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Solo travel is awesome! And it’s becoming more and more popular for women to travel solo. Traveling by yourself can be a very personal experience, that changes you emotionally and mentally. It can change your life and make you a more confident person.
Kristen Newman said it perfectly in her book “What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding”:
I love that I am but one of millions of single girls hitting the road by themselves these days. A hateful little ex-boyfriend once said that a house full of cats used to be the sign of a terminally single woman, but now it’s a house full of souvenirs acquired on foreign adventures.
Of course, you don’t need to be single to enjoy traveling by yourself, but you get the idea.
Latin America is one of the best places for solo travel, but it has a nasty reputation in terms of safety. The reality is that most parts aren’t unsafe…especially the places that are popular among foreigners.
There are some simple steps you can take to reduce your risks and enjoy your trip to the fullest!
Here are 26 safety tips for women traveling alone in Latin America:
1. Be aware of your surroundings
This is the most important tip. Most dangers can be avoided just by paying attention to what’s going on around you. Be aware of anyone walking behind you. If it makes you nervous, slow down and let them pass you.
2. Wear a purse that crosses your body
A purse that crosses your body is much more difficult to steal than one you have dangling on your shoulder. If you’re going to an area where you know that theft is especially common, I even recommend wearing a jacket over your purse strap.
When I lived in Valparaíso I was warned that some thieves carry scissors so they can run up and cut your purse strap. It never happened to me or anyone I know but better safe than sorry!
3. Make sure your purse is zipped and that the zipper is in front of you
This tip is more for public transportation and crowded areas. Even if your purse is on your shoulder, thieves are very sneaky about unzipping your purse and pulling things out of it. Make sure you’re using a purse with a zipper and that the zipper is in front of you- so that someone can’t unzip it behind you.
4. Stick to busier streets when in an area that you don’t know
If you’re knew to a city or in a new part of a city, only walk where you see people. If Google Maps wants to bring you down a deserted alley, don’t do it. This is true whether you’re traveling by yourself or in a group
5. Stick to brightly-lit streets when walking alone at night
This should be common sense, but just in case you’re not sure.
6. Don’t carry a lot of cash on you
Only walk around with the cash that you need- and try to avoid bringing credit cards with you. Losing $10 is a lot less tragic than losing $100 and a credit card.
7. Don’t use your phone on the street
If you know the town is safe, obviously it’s fine to use your phone. But if you’re in a big city it’s best to avoid it. If you absolutely need to use it then make sure you’re aware of your surroundings.
8. Keep your belongings with you at all times
When I lived in the U.S. I used to leave my cell phone on a dining hall table to save my spot while I got food. At a university with 12,000 students. If I did that here my cell phone would disappear in the blink of an eye.
9. If you get lost, taxi drivers are your best friend
If you’re in a new city and you get lost, look for a taxi driver or the owner of a local business and ask for directions! It’s safer than asking people on the street when you’re not sure if you’re in a dangerous area or not.
10. When driving through dangerous areas at night, don’t stop at red lights
Most of you know I live in Cali, which is the second most dangerous cities in Colombia. When I’m driving with friends through the center of town or other dangerous areas at night, we never stop at red lights. You don’t need to worry about transit police stopping you because it’s common practice.
11. Don’t wear expensive jewelry or clothing
Diamond earrings are cool and all, but until you know if a place is dangerous or safe, it’s best to just avoid wearing them all together.
12. Ask locals for advice on where to go
If you’re staying in a hostel or hotel, the owners and employees can give you a lot of great tips about the safety of that particular area!
For example, in Medellín I wanted to see the comunas, which are similar to the favelas in Rio de Janeiro. The owner gave me great advice and told me to take the metrocable, where I could take pictures and see everything from up above. She told me that I absolutely should not get off the metrocable, which I might’ve done if I didn’t ask!
13. If you have to travel with a lot of cash, hide different amount in different places
Be creative! You can put cash in your bra, your phone case, your shoe, empty water bottles, in a book, etc.
14. Do your research!
It’s super important to research common dangers about the area you’re going to visit.
For example, a common danger in Cali is that people will ask you for something on the street (like water). When you say no, they continue to follow you or talk to you until they have you in a position where they can rob you. I didn’t know this before coming and this is what happened the one and only time I was robbed. To get out of this situation you have to be assertive and tell them no like you mean it. Which brings me to my next point…
15. Keep in mind that most thieves are opportunists, and not hardened criminals
Most thieves that you encounter are just people who will take an opportunity when they see it. Yes, some thieves walk around the street with weapons looking for people to rob, but the majority don’t. I can almost guarantee that most of the people you know who’ve been robbed were robbed by people on the street who saw the opportunity.
