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Women's Travel in South America
Many solo female travelers are afraid of visiting South and Central America, but South Americans are some of the friendliest and most inviting hosts in the world.
As one of the poorest continents, crime is a problem, and you do need to be on guard, but for every horror stories of women being attacked, there are thousands of female travelers who visit South and Central America without any problems at all.
As long as you act sensibly and stay aware of the risks, you can travel through this amazing destination safely.
Attitudes Towards Women Travelers
- First of all - DON’T be paranoid – there are a lot of tips here for the worst case scenario, but South America is a surprisingly safe place to travel if you just use your common sense as a woman.
- You won’t find yourself in danger unless you put yourself in a compromised situation- don’t do anything you wouldn’t do at home. South America is extremely popular with backpackers, so there should be plenty of other travelers to mix with if you feel vulnerable.
- If in doubt – watch the locals – if they pay with small bills in a market and hide their wallet, follow their lead. If trekking in the Andes or Amazon, locals will know what water is safe to bathe in, what trees not to touch, and where you need to watch out for mosquitoes.
- When exploring a new place alone, e.g. hiking in the wilderness, in a new city, let someone you trust know where you are going – such as hostel staff or a travel buddy.
Make sure you feel safe in your hostel – ensure there are good locks on the doors, or a heavy furniture to put in front of it, a safety deposit box, and lockable storage in the rooms. Try to choose a room on the upper floor, and read hostel reviews online – other travelers will let you know if they felt safe or not.
If a hiking route or particular place is described as unsafe for a woman alone, join up with another group of travelers, or if you do see people going to the same place, discreetly lag behind so you won’t be totally alone.
Don’t dress as if you are well off – flashy jewelry and watches is never a good idea! Look like a skint backpacker and you’ll be treated like one!
Don’t dither at cash machines and put money straight into a money belt. Ignore anyone who approaches you when taking money out.
Always be confident in the face of hassling – it sounds easier said than done, but just look someone firmly in the eye and say NO if they won’t leave you alone.
Learn the language – you will feel far less vulnerable if you know even a few stock Spanish and Portuguese phrases - Spanish schools are a great idea if you are staying somewhere for a long time – you can get a refresher class on your trip. This means you can ask for directions, assistance, and can ask the locals for safety tips and travel advice.
Remember that it is illegal in many South American countries to photograph military installations or government buildings. Ask a policeman or security officer if you are in doubt.
- The main problem here is being overcharged, or theft, but these scenarios can be easily avoided.
- As a solo woman, you will get plenty of offers to have your bags carried – politely decline, although some may be well intentioned. Load up your own belongings onto a bus, train or taxi.
- Avoid dodgy looking taxis – ask at your hostel for a reputable company to book with, or get them to request a taxi for you. In the street, try to choose older drivers and less run down taxis. Ignore lots of taxi drivers vying for your trade at the airport- go straight for the taxi rank, act confidently and always negotiate a price before getting in, or handing over your baggage.
- 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 than those in Bolivia. You will also have to put up with the driver’s hairpin turns, so wear your seat-belt at all times!
- On the bus, keep your belongings locked up and either on your person, or locked to the luggage storage. If you have to keep your luggage in the hold or on the roof, keep an eye on it by waiting outside until the bus sounds its horn for leaving, and sit on the right so you can see if it gets taken out (this is also safer if there is a bus crash!).
- Keep your most important belongings with you, and wrap your hand luggage around your legs, locked together, if you need to sleep. Larger bus companies should provide a claim check for any item stored.
- Don’t accept food or drinks from unknown people on public transport or in the street - as it might be laced with a drug that could knock you out for days. Chances of this actually happening are slim, but it’s worth bearing in mind.
- Don’t get drunk and walk to your hostel late at night. Get a taxi pre-booked, or just don’t get drunk outside of your hostel – you won’t be in control or be able to cope well in any situation.
- Pickpockets are a problem in busy areas with lots of tourists –Cuzco, Rio, Mexico City, local markets etc, so don’t take any backpacks to these places, or keep anything in your pocket.
- Most street robbery is caused by ‘distractions’ – such as kids fighting in the street, or splashing something on your shirt. Ignore it and keep an eye on your belongings. It is best to carry as little money as possible, and only keep a few bills in your front pocket.
- If you are ever mugged, don’t resist, just remain calm and don’t attract attention as it will only startle the assailants and put you in danger. Keep in mind that they are armed and may not hesitate to hurt you. Hand over your money and leave the scene as quickly as possible.
- Popular scenes for pickpockets – bus stations, crosswalks, popular tourist hangouts such as beaches, restaurants and Internet cafes – keep a foot through the arms strap of your bag, and avoid leaving it loose under the table.
