Travel Safety: Should you travel South America alone as a woman?

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Travelling South America can seem daunting, especially if you’re a woman. Before last year I had never been backpacking or gone anywhere by myself. Yet I travelled South America alone. I booked a Bamba Experience bus pass to give my route some structure (read my full review of Bamba here), but other than that I travelled solo. It took me about two months to settle into things and to find my rhythm, but it was the most incredible growing experience and I am so glad that I did it.

How safe did I feel travelling South America?

My biggest fear was the potential harassment from men. When you travel to non-Western countries you do so with an understanding that these places don’t always hold the most liberal views of women. You also know that you stand out a mile as a tourist, male or female, with your confused expression, map, camera and backpack. Being a tourist alone makes you a target of crime…being a female tourist brings additional vulnerabilities.

Let me begin by assuring you that for every one predator there are thousands of others who want nothing more than to look after you because you are a woman. Local people walked miles (and I mean miles) out of their way just to make sure that I got to my destination safely, and they were incredibly patient with my non-existent Spanish. Even bus drivers would come and check on me once everyone was seated to ask if I was OK. People become very protective towards young women travelling alone.

However, I did receive my fair share of unwanted hassle from men. By the time I left Peru, I was exhausted. I was sick of the looks and stares; of being cornered in city centres. I was tired of the comments and the constant looking over my shoulder. The few times I did go to nightclubs, there was always some local boy would hover around me until one of my male friends intervened. There was one particular incident with a boy in Brazil that left me quite shaken and scared.

It didn’t help that South America was my first destination and I was incredibly nervous. I think that if I went now, it would be a slightly different experience because I would be a lot more confident.

Whilst frustrating, none of this ruined my trip. If I felt unsafe in a town or city, I would make friends with people in my hostel. When a man was bothering me, I learned to shake my head and say “I don’t understand” in Spanish with a very apologetic smile and walk away without provoking anger. The male attention was tiring rather than threatening or intimidating, and the experience actually made me stronger and more independent – not more vulnerable.

And I will let you in on a secret, my worst experiences with men did not occur in South America. The most awful and worrying attention, lurid comments and threatening behavior have all come from British men in New Zealand.

The male attention was tiring rather than threatening or intimidating, and the experience actually made me stronger and more independent – not more vulnerable.

 

The second biggest worry that I had as a woman was that I was more likely to be mugged or robbed. With my young face (most people think I’m 18), lack of travel experience and appalling Spanish, I felt like I was a walking target for thieves and muggers. I couldn’t have looked more lost or clueless if I tried. Yet I was never mugged or had anything stolen from me in South America, unless you count the denim shorts stolen from a washing line in Brazil.

Theft from tourists is unfortunately quite common in South America, but if you’re a woman, I don’t think that you are going to be targeted any more than men. When it comes to general thievery, muggers and pick pocketers aren’t too worried about the gender of their victims. They just want a tourist who is unfamiliar with their surroundings carrying an expensive camera and a wallet. In fact, did you know that in the UK, men are almost twice as likely to be a victim of a violent crime than a woman? If the same is true for countries in South America, then men are actually more likely to be violently (not sexually) attacked than women. Many men would not want to be seen hitting a female tourist in public. So don’t think, “I’m a woman, therefore I am going to get mugged in South America, I shouldn’t go.”

Be aware of the risks, clue yourself up on them and take the necessary precautions – there is plenty of great advice online and from hostels on the ground. However, don’t decide to not travel alone because you’re a woman I promise you, you will have the best time!

If you have any questions or want any advice, please don’t hesitate to contact me. You can either leave a comment below or you can send me an email at dbwanderlust@gmail.com

Thanks for reading and I hope this was helpful!

Coming soon:

“Tips on how to travel South America safely” and “Why you should travel alone”.

PS: If you want to know more about the Bamba Experience bus pass, I have written a review on it in a previous post. The Bamba pass is a super flexible hop-on-hop-off bus pass that includes a set bus route and a variety of tours and activities. You can spend as long as you want in any one place, and you just contact Bamba to organise your bus or set up the latest activity when you’re ready.

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The beauty of Foz do Iguazu, Brazil

Iguazu Brazil - First View

Stepping up to the brink of a downward zig-zagging path, your eyes meet a far off, distant wall of water. Endless stripes and streams of white team down amidst carpets of Brazilian green. You cannot grasp the scale of this natural wonder: its vastness, the amount of water it gargles and consumes, the distance over which it stretches. It is too big to fully appreciate.

Iguazu Brazil - Staircase

 

Iguazu Brazil - Butterfly

Butterflies hover playfully about your hands and feet, landing momentarily on your fingers and hair. Friends grapple for their cameras, fumbling with switches, as wings beat too quick for the focus. Minutes pass as you steal mere blurs with the lens until finally – finally! – you capture solid colours of brown, white, orange, black, red and blue.

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How to enjoy a city: the case of Sau Paulo

Sau Paulo - title image

I have met many people on my travels who remain resolutely unimpressed by most sprawling cities. Unless it’s somewhere like New York, London or Rio, people will utter the words “it’s just another city”. “Lots of grey concrete and nothing much else.” However, every city is different…if you’re prepared to accept that it just might be so. I will say that the most important thing to have when entering a city is an open mind.

During my time in Brazil, Sau Paulo came to be a classic example of an overlooked city. People would often lament about the drab exterior of Sau Paulo, advising me that I should perhaps miss it out altogether and head straight to the coast for the nearest beach.

However, I came to love Sau Paulo. It’s a city that is trying to assimilate traditional ideas of gender and propriety with modern concepts of free sexual freedom and materialism, creating a bold and contradictory city.

