About this time last year, I found out that three women writers I know in Bogotá would be compiling a book of tales about solo female travel in Latin America. Although I didn’t submit a tale of my own, it did make me start to reminisce about my own solo travel experiences as a young woman. I thought I’d write this post to encourage women who feel nervous about the idea of travelling to Colombia (or any other Latin American country) alone, to come anyway!
I’ve lived in Argentina, Mexico and now Colombia; I have travelled alone, and with family and friends. In 15 years, I’ve never run into any big problems in Latin America, and I do believe that if you try to avoid doing anything that is obviously unwise, illegal or just plain stupid, there’s no reason why you will either.
The Summer of ’03
I suppose you might say that my travels with my friends in the summer of 2003 were my preparation for the adventure I would embark upon alone in Argentina later that year. That summer was probably the best of my life. I’d known since I was about 11 that I wanted to travel after I finished school. So just a week after school was out forever, I went on holiday to Turkey for a week with one of my best friends, Jigna. I remember nearly every shop-owner in the local market would invite us in for an apple tea whenever we went down there. A few weeks later, our group of six girlfriends (me, Jigna, Sheryl, Helen, Jo and Amanda) went to Switzerland. We invented ‘Swiss rounders’ one sunny afternoon by the Zurich lake, and (probably unwisely) stood on a bridge during an electrical storm one night, ‘oohing’ and ‘ahhing’ at the zig-zag lightning bolts over the lake. A couple of weeks after that, Helen and I went to visit our friend Christina in Germany, and on a sweltering evening in 40-degree heat, we danced to Christina Aguilera’s Fighter in our swimsuits in the living room. I’ve lost the video we made of our performance but I’m sure it’ll turn up and provide some hilarity for the grandchildren somewhere down the line! Later that year, a couple of weeks before my big trip to Argentina, my friend Desirée and I went on holiday to Tunisia. I danced salsa and merengue for the first time, and couldn’t sit down properly for days after we went horse-riding on the beach at sunset.
My friends and I are women who love to travel – alone or together.
My Argentine Adventure
Fourteen years and four months ago, a week before I turned 19, I got on a plane to Buenos Aires. When I was planning my trip, it never occurred to me that I shouldn’t go, or that I would be putting myself in danger somehow by travelling alone as a woman. It was simply a dream, and I was determined to live it. The experience of landing in the ‘Paris of South America’, cruising along Avenida 9 de Julio – the widest avenue in the world – and passing by the iconic Obelisco was exhilarating. I loved teaching English and I adored Buenos Aires. It’s no exaggeration to say that you’ll see couples dancing the Tango on the streets in some areas. Mention you’re British and the locals will almost certainly ask you when you’ll be giving the Falkland Islands (Las Malvinas) back to Argentina (usually with mock irritation and a cheeky grin on their faces nowadays).
The Argentine people showed such kindness and concern for me – possibly because I was a fresh-faced 19-year-old (who looked about 15), often to be found wandering alone through the city, with a slightly manic, excited smile on my face! Naturally I felt homesick after a while, and I missed my family, friends and home comforts. I also witnessed the tragic reality of homeless children and urban slums for the first time, and I became far more worldly-wise. But all in all, the five months I spent living in Argentina was probably the most important time of my early adulthood, and it helped to shape the person I would become. It also ignited an ongoing passion for Latin America.
Young and Fearless
After I finished my voluntary teaching placement in Buenos Aires, I packed my bags for an adventure through the rugged wilds of Patagonia. Well-meaning friends and acquaintances expressed alarm that, as a ‘girl’, I’d be travelling alone through rural Argentina with only elementary Spanish to help me along the way. I was told stories of women who had been kidnapped on the Patagonian dirt tracks. Even other female travellers from my hostel audibly inhaled and declared “I’m not sure I could have done that when I was 19.”
I never saw my age or gender as an obstacle or a reason why I shouldn’t embark on this adventure. In any case, I made (mostly) sensible choices to ensure my safety as far as I could – I at least owed that to my parents for letting me go without a fuss! For most of my trip, I was on an organised placement or travelling with a tour group, and when I was alone, I always knew where I was going and how I would get there and back. I visited the gorgeous glaciers at El Calafate. I went on a three-day road trip, travelling 1,400km by bus on a dirt-track from El Calafate to Bariloche, trekking through canyons, exploring caves and meeting all kinds of interesting characters along the way (including, of course, a few gauchos!)
A great achievement
One of my favourite memories was my little solo hike through the breathtakingly beautiful El Chaltén national park. Patagonia had been experiencing unusually hot weather that year – it was about 30 degrees Celsius in an area where it would usually have been around 20. I wasn’t a seasoned hiker and stupidly, I hadn’t brought enough water with me that day. At one point, as I hiked through the hills under the burning sun, I almost turned back. But I was determined, and thought I’d carry on for a bit longer just to get to the first viewpoint of the stunning Mount Fitz Roy. In hindsight, it was probably a silly and risky thing to do, but luckily a Danish family caught up with me on the track, offered me some of their water and invited me to join them. (Moral of that story: always be prepared, and bring more water than you think you’ll need!). When I reached the viewpoint, it was a moment of immense pride for me. I remember thinking that I would look back on this as one of my greatest achievements, and at that point in my life, it was. I had been fearless. I had dared to be adventurous – and I was doing it alone.
