Our travel writers are typically a hardy bunch, happy to take on the likes of brutal overnight bus rides, grim hotel rooms and stomach-churning local “delicacies” for the sake of a great story, often in the very furthest reaches of the world. Sure, it’s not all hardship, but not everywhere turns out to be a glorious holiday destination – some places, quite the contrary.
So, in an effort to help you avoid the dodgy parts of otherwise great cities and countries, we asked in which neighbourhoods our intrepid globe trotters had felt the least safe while on their travels. Some might surprise you. Apparently “going loco in Acapulco” isn’t quite such a good thing these days…
Lapa, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Rio de Janeiro is my favourite city: mountains, beaches and beautiful people everywhere. Most of all it was the music and the energy it gave the place. The epicentre of samba is Lapa, and I enjoyed numerous amazing Caipirinha-fuelled nights at the street parties under the Arcos da Lapa during my two weeks here. Unfortunately, I also managed to get pickpocketed on four separate occasions. I wouldn’t want to blame it all on the booze, but I would say that the cheap Cachaça doesn’t seem like such a bargain when you’re stumbling around the streets without a wallet or a phone.
Duncan Forgan, @duncanforgan1
It’s only natural to want a cold beer when you ride into the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar, after a long, dusty tour of the Gobi Desert by jeep or horse or camel. The locals are, generally, a convivial bunch with a particular thirst for Irish pubs like the Grand Khaan and the quieter, cosier Hennessy’s Restbar. But there’s an aggressive atmosphere in the streets after dark, and it’s very common for drunken young men to pick fights with foreigners. The American barman at Hennessy’s told us he’d frequently had to defend himself. He booked us a taxi back to our hotel, and said he would advise every Western customer to do the same.
Stephen Phelan, @hyperphelan
I decided to break up a long bus journey in Mexico with a night in Acapulco (mistake number one). Why? Well, it was referenced in the film Dirty Dancing by Baby’s mum as a honeymoon option – “how bad could it be?” I thought. So bad. Terrible in fact. I was staying in a grotty, smashed-windowed guesthouse in the city’s backstreets (mistake number two). I took a walk on the beach which was strewn with rubbish and glass, and the rustiest, dodgiest bungee jump I’ve ever seen (mistake number three). I went to see some cliff divers – who were impressive to be fair – but it didn’t distract from the general unease I felt being in that city. In fact, I ended up seeking sanctuary in a rundown cinema – to see a subtitled version of Sex and the City 2. And that was mistake number four.
Hannah Summers, @BurgersandBruce
Johannesburg, South Africa
It’s fair to say that being locked inside a youth hostel, behind a security wall and barbed fence in East Johannesburg, didn’t really ingratiate me to the people of the city. I’d arrived with travellers from Israel and Norway in the afternoon and we wanted to grab some dinner and drinks. “Sorry, jah,” said the owner, bluntly. “It’s for your own safety. We keep the doors locked after dark. Go out there and you may not come back.” And, to be fair, she had a point. The next day, while parking on a main street in the nearby city of Nelspruit in broad daylight, our car was surrounded by a six-strong gang of youths brandishing knives. The moral of the story? Go to Cape Town instead.
Mike MacEacheran, @MikeMacEacheran
Downtown San Salvador, El Salvador
On a trip through Central America several years ago, I was a little nervous about transiting through several bus stations in downtown San Salvador, one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in the murder capital of the world. But it wasn’t until a pair of soldiers with very big guns spotted my partner and I waiting for a bus one morning and guarded us until we boarded safely that I fully appreciated how vulnerable we were. El Salvador has a lot to offer beyond its reputation for violence, but it’s definitely a country where you need to keep your wits about you.
Sarah Reid, @sarahtrvls
Mostly I’ve felt safe travelling over the years, notching up five continents so far without so much as being pickpocketed. And I’m a firm believer that the world is much safer than people would have you believe. But it says a lot when your favourite part about a place is a £10-per night hostel. Towards the end of a trip backpacking around Italy my friend and I arrived in Naples, AKA the home of the best pizza in the world. Having been warned repeatedly by locals not to wear any jewellery or handbags so as to avoid a mugging, we ventured out. We found deserted streets with nothing open and definitely no pizza (it was a Sunday). After eventually finding our way to the seafront, we witnessed what appeared to be a man shooting drugs on the curb. We spent the rest of our time in Naples playing cards on the hostel balcony, where our legendary host Giovanni cooked us pasta, before finding solace in limoncello further round the bay in Sorrento.
