What I Wish I Knew Before Traveling Alone in South America
Before I left to travel solo in South America for 3 months, I was a ball of nerves and almost wanted to bail on the entire trip. I kept asking myself, is it really safe to travel alone in South America? and overthinking the answer, imagining scenarios in my head of all the things that could go wrong.
South America does have a bit of a complicated history and a pretty bad reputation because of it, but I'm happy to report that I had absolutely no safety problems during my time there. Did I just get lucky, or is it that South America is really not as dangerous as everyone says? In reality, it's likely a combination of media exaggeration, being well-prepared in terms of safety precautions, and luck that I had no safety concerns during my trip. Knowing the proper safety tips for South America beforehand should steer you clear of obvious safety concerns.
It may be a little rough around the edges, but this continent easily and rapidly became my favorite corner of the world - and it can become yours too if you equip yourself with the right dos and dont's beforehand! Here's everything I wish I knew before traveling alone in South America. These tips are especially helpful for all you solo female travelers in South America, but it really applies to any type of traveler, regardless of your gender or if you're traveling alone or in a group.
Safety tips for solo travel in South America
1. Keep things in perspective
You know that thing that happens when you tell someone you're traveling South America by yourself, and then they tell you they know someone knows someone who had a 2nd cousin who got kidnapped there? You only ever hear about the bad events that happen, and not the good.
The reality is, millions of people backpack in South America each year (37 million to be exact) and have nothing bad happen to them. It's way, way more likely that you'll head back home safely with a ton of amazing memories than getting kidnapped by the cartel or attacked in the Amazon by a rogue tribe - or whatever crazy thing you hear from the grapevine.
In fact, I have a little story that illustrates this pretty well. While living in Hawaii, whenever I told people that I was traveling South America by myself, I got the all-too-common mythic story of the backpacker being mugged with a gun. But then guess what happened to me in Hawaii? Right at my apartment door in downtown Honolulu, I got robbed at gunpoint for my moped.
I'm not saying bad things don't happen in South America - they do. Just like bad things happen everywhere else in the world, even those places that are widely considered "safe." It helps to give yourself a nice dose of perspective like this before embarking on your trip.
2. Blend in with the locals
Blending in to the best of your ability will greatly reduce your chance of making yourself a target for theft or other crimes. This means wearing practical clothing and not flaunting your valuables.
You'll notice pretty soon after arriving that the local style is very simple. Most people wear plain clothes like jeans, leggings, simple t-shirts, sweaters, and close-toed shoes. You don't see many people with fancy handbags or overtly designer clothes like you would in LA, New York, or Paris. If you blend in with a simple, understated wardrobe, you're less likely to stick out as a tourist and therefore be targeted for petty theft.
I'm a shutterbug and love taking photos of everything I see, but I mostly kept my big DSLR camera and my phone zipped away in my bag and only took them out for a quick shot or text from time to time - which, looking back on it now, also helped me to be more present in the experience rather than wrapped up in my technology.
Another tip here is to avoid really large day packs, which makes it quite obvious that you're a backpacker / tourist. In your own city, you don't walk around with a big backpack on your day to day errands, so try not to do it while traveling either. It's best to have a small over-the-shoulder pack with the necessities like cash, your phone, ID, etc.
3. Be alert, but not scared
I truly believe all of us have built-in intuitive skills, silently guiding us through life. I think you probably know what I mean - whether you're traveling or at home, you can usually sense a sketchy situation or person with a gut feeling about it. Traveling naturally tunes us into these senses more because we're in unfamiliar places and circumstances, so as cliche as it sounds, just follow your gut. If something doesn't feel right, remove yourself from the situation in whatever way possible, whether you're in your hometown or abroad.
Don't go overboard and become hyper-paranoid, though. Not everyone in the world is out to get you - in fact, I think its safe to say that the majority of people have generally good intentions, regardless of political borders, religious disparities, or any other arbitrary difference that people want to believe separates us (news flash: it doesn't).
It's important to remain aware of your surroundings, but don't be so alert that you close yourself off from meeting new people and fully enjoying experiences that come your way.
4. Avoid going out alone at night + the bad parts of town
Some of the most awesome things in South America happen after the sun sets, like watching a whole plaza in a small town in Colombia come alive for a late-night dance party or unforgettable nights in discotecas. But a general rule of thumb is to not venture out by yourself at night time. This is true for basically anywhere in the world - sketchy stuff is just way more likely to happen during the night than during the day.
If you're going out at night time, get a group together from a hostel to go out, or make sure you have a taxi/Uber ride from your hostel door to your destination. And if you choose to go out by yourself after dark, stick to crowded areas and don't go down dark alleyways where you're the only person there. Common sense stuff!
