Traveling Solo as a Woman
I’ve solo traveled to over 23 countries in the past 14 years. What have I learned? That a few basic things generally keep me out of trouble…
Even though it often doesn’t feel like it, the world has come a long way towards freedom and equal rights for women. Sure, the progress is inching, and infuriating. But it’s there. The tricky thing is… where is it, exactly? And when? Each country is unique.
In the midst of all the change, and the significant cultural differences in foreign lands, sometimes it’s hard to know when to have a healthy fear or confident attitude in traveling solo as a female. I’ve been traveling the world alone since I was 19 years old: Mexico, Canada, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Peru, Colombia, Argentina, Chile, Morocco, Spain, France, Netherlands, Ireland, Scotland, Portugal, Israel, Japan, Brunei, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand.
If you’re wondering if solo travel is for you, here are a couple nuggets of universal truths I picked up along the way.
1. Don’t listen to opinions of people who haven’t been there / done that.
Because you wouldn’t take plumbing advice from your doctor, right? People can mean well, and that’s one thing, but actually knowing about a thing is altogether different. My former boss was shocked I would travel to South America alone. “It’s far too dangerous for a woman”, he said. My boss has never been a woman, or to South America. My friend Sareh, however, has both of those experiences under her belt. I decided to take Sareh’s advice (take precautions, do research, go, have a ball) and had an amazing trip.
2. Do your research, especially for remote locations.
Can’t stress this enough. The beauty of the internet is that we now have instant access to millions of other peoples’ experiences! Blogs, articles, safety precautions from the government of your country and of the country you’re visiting are all at your fingertips. Even for places close to home, do your research. For example, when I was thinking of going to work in Alaska this summer, I found that the rape culture there is pervasive (not to mention a plethora of petty crime) and more than three times the national average. Did that keep me from going? No. But I was a hell of a lot more careful armed with this knowledge.
3. Dress appropriately for each culture…
Sucks to say it, but don’t show too much skin in places where you might be making yourself a target. Unfortunately, this is how the world works. Basically, just look at the local ladies around you to get an idea. In some cultures, simply covering your shoulders or knees will prevent a world of trouble.
Everyone knows not to wear expensive, flashy jewelry or gadgets , either— if you don’t have something visible to steal, your chances of getting robbed are greatly diminished.
…..Buuut, keep in mind that in some countries your old silver necklace, “shitty” phone or scuffed Jordan’s are still expensive items. Maybe worth more than they make in a month.
4. Talk to the locals every chance you get.
Learn at least a little bit of conversational talk in the language of the country you’re visiting, and use it. By making an effort to speak to the locals, you’re announcing your presence and showing respect and interest in them as individuals and in their culture. By making this effort I’ve gotten invited to dinners, told about secret places nearby and the best ways to travel locally, saved A LOT of money, and most importantly I’ve made a bunch of amazing new friends. Plus it’s the best way to learn a new language. Winning all around!
This is also surprisingly one of the most effective things to ward off leering, lecherous guys or offers. I turn around, smile, look them straight in the eye and say, “Good day” or “No, thank you” in whatever language they speak, and then just keep on walking. It catches them off guard, shows them you’re just a person making an effort to speak their language, and weeds out the guys just pretending to be macho (which by my calculations is about 95% of them).
5. If you are in real danger, don’t be embarrassed to run or scream or do whatever you need to do to be safe.
This may sound silly, but how many times have you had a bad gut feeling but didn’t want to make a scene in case you were wrong, so you stayed quiet?
If there is anyone else around, don’t hesitate to ask for help, whether you know the language or not — a look of fear in the eye is universal. Your best protection is other people. If you’re in a remote area or streets devoid of people, throw some money or something valuable on the ground and run like the wind. I carry a little mace (the pepper spray, not a tiny club, lol) with me everywhere… even just waving it around as a threat can give you a small advantage in an unpleasant situation.
If you’re NOT in danger but someone is making you uncomfortable in a public place, confront the person with direct eye contact and ask for respect / tell them to stop. This kind of behavior will never end if the perpetrators never get confronted. Recently in Costa Rica I saw a man driving a jeep who had pulled over to talk to a woman on a quad gesturing passionately to him. As I got closer I could hear her telling him firmly why she was not a piece of meat, and as such shouldn’t be whistled at. Yeah!
6. Let friends or family know your movements on all solo trips, hikes, adventures.
Pick at least one person and let them know everywhere you go — every town, every hostel. Sometimes it feels like overkill, but it’s one of the simplest ways to stay safe. You should also log your intentions (fill out a simple form online) with a national park when you go on a long hike or other outdoor adventure.
7. Don’t get drunk / use drugs / walk around alone or with strangers at night. Ever.
Don’t make any exceptions to this rule, and you’ll be ruling out most of your risk in travel. This sounds like a lot to keep in mind when all you want is to have fun. I know. But I’m a forgetful, daydreaming, loves a good time, believes-the-best-of-everyone type person, and I’ve still been able to (mostly) follow the guidelines. My one notable exception — in 14 years of travel — was actually just a few months ago.
I was traveling in Nicaragua, staying in the city of Granada for a few nights, when I went out to have drinks with a fellow backpacker I liked. We closed the bar down, drinking tequila and telling stories like old best friends, and then we topped it off by smoking a fatty and getting incredibly lost on the way back to our respective hostels. We danced in the streets. Best time ever. It was 4am by the time we finally made it to his hostel, where we kissed goodnight and I started walking to my hostel two city blocks farther. I’d gotten about half a block away when the sober vibes kicked in and I realized how stupid it was to be walking home alone.
As I approached a crossroads and lifted my head to scan around the empty city streets, I saw a man on a bicycle approaching from one direction… and another man on a bicycle approaching from the opposite direction. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up and I immediately did an about-face and started walking briskly back to my friend’s hostel, crossing the street as I did so. I could hear bike gears speeding up and a man calling out a friendly “Hola!” and even though everything so far was technically ‘above board’, I listened to my gut and broke into a full on sprint while yelling “No! Me voy a mi hostel aqui!”
Panting hard, I simultaneously slammed to a stop in front of the now locked hostel door and started pounding my fists on it while screaming “señor! señor!" Well, the night guard opened the barred door just as the two men pulled up beside me. One of the men said to the night guard, "she shouldn't be out here alone at night." And they rode off. The night guard fetched my friend, who walked me home without incident.
The kicker of all this, the thing that is the most sobering, is when my friend repeated what the night guard told him the next morning: that he’d heard of a ‘call’ put out to all of the nearby suburbs, to a certain group of men, around 4am, letting them know that a girl was walking the streets by herself and to come immediately. Yeah, let that sink in. It took me awhile. I’m ever grateful for the second chance to use my big beautiful brain and not do stupid shit like walk around the streets of a city at night, alone and tipsy.
These are all just precautionary tales though. Traveling has opened up the world for me and has had a positive impact on my life in so many ways, that I could wax lyrical for days. It has irrevocably changed me for the better — feeling the freedom and independence, finding that there are a million different ways to live a life, learning the ways of a new culture, knowing I can have more than one home, and seeing the most stunning beauty this Earth has to offer. I’ll never go back. Anyone who has traveled solo will tell you it’s another type of travel all together, and it will open up your heart and mind in ways you didn’t know were possible. Fear is the most powerful thing holding us back from our dreams, and most of the time it’s the only reason why we never even tried _________ (insert dream here).
Don’t let fear hold you back from traveling alone in this world as a woman. It’s one of the most valuable things you can give yourself in this life. The rewards last forever, and far outweigh the risks!