So here are my tips for enjoying a city like Sau Paulo:

1.   Stay in a nice area of the city. When people hate a city it’s very often because they’ve stayed somewhere where they don’t feel safe. In Sau Paulo I stayed in Villa de Madelina – an upscale neighbourhood filled with trendy furniture shops and arty people – and saw a more modern and diverse Sau Paulo.

2. Get some local information and meet local people…don’t just rely on your Lonely Planet or the internet. Ask your hostel or, better yet, log onto the website Couchsurfing and find someone local you can meet up with. Local people can show you the hidden bars, restaurants and beauty spots. We were lucky in Sau Paulo as the hostel owner gave us a full introduction to the city and even showed us key spots on the map and offered safety advice.

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Paraty, Brazil.

Paraty, Brazil

I stayed in Paraty for a few days. If I am being honest, it did not inspire my imagination all that much. It’s beautiful, sure, but it is not a place that I felt drawn into or that I am keen to see again. That being said, it’s a nice stop for a couple of nights and a great scene to relax in if you have the time.

Paved with cobbles (treacherous to the clumsy members of humankind), Paraty is filled with souvenir shops and cafes, and surrounded by small islands and beaches. You may not find the cultural heart of Brazil in Paraty, but you can definitely find some of it’s beauty.

The rain poured when I was there – the skies thunderous and grey – and the beaches reduced to sodden masses of compacted sand. The quaint streets became flooded and difficult to walk through; my clothes were constantly damp. Back home in the UK, I come from a small seaside town dependent on tourism back home in the UK so I do understand what an impact the weather can have on these kinds of places – without the sun and beaches, there’s not exactly much to do and a place that can be so entertaining becomes mundane.

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What to pack for South America

What to Pack for South America

 

If you’re going to South America, the prime problem is that you will encounter different climates, potentially making packing a tricky affair.

However, here is what I have taken and found to be essential. I have used every single item mentioned on this list – I hope I’ve remembered everything!

My bag weighed just 13kg at Heathrow Airport.

 

Clothes

1. 1 pair of jeans. Jeans are heavy but essential for casual wear. They’re also great when it’s a cold.
2. 2 pairs of shorts. If you’re a girl, make sure one pair is suitable for a night out as shorts are easy to dress up or down. If you’re a guy, one pair could be a pair of board shorts for the beach.
3. 5 t-shirts/tank tops/sleeveless tops.
4. 1 nice top or shirt for going out. Make sure it’s lightweight and versatile in terms of where you can wear it.
5. 1 cotton summer dress. It will be lightweight, perfect for hot weather and beach destinations, and they roll up really easily.
6. 1 pair trekking shoes or sports sneakers. If you’re trekking, I would take trekking shoes but otherwise standard sneakers/trainers will suffice.
7. 1 pair flip-flops.
8. 1 pair shoes suitable for casual wear and going out. This may be your trusty Vans, some lightweight pumps, or a pair of ballet flats.
9. 7 pairs of underwear + 2 bras.
10. 7 pairs sports socks.
11. 4 pairs of thick socks (if you are taking trekking shoes).
12. 1 zip-up hoody. I prefer zip-up hoodies as you can simply undo them when it’s too warm and zip them back up when it gets chilly. If your hoody isn’t very thick, it might be worth taking an extra sweater or fleece to layer up in the super colder parts of South America.
13. 1 raincoat. It’s worth having a good quality, well-lined one rather than a basic, cheap shower-proof jacket.
14. 2 long-sleeved tops. Necessary for when it’s cold and also to protect you from mosquitoes. (These have been an honest God-send this trip! Mine cost me just £3 each from Primark.)
15. 2 pairs lightweight trekking trousers or 2 pairs of leggings. (Perfect for keeping away mosquitoes in hot weather, general lounging around, and any outdoors activities. I got mine from Mountain Warehouse.)
16. 2 bikinis or pairs of swimming shorts.
17. Woolly hat and gloves (especially if you’re doing the Salt Flat Tour!)
18. 1 sarong for lying on the beach – much lighter than a towel (and yes, boys, boys also use them!) I double mine up as a scarf when it’s cold.

AVOID: anything white + materials that crease really easily (like nylon and satin)

Miscellaneous

1. Travel towel – definitely worth the investment! Mine is a giant one from Mountain Warehouse.
2. Head torch.
3. Travel Blanket – I don’t recommend buying a sleeping bag liner, but travel blankets are very handy on those long and cold overnight bus journeys.
4. Eye mask and ear plugs.
5. Mosquito repellent with a good amount of DEET in it – the best repellents will be those that you buy in South America itself. You will also find that hostels and hotels provide mosquito nets so you don’t need to buy your own.
6. Money Belt. Especially for overnight buses!
7. Spanish Dictionary (and Portuguese if you are heading to Brazil).
8. Adaptor. The European one works in South America. If you have multiple things to charge, try to buy one that allows you to charge several things at once. Mine didn’t and it was such a hassle!

Sun protection

1. Sun cream.
2. Sun glasses.
3. Sun hat. I don’t have one, but if you’re sensitive to the sun, you may want one.

Sleeping bag and tent?

If you will only be camping once or twice, there is no point in a taking a sleeping bag as they are relatively inexpensive to hire once you are there.

The only time you’ll need a tent is if you’re planning on constantly hiking and camping.

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Obviously this list isn’t perfect and what you decide to take will largely depend on the countries you’re visiting and at what time of year. So check the seasons properly before you pack!

Hope this helps you and leave any questions in the comments below,

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