Peru – Rachel Sandler (2009)

Rachel Sandler studied for her MD/MPH at the University of Iowa. Rachel worked on a public health project in Peru for the 2009/2010 school year, a collaboration that was part of Patch Adams’ global initiative to combat childhood malnutrition. Rachel received a $1500 scholarship from Sara’s Wish Foundation.

Here are Rachel’s travel safety tips:

Undoubtedly any traveler to Peru will come to Lima as virtually every international flight lands there. Lima is a large city with lots of traffic and notably gloomy weather. However, it is also full of interesting museums, Peruvian cuisine, and nightlife. The largest city in Peru, Lima is home to many people who have come from the other areas of the country looking for work, but have been unable to find it. Because of this, crime is prevalent. When walking around Lima, one should always be aware of who is around her. Try not to carry items of value, unless absolutely necessary. If one must carry items of value, do so discretely with smaller items hidden close to the body. Certainly not everyone in Lima is a thief, but even in wealthier neighborhoods, like Miraflores, have incidents of petty crime. Especially as a foreigner, you become a target.

Getting around Lima involves either taxis or buses (locally known as combis). According to most Limeños, combis are safer than taxis. Yet understanding the combi system is often not worth the effort unless you will be in Lima for an extended stay. Phone numbers for safe taxis are available in most guide books. These taxis are a bit more costly, but are guaranteed to be safe, especially at night. Another strategy is taking street taxis and when you find a taxi driver who you like, get their phone number to call them when you need a text. This route is a bit less secure, but certainly cheaper.

Red flags for alarm when one is in a taxi include: bartering with a taxi driver that seems too easy and too cheap, when the taxi driver makes a phone call the moment you get in the car, and when the taxi seems to be taken a route through dark streets that appear off the beaten path. If these occur, get out immediately.

Travel in Iquitos is relatively safe. The primary mode of transit is the mototaxi, which may or may not be in good working order. Try to choose a mototaxi that appears newer as it will have less of a chance of breaking down along the way.

In Iquitos, the people are incredibly friendly, which is simply part of the jungle culture. However, you must always be cautious when invited to do things alone. Always go with a buddy if you can, especially at night. Moreover, while the appeal of trying jungle hallucinogens when in the jungle attracts many to Iquitos, one should always go in a group of known friends and a regarded shaman. Reports of assaults have been made from tourists who have entered this situation with locals.

Ecuador – Bina Valsangkar (2007)

Bina Valsangkar was a medical student at the University of Michigan. Bina is the founder and president of The Quito Project, a non-profit health and education program for the poor in Ecuador. The $1500 scholarship from Sara’s Wish Foundation helped Bina continue her work in Quito.

Here are Bina’s travel safety tips:

Pickpockets and thieves are a problem in certain areas. If you are aware and responsible, there shouldn’t be any problem. Take the following precautions:

  • Never lose sight of luggage or personal belongs, especially in crowded areas like bus or trolley stops or city streets.
  • Never place your valuables in overhead compartments or below your seat in buses and trains – keep them with you on your lap.
  • Carry wallets or valuables in a zipped bag or clothing, not standard pant or shirt pockets. Keep backpacks in the front of the body when walking in touristy area or crowded city streets.
  • Try to avoid carrying a lot of money all of the time (maximum should be about $20).
  • Be careful when small children ask for money. Often there will be others with them that attempt to pickpocket while you are distracted.
  • Don’t carry your original passport around with you. Carry one of two copies with you for business transactions.
  • Never walk to “La Virgin del Panicillo” (in Quito) on foot. Talk a cab.
  • Never walk through any parks alone at night.

Ecuador – Stacy Sprando (2008)

Stacy Sprando graduated from Stanford University in March 2008. Her $1500 scholarship from Sara’s Wish Foundation supported her work providing primary health care services as well as psychological and educational support services to young women in Ecuador over a ten month period beginning in September 2008.

