“Is Ecuador safe?” That’s one of the most common questions future expats have when considering a move to this small Latin American country. Traveling or moving abroad may be uncomfortable at times, but it’s probably safer than you’ve been led to believe.
In this article, we’re going to shed some light on the real crime stats in Ecuador by comparing them to the United States, and we’re going to give you some common sense safety tips to help you avoid experiencing crime in Ecuador.
This is Part 8 in our series about living abroad in Ecuador. If you missed the other articles, you might want to Start Here…
Gang Violence in Ecuador
If you’ve watched any of our YouTube videos from Cuenca or some of the other cities in Ecuador, you may have noticed a lot of graffiti. This is common throughout Ecuador, Latin America and the rest of the world. Even in developed cities like Berlin, graffiti is common.
However, if you’re from the United States, Canada or other less graffiti-prone parts of the world, you may instantly picture gangs on a violent rampage vandalizing the city with cans of spray paint. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
In Ecuador, graffiti is viewed as an art form, which is why you’ll often see the artists real name embedded in the painting or below it. Much of what you may perceive as graffiti, is actually commissioned and paid for by property owners or local governments.
Gangs used to be a major problem in some parts of Ecuador, such as in Guayaquil and Quito, but government efforts over the past 10 to 15 years have made gang violence virtually non-existent.
In 2007, the government shifted its approach to gangs by legalizing them and provided grants for these groups to serve their neighborhoods.
Other social reform efforts included rebuilding the police and criminal justice system, as well as increases in vital social programs. An Inter-American Development Bank study found that, by 2018, these government efforts “helped reduce violence and criminality drastically.”
This isn’t to say you should walk around Ecuador without taking common sense precautions. Like anywhere in the world, there are ways to avoid dangerous places and situations.
The risk of robbery, assault, and kidnapping still exists, just as it does in the United States and everywhere else in the world. However, pickpocketing is the main type of crime that most tourists and expats face. But if you follow some of the tips we’ll cover below, you’ll find Ecuador is a very safe place for Americans and expats from around the world.
Crime Statistics in Ecuador
In the past, one of the reasons Ecuador’s government struggled in combating crime had to do with limited police presence. Other factors, such as lack of judicial resources and weak border security, also played a role. However, social reform efforts such as rebuilding the police and criminal justice system, installing street cameras, and increasing vital social spending, has increased safety in Ecuador.
Since 2011, crime has fallen dramatically. Despite a recent plateau, the Ecuadorian homicide rate fell from 15.4 per 100,000 in 2011 to 5.7 in 2018.
Nationwide, any danger to U.S. tourists and expats in Ecuador mostly consists of theft in the form of pickpocketing, purse snatching, and mugging. The most common items stolen from tourists are phones, laptops, cameras, cash, and jewelry.
Generally, the police don’t pursue thefts of property worth less than $500. So taking the proper precautions in public will keep you from being stranded in Ecuador without a phone or wallet.
Homicide Rate in Ecuador vs. The United States
The United States actually suffers from a higher homicide rate at 6 per 100,000 people (2019). Ecuador experienced just under 1,000 murders in 2018, setting its murder rate at 5.7 per 100,000.
The safest expat cities in Ecuador, such as Cuenca, Loja, and Salinas, pale in comparison to U.S. cities with the highest murder rates (per 100,000 citizens), such as Detroit (40.6), Chicago (20.7) and Baltimore (57). Due to government efforts combating violence, Ecuador is seeing a rate trending similar to that of the safest cities in the United States.
Like any country, there are common sense places to avoid in Ecuador. Below we’ll go over some of the main tourist areas and examine their safety.
Overall Risks & Safety Tips
While the overall crime rate has been in steady decline since 2011, following the pandemic and the resulting economic fallout, there has been an uptick in theft related crimes, at least anecdotally. No official crime stats for the second half of 2020 are available as of the writing of this article, but you may want to use extra precautions to avoid theft and robbery.
One of the most common crimes against tourists in Ecuador is pickpocketing. There’s a wide variety of techniques used to snag your wallet. For example:
- Bump and Grab – you’re bumped while being passed in close quarters like a bus or mercado and your pocket is picked.
- Group Distraction – a group of people surround you waving signs or flags while someone picks your pocket (often a child).
- You Dropped Something – someone points to the ground behind you and says you dropped something, then steals your bag while you look away.
- Foam on the Sleeve – someone puts foam or shaving cream on your sleeve, then points it out to you and offers to help you clean it up. When you take off your jacket or bag, they grab it and run.
You can counter these theft tactics by taking a variety of precautions, such as not trusting random strangers, storing cash in multiple places on your person, and keeping the items you carry to a minimum. Some other investments are uploading essential documents to the cloud and using zipper pockets with a fastener.
Most of these crimes occur in tourist locations, so staying vigilant in these areas and in crowds will help keep you from falling victim to theft. If you do find yourself confronted by someone with a weapon, it’s always better to part with your belongings rather than risk your health and safety.
Use Your Hotel Safe in Ecuador
Some people have reported their belongings missing from their hotel rooms, so taking advantage of a hotel safe for belongings like passports and cash is a great idea. Take a picture of your passport ID page and store them on your phone so you can leave your physical passport in the safe.
Most hotels allow their guest to set a custom password so you’ll know your belongings are safe as you explore everything Ecuador has to offer.
Are Taxis in Ecuador Safe?
There’s also the risk of losing your belongings traveling throughout Ecuador. The U.S. Embassy doesn’t allow its employees to use un-vetted taxi services because there have been instances of robberies. As tourists or embassy workers entered the taxi, a couple of men would enter the cab and force people to withdraw all the money at the nearest ATM.
