First I want to say that I didn't travel South America alone, I was actually travelling with my partner, Jack. But it is important to note that he wasn’t always at my side every minute of the day. Because Jack hates museums and I love them. Also he likes to sleep in, so there's that.
So off I would go, across town (usually on foot) to explore bookshops, coffee shops and anywhere else that had caught my interest - all on my own. There’s something a little extra daunting about solo travel in South America, because on top of that reputation many of the countries have as a breeding ground for gangs and drugs, they also have a masculine dominated culture, easily noticed in the frequent catcalling.
While a couple of interactions with locals were difficult, I found that most of the time young guys just wanted to say hello. I never felt threatened, or in danger, and found that in reality, South America is no more dangerous for the solo female travellers than other parts of the world. Just use your regular safety precautions (aka common sense), and let the catcalls bounce off you, because the beauty of South America deserves your full attention.
Tips for staying safe as a solo female traveller in South America:
Of course I picked up a few lessons along the way.
1. Wear sunglasses. There’s just something about wearing sunglasses which helps me to feel less vulnerable when walking the streets alone. It might be because some men seek out eye contact before catcalling, or sunglasses make it easier to hide my hurt feelings (jokes) but they’re useful either way.
2. Try to avoid confronting Latino men who catcall. It’s about them, not you, and the way they see themselves. Getting angry could aggravate the situation and put you in danger. Yes, I know it’s not okay, but personal safety is paramount.
3. Walk behind other women. If anything, it’s interesting to see how local women react (most just ignore it – for them, catcalling is just a way of life), but it helps to feel less alone.
4. I know it’s obvious, but don’t go out at night. Jack used to make fun of me for not wanting to leave the hotel alone at night, but guys don’t really get it, so practise fine tuning your intuition, it’ll keep you safe.
5. Cover up a bit. It just helps keep the attention away from you and on the local women who are usually in tight jeans and short skirts. I could never work out if Latino women secretly enjoy the attention or if they're so used to it that it's water off a duck's back, so if you know, tell me your thoughts.
6. Petty theft is common and usually by opportunists. So the simple answer is not to give them the opportunity. Whenever you leave somewhere, be it a restaurant seat, a bus seat, a hostel common room - get into the habit of turning around and checking the area you've just vacated. Wrap the strap of your bag around your ankle when you when you're on buses (don't put in overhead compartments).
DON'T SHY AWAY FROM TRAVEL IN SOUTH AMERICA JUST BECAUSE YOU'RE FEMALE. Seriously, don't let your gender dictate your life. If this is really something that you want to do, then you absolutely can do it, and in a way that is safe. If you're really doubting yourself, I suggest getting a little solo travel experience in Europe or Southeast Asia (or as part of a big round the world trip). There will be people in your life who will tell you you're crazy for going to Latin America on your own. Unless they have personally been there, don't listen, it's just parrot talk - a repetition of what they've heard on the news or through friends of friends.
But don't be dumb about it either. Anywhere in the world can be dangerous if you're not aware of your surroundings. It's like crossing the road without looking. If you look, you'll be fine - nobody would tell you to never ever cross the road just because there is a small chance of danger. You want to travel to South America? Do your research, be alert, and most of all, have the best time of your life!
Want to read more? Try:
Flora the Explorer - Sexism and Machismo: the Attitude to Women in Latin America
Inspired by Maps - What you need to know as a solo woman travelling in South America
This Battered Suitcase - The myths of Central America
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