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Solo travel in South America. The entire concept can feel a bit overwhelming. South America is a huge continent. Where should the solo traveller begin? Should a woman even travel to South America alone?
When visions of llamas, ancient civilizations, the lush Amazon and the soaring Andes are countered by stories of travellers being robbed, sometimes at gunpoint, it is a paradox that requires some thought.
I say, with some preplanning, if South America is calling loud and clear to you, it is necessary to rein in any fears and let joy and curiosity lead the way.
Read More: Here is the 3-month itinerary I followed through South America. If you are trying to figure out visa requirements and do not have exact entry and exit dates, read up on Onward Ticket. It just might come in handy.
1. Travel South America Alone: Pack These
Like all trips, preplanning for solo travel in South America is critical. Luckily, the two most important items you’ll be packing don’t take up any luggage space.
- Intuition Carry a healthy dose of intuition with you and tune in regularly.
- Awareness Staying aware when travelling as a solo female traveller in South America is critical and that can mean not letting your guard down, especially when getting your bearings in a new location.
Read More: How To Pack Light
2. Are You Prepared For South America?
- How adaptable am I? South America is not like North America or Western Europe. At all. Is this your first trip to a developing country? The buildings have rebar sticking out of them. Scrawny, stray dogs and cats roam the streets. Public bathrooms are not fun. Can you look past all that and feel the Latin vibe happening? Are you ready to embrace a culture and people very different from your own? Can you roll with new situations?
- Do I speak Spanish? Do I speak Portuguese? In the more touristy areas, people do speak some English. Having a beginner level of Spanish and/ or Portuguese vocabulary is invaluable when travelling alone in South America.
- What’s my perspective? Staying in an all-female dorm in Cartagena, Colombia I ended up in a conversation about safety with a Danish and an Argentinian. We were comparing stories from our native countries about violence. The girl from Denmark was wracking her mind. She was youthfully innocent and eventually admitted, “Well, we do have some pickpocketing.” This comment sent the beautiful, homesick Argentinian into peals of laughter. With tears rolling down her cheeks, she repeated in absolute disbelief, “Pickpocketing?” Pickpocketing barely makes the grade as a crime in Argentina and she proceeded to tell us about the dangers of withdrawing money from an ATM in Buenos Aires.
We bring our own experiences and knowledge to new situations. What one person deems as unsafe, another may not.
That being said, here is my take on solo travel in South America and safety after a 94-day solo female venture. My opinions are based on my personal experiences. Bear in mind that anything can happen anywhere at any time. Even at home.
Read More: Read all my posts on Solo Female Travel right here!
3. Solo Travel In South America: Bolivia
Did I feel safe travelling alone in Bolivia? Yes
It’s funny how stories from the past can affect the present. Years ago, my father had his camera stolen in Sucre and he was quite sure it was unsafe for me to go there. It took me a while to feel comfortable using my Sony Camera around Sucre. Safety is highly connected to mindset and awareness.
Where I felt the safest travelling alone in Bolivia: Salar de Uyuni, on a 3-day, 2-night tour
Why? I was travelling in a small group and there was no need to be alert to safety concerns.
Decisions made for Safety:
- Skipped La Paz I decided not to stay in Bolivia’s capital, La Paz for a couple of reasons. First of all, La Paz is the capital city with the highest altitude in the world. After suffering from altitude sickness in Peru, I didn’t want to risk suffering again in a large city on my own. I read lots of travellers accounts of their visits to La Paz and decided against it. Was it safety? My gut? Or fear? Not sure. I arrived one evening from Isla del Sol and left the next morning for Sucre. Although I didn’t know it at the time I made my decision, there were many anti-government demonstrations happening in La Paz around the time of my visit.
- Enrolled in Spanish School Enrolling in Spanish School (this was my 4th) serves more than one purpose. While on a mission to improve my Spanish language skills, the community at the schools and the choice I make to live with a family gives the solo female traveller an instant community. I loved living with “real Bolivians” in Sucre.
