How safe are coastal towns?

0 May 23, 2014 in Beaches, Health and Safety by

Ecuador-Phone-TheftNearly every month I receive an email asking the same question. How safe are the coastal towns in Ecuador? This is a pretty open ended question. Like, how long is a piece of string?

So I though it is about time I broke it down.

Before I start, let me say that I feel completely safe for my personal safety, even in Guayaquil, but I am always wary of petty thievery and do my best to minimize my risk exposure, by travelling light and taking the five precaution listed below.

If you live in a middle class society in North America and Europe, it is easy to become blasé about personal safety and theft. You rarely think about it, because its not something that happens in your circles. You leave the car unlocked at gas stations, you put your wallet or phone on the counter when paying a bill an so on. But in 3rd world Ecuador, where minimum wage in is ~$350/month you must be more vigilant or you’ll get burned.

Live here or travel here long enough, and you will eventually fall prey to petty theft. Nearly every resident I’ve met, Gringo or Ecuadorian has been the victim of one form of theft or another, and in a few cases muggings. In contrast, getting killed, shot or assaulted is extremely unlikely, unless you do something really, really, really stupid.

In general, Ecuadorians are docile, non-confrontational people. But you should pay attention to your surroundings, and learn to recognize high risk situations. Remember, no matter how low profile you try to be, if you’re a Gringo you stand out. You may as well be wearing a neon dollar sign on your head.

Petty theft:

Petty theft is practically a national pass-time. From losing flip-flops on the beach to cellphones to bags, anything unattended will go walkies. Pay attention to your belongings. Don’t put your cellphone or wallet down on the table at restaurants or bars, or when paying for goods at a store. A momentary distraction, you turn around and its gone.

Pick pockets:

In busy malls and markets, occasionally there are pick pockets. Men, always put your valuables in front pockets not back pockets. Women, zip up you handbag or purse after you get something out. Don’t leave bags hanging on the back of a chair in restaurants and cafes, better to put them between your legs.

Teller theft:

You hear about this a lot in other countries, such as Peru, but it happens rarely in Ecuador. When you get money from the bank or a teller machine, someone may follow you to your car and mug you. Its best to withdraw money during business hours, as most banks have security guards on the door. If you must do so at night, scan the scene from afar before going up to the machine, and  have other people with you to watch your back.  As a precaution I always carry a high-voltage zapper, but I’ve never needed it.

Theft from cars:

A common crime in busy places such as street markets is the five-second-robbery: As you return to your car, you unlock it with your remote from a few feet away. But a robber hiding on the passenger side of the car, hears the click, opens a door and snatches your bag, phone or whatever, and then bolts. Or, a couple of people on a motorbike drive by. The one on the back opens your door, snatches your stuff and they drive off. Its very, very fast, and it is not a random act. While you were away, the car was watched, and the robbers knew exactly what was there, and which door to open. The robbers work in teams, some casing the cars, others performing the theft.

To avoid this happening, first, don’t leave anything on display in your car. Second, never open it with your remote from far away. Instead, walk fully around the car before opening just the driver-side door. Many remotes have two modes, a light press opens only the driver door, while a long hold, opens them all.

Purse snatching:

Not so common, but it happens. This is done by pedestrians coming up from behind you, or by motorcyclists. It can also happen as you get in and out of your car. For example, you stop the car to nip across the street to buy something, and leave someone in the car, so you don’t lock it. Robbers might open the door and snatch a purse from right under the passengers noses. To avoid this, always lock you car whenever you stop, even with other passengers inside.

Phone snatching:

Common in busy streets, especially in larger towns and cities. You may be texting or on the phone at the time, not paying attention to your surroundings and someone runs by and grabs it from your hand.  Similarly, leaving your phone on the table at a street side cafe makes you a easy target.
Trade of used (stolen) phones is big business. Where I live there are a least three quite legitimate high-street stores selling used phones. So if you lose your phone, you might be able to buy the same one back from one of these stores a few days or weeks later – wiped clean of course!


Rare, but it can happen even in daylight. For example, a friend of ours was mugged by two people at gunpoint, yards from his home, while walking to the grocery store mid-afternoon. They demanded his wallet, and then ran off and jumped over a wall, to get away.  There’s not much you can do about this, other than to carry as little money as necessary, and don’t walk around with original IDs (carry copies). Some people I know carry two phones, a smartphone and a cheap decoy phone for the mugger.

Car jacking:

These days, this is very rare as many private cars now have GPS-enabled tracking systems and a disabling mechanism. Lock your doors when driving, and don’t open your windows to street vendors or beggars.

Home Burglaries:

Burglaries are quite common, in Ecuador. That’s why most houses have bars on the windows. There are quite a lot of security companies that will install a complete security system in your home, including cameras, movement sensors, loud alarms, or silent alarms that ring in a call center. The police in Santa Elena province have recently been promoting a panic button, which I believe uses 3G service to send an SMS message to a police call center.
Or you can go for dogs and/or a caretaker to keep an eye on your property. If you are a home owner, emigrating from abroad, your biggest risk is on moving day, when your truck full of stuff arrives. Try to be discrete, and not draw attention to the fact that you’ve just acquired a lot of stuff worth stealing.

Four Basic Precautions

The most obvious advice, is to dress sensibly, pay attention to your surroundings and don’t attract attention. But here are some specific precautions worth taking.

Use copies of IDs:: Don’t carry your passport or original IDs around. Take photocopies or make laminated copies of your driver license and Cedula (once you become resident).

Backup your phone: Take full backups of your phone or tablet, and sign up for features to lock it, wipe it and find it if it gets lost. Honestly if it does get stolen, even if you can see it on a map, your chances of recovery are next to zero.

Use a bumbag or pouch: These are cheap, and easy to use, leaving both hands free. Positioned right in front of you and close to your body, they are hard for robbers or pick to get at. If possible, thread the strap through belt loops on your shorts, this makes it almost impossible for someone to cut the strap and snatch the bag.

Use hidden money belt: These are cheap, and easy to use. On long trips, when I need to carry my original passport or large amounts of cash. I like to use a hidden money belt around my waist and under my T-shirt. Skin colored ones are the best, and silk ones are most comfortable.

Carry a high-voltage zapper: I hope you never need to use it, but I can assure you it does give you peace of mind. The best part is, having one is a constant reminder to be vigilant, and that in itself is a good thing. I like ones that look like a phone, so no-one thinks twice, seeing it in my hand. But for home safety I also have a Taser C2 hidden in a strategic place.

Safety products for Ecuador residents, visitors and travelers.

If you have had a theft experience or a personal safety incident, please share it:

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Mark Cowtan
After nearly 30 years working in technology marketing in the UK and California, I emigrated to Ecuador, for a more balanced lifestyle and the luxury of living and working by the beach. Now, I help startups and small businesses with their Internet marketing.
Mark Cowtan

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