The safest cities in South America are the places that buck the trend of a continent that’s all too often associated with drug cartels and traffickers, with revolutions and government upheavals. They are the spots that offer a rare bout of calm and relaxation amid a land mainly known for heady and overwhelming metropolises
You might just be surprised at the names that appear on the list. There are spots in Colombia, the onetime home of Pablo Escobar. There are cities in Argentina, a country with a history of dark dictatorships. But there are also places sat up in the Peruvian Andes or down on the plains of Chile, offering safety in all corners of this land of ceviche and tango.
We’ve sought out a selection of seven of the safest cities in South America. Some are there because they’re listed on official indexes of safe cities or global peace. Others are present because we’ve heard on the grapevine that they are chilled alternatives to bigger metropolises. Enjoy…
Santiago de Chile, Chile
Throughout all the tumult of the 90s and noughties, Santiago de Chile and Chile more generally has stood out as something of a paragon of political stability in a region plagued by revolutions and counter revolutions. Yep, since the fall of Augusto Pinochet in 1990, this country has been a free and stable democracy led by a middle-of-the-ground political coalition. And that’s helped to create unquestionably one of the safest cities in South America…
Mhmm…The Economist ranks Santiago de Chile as the 33rd safest city on the planet today in its annual Safe Cities Index. That commends a place with solid digital security and provision of healthcare. More pointedly, travelers here will discover a buzzy metropolis with a happening CBD, all set wonderfully in the shadow of the Andes mountains (where there’s skiing, you know).
One bump in the road: Chile’s capital has been rocked by rare protest movements in recent years that have seen some violence between participants and security services. However, things calmed with the onset of the global pandemic and the subsequent election of reformist president Gabriel Boric in 2021.
There must be something in the continuous surf breaks, the soothing look of the lush jungled hills behind, and the ever-present beaches of lovely Florianopolis that make it one of the safest cities in South America. Move over, Sao Paolo. Move over, Rio. This is the place to go if you want to feel comfy and relaxed in Brazil.
Surprisingly, crime stats aren’t all that different to the bigger cities. Murder rates are roughly in line with the average for the region at about 22 per 100,000 of population, while about 8/100 are estimated to own a gun. However, ask anyone who has ventured down to the humid southern beaches here and they’ll tell you, there’s not a worry in the air!
All that’s left is for you to wax down the board and hit lovely Joaquina Beach or Praia Mole (the stomping ground of some of Brazil’s top surf pros), head to the sunset bars on the promenades for cold Caipirinha mixers next to the Atlantic Ocean, or hit the wild trails of Spider Mountain to challenge yourself.
Córdoba is a stunning place. Emblazoned with pink-tinted cathedrals (check the handsome Iglesia de Los Capuchinos) and dotted with palm-sprouting squares (head to the Plaza de San Martin), the town is often overlooked by travelers who aim instead for Buenos Aires. But that’s a shame, since the city has a lower crime rate than its compadre, the capital, and a slightly slower pace of life to match.
The basic point here is that Cordoba is a top choice if you want to munch your way through gaucho steakhouses and dance the tango in smoky halls but don’t want the added risks of visiting the big and bustling capital. It’s a hit of a real, bona fide Argentine city but without the heightened crime stats.
Oh yea, and the town is a fantastic steppingstone for adventure travelers looking to witness the snow-capped Argentinian Andes on the border with Chile further west, not to mention a great place to explore the breezy Las Sierras ranges in the surrounding province, where German-flavored hill stations await between the woods and ridges.
Cusco is seen by many as nothing more than the starting point of the world-famous, bucket-list-busting Inca Trail. But it’s so much more than that. A whole UNESCO site covers the downtown, which once featured the capital of the Incan Empire, but later became a masterpiece of colonial building laced with majestic Spanish architecture. It’s also got a buzzy nightlife scene, loads of trekking outfitters, and a café culture to rival any in the region.
Travel stat collator Numbeo lists the overall level of crime in Cusco at 48.7, which is considerably less than many other major towns on the continent (some of which push into the high 80s on the same metric!). There are especially low risks of being insulted, becoming a victim of car theft, or being victimized on a racial basis.
In fact, we’d say that the main risks in this mountain town of Peru lie on the trails. Yep, from the zigzagging staircases of the ancient Inca route to Machu Picchu to the soaring passes of the Salkantay Trek, those are the situations where you’ll probably need your wits about you the most!
Montevideo sneaks onto our list of the safest cities in South America on account of the fact that it’s the capital of Uruguay. That’s officially the safest place on the continent as per the Global Peace Index, an Institute for Economics and Peace measure that considers crime stats, the risk of conflict, and the degree of militarisation in society.
Sadly, crime rates in Montevideo itself are slightly higher than the national average. However, that’s to be expected of the big and bustling first city. The payoff is that you’ll get to see some wonderful sights and explore amazing attractions, which together offer a fantastic intro into one of the less-visited corners of the continent…
Start on the lovely main square of Plaza Independencia, where Art Deco skyscrapers loom up on all sides. Then, head across to leafy Prado Park or the glinting beaches of the Pocitos area, where you can chill under tropical boughs or listen to the waves lapping in. There are also plenty of excellent museums, especially one that’s dedicated to Gaucho culture.
Punta Arenas, Chile
Punta Arenas is right at the very end of the world. Seriously, go much further and you’ll drop into the Magellan Strait and the next piece of land will be mighty Antarctica. The town is mainly used as a gateway to the reserves of Chilean Patagonia and as a jump off point for exploring the South Pole and Mount Vinson. It’s also pretty darn safe…
Numbeo returns an overall crime stat in the green 20s for Punta Arenas. That translates to a “very low” or “low” risk of pretty much anything bad happening, from robberies to hate crimes to classic travel scams. A lot of that is down to the low population. Just 127,000 people live here permanently. You’re almost outnumbered by penguins!
Tempted? There’s more than just the promise of safety. Punta Arenas could be your ticket to the jagged spires of the legendary Torres del Paine National Park, where the W Trek is considered one of the very best in the world, or the vast and untrodden Alberto de Agostini National Park, a land of carved fjords and glaciers that lick down to an icy ocean.
Hold on one darn tooting moment, we hear ya’ say – Medellin? As in the Medellin of Narcos? The home of Pablo Escobar’s erstwhile enemy cartel and a onetime drug city to dwarf all drug cities? Well…yes, actually. We put Medellin here because it’s done something of a volt-face in the last decade, converting itself from a cartel-ruled patchwork of slums to one of the most innovative and forward-thinking metropolises in Colombia.
Granted, the crime hasn’t disappeared. The murder rate still sits at an unhealthy 23.8 per 100,000 head of population and there have been increasing instances of violent crime in certain neighborhoods, mainly down to an escalating turf war between paramilitary groups and gangs. However, compare that to the way things were and the picture is positively rosy – let’s just say that Medellin once had a homicide rate that was more than five times the national average!
This has all come about thanks to big government efforts to reclaim the streets from the cartels, but also clever urban planning initiatives like the construction of the Metrocable commuter system (a ski lift that takes you to work – pretty cool, eh?). The town has also tried to establish itself as one of the tech hubs of South America, and it’s now touted as the continent’s answer to Chiang Mai and Canggu as a potential home to digital nomads.
Safest cities in South America – our conclusion
This list of the safest cities in South America reels off just a few of the locations that we think come up trumps for travelers who want to dodge the dangers of a region that’s not known for being the easiest to explore. They are cities with low crime rates and easy-going vibes; places where you can enjoy something more relaxed, from the hills of Colombia all the way to the icy reaches of Patagonian Chile.