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As a frequent Latin America traveller, a question that I always get is about safety: how safe is solo female travel in Latin America? The continent is known for its violence, robberies, express kidnappings and other nasty things. So why would you go there by yourself as a woman?
When I was 19, I embarked on the journey of my life: backpacking in South America. I booked a ticket to Argentina and with no Spanish and nothing but a vague travel plan in my mind, I set off to this amazing continent, which soon became my favourite region in the world. Travelling solo as a young blonde girl in Latin America – did no one have objections? Hell yeah they did! There were very few people who supported my dream. The others thought I was crazy going to such a dangerous place by myself. Even though some of them had never set foot outside of Europe, they were convinced that I was going to get robbed, raped and murdered. But I get it, now even better than that 19-year old: solo female travel in Latin America is not without risks and you need to be prepared.
With years of travelling and living in Latin America under the belt, I know what it is like. And I know that many of you, who are going to Latin America for the first time, have questions about safety and well-being while travelling solo.
You might wonder how you are going to stay safe, if you’re carrying everything you have with you on the bus and you heard that buses in Ecuador get robbed frequently. Or if you can safely walk around Rio de Janeiro. Or what to do if you get hold up at gunpoint in Mexico.
I had these questions too. But after having backpacked for 1.5 year in South America, holidayed many more times in Latin America, and lived in Argentina (six months) and Brazil (two years and counting), I can confidently say that travelling in Latin America is totally worth it and not as dangerous as the people back home like to make you believe. You just need to use your common sense, be prepared and keep an eye on your surroundings. If you do that, solo female travel in Latin America should not be a problem.
Female solo travel in Latin America – my experiences
Thankfully I’ve never had a really serious situation, but there were a few times of attempts and scary moments. Sharing my experiences might help you to become more aware of the things that could happen – for me that worked, anyway. Before I left for Argentina, I read about female solo travel in Latin America on many forums and became known with some of the tactics that are being used, which helped me to recognise some of the tricks.
The bird poop trick in Argentina
When my sister came to visit me in Buenos Aires, we were walking down a street late afternoon, on our way to the subway. All of a sudden I heard her say “ieewww” and saw some liquid on her shoulder, resembling bird poop. Very conveniently, an older couple was right besides us with tissues in their hand, ready to help out. But I knew about this popular trick, where they pour liquid on you and one of them helps out, while the other steals your bag or your belongings in it. You’re so distracted by the “poop” that you won’t notice it.
We were carrying backpacks with nothing but bread in it (helping out a charity for the homeless), so there was not much to be stolen, but of course, I didn’t even want their attempt. Recognising the trick right away, I told my sister to put our backs to each other and started yelling at them in my own language. They slunk off, and got in a cab that was also very conveniently there (i.e. he was part of the scam). Result: no bread stolen 😉
Tip: Be aware of tricks when something happens and strangers are a bit too conveniently there to help you out. If you recognise their tactics, make sure to show them that you know, and they’ll probably back off.
Road blockades in Bolivia
Road blocks are a very common thing in Bolivia – I bet that everyone who has travelled there for more than two weeks has experienced one. Road blocks usually happen around elections or voting time, or when some other political thing is going on. They are not necessarily dangerous, but they can block traffic for hours, days or weeks, and this is not something you want to be stuck in.
In my case, there was a referendum to be hold on a Sunday. When we left Rurrenabaque (the cutest jungle town I’ve ever seen) on Thursday, we encountered a road block after a couple of hours. Local people had cut down trees and we couldn’t go any further. Together with the rest of the bus, we cleared the road, but our driver said it would be like this all the way to La Paz, until Sunday. It would take us days! So we decided to head back and enjoy Rurrenabaque for a couple more days.
This road blockade wasn’t so serious or dangerous – I was with other tourists and it was day time. But I also experienced a road block when I was travelling by myself (and also being the only tourist on the bus), on my way to La Paz. It had become night time already when all of a sudden we stopped. I looked out of the window and saw many more stopped cars and buses on the highway, and fires far away. This was a serious one. After a while, someone said something which I couldn’t really understand and around a third of the bus left. I decided to stay, because that felt like the best option. A few minutes later, a man came back, just to tell me that they had found a taxi that could take another route, and that I should go with them. Because I stood out as a young blonde woman, he had remembered me and wanted to make sure I was safe (sometimes standing out as a tourist does have it advantages!). The bus would be there all night waiting, and it wasn’t going to be the safest (nor the warmest) situation. I took the taxi with them and ended up safely in La Paz a little while later.
Tip: Be careful around elections/voting/other politically tense situations in Bolivia when you need to travel from A to B. Ask beforehand whether it’s safe and efficient to travel around a particular date. If you do, use your common sense and trust your gut – also if that includes trusting a stranger.
Guns & buses in Ecuador
Thankfully I’ve never been held up at gun point, but one time it got pretty close. I was on a bus from Baños to Guayaquil, together with my best friend who had come to visit me. On the road, she noticed that a car wouldn’t let us pass, every time the bus tried. It was weird indeed. A few minutes later, people started to shout things to the driver. I asked someone what was going on. The answer wasn’t very positive: “they are going to rob us”. Boy was I happy that my friend didn’t speak Spanish!