Here are Stacy’s travel safety tips:

Ecuador is a beautiful country, with incredible biodiversity. It is separated into four regions, distinguished not only by their geography but by their culture and rhythm of life. The four regions are: la costa (the coast), la sierra (the sierra, which includes the Andes mountains), la Amazona (the amazon) and las Islas Galapagos (the Galapagos Islands). Traveling throughout Ecuador, as in any developing country, can be a bit of a challenge and often involves long bus travel, but it is well worth it. Most travelers fly into one of the two biggest cities: Quito or Guayaquil and then take a bus to see other parts of the country. It is common for locals (and foreigners) to take overnight buses when traveling long distances (more than 6-8 hours). However, if you are traveling alone it is best to take the bus during the day. It is tempting to travel at night as it keeps you from losing a day to bus travel, but your safety is more important and taking the bus at night, especially alone, simply is not as safe. Regardless of when you travel by bus, be sure to keep your belongings with you (preferably in your lap). If you have any valuables do not put them in the compartment below the bus or in the overhead compartment as you will be at risk of having them stolen. Also, do not travel around with your actual passport. Leave your passport in a safe place and travel with a copy of it. Try not to travel have too much cash on you at any time. When you need to withdraw cash it is safer to find an ATM that is inside and try not to withdrawl money after nightfall.

I spent the majority of my time in the capital city, as I was volunteering at El Centro de La Niña Trabajadora, located in the south of Quito. So here are some tips for staying safe specifically in Quito. It is best not to walk alone in the city after nightfall. Even if you are only going a few blocks, it is safest to take a cab, get on a city bus or take the Trole (public transit that runs on tracks, from the North to the South of the city). The Trole gets very busy and oftentimes you are completely pushed up against other people, especially during peak transit times. When riding on the Trole, always be mindful of your belongings; hold your backpack in front of you and do not leave cash or valuables in your pockets. In terms of traveling in cabs, most of the cabs in Quito are true licensed cabs, but before you get in make sure you see a “licensed cab” sticker on the windshield. Quito has some very beautiful parks which are full of families, couples, travelers, etc. especially on the weekends. Be sure to enjoy the parks during the day, but do not walk through them at night. In general, it is important to never have your cell phone out in public. If you need to make a call, go inside a store. Cell phones are very sought after and you have a high chance of it getting stolen if you are talking on it out in the open. I would also recommend not bringing or wearing expensive jewelry. If you have a wedding band, I would suggest leaving it at home and finding an inexpensive band to wear while you are traveling.

These are just some of the tips I have after spending 10 wonderful months in Ecuador. It is an incredible country, with generous people and a rich culture. Enjoy your travels, but remember that your safety comes first!

Bolivia – Caitlin Daniel (2006)

Caitlin Daniel graduated from Smith College in May 2006. Caitlin was granted a $1000 scholarship from Sara’s Wish Foundation in order to volunteer in La Paz, Bolivia for six months where she worked in a children’s home.

Here are Caitlin’s travel safety tips:

  • Avoid traveling at night. Sometimes this is simply not possible because some bus routes only run at night, but wherever possible, travel by day.
  • When traveling by bus, sit on the side opposite where the driver sits – especially on narrow roads where crashes can occur due to oncoming vehicles scraping against each other. By sitting on the side opposite the driver’s side, you will not be on the side of the bus that scrapes against the other vehicle.
  • If possible, avoid road travel during rainy season. Roads, especially dirt ones, become much slicker and harder to navigate in the rain.
  • Because you will not necessarily be familiar with the conditions of particular roads in a foreign country, you need to research the safety of a route prior to traveling on it. Look for this information in guidebooks. If these texts do not include such information, ask people to tell you; the people who live in a place will often be familiar with the conditions of their roads.
  • Unfortunately, it is sometimes almost impossible to guarantee safe travel conditions, despite one’ efforts to be careful. In Bolivia, bus drivers in the countryside almost always drive drunk because they think it helps them stay up. Consequently, if one travels in rural Bolivia, she is basically forced to do so in unsafe conditions. While a traveler cannot realistically avoid this situation, she can try to pressure local authorities to put greater controls on bus drivers and bus companies. I recommend writing municipal governments, saying that unsafe travel conditions deter tourism. I would also suggest writing the country’s Bureau of Tourism to make the same point; this institution has a vested interest in promoting tourism and with enough feedback from travelers, might actually say something about abysmal travel conditions.
  • It is crucial to not only avoid dangers related to vehicular accidents, but also to be extremely aware of other people while traveling. Be aware of your belongings and avoid contact with anyone who offers anything or tells you that you have to go to another place with them. These scammers might actually be what’s putting you in danger.

Cambodia and Ecuador – Tanya Gonzalez (2011)

Tanya Gonzalez is pursuing a medical degree at Howard University.  During the summer 0f 2011, Tanya contributed her medical expertise to under-served populations in both Cambodia (for two weeks) and Ecuador (for six weeks). Tanya’s volunteer work is possible thanks to a $1500 scholarship from Sara’s Wish Foundation.

