You announce you are going to Latin America by yourself, and your mother promptly faints. After you revive her, she begins issuing dire warnings of all the terrible things that will happen to a woman traveling along in South America.
Take a deep breath. The world has changed. Solo women travelers are no longer bizarre object of pity. It’s perfectly OK to go to Latin America by yourself, and you will have a great time doing it. Here are a few tips from the intrepid women of Exito, who have traversed Latin America from top to bottom.
- Trust your instincts. If something feels off, it probably is. Remove yourself from the situation so you can think clearly. People sometimes worry that, by being cautious, they will miss out on some amazing, authentic local experience. Don’t worry about that. You will have plenty of authentic local experiences that don’t endanger you. If it’s something you wouldn’t do at home, don’t do it in another country. And if it feels bad, it probably is!
- Beaches and alcohol are a dangerous combination. Most people in Latin America are kind, generous, and respectful. Some are not, and unfortunately they tend to be drawn to beach scenes. After a few drinks, your wits and reactions are both slow. Something as simple as going outside to pee may end horribly. One Exito employee spent 5 years working with tourists in South America. She estimates that 95% of the rapes and assaults that she heard of took place at beaches, usually with alcohol involved. Be careful where you drink and with whom. Party at your hotel’s bar, so you don’t have to walk home. Or find a group of other women to go out with, so you can all keep an eye out for each other. While this is good advice anywhere, it’s especially important in a beach setting.
- Be aware of cultural norms. These can vary widely from country to country, or even from city to rural areas of the same nation. Tight skirts and revealing shirts are commonplace in Brazil, but would be quite inappropriate in Bolivia. Look at the local women. How are they dressed? You don’t need to adopt local dress (and honestly, foreigners often look ridiculous in local garb), but check the level of modesty. Do they generally cover their legs and arms? If so, do likewise – it will save you a lot of unwanted attention. While you are looking around, note where you do or do not see women. If there are no women on a particular street at night, that’s a very good indication that you shouldn’t be there either.
- Be willing to start the conversation. As a solo woman traveler, you have a unique opportunity to connect with people who would normally never talk to foreigners – elderly women, mothers with children, young women. They may assume you are not interested, don’t speak Spanish, or they might just be shy. Break the ice, and see what happens. You get a whole different perspective on a place when you learn about it from a 70 year old woman!
- On that note, learn as much Spanish (or Portuguese, in Brazil) as you can. You don’t have to be fluent to have a great trip, but it’s easy to learn enough to have basic language survival skills. Be able to shop, ask for directions, get a hotel room, and order food in a restaurant. Consider doing a quick week (or more, if you have the time) at a language school when you first arrive, just to get yourself up to speed.
- And on the flip side, know when to forget all your Spanish. When some annoying guy is trying to chat you up, a blank look and an apologetic shrug can do wonders for getting rid of him.
- Ignore, ignore, ignore! Men in Latin America often will call out to women walking by. Just ignore it and keep moving. Yes, it’s annoying, but you aren’t going to change an entire culture single handed. Avoid making eye contact, keep going, and act as if they don’t exist.
- if that doesn’t work, be willing to make a scene. If someone is really bothering you, yell at them as loudly as you can, in whatever language comes to mind. This is not what they want or expect, and on the street they will usually melt quickly away. If someone gropes you in the subway, grab their hand and bend their fingers backwards until they start screaming. Then yell at them. Tell him what a pathetic, miserable little twit he is, who can’t even…..ok, ok, you get the picture. Yeah, it makes a huge scene, but it’s a lot more gratifying than just moving away.
Finally, be your adventurous self! Revel in the fact that you can do whatever you want, when you want. You always get to choose the restaurant, and no one will drag you through a museum or ruin that you’d really rather skip. Enjoy every minute, knowing that you will have great memories and more self-confidence for the rest of your life.