Disease Control Website
– INGUAT Centers (Centers for Tourism in cities throughout Guatemala)
– Ask Locals, usually they will tell you the truth about the circumstances. The key is to ask more than one so you can gain multiple perspectives, and not the tour guide who is trying to sell you something and does not have your best interests in mind.

Nicaragua – Hilary Robbins (2011)

Hilary Robbins is a graduate of Duke University. Hilary spent six months in Nicaragua, performing a research study in an impoverished community to determine health needs, developing a program design for a free clinic, and then applying for monetary grants and medical supply donations to make the clinic a reality. Hilary received a $1500 scholarship from Sara’s Wish Foundation.

Here are Hilary’s travel safety tips:

The following bullet points are pieces of advice that I have about staying safe in Managua and around Nicaragua. Some of them may apply broadly to developing countries, and others may be specific to my experience.

  • First, know your site. While I do think it is useful to learn generic travel safety tips if it is your first traveling experience, be aware that most pieces of advice don’t apply everywhere. Make a point to talk extensively with someone who grew up in the area and has high standards of safety about the best way to stay safe.
  • Take the time to learn the language as much as possible. Do not go to a new place where you do not speak the language and expect others to take care of you, especially if you are going to be there for an extended period of time. I have found that the better your language skills and knowledge of the area, the less likely you are to become a victim of any sort of crime.
  • In Managua, it is usually best to use nicer-looking taxis as opposed to the more dilapidated ones. The number on the license plate should match the number on the side of the taxi, and the driver should have official taxi registration.
  • Get contact information for taxi drivers who are known to be safe and reliable, and use them whenever possible.
  • Though city buses in Managua don’t always feel safe, the reality is that the drivers know what they’re doing and accidents are quite rare. The real danger is at night, as the robberies sometimes occur on the buses at gunpoint or knifepoint. Riding buses is a fine idea during the day, but something I did not do as a rule at night.

The great part about traveling in Nicaragua is that buses are cheap and run frequently all over the country. The troubling part is that the buses don’t always appear to be in great shape and some roads are much less safe than others. That said, I did not hear of any bus accidents while I was there and I am told they are extremely rare. While I did take public buses around the country quite often, I avoided traveling in or through the mountains as much as possible. During one trip I did this by mistake, and was frightened by the speed at which the bus traveled around corners lacking guardrails of any sort. I also avoided traveling at night, as any road is less safe in the dark.

It almost goes without saying that in Managua, one should not walk with any bags or purses and especially not at night. Many of us are accustomed to talking or texting on our cell phones as we walk, but in Managua it is important to keep your cell phone completely hidden if you are carrying it with you. Whether it is safe to walk at night is very dependent upon the area, but as a rule it is not a good idea to walk alone in the dark anywhere.

Perhaps the most important piece of advice I have for people in similar situations to mine – i.e. traveling as an individual volunteer to work with a new organization – is to have a frank discussion about safety before arriving in the country. Each organization has its own standards of safety, and it is important that your organization agree to uphold your standards before you arrive. For instance, in Managua it is extremely common to ride around in the back of a pickup truck – but Managua is a place where traffic laws are often ignored and accidents occur frequently. The members of my organization, including one American, made a habit of riding in the back of the pickup truck as that was the only vehicle they had to transport everyone. This created an awkward situation, as usually the most “important” people took the seats in the front and I did not want to act presumptuously. However, when I made it clear that I wasn’t comfortable riding in the back of the truck because of safety, the organization made every effort to accommodate this. However, I think it’s best that this sort of understanding occur before a volunteer commits to a long-term stay – not after.

Mexico – Sarah Isbey (2011)

Sarah Isbey, a graduate of Dartmouth College, is a medical student at UNC – Chapel Hill. This summer, Sarah worked in several rural villages in Mexico, implementing training programs regarding basic medical emergencies.  Sarah received a $1000 scholarship from Sara’s Wish Foundation.

Here are Sarah’s travel safety tips:

  • Travel and work in groups whenever possible!
  • Get to know your area once you arrive
  • If at all possible, buy a cheap local cell phone to stay in touch with your host family or organization
  • Use your common sense – don’t stay out alone late at night, don’t eat food that you don’t see prepared, and don’t drink water/juice from unidentified sources
  • Learn some of the local customs before you go, such as apparel, attitudes, and any common religious beliefs. You will most likely still stick out, but try to assimilate yourself as much as possible!
  • Be friendly to those around you
  • Always wear your seatbelt, and avoid riding in the back of trucks if at all possible