16. Make friends in your hostel
If you’re staying in a hostel it’s a great idea to make friends so you can travel in a group. Traveling in a group is often a safer option than traveling by yourself.
17. Don’t call taxis off the street
In general, it’s not a good idea to call taxis off the street for many reasons. And while I don’t necessarily agree with the company’s business ethics, it’s much safer to take Uber. Always choose Uber if you can. If you need to call a taxi, have someone order the taxi for you or use an app to call it. That way there’s at least some record of which taxi you got into.
In Colombia, Tappsi and EasyTaxi are both popular apps.
If you need to get a taxi off the street, at least take a mental picture of the license plate or driver identification card that’s sometimes in the back seat. Try not to use your cell phone and pay attention to the meter. If you know the route to where you’re going, pay attention because sometimes taxis try to take you a longer way.
Above I wrote that it’s great to ask taxi drivers for directions. And it is! But when you enter the taxi you’re putting yourself in a much more vulnerable position.
18. If you can’t carry pepper spray, use hairspray!
I think pepper spray is unnecessary in most situations. But there have definitely been some instances where I wish I had it- even just to feel more secure. Some countries in Latin America permit pepper spray, but if you’re in a country that doesn’t or you don’t know where to get it a little can of hairspray (think travel size) can make a great substitute!
Keep in mind that pepper spray can sometimes make a situation worse- use your best judgement.
19. Lock your door at night
If you’re in an Airbnb or living in a house or apartment, always lock your door. This might seem like common sense to some. But when I was in college the town I lived in was so safe that I never locked my door. (This even resulted in a few drunk frat guys getting lost and sleeping on my couch one night). In Latin America, always lock the doors!
20. Always double check a taxi before you leave
This is more of a tip to prevent you from losing anything, but it’s still important. If you leave something in a taxi, your chances of getting it back are about 0%. Take it from someone who failed to do this and lost their cell phone, wallet, and passport in Buenos Aires.
21. Stay with Courchsurfers who have good reviews!
Couchsurfing is an amazing community and resource. If you’re traveling by yourself, stay with Couchsurfers who already have good, solid reviews.
22. Pay attention to the altitude
Heading to a bar with new friends is a great activity when traveling! But be mindful of how the alcohol will affect you. Many cities in South America, like Bogotá and La Paz, are thousands of feet above sea level. At this height, alcohol will affect your body differently. Take it easy at first until you can see how you react to drinking at high altitudes.
23. Wear your backpack in front of you in crowded areas
As mentioned above, it’s super easy for thieves to unzip your bag and take some valuables. In crowded places, wear your backpack in front. It might seem weird or overly cautious, but it’s normal here. You’ll even see locals doing it.
24. Stay in hostels that have lockers
If you can’t find one then sleep with your belongings in between you and the wall.
25. If someone tries to rob you, don’t resist
Your life is more important than any valuables you have. I sound exactly like my mom, but it’s true. It’s not the end of the world if you lose your credit cards, money, or even your passport.
The U.S. Embassy is actually very efficient at replacing passports. When I lost my passport in Argentina, I went to the Embassy at 8 A.M. and I went back at 4 P.M. the same day to pick up my new passport. If you have no way of getting money, try to have someone wire you money via Western Union, which is pretty abundant in Latin America.
26. Always follow your instincts
If a situation doesn’t feel right to you GET OUT. You don’t need a reason, just go. Do whatever you can to leave the situation and find a place where you feel safe.
Do you need to follow all these tips in every part of Latin America? Is it really that dangerous?
Short answer: No.
Long answer: You should follow these tips when you’re new to an area and aren’t sure if it’s dangerous or safe. Once you feel more comfortable in a place you can relax a little bit and just follow the tips that you think are necessary. Use your best judgement.
Some small towns in Latin America are very safe and you really don’t have to follow any of these tips, but a lot of the big cities have a higher risk of danger. Just like in the United States and Europe.
You should always have a healthy amount of caution, but you should never be paranoid.
I know it’s scary traveling by yourself to a new place, especially one that has such a bad reputation for safety. As someone living in one of the most dangerous cities in Latin America, my own personal experience is that in general I feel safe.
I’ve been robbed once, but it was a crime of opportunity. I take responsibility in the sense that I should’ve paid more attention. Since then, nothing has even come close to happening.
I can’t recommend Latin America enough as a place to travel. The media makes it out to be much worse than it actually is. Safety concerns shouldn’t dissuade you from traveling by yourself to this beautiful part of the world.
What are your thoughts on safety in Latin America? What would you add to the list?