- Left Earlier than Planned: Strikes and demonstrations were also happening in Sucre although on a smaller, more peaceful scale than La Paz. On my Spanish teacher’s advice, I left Sucre 3 days earlier than planned. She was quite sure the demonstrations were going to lead to road closures and told me harrowing stories of sneaking former students to the airport through road blocks. I took her advice and bussed to Uyuni, Bolivia.
Guided Tours in Bolivia: When travelling solo, taking an organized tour is another great way to meet people. Popular tours in Bolivia include the 3-day salt flat tour from Uyuni, Copacabana and the Isla del Sol boat tour, and biking down the world’s most dangerous road (so popular, too scary for me!!)
4. Travel South America Alone: Chile
Did I feel safe travelling alone in Chile? Yes
Chile does feel more European than the other South American countries I visited. Perhaps there was a sense of familiarity mixed in with the novelty of a new land to explore. Evenings can be tricky for the solo female traveller but travelling at the summer solstice (Dec 21), daylight spilt into the evening hours.
Where I felt the safest travelling alone in Chile: For solo travel in South America, San Pedro de Atacama feels very safe.
Why? San Pedro is a small town with a relaxed ambience. It was easy to feel comfortable and let my guard down (a little!)
Decisions made for Safety:
- Skip the Terremoto The infamous Terremoto cocktail AKA the earthquake is a tempting local drink to try in the most seismic country in the world. But this concoction made with pineapple ice cream, sweet wine, fernet and grenadine packs a punch. After imbibing, the world is swirling and your legs are shaking, rather like a tremor on the Richter scale. I really don’t like to miss out. But my solo traveller good sense kicked in and I never did experience the terremoto. Try it when you have someone to watch your back!
5. Solo Travel South America: Colombia
Did I feel safe travelling alone in Colombia? Yes and no
When I arrived in Medellin, I was almost robbed while sitting in a cab. It shook me up and put me on high alert in Medellin. I never let my guard down in Medellin.
In Cartagena, Salento, Minca and Jardin, I felt safe.
Where I felt the safest travelling alone in Colombia: Salento
Why: The locals were welcoming and easy to talk to (even with my beginner Spanish). I met so many travellers and as Salento is small, I kept running into them. For me, a solo female traveller, this created a real sense of community.
Decisions made for Safety:
Evenings: I was extra careful in the evenings in Medellin. It is dark around 6 pm, so I paid close attention to the time making my own rules about when to return to my accommodation on foot or to hail a cab/Uber. Often I chose to stay in which is the reality for many solo female travellers. I was much more comfortable out in the evenings on my own in Cartagena
Avoided Bogota. Once again, I avoided the capital city. I read a lot and talked to people, many of whom told me to skip it. Several had personally had unsafe encounters. My gut told me, for this solo gal, it was a no go.
6. Travel South America Alone: Peru
Did I feel safe travelling alone in Peru? Yes
Peru was my first stop in my “3-month solo female travel South America” mission. I stayed on the backpacker’s route and there were tons of travellers. Was I ever nervous? Yes, In Puno, I kept running into the army. I would walk out of my hotel to go to dinner in the main square and the army/ police would be lining the streets. Hmmm.. was I supposed to just saunter by or quicken my pace? I never did find out if this was a normal occurrence or not.
Why: There are lots of travellers in the Sacred Valley. The Peruvians greet you with huge smiles and overall it feels very safe.
Personal Decisions made for Safety:
Left Lima: I hadn’t travelled to Latin America in three years and needed to find my travel mojo. Therefore, I decided not to spend any time in Lima. I landed and left on a flight to Cusco. I was also trying to get to Machu Picchu before the rains hit hard.
7. Travel Alone In South America: My Conclusion
Be alert. Pay attention. Read the news. Obviously, no one is travelling to Venezuela right now. Listen to your gut and talk to other travellers. South America is an absolute feast for the senses and the curious-minded. Travelling South America alone was an absolute highlight of my nomadic ventures.