South America gets a lot of bad press when it comes to crime and many women travelling solo are wary of visiting South and Central America. However, the people of this region are among the friendliest and most inviting hosts in the world. While crime is an issue – especially in the poorer parts of the continent – if you behave safely and stay aware of the risks, travelling alone through South America can be a fantastic experience.
Here is our advice for making the most of solo travel in South America.
1. If you want to avoid male attention
The culture of South America is in general rather macho and chauvinistic. You’ll likely come across some rather sexist opinions during your time there and you’ll probably experience some kind of unwanted male attention. The best thing to do is simply ignore such men, and walk into the nearest shop or hotel, or make a loud, noisy protest if they won’t leave you alone. Creating an imaginary husband is also a handy get-out clause if you get stuck in a conversation.
2. If you want to blend in
Watch the locals and copy their patterns of behaviour. Local women may well experience the same problems and have the same concerns that you do, so get friendly with them and more often than not, they will freely share some advice on how to deal with situations that arise.
3. If you want to make friends
Spanish or Portuguese are great languages to learn – and very useful if you’re going to be spending lots of time in South America. Many solo travellers start their trip with a week or more at a language school in a major city. Along with lessons on vocab, you’ll pick up a lot about local culture and traditions and you may also make friends with other travellers during your time there. Knowing the language will earn you a little more respect on your future travels, too. It might be easier to find fellow travellers in South rather than Latin America – because there are more backpackers around in general.
4. If you don’t want to end up in prison
Avoid illegal drugs – in certain parts of South America, it may seems as if these substances are as easy to come by and widely consumed as cigarettes but don’t be fooled – possessing such drugs could land you in serious trouble. It’s also illegal in many countries to take photographs of government buildings or anything related to the military. This can be rather strictly enforced, so always ask a nearby officer of security guard if you’re not sure. Better to be safe than sorry!
5. If you’re scared of crime
Some places have higher crime rates than others. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go there, but if you are made nervous simply by knowing there is more crime in an area, then do some research while you’re planning your trip. Venezuela, for example, has one of the highest crime levels in South America and in major cities like Caracas, you should be very careful. Some of the larger cities in Central America – Belize City, Guatemala City, Managua, Mexico City – are very poor and are therefore known for being more dangerous, with theft being a serious problem. Be careful in any major city after dark.
Colombia is a lot safer than many would have you believe and only parts of it are dangerous. All of these are off the beaten track, however, with areas such as the Pacific Coast and the with Ecuador and Venezuela being best avoided.
Make sure your phone is fully charged and that you have local help numbers in your contacts.
6. If you want your usual items
… buy them before you leave home. Simple things such as tampons, condoms, hand sanitizer and malaria tablets can be surprisingly hard to get hold of in some places in South America.
7. If you want to survive the bus journeys
You’ll hear plenty of horror stories about bus travel in South America, but generally speaking the services are very good. If you’re even a little prone to travel sickness though, do take an anti-sickness tablet before your first long journey – the drivers do take hairpin bends at some speed! Even if you think you are a heavy sleeper, pack eye masks, ear plugs and anything that you think will help you sleep on your journey.
Keep your most valuable belongings with you, and tie your hand luggage around your legs, locked together, if you need to sleep. Major bus companies should provide a claim check for any item stored. The bus system between countries is in general very safe, although the comfort varies from country to country – buses in Argentina, for example, will be a lot plusher (and more expensive) than those in Bolivia. In all countries, they can get extremely cold, so pack a warm blanket in your hand luggage.
8. If you want to go on a tour
Tourism is South America is very geared up towards organised tours and for every destination, there will be about a hundred agencies keen to take you, probably for all around about the same price. Be sure to choose carefully – a good rule of thumb is to go by a recommendation from your hotel or hostel, or from travellers who have come back from the trip you want to go on. Tours to remote areas can be much safer than going it alone if you do it with a reputable company who are going to look after you.