Is it safe to travel to South America on your own?
It’s a question that bothers a lot of people who are considering a trip to South America. Tours are expensive but going it alone can be daunting. The issue of personal safety is something that shouldn’t be taken lightly, but with a bit of common sense, you can have an incident-free trip. I have travelled as a solo female countless times to all but three of the continent’s thirteen nations (Suriname, French Guiana and Guyana you’ll keep!). During those trips I’ve travelled independently and those trips have been pretty much trouble-free.
Don’t discount overnight or late night buses as a method of transport; they’re comfortable and a good way of saving on accommodation as you move between destinations. But, do think about yourself and your possessions along the way.
* Check your bus operator’s safety record. At night especially, it’s worth paying a few dollars more for a better bus. Not only will the seats be more comfortable but you’re more likely to find yourself on a bus that’s better maintained and where there are two drivers to share the driving. Some companies insist on drink and drug-testing their employees.
* Most operators use a ticket system for your hold luggage; make sure your luggage is locked, loaded and you keep that ticket stub safe as you’re going to need it at the other end. A few coins for a propina (tip) are essential in some places such as Argentina – or you risk your bags being left behind.
* On board, opt if possible for a seat by the window as your bags on your lap or by your feet are less accessible to sticky fingers while you sleep. Keep valuables on your person e.g. a money belt or a securely zipped bag across your chest. Don’t use the overhead shelves. Keep items that you don’t want to lose in an inside pocket rather than an outside pocket – I lost a comb that way on a bus in Ecuador and it cost me a dollar to replace!
* Be safe getting to and from the bus station if you have a late night departure. If you’re in a very small town you’ll probably be safe walking, but in a large city, don’t risk it and book a taxi instead. Ask locally if you’re not sure! At night, doorways are often shadowy and you might not see someone emerge; if it’s safe to do so I often walk in the road where it’s better lit. (It’s also less likely to have holes to fall into.) Check with your hotel or hostel what night time safety is like in the area.
Pickpocketing and express kidnapping
Sadly, South America still has more than its fair share of ladrones (thieves) who’ll be more than happy to relieve you of your belongings should you let them.
* Don’t flash the cash – or expensive jewellery, mobile phones and top of the range cameras. It’s just asking for trouble. If you want to use a camera on a city street, carry it in an unmarked bag, take it out to photograph what you’ve seen and then put it away again. If you need to keep it out, carry it diagonally across your chest and keep a hand on it; this will reduce the risk of opportunist theft. Keep full memory cards separate from your camera.
* Keep your passport safe and carry photocopies in case of loss or theft. Never leave a bag unattended, especially if it contains the documents you need to get home.
* Express kidnapping is unfortunately a problem in some parts of the continent, such as Bolivia. Travellers take a taxi, wrongly assuming it’s legit, only to find themselves at an ATM. Some have been held overnight so that the perpetrators can steal multiple withdrawals. Use a reliable radio taxi (any decent restaurant, bar or hotel will call one for you even if you’re not a patron) and only take with you what you really need. Keep your valuables in a safe if possible.
* Be especially careful in crowds. Think carefully about what you need to take with you if you’re going to a carnival or fiesta and try to avoid crowds that might turn nasty such as demonstrations.
* Learn a few choice swear words in Spanish (or Portuguese for Brazil) and be loud. It is one of the most important things I learnt at university, as this one has worked for me twice. I won’t say what I said, suffice to say that it wasn’t repeatable in polite company. However, the shock of a seemingly respectably dressed woman having a potty mouth was enough on both occasions for the wannabe robber to drop what they had their hands on and flee the would-be crime scene.
Do your research
Some areas of some cities aren’t as safe as they could be. Whether we like it or not, South America has one of the largest differentials between the haves and have nots. It figures, therefore, that there will be some areas that you ought to stay clear of.
* Use the FCO website’s travel advice by country for up to date advice regarding the country you’re planning to visit. It will list any scams that are currently being operated (never allow anyone to help you remove bird poo from your clothing!) and also any areas where safety is a current concern. Forewarned is forearmed: you don’t necessarily have to stay away, but you need to think about whether you are prepared to take a particular risk.
* Keep abreast of travel forums to find out about the reputations of companies you’re planning to use for tours and activities. Reviews aren’t 100% reliable, of course, as some businesses put pressure on clients to write glowing reviews, but they do give you a starting point. I recently met a Canadian traveller in Bolivia who’d just cycled the Death Road. He said he’d looked to see which operators’ reviews didn’t mention accidents and deaths, which seemed a logical starting point to me!
* Choose accommodation in a good area, even if it means upping the budget slightly. Look for roads that are well lit and well used. You’re going to put yourself in a vulnerable position if you choose accommodation down a narrow alley in a rough neighbourhood.
Consider the society you’re in
South America is changing, but many men still expect to protect the women in their family and it can be hard for them to get their head around a lone female traveller who doesn’t need a man for protection.
* Be mindful that many South Americans, especially middle class, will dress smartly to travel. Rocking up scruffy won’t endear you to them, nor will beach wear away from the beach. Don’t draw attention to yourself for the wrong reason.
* Accept concern in the spirit it’s intended and reassure older men or women that you are OK. Explain to them why you’re travelling solo, tell them a bit about your family back home to show that you love them despite leaving them behind and ask how things are changing. I’ve had some very interesting exchanges with people who were concerned at first I was alone but were keen to learn more about my culture. On the surface, European culture might seem very similar to South America but there are subtle but important differences in etiquette.
* Enjoy a drink but don’t overdo it. It’s not usual for females to drink heavily in South America, but you don’t have to abstain completely to fit in. Know your limits and stay safe.
Go to Uruguay
If all else fails, or you lose your nerve, go to Uruguay or Chile. They’re generally considered to be the safest of the South American nations. And beautiful to boot. But don’t drop your guard completely: on my most recent trip, I met an American who’d lost his money and passport, stolen from inside a bus in Calama while he’d nipped off to use the bus station’s facilities.