Clare Vooght, @ClareVooght
“You’re at the wrong desk, go to next counter,” says the woman at the ticket office of Bucharest’s train station, as she dismisses me, pulls down the blind on her kiosk window, rolls her office chair three feet to the left and summons me to the aforementioned neighbouring counter. It’s as a result of this kind of former-communist-bloc bureaucracy that my rail journey, from beautiful Brasov to Sofia in Bulgaria, includes a five-hour stop-off in Bucharest in the middle of the night.
I’m assured that Bucharest is one of Europe’s safer cities – and, besides, I’m the kind of guy who takes unlicensed mini-cabs in Mexico City after sunset – but, it turns out, the area around Gara de Nord train station is not the kind of place I want to be at 3am. With five hours to kill and no restaurants besides McDonald’s, nor any seating areas, I leave my travel companions sat on the tiles and head out of the station to see if I can find any semblance of sustenance.
Upon exiting, I’m greeted by two guys mainlining heroin on the front steps. I pick my way past furtive-looking would-be pickpockets and pimps, stray dogs, and kids huffing solvents from plastic bags. When I return with a packet of biscuits and make a beeline for my friends, my path is bisected by a naked toddler, chasing birds across the concourse while clutching a dead pigeon.
James Draven, @JamesDraven
Downtown Salvador, Brazil
South America is infamous for its crime, but on nine trips I’ve never experienced anything remotely anti-social... from its human population, that is. For street dogs, however, I’m a magnet. They smell my fear. And in downtown Salvador, Brazil, I once had a mob of a dozen or more angry, mangy and potentially rabid mongrels baying for my blood as I stumbled home one night from a bar. Now if I ever have to traverse a well-populated canine haunt I approach it the “Brazilian way” – a hefty stone in each pocket, just in case. To throw loudly at the ground, I should say, not at the dog.
Simon Parker, @SimonWIParker
Coca-Cola district, San Jose, Costa Rica
On Christmas Day 1999, I woke up in San Jose, capital of Costa Rica. I needed a ticket for a bus journey later that day along the swerving, unnerving Pan-American Highway south-east from the capital. The new edition of the Rough Guide showed the location of the required bus station a mile south of the city centre, in a relatively safe area.
I set off before dawn, knowing how long the queues can get at Latin American bus stations. I also knew that San Jose was the one real danger spot for robberies in Costa Rica; the US State Department warns that all tourists are “potential targets for criminals”.
The security guard looking after the defunct former bus station said I was one of a steady stream of backpackers led astray, and directed me to the correct depot. It was in the run-down neighbourhood known as Coca-Cola (after an advertising sign that used to be there). Not the sort of place I'd ordinarily go in the dark, but I was awake keen to sort out my transportation needs.
The mugger crept up behind me and hooked his left arm around my throat. During a similar encounter in Lisbon, I had immediately been surrounded by three thugs. But as I prepared to surrender my wallet and passport, it became clear he was alone. I managed to prise away his arm and run all the way to the sanctuary of the correct bus station – already busy with holiday travellers. No seats, I was told. So I hitch-hiked, and with a couple of lucky lifts in 4x4s made it almost to the Panamanian border faster than the bus, and with more colones in my pocket than I’d expected.
Simon Calder, @SimonCalder
Candelaria, Bogota, Colombia
It turns out there are two neighbourhoods known as Candelaria in Bogota, the capital of Colombia, as I found out the almost-hard-way. One is the historic and cultural hub where much of the accommodation is based. The other is essentially Barter Town from Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. A few years ago my wife and I rode a colectivo (essentially a minibus) with the destination marked on it. After an hour or so, we realised it wasn’t the right place: brand names started to disappear from shops, the streets got narrower and darker...
Eventually a young guy got on, carrying a football. He took one look at us and realised that we were on the wrong bus. Conversing in broken Spanish, he explained that we had to get off with him. Looking outside, that seemed unwise, but it was unclear what else we might do. We stepped out into the night and he hurriedly took us to a nearby police station. They in turn hailed a cab, took the driver’s registration and phone number and told him that if we didn’t get back safely, they would be coming for him and his family. Ultimately we got home, not quite without incident, but safely at least.
Jamie Lafferty, @megaheidReuse content