If I told you I wanted to travel alone in Latin America for three months, what’s the first thing that pops into your head? Now imagine what my mom thought when I, her only daughter who doesn’t speak Spanish, told her that.
That was three months ago. Now I’m in Nicaragua, where I’ve almost finished my trip and nothing bad has happened to me. Obviously, my experience is my own and can’t be replicated. But I can share the things I did to feel and stay safe, so you can too.
Instead of a list of tips, I’m going to share five rules of thumb. These do not include safety basics, such as watching your drinks, drinking in moderation, carrying pepper spray, and avoiding walking alone at night.
By research, I don’t mean read fake, illegitimate articles on Facebook. These articles often discuss extreme situations, are inaccurate, or just end up scaring the shit out of you. I was a little scared about Colombia before I read up on the current state of affairs and how it’s changing. What you want to look up is factual information so you can feel prepared and know what to expect. Learn about your destination on the Department of State website. Find out which cities are traveler friendly, look up the best neighborhoods for tourists, and get warnings of any current scams. Google questions about the culture and read about female bloggers’ experiences there. Know how the culture responds to women travelers, solo women, and women of color.
Also sign up for STEP (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program) so US consulates know when you will be in their city and can send you notifications about safety conditions. For example, I just got a notification that taxi drivers are protesting in Managua, which I would not have known otherwise and which is important since I’m flying out of that airport. Knowledge prepares you and helps you feel confident.
Don’t let “solo” fool you. When you travel solo, you’re never really alone. The mere fact that you are by yourself makes you more open to meeting people and more approachable to others.
So make friends everywhere—at your hotel/hostel breakfast or TV room, during tours and excursions, in restaurants, through Facebook, etc. Take initiative and make plans for later with people you get along with. Meet them for dinner or go out with them. You can even create a buddy system when you go out and make a plan for how to get back safely.
TRUST YOUR GUT
Once you travel solo, you will learn to trust your gut. But before you go, you need to know how to listen to it. Also know that your gut may react differently from someone else’s. And that’s OK.
Instead of allowing fear to be paralyzing, embrace it. Use it as a tool. Use it as a gauge. When you walk down a street that’s somewhat empty and feel your stomach knotting up, understand that’s a sign that maybe you should turn around. Do what you need to do to feel safer and more comfortable. That same rule applies with people. If you feel uncomfortable, do what you need to do to feel safer. Say no, walk away, close the door, yell at someone. Don’t feel rude or shy—seriously, don’t feel apologetic. Repeat: don’t filter or feel apologetic. Respect your woman’s intuition and act on it. This is your body and space, and you can refuse it to anyone.
BE CAUTIOUS AT NIGHT
Refer to #2. Make friends and be with others at night rather than being alone. Your parents will thank you for it. There are exceptions to this rule, but generally speaking: don’t drink and party alone at a club, don’t go to the beach at night (it can be romantic, but it’s rife with thievery), don’t walk home alone from bars (just take an Uber), don’t walk down empty streets (be around people), and don’t arrive to your destination in the middle of the night. More dos and don’ts here.
REACH FOR THE NEAREST WOMAN
If you do find yourself in a bad situation, the first thing to do is look for the nearest woman. Whether she speaks your language or not, you have a connection. Don’t be shy to use your hands, your body language, and whatever words you know to communicate what you need. This works when you’re lost, feel uncomfortable, or sense something is wrong. Because we are women, we have a natural, built-in network. Use it.
As a female solo traveler, you can’t control what happens but you can be prepared. These rules have helped me travel safely in Latin America and should help you too. And I hope they do because once you feel safe and confident, you can focus on the magical experiences and wonder that come with traveling.
Michelle Arrazcaeta was an avid traveler, amateur photographer, and strategist in advertising when she started GirlGoTravel, a brand and travel resource that gives girls the guts to travel solo. She recently left her job to make traveling a lifestyle by road-tripping through US national parks and solo backpacking in Latin America. Over the past six months, she’s been writing about solo travel, coaching girls, and creating more resources that empower girls to travel alone. Check out her website and follow her on Instagram.