Overall, it’s better to avoid the un-vetted taxi services in Quito, Guayaquil, Manta, Playas, and other coastal towns. If you have to travel through a city, it’s better to use apps like Azutaxi (in Cuenca), Uber (in Quito and Guayaquil only as of 2020), private recommended drivers (we have several) or shuttle services provided by your hotel.
You can usually trust taxis that are registered, which are yellow with identical unit numbers on both the windshield and the doors. Registered taxis also have a taxi cooperative logo. Some of the companies vetted by the U.S. consulate include FastLine, Solservice, and Wayose.
Taxis waiting in line outside the airport or bus terminal have been validated by the attendants and are generally safe for expats.
Bus Safety in Ecuador
When you’re traveling by bus, it’s best to keep your luggage close to you. Some people report their luggage stolen from the overhead bins in buses traveling between provinces so keep your bags in your lap or next to you on the window side. It’s also better to travel during the daytime since the robberies that have occurred on buses typically take place at night.
It’s generally safe to store large bags in the luggage compartment under the bus because an attendant monitors it while the doors are open and you must present a claim ticket to take a bag.
Political Demonstrations in Ecuador
Political demonstrations in Ecuador are common, and the police often retaliate using water cannons and deploying canisters of tear gas. Peaceful protests can turn violent on a dime, so it’s best to avoid any large demonstrations.
Car Break-Ins in Ecuador
Don’t leave any valuable items on the seat of your car or in plain sight. Just like anywhere in the world, it’s common for car windows to be broken when items of value can be seen through them.
Safety of Popular Areas in Ecuador
Guayaquil Ecuador Safety
Guayaquil is both the largest and most dangerous city in Ecuador. To put it in perspective, both Chicago and Guayaquil carry similar crime rates. Despite repeated government efforts, crime persists in the form of robberies, car break-ins, and homicides due to limited resources, a large wealth gap, and dense population.
Many crimes go unsolved because the police don’t have the time or resources to pursue every robbery or case of pickpocketing. The primary threat to tourists is non-violent theft, so using anti-pickpocketing techniques like a belt wallet or clip zippers will help you keep track of your belongings.
If you’re planning to visit Guayaquil, it’s best to do so in the safety of a group or with a tour guide. This will help make sure you can safely enjoy the sights of Guayaquil, such as shops and restaurants along the Malecón 2000 or the gorgeous Parque Seminario and its iguanas.
Avoid walking alone at night and avoid shortcuts through alleys, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the area.
Quito Ecuador Safety
As with Guayaquil, Quito isn’t a place you should wander around at night, but for the most part, tourists have a great time in Ecuador’s capital city.
While both Guayaquil and Quito experience higher levels of crime compared to Ecuador’s smaller cities and rural towns, this is to be expected of large cities.
Visiting the historic sites of Quito is a must when visiting Ecuador, but the city draws large crowds making it the perfect hunting ground for pickpocketers.
As you stroll through the shops and historic sites, make sure you know where you’ve stored your valuables and force yourself to remain alert about anyone trying to get too close to you.
Like Guayaquil, you shouldn’t walk around Quito alone, especially at night. Your safest option is to travel in a group or with a tour guide.
One nice thing about Quito is their tourist police force who wear neon vests. These officers can help you out in an emergency, such as a personal injury or to report a crime.
Cuenca Ecuador Safety
The city of Cuenca is one of the safest in Ecuador with one of the lowest murder rates in Latin America, according to Governor Xavier Martinez. In terms of overall crime, the city ranks on the lower end when compared to similar cities in the United States.
What this means is that you can enjoy the sights of Cuenca, like the Old and New Cathedrals or the Monastery of El Carmen de Asuncion without having to worry too much about staying safe.
However, taking certain precautions like traveling in groups and avoiding traveling alone at night are always your best bet to stay safe in any major city.
If you’ve been planning a trip to Ecuador, and you’re reluctant because of inflammatory news coverage, we hope this article provides more context to put your mind at ease. Overall, Ecuador is a very safe country, but crime is a still a risk, just as it is across the globe.
The key in Ecuador is to travel smart, keep up with local news, and explore in groups or with a tour guide when possible. Other common-sense tactics we’ve covered include avoiding nighttime travel and investing in safety products like cash belts, bags with zipper clips and personal safes.
Safety Tips to Keep in Mind
- Always remain vigilant about your surroundings, especially in crowds and tourist locations.
- Don’t be afraid to make eye contact with others.
- Avoid walking alone at night, especially along dark streets and trails.
- Don’t stand around on a dark street talking to people, this can attract unwanted attention.
- Wear a crossbody bag such as a money wallet and take advantage of zipper pockets with clips.
- Shift your backpack to the front, like a kangaroo pouch, while you’re traveling through crowds. That will make it nearly impossible for a pickpocketer to steal anything without you noticing.
- If you’re using a car, don’t store your valuables in plain sight. Put them in the glove compartment, under the seat or in the trunk.
- When you’re traveling via bus, keep your valuable belonging on your person. Don’t put them in overhead bins and don’t hand them to anyone offering to help you. Just say, “NO, gracias.”
- If you feel unsafe or suspicious of someone, keep walking until you’re in a safe, open, and public place. Or step into a restaurant or store.
- If you’re threatened with a deadly weapon, it’s best to part with your belongings. As frustrating as it may be, things can be replaced; YOU can’t!
If you have any other safety precautions, let us know about them in the comments below.
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