First of all let it be said that in general Latin American people are extremely friendly, helpful, welcoming and hospitable. It is never hard to get into conversation with them, though it will be easier for you to make friends if you know at least a few language basics. The best way to get to know the locals and partake in their lives is to do a homestay, join volunteer project or go to a language school where you will be housed by local families. They will quite likely adopt you as part of the family and make sure that you are safe wherever you go.
However, if you are just passing through you should be a little bit more cautious, especially if you find yourself socializing where rather too much alcohol is flowing - don't let yourself get carried away. Imbibed people become easy victims - and drunk people can be quite unpredictable, possibly turning violent. In the same vein another note of caution - never accept a drink offered by strangers from an open bottle, unless you have watched others drink from the same bottle first. Insist on having it opened in front of you. Already open bottles may be spiked.
Safety is always a concern for travelers - after all, it feels as though your life depends on the few belongings that you carry in your luggage while travelling to strange and foreign lands. Although, in reality, if we take some simple precautions, usually we actually have a lot of recourse, even if things do get stolen.
The number one rule for travelers is: be vigilant.
The majority of crime in Latin American countries is opportunistic petty crime - pick pocketing and mugging, or plain rip offs. Violent crime is extremely rare, though it does occasionally occur - those incidences are more often than not drink or drug related.
Flashing a lot of money or displaying obvious sign of wealth such as expensive watches and jewelery is a no, no - leave your precious possessions in the hotel safe (if it is safe) and only carry enough cash for what you need on that outing. Traveler's checks are safer than credit cards and can be replaced if stolen. If you do have credit cards make sure the cards are registered and you have the emergency number handy in a safe place so you can quickly cancel them. Make copies of your passport ID page and any other important documents you are taking. Leave one set at home and take one set with you, but store it in a different place than the originals.
Don't keep all your valuables in one place and if you do take them out with you try and avoid handbags and fanny packs that can be snatched with a simple slash. Wear your daypack in front rather than on your back - especially in crowded areas.
Crowded places such as markets are prime hunting grounds for pickpockets. Be especially vigilant and aware of who and what is around you at all times - keep an eye on small children who are quick and below legal age.
Most opportunistic theft occurs when for one reason or another you are distracted, sleepy, not feeling well or disorientated, in other words- when you are not on top of things. Pickpockets and thieves know the spots where their would-be victims are most vulnerable.
Some also employ scams to distract you in order to take advantage of your state of confusion. Such operations usually involve 2 or more thieves - one or two to distract you while the others take your belongings. A well known variant of this scam is being cornered by a group of people and someone 'accidentally' pouring some liquid or foam on you and then apologetically offering to help you clean yourself off. While you are in the shocked mode of surprise the others slash your bag and make off with your belongings. Other variants include someone suggesting that you may have dropped something and is helping you to look for it, while another pops out of the wood word and steals your bag.
A newer variant of the distraction strategy is making the rounds in South America - pretend plain clothes policemen. They ask to see you ID and everything and appear to hand you everything back, except, as you will notice later, your credit card. Do not under any circumstances get into a car with these fakes or take them back to your lodgings.
Other scams involve hotels if you make your travel reservations independently rather than through a reputable company, you may find that the room you booked over the internet is not available when you get there, even though you have paid for it. Instead you may be offered cheaper rooms, but at no discount.
Always be aware of your surroundings. If someone is following you allow them to pass. Don't walk down lonely streets by yourself. After dark always get a taxi. Fix the price before you get in and make sure the taxi is licensed.
While it does not entirely offset the upset and worry of lost or stolen belongings, ADEQUATE TRAVEL INSURANCE can take at least some of the sting out of the nasty experience. Also highly recommended is TRIP CANCELLATION INSURANCE, which can be helpful if you have to cancel a trip or miss connections.
To be sure to get your money's worth go with a reputable company. They know the guides and trust them because they have long working relationships with them - which would not be possible if the guides were no good. If you want to hire your own guide it is always best to find one on personal recommendation. Check travel forums, such as the Thorntree at Lonely Planet or search trip reports at the South American explorer's club. Properly trained guides that will be able to give you a real service should be licensed and you should ask to see that license. Don't just go with anybody who 'claims' to be a guide.
It is usually safer to go sight-seeing in a group of people, where each keep an eye out for the others. This is one reason why it is generally safer to go with organized tours rather than on your own, although occasionally even organized tour groups are attacked in remote places - but this is extrememly rare. If you do go somewhere off the beaten track by yourself at least try to let someone else know where you have gone and when you expect to be back.
If you are an independent traveler and like to take public transport rather than tourist transportation services, at least try to avoid night buses. There are numerous reports that such bus services are targeted by organized gangs.
Some travelers have a hard time with the economic realities of developing countries - such as bargaining - they feel that initially being quoted a high price is an attempt to rip them off. In some cases that may be so. But quite often it is simply a way of life and a way of communicating with a stranger. The actual sale may be secondary. I find it amazing that travelers, who spend thousands of dollars on airfares, hotels, food and guides, will quibble over a few pennies when buying local crafts - which if they were to buy them in arts and crafts shops at home, would set them back three times the amount. Also, next time you are driving a hard bargain, remember fair trade ethics. Many artisans and campensinos are desperately poor. Try to buy directly from them rather than from tourist shops. If, understandably, you don't want to buy souvenirs at inflated tourist prices at least consider making a donation to social networks that aim to improve the living conditions of the poorest people in these countries. Also, before getting irate about such practices it may be worth remembering that western countries are morally no better - just walk down the tourist areas of New York, Paris or London and compare the prices there with those you are willing to pay in your neighborhood.
Latin America is generally not a bad place for solo women travelers, though the situation varies from place to places. Very touristy areas are the worst for aggressive 'pick-up' schemes, doping of drinks and the like - that is true of any place, anywhere in the world. Apart from that it may be said that while Latino men tend to be macho - in terms of showing off to each other and displaying a chauvinistic attitude towards women, they are rarely aggressive and usually will leave you alone if you make it clear to them that you don't want their attention. This may be a different matter if the suitor is drunk. Again - this is a universal truth that does not just apply to Latinos. Rape is extremely rare. Be on your guard and always expect ulterior motives if someone is overly attentive and nice to you. Don't reveal your hotel address. If you feel the need to take protection, pepper spray or whistles are best.