Every time I've hit the road on my own, I've gotten a slew of advice from, well, just about everyone: "Don't leave your hotel room after dark," "don't accept drinks from people you don't know," "don't hitchhike," "don't talk to strangers…." But after 15 years of on-and-off travel on my own throughout Latin America, I think I've gotten it down pat. Here are a few rules of the (Latin American) road that I've come to live by:
- Take any unsolicited advice with a grain of salt. People tend to be alarmists, especially when describing the dangers of traveling in Latin America—that goes for locals and foreigners alike. I haven't taken any polls or anything, but in my experience, the reasons behind this are twofold: overly graphic newspaper stories about crime in Latin America and the paternalism (or maternalism) that people feel towards women, especially women traveling alone.
- Dress conservatively. Now, I'm not saying go out and buy yourself a set of moo moos and sweatpants, but I would recommend that you veer away from low-cut shirts and miniskirts. The less skin you show, the less attention you attract, which ultimately means the more likely you'll be able to travel without people hassling you.
- Likewise, don't respond to cat calls—act as if nothing has been said at all; don't even acknowledge it by turning your head. If you do, you may end up followed by a baseball team of men vying for your attention. Well-meaning or not, the crowd can become overwhelming and annoying.
- If you're single, have a ready story about a husband and kids to fend off any unwanted attention. Better yet, if you want to be extra safe, travel with a faux wedding band.
- Avoid taking taxi cabs—at least alone—after dark. I've heard enough stories of woman being assaulted by cabbies and being taken for unwanted rides late at night to follow this rule of thumb. If you do need a cab, have your hotel call you one, or, if you're out on the town, call one yourself. (I typically ask the hotel front desk for the number of a reliable 24-hour cab company before heading out.) Obviously, there's always the chance that your driver is a creep, but if a cabbie is radioed from the dispatch—versus hailed on the street—there's an additional layer of accountability that he has to his passenger.
- If you're short on cash, opt for taking a chicken bus over hitchhiking—though it may take longer, there's always safety in numbers. If your only option is to hitchhike, ask women drivers for rides or target trucks where you can sit in the open cab (i.e. jumping out is the easiest way out!).
- Whether you're staying in a hotel or hostel, be sure you feel safe with your surroundings. Nothing's worse than lying awake all night, fearing that someone is going to push through the door. Be sure the door has a good lock, or at the very least that there is a heavy piece of furniture you can pull in front of it. And in all cases, when you have an option, choose a room on an upper floor—they're harder to break in to, and get less traffic and consequently are more private.
- Listen to your gut. If you feel like someone is following you, stop and let them pass. If you think someone is leading you the wrong way, call them out on it. If you're walking home late, and the sidewalk seems just a little too dark, cross to the other side so you can walk in the light, or even walk in the middle where it's better lit. When it comes to traveling on your own, your instinct should always win out over reasoning. (And it's true what they say: Better to be safe than sorry.)
- But given that, remember to enjoy the freedom and flexibility of traveling by yourself. The fact of the matter is that it's rare to have the opportunity to travel and do whatever you want, whenever you want. As a woman, be mindful that you may have to take extra precautions when traveling on your own, but it is more often than not half the fun of wandering solo to learn from these experiences—good or bad.
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