Here are Tanya’s travel safety tips for Cambodia:

I found the Cambodian people to be very warm and welcoming towards tourists – always very eager to practice English and share with foreigners the beauty of their country.

With that said, there are of course safety precautions that should be taken regardless.  As with any other place, traveling solo during the day tends to not be a problem but traveling in groups at night is strongly encouraged, especially for female travelers.  If you plan to cross the border by bus or car, do so only during the day.

The streets of Siem Reap, much like other Asian cities, are chaotic compared to those in the US.  Pedestrians must proceed with caution when crossing the streets as cars/motorcyles/tuk-tuks usually do not give them the right of way.  Common modes of transportation, such as tuk-tuks and motorcyles, are not equipped with basic safety gear such as seat belts or helmets, increasing the likelihood of injury should an accident occur.  Additionally, most modes of transportation are gross polluters so taking a motorcycle or tuk-tuk on a daily basis can greatly increase one’s exposure to atmospheric pollutants – a face mask is highly advised when traveling by such modes of transportation.

Since Siem Reap is largely based around the tourism from Angkor Wat, pick-pockets are abound.  Travelers are warned to be aware of this fact and to only bring small amounts of cash and no flashy jewelry or other electronic items (including cameras and iphones/ipods) when traveling about for the day.  Should you choose to wear a purse, I recommend a purse that has some sort of twist and lock mechanism versus a simple snap or zipper for closure – this makes access more difficult for pick pockets.

The number of street children in Cambodia is truly unfortunate.  It is difficult to not lend one’s heart to these children when they approach you selling items or for money.  Sadly, these children are often part of larger units (I hesitate to call them gangs) run by an adult exploiting them.  Often times, these children work all day long and must turn in their money to the adults, who in turn provide them with meager meals.  Instead of purchasing items from them or giving cash, I recommend donating to or volunteering with a local organization dedicated to removing children from a life on the streets.  To provide them immediate assistance, I would suggest offering to buy a meal for them.  Often times, I saw tourists purchase one item from a child and the other children would become enraged if the same tourist didn’t purchase from the other children as well.

Lastly, drugs are widely available in Cambodia, despite being illicit.  Many locals will bombard tourists with offers to buy drugs.  Please be aware that drug laws are often much more strict in Asian countries and the person offering to sell you drugs could potentially be an undercover officer.  Do not attempt to purchase or use illicit drugs while in another country – remaining drug-free is always the best choice.

Here are Tanya’s travel safety tips for Ecuador:

When traveling  around Ecuador, take caution when in the big cities as crime is large problem.  Avoid taking overnight buses – especially up and down the Andes!  These roads are supposed to accommodate two-way traffic but are barely wide enough for two buses.  Exacerbating this is the dreary weather usually found surrounding the roads of thick fogs and bus drivers that come careening around blind curves.  I would recommend flying if at all possible or taking a day bus, even if you spend the whole day traveling.  Also, be careful when traveling across borders – only do so during the day and take extreme caution if you are crossing the border into Colombia as only one or two border-crossings are currently deemed safe.

Brazil – Katy Miller (2011)

Katy Miller is a medical student at the University of Iowa. Katy spent the summer working on a human rights project that addresses barriers to care for children with disabilities in Brazil.  Rachel was awarded a $1000 scholarship from Sara’s Wish Foundation.

Here are Katy’s travel safety tips:

  • Know the area.  Ask locals which neighborhoods and streets are safe, and avoid the places that seem to be questionable.  If you’re not sure if an area is safe,   to become familiar with the area before going anywhere alone – it’s especially helpful if you can travel with locals or get a “tour” from someone from the area.
  • Get a cell phone and make sure to keep it stocked with minutes!  It can be helpful for calling  a cab or, if necessary, calling for help if you end up in a difficult situation.
  • Be cautious with public transportation, especially at night or when travelling alone.  Try to travel with a companion if possible, and take a taxi after dark.
  • Only use certified taxis – it’s best if you can have a local friend recommend a couple taxi drivers, and keep their cell phone numbers in your phone to call when you need a ride.  It’s much safer than flagging a cab on the street, and you don’t have to wander around in the dark looking for a cab – they can come to you.
  • Find the balance between saving money and being in a safe environment.  I stayed in hostels when I traveled, but I made sure they were in a good neighborhood and that they had good ratings for safety. is a good website to use to find hostels, in part because it’s easy to see where the hostels are located, and it also has scores for safety, cleanliness, and helpfulness of staff.