But indeed, a minute later we tried to pass him again and the driver of the car pulled a gun out. Everyone freaked out. And I don’t know how we did it, but we kind of went ahead of him, just as we entered a town, and drove straight to the police station. I’m assuming the guy wasn’t much of a pro, if he tried to rob us right when going into a city. At the police station, half of the passengers didn’t want to continue – they said the guy would be waiting for us further down the road, the only road to Guayaquil. My friend and I didn’t have much of a choice, so we hid our money and creditcards in our bras and hopped on again. It was another hour to Guayaquil and it was the scariest hour, but we never saw the guy again.
Tip: Robberies of entire buses are very common in Ecuador and elsewhere in Latin America. Make sure to distribute your money/valuables among your bags, and don’t try to be ‘smart’ when you are being held up at gun point. Just go along with it and give them what they want. Sometimes people try to refuse but this hasn’t always ended well.
My tips for solo female travel in Latin America
My many travels have taught me a thing or two for safe solo female travel in Latin America. Here are my top 10 tips:
1. Walk around confidently
As if you live in that city. Don’t go wandering with maps or your phone in your hand, looking like a lost tourist. You’ll definitely be more of a prey. Instead, if you’ve lost the way in areas that might not be super safe, enter a bank or a building and ask someone or check Google Maps.
2. Don’t flash your jewelry and other valuables
A non-brainer, I think, but an important one. You’ll want to attract as little attention as possible. Speaking for myself as a blonde person, I know I stand out anyway, and from miles away I can be recognised as a tourist. But at least I won’t look like a tourist who has a camera and cellphone up for grabs. Leave most of your valuables at home, it’s simply the safest option. I do bring my cellphone with me when I leave the hotel, even in cities like Rio, but in those cities I won’t bring my DSLR. I have brought my camera to other places that are generally safer. I usually bring one credit or debit card and some cash, and leave the rest of my cards and money in the hotel. In Rio I almost don’t wear any jewelry, not even cheap things – you might know it’s cheap, but someone else might think it’s pure gold!
3. Eyes on your bags
At all times! I’ve developed eagle eyes in South America 😉 A young person might want to “help” you store your bag in an Ecuadorian bus and still your valuables the few seconds you won’t look at it. Eagle eyes at all times.
4. Ask locals
If you’re not sure if an area or a certain street is safe, simple just ask the locals. A couple of weeks ago I was in João Pessoa, in the northeast in Brazil. The northeast is not the safest region in Brazil and although I felt very safe generally, as I was walking down a street towards a pharmacy during sunrise, I wasn’t sure if I should take the same street back when it was a bit darker. I asked the man helping me at the counter and he was very clear: “no”. Locals often know which areas or streets to avoid, so use their knowledge!
5. Back up crucial information
Nowadays we all use our phones for almost everything, but back in the days of my big South American trip (2008-2009) we traveled the analogue way. I had several copies of my passport – stored in different bags – and a list of important numbers such as those of my embassy, travel insurance and my family back home. Although the chances are small, your phone might get stolen, so it’s still wise to bring a hard-paper copy of those numbers, as well as one or two copies of your passport. You can also bring one copy with you whenever you leave your hostel, and leave your passport in the locker.
6. Sit behind the taxi driver
The seat behind the driver is always the safest option. It’s simply more difficult to point a gun at you.
7. Women, don’t tell people you’re alone or where you’re staying
Of course, be sure to make plenty of friends and share information about your whereabouts. But don’t tell that local guy who started randomly chatting with on the street. Sometimes, they take this as an encouragement (“ah, there is no boyfriend”) which can get rather annoying. Sometimes when I come back from a trip to my house in Brasilia (or vice versa), taxi drivers ask me if I live alone. I don’t feel comfortable if they know that I’ll be home alone, or my house will be empty when I’m going on a trip, so I always say that boyfriend is waiting for me.
8. Know your destination
Is it generally safe or should you avoid specific parts? In Rio, for example, I feel perfectly safe in Ipanema. But whenever I go out in Lapa, I almost don’t set foot outside a taxi – the chances of robbery are a lot higher and the area is a bit shady (although also a lot of fun!). Can you walk around or should you take an Uber at night? Read and ask around, and use your common sense. Boulevards are usually a safe place, but in Copacabana you don’t want to walk there after 10pm.
9. Learn some Spanish (or Portuguese)
Really, it makes all the difference. During my travels I met so many people who didn’t know any more Spanish beyond ‘una cerveza por favor’. How far can you get with that when you need urgent medical assistance and you’re in a tiny jungle town? Learning Spanish will help you in emergency situaties, will create goodwill with the locals, and will simply give you a much better trip with richer experiences.
10. Trust your gut, and trust people
If something doesn’t feel right, simply don’t do it. A lesson you can use for almost any situation in life 😉 But also don’t forget to trust people, despite some of the other tips I mentioned. The majority of people in Latin America and around the world are honest, hard-working and friendly people who would not hesitate to help you out. If I hadn’t trust the guy on the bus in Bolivia during the road block, god knows how long I would have stayed there. I’ve shared a taxi with total strangers in Peru, resulting in an unexpected, wonderful afternoon of Peruvian food and amazing views of the canyons. I’ve stayed with strangers through Couchsurfing and made friends for life. Trusting people will help you to experience Latin America in the best way possible: because it’s a beautiful continent where people naturally connect with each other. You don’t want to miss out on that 🙂
What are your tips for safe solo female travel in Latin America?