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 firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks for reading and I hope this was helpful!
“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.