Another related tip is to do your research and learn where the bad parts of town are. Think about the city where you live; chances are, there are some areas that are notorious for being less safe than others, probably more so during night time. Do your research on the 'safe' and 'unsafe' parts of the cities (asking locals is also a good idea) to avoid any unnecessary incidents.
Here are some of the "bad parts" of different cities in South America that I learned throughout my travels. Of course, take it with a grain of salt - I'm not saying these are where bad things are certain to happen to you, but they just have a bit of a dodgy reputation.
Lima, Peru: Central Lima (after dark - beautiful to walk around in daytime), San Juan de Lurigancho, and Callao
Cusco, Peru: Small and touristy enough that there aren't really bad parts of town
Medellin, Colombia: neighborhoods around El Centro (at night time), Higher San Javier
Cartagena, Colombia: La Popa (at night time), Sector La Magdalena
Quito, Ecuador: La Tola, Lucha de los Pobres, La Marin
Santiago, Chile: Las Condes, Providencia, Vitacura
Buenos Aires, Argentina: Downtown (after dark)
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Rocinha, Vila Mimosa, northern zones of the city + their favelas
5. Only take what cash you need with you, and carry it in separate places
You know that saying 'only take with you what you're prepared to lose'? This is true of travel in general, including South America. When you set out for a day of adventuring, only take a small amount of cash that you think you'll need for the day. Then in the rare case that you do get robbed, you're not left with nothing.
My strategy was taking what cash I thought I'd need (plus a little extra for incidentals) and stashing it in different places on my person. I'd put some in my wallet zipped up in my backpack, some in my bra (am I right, ladies?), some bills in the pocket of my pants. I also bring 1 credit/debit card with me stored in my bra and leave my other cards in a safe place in my accommodation. That way, in the event that you do encounter a petty thief, you can give up some cash and still have enough on you to get yourself home. You also won't get a big enough amount stolen that it wrecks your budget. The thief may get your $10 bill from your pants, but you still have $30 stashed in other places.
6. Take organized tours when possible
Traveling in group tours is a great way to visit must-see places on your South American bucket list under the safety of numbers. There are limitless amounts of tour agencies in South America operating tours to Machu Picchu, the Salt Flats in Bolivia, the Amazon Rainforest in Brazil - basically, anywhere you'd want to go on the Gringo Trail.
For example, I wanted to visit the desert oasis Huacachina in Peru by myself, and I had essentially two options. I could have rented a car by myself and drove there from other cities in Peru, or I could take an easy day trip from Lima. The day tour was marginally more expensive than renting a car, but I met awesome people on the tour that I still talk to years later, and I didn't have to worry about my safety at all and could focus on enjoying myself.
7. Do you need to know Spanish to travel South America? At least a little, yes
Because of mass tourism and the spread of English as a universal language of sorts, English-speakers can visit many regions of the world without having to speak a single word of other languages. When it comes to South America, though, it's best to have at least a decent understanding of Spanish because English speakers are far and few between. I liked this because honestly, the worldwide prevalence of the English language has made us English-speakers lazy in learning other languages.
Memorizing some basic phrases like the following will make your trip a lot easier:
Where is... = ¿Dónde está....?
the train/bus station = la estación de tren/la estación de autobús
the bathroom = el baño
the ATM machine/the bank = el cajero automático/el banco
the police = la policía
the pharmacy = la farmacía
the hospital = el hospital (that one is pretty self-explanatory :P)
What is the WiFi password? = ¿Cuál es la clave de WiFi?
*Note that clave here means "password" and is the more commonly used word in South America, but contraseña also means password in Spanish and will also be understood
How much does it cost? = ¿Cuánto cuesta?
Can I pay with a card? = ¿Puedo pagar con tarjeta?
Excuse me / pardon / please = Disculpe / Perdón / Por favor
Beer (...obviously important to know) = Cerveza
8. Stay informed
A bit of an obvious one here, but you should stay up-to-date with happenings in the countries in your itinerary and change plans if extreme conflict arises. For example, Venezuela is not safe to visit now because of civil unrest resulting from a crippling dictatorship and economic crisis. During my trip, I had plans to visit Nicaragua and had to completely skip them at the last minute because violent political protests arose (I hear it has calmed down and is more or less safe to visit again). These are extreme examples, but make sure to stay informed with current events and, if you have to, change plans to avoid certain areas accordingly.
Conclusion: Is South America safe to travel alone?
The short answer: yes.
The longer answer: as long as you follow safety tips for visiting South America solo, along with using your common sense, you shouldn't have any major safety issues on your trip. Of course, nowhere in the world is 100% free of danger, but if you follow these tips, you are doing yourself a solid in keeping safe on your solo trip to South America.