- If you are worried about going around alone, you can always go on tours to feel safer. Ask around your hostel to check if your chosen tour is safe, and worth the money - some hostels organize day trips and excursions themselves which are often cheaper, more interesting, and a great chance to mix with like-minded travelers. Or ask for reputable local guides for a more authentic experience – it's best to go with a few others on one of these trips.
- Get some references if you head out alone with a male guide, but be aware that most are courteous professionals. If you are heading out on an excursion alone with a male guide, get some references first, from youth hostels owners and fellow travelers.
- Split your money into a day purse and money belt, and don’t ever give your passport up if someone looking slightly ‘official’ asks for it. You hear a lot about scams, but avoid dodgy areas (ask around - people are friendly and willing to help), trust your gut instinct and you will be fine.
- Instead of original documents, carry authenticated copies, and if you plan on staying in one place for more than just a few days, choose a hostel with a safety deposit box for your valuables and travel documents, since hostel rooms are never entirely secure against theft.
- Don’t be an obvious tourist – look like you know where you are going and if you get lost, go into hotel or Internet café to find your bearings, Don’t stand around on the street looking at a map.
- Heed local advice; ask at your hostel, and other backpackers to find the least safe areas of town.
Places to Avoid
Some of the larger cities in Central America - Belize City, Guatemala City, Tegucigalpa, Managua, Mexico City - are the poorest in Latin America, and are therefore known for being more dangerous, with theft being a major problem. This doesn't mean you shouldn't visit, but take extra care.
Central America in general has a reputation for being an unsafe place for female travelers, but don't let that put you off. The real problem is that some parts are not on the regular backpacking route, so it can be harder to meet other travelers to pair up with. Luckily there are now plenty of Central America hostels across the region to choose from. Avoid traveling extensively on your own to remote areas, especially if you don't speak the language.
Parts of Brazil’s largest cities – Sao Paolo, Salvador, Rio (the beach at Rio de Janeiro is infamous for being unsafe after dark) - should also be avoided, especially after dark, but only the same as any major city.
Despite its reputation, however, only parts of Colombia are dangerous, and these are really off the beaten track – areas such as the Pacific Coast, and the borders with Ecuador and Venezuela are the most notorious danger spots.
Venezuela has one of the highest crime levels in South America – although the top tourist destinations are all fine to visit. In large cities like Caracas, be extra careful.
Best Places for Female Travelers
To be honest, there is nowhere that is totally safe or totally dangerous – you can still be pick pocketed in tourist areas, and some of the supposedly ‘dangerous’ cities can be completely safe. Just choose where you go carefully in each country, and look for tour groups, respected local guides (ask at your hostel) or a travel buddy to go to more remote areas.
It might be easier to find fellow travelers in South rather than Central America – because there are more backpackers around in general.
Don’t let your guard down if you think somewhere is ‘safer’ than others- there are countless stories of people being mugged in seemingly ‘safe’ areas of Argentina- so keep your wits about you at all times.
For help choosing the safest accomodation, check out our guide to the most female friendly hostels in South America.
What to Pack
Forget what you’ve heard about Brazil and those bikinis– in rural South America the dress code is a little more conservative. Dress respectfully and you’ll get less hassle from men, and won’t offend any locals. In general shorts are fine for the daytime, but bring a skirt or dress for evening, and for visiting Catholic sites, make sure your hemlines are lower and there is not too much flesh on show. You could bring a Pashmina in case you need to cover your shoulders. Dress conservatively if in doubt.
What you bring depends a lot on what you are planning got do – jungle treks and hikes obviously require extra equipment. The jungle will be hot and sticky and full of mosquitoes, so pack long trousers and sleeves. For hiking, bring layers and comfortable hiking boots. For the beach, bring a sarong not a beach towel, to blend in with the locals.
South America has extreme weather – you’ll need to bring clothing for all eventualities in the mountainous regions. In general, the days are warm and night are very cold. Patagonia, Southern Chile and Argentina can be sunny one minute, and snowy the next, and the Andes, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador can be cold and wet.
Bring some rich moisturiser as well – the air in these places can be very drying! The lower lying regions are easier to prepare as the seasons are backwards to the UK.
Obviously, you’ll need a hat, sunglasses and suncream – but don’t take anything expensive! If you end up on the beach without flip flops or a swimsuit, Brazil is the home of beachwear, although some of the designs can seem a little skimpy to the uninitiated!
Things you CAN’T leave at home are:
Tampons and any feminine hygiene products or sexual protection.
Water purification tablets
But…don't take too much! You should be able to pick up your things and dash – in case you need to catch a bus, and to be able to fit your bag in an overhead locker. It just means there is less to lose/get stolen, and most clothes or essentials you can pick up in South America for extremely cheap prices.