I've been travelling in South America all year and am absolutely passionate about this continent, although it hasn't been trouble-free and I blame that on my being a not-always-careful-enough single female traveller. Some of the things I've learnt from my own experiences and from other people:
- Be careful walking around Retiro bus or train station after dark and/or anywhere around the surrounding plaza - especially the side of Plaza San Martin between Retiro and the Manuel Tienda Leon airport shuttle terminal. I had my mobile phone stolen by a gang of teenagers that were hiding behind parked cars.
- "Distraction" tactics are really effective because it only takes a moment of confusion for you to lose all your stuff. It happened to me after I'd just got on a bus at the main terminal in La Paz. A woman sitting behind me tapped my shoulder to attract my attention towards a man outside the bus gesturing at me and waving a bit of paper. While I was wondering if I'd left something behind at the ticket office, she had grabbed my bag and moved to get off the bus. Luckily I noticed quickly enough to start shouting and one of the other passengers stopped her. The problem of fake passengers isn't so much of an issue on buses where your tickets are checked before you get on, but either way you are better off keeping your bag by your feet or on your lap and wrapping one of the straps around you. This is also a good idea in cafes and internet cafes: no distraction techniques needed there because your attention is already somewhere else.
- Taxi drivers in Buenos Aires are notorious for ripping you off, especially from the bus terminal at Retiro. One couple I met lost 200 pesos because the driver said their money was fake but wouldn't give it back (so small change is good). Another one drove off with a guy's luggage after he stopped to buy cigarettes (so don't get out of the taxi until the driver does). Although the remise service is recommended because it's more secure, I found it too expensive and you have to watch out for unofficial remise touts as well. I think you're less likely to get ripped off if you leave the bus station and get a metered taxi on the main road; there are hundreds of them.
- Lock the door after you get in a taxi, especially in big cities like Buenos Aires and Lima. Also try and keep your bags and any valuables out of plain sight when you're travelling by car as they are subject to "smash and grab" attacks especially at traffic lights or during traffic jams.
- Always get a licensed taxi (with unique ID numbers, phone numbers, company names, big signs on the roof, etc), but if you're on your own at night it's better to be totally sure and call a radio taxi instead. It is rare but there was a case recently in Buenos Aires of a girl being kidnapped because the taxi she got into had been stolen.
- In Lima watch out for taxis with lots of storage space at the back - there are lots of them. Look carefully and don't get in if there seems to be a lot of stuff in there covered up under a tarp (or whatever). A friend of a friend was robbed when two men hiding out in the back came out halfway through the journey and stole everything he had down to his shoes.
- In Puno, Peru there are tons of touts offering really cheap hotel rooms and tours of Lake Titicaca. Ignore them and go with people you are sure come from a real company. Also ignore taxi drivers that tell you your chosen hotel is closed and want to take you to a different one - that's common in Arequipa too.
- I heard a weird story from a friend who travelled around Chile a couple of years ago. She was sitting in a park in Santiago and was approached by a gypsy woman who seemed to cast some kind of spell on her because she was powerless to stop the woman from going through all the pockets of her bag and stealing her money!
Hope some of this is useful to you. None of the above has ever made me think twice about being here or about travelling alone and it shouldn't put anyone else off!