When the worst happens…
I began to recall my time as a teenager in Argentina as I read the horrific news of the murder of two young, Argentinian women, Marina Menegazzo and María José Coni, in Ecuador in 2016. They were in their early 20s and had set off from their homes in Mendoza, Argentina, to see the world, surely with the same sense of excitement and anticipation as I had felt back in 2003. I had travelled the world alone and with my girlfriends, so I completely understood why two young women would want to head off together in search of adventure, with a desire to discover and learn about new cultures and enjoy new experiences, far away from the comforts of home.
But unlike me, Marina and María José never returned home. News of their murders received extensive international media coverage, and amidst the outcry, there was indignation from some people as they questioned why two women would choose to take the risk of travelling “alone” (i.e. without male chaperones). I was astonished. Why, in this day and age, should it occur to a woman that she shouldn’t travel without a man? We can be just as adventurous, and we can share the same dreams. Why should there be a different set of rules and risks for us to consider?
Travelling – alone and with my friends and family – has changed my life and undoubtedly had an important, formative impact on me as a person. Should I have sacrificed that, just because I was a woman? (No! #viajosola) These comments frustrated many women like me who have gained so much from exploring alone. We want other women to be able to have the same enriching, life-changing experiences as we have had, without being deterred by chauvinistic – or even often well-meaning – comments about the risks of being a woman solo traveler.
Alone Together: Tales of Sisterhood and Solitude in Latin America
Following these murders and the ensuing comments in the press about women solo travellers, the idea of Alone Together was born in Bogotá, Colombia. Alone Together: Tales of Sisterhood and Solitude in Latin America is a compilation of 36 extraordinary true stories by women from around the world who travelled to Latin America in spite of warnings from people who told them it was too dangerous for a woman to travel there alone. These women survived hijacks and kidnap, attacks in the jungle, and dived out of planes without parachutes; they rode chicken buses, bamboo bicycles, and one even became a cowboy! All of the writers managed to encapsulate the very best of Latin America with their stories. Their voices convey a very clear message: ‘Hey, World: women can travel to Latin America, alone or together.’
As a woman solo traveller, and as a blogger who has now lived in Colombia for more than four years, I understand when women contact me with concerns about travelling alone, especially to a continent that has seen its fair share of wars, dictatorships and upheavals over the past decades. This is why I believe that the honest, heart-wrenching and entertaining adventures in Alone Together are essential reading for anyone curious about this part of the world. Because there is so much more to Latin America than the bad press it too often receives.
Don’t be swayed by the media: discover the magic for yourself!
Brazil isn’t just what you saw in the film City of God; El Salvador isn’t just violent gangs covered in tattoos; and Colombia does not equal Pablo Escobar and Narcos. Latin America is dance, vibrant colours, passion (and jealousy), volcanoes, hot springs, hummingbirds, rainforests, coffee, chocolate, palm trees, chaotic cities and magical realism – among many other things. Anyone who feels curious about it and excited about the idea of sifting white sand through their toes, about shaking it to the irresistible salsa or samba beats, or who dreams of being awoken by the unmistakable buzz of a hummingbird outside their window should be able to come without being deterred by bad press.
Be sensible, travel safe, and have the time of your life!
Even though this blog is about Colombia, I chose to write mostly about my travels in Argentina here because I really was alone there, whereas I moved to Colombia to be with my boyfriend Javier. I was young and inexperienced when I went to Argentina, but I was also just the right amount of fearless and sensible. If I can travel to Latin America alone at the age of 18 with just a few words of Spanish, you can too!
When you visit a new place you should always be smart and careful. Do your research and find out about local customs and etiquette. Talk to people and find out which areas of town to avoid, ask for safety tips and take time to get to know a place. Sometimes the Expat Facebook groups for a country can be really helpful when you’re looking for advice. Learn some basic phrases in the language in case you get into difficulty. Don’t take risks that you wouldn’t take at home. Do explore. Do tell people where you’re going and how they can reach you if they need to. If you want to visit a particular place and you’re worried about whether it’s safe to go alone, book a tour with a reputable company. Sometimes it helps to do an intensive language course or a period of volunteering if you’re on a longer trip, as you’ll meet people who can advise you and look out for you, and it’ll give you a bit of time to settle in and adapt before setting off on your travels around the region. You might also meet some travel-buddies!
Remember the people back home who’ll be worrying about you and check in with them regularly, but don’t let their well-meaning concerns inhibit your adventurous spirit. Go boldly where many solo women travellers have gone before, and have the time of your life!
A few more memories from my travels…
Tell us your experiences as a woman solo traveller in the comments below! 🙂