How to Travel Adventurously But Safely in South America
2016 hasn’t exactly been a great year for headlines promoting how safe travel in South America is, particularly for solo females. You might have read about the Yale University student who suffered critical head and lung injuries in a freak rafting accident in Colombia, or the murders of two female backpackers in Ecuador. The latter story provoked heated criticisms and the Twitter hashtag #viajosola (I travel alone) for the implication that the fact they were women travelling alone was to blame for the deaths.
Given how many people travel each year to South America (millions of solo female travellers included) these awful examples of when travel can go wrong are by no means the norm, but it’s understandable that they can leave potential travellers feeling somewhat concerned about stepping onto South American shores.
So, if you’re questioning is South America a safe place to travel? – whatever parts you might be packing in your pants – then let me put your mind at ease. While this continent may not be top of many backpackers’ list of where to travel alone, the vast majority of people of both sexes who do, have incredible, safe and life-changing experiences.
Travel safely and adventurously – wherever you are
Of course, there are some basic principles for travelling – wherever in the world – that everyone should follow. Having spent the past 19 months getting to know some of the best places to visit in South America (including some of its more ‘adventurous’ locations) I’ve learned from my own and other travellers’ mistakes about how you can travel safely.
For me, adventurous travel is about having the confidence to jump on a bus to a far-flung destination where not many other visitors visit, or stopping the night in a tiny, rural community where you know you’ll receive a warm welcome and an incredible sunrise. It’s about hiking, camping, and discovering the countryside that so few other tourists probably have dared to do.
These are the parts of travel that bring a country alive, but require a certain degree of confidence for you to embark on them in the first place. If you’re inspired to try this style of backpacking, here are my golden rules for travelling adventurously but safely through South America, and which have served me well on my long ramble through this continent.
Always do your research and listen to others’ recommendations
This is my #1 travel rule: when you’re backpacking across South American countries, it’s SO important to do you research on the best bus company to go with. Bus journeys here are long, and a) you’re putting your comfort at risk but b), more importantly, it shouldn’t matter how budget you’re travelling; what’s at stake here could genuinely be your life.
I’ve heard some horror stories about buses, not only in Bolivia but all of the countries in this continent. My own parents’ experience of being in a bus that skidded and narrowly avoided hurtling into a canyon in Peru only serves to cement how important this rule is for safe travel in South America.
Before buying my ticket, I always ask other travellers and locals about the safety records of the different companies and book accordingly. I’ll admit I’ve never once followed guide book suggestions to check out the bus before you travel (let’s face it, when you book, there’s no guarantee which of the company’s buses you’ll actually be travelling on), but instead go with recommendations. In eighteen months of travel, I’ve only once had a hairy bus experience, for which I am incredibly thankful. Make sure you have as good luck on your travels in South America.
Recognise that you get what you pay for in every situation
Along similar lines as above, it quickly becomes apparent in South America that a tour, bus journey or activity that seems insanely cheap is so for a reason. In some cases, it’s because the company isn’t paying their staff decent enough wages (which is frankly a good enough reason to ditch them on the spot), but often it’ll be because standards of health and safety – that old red tape that we love to hate back in the UK – are lacking.
Having lived in La Paz in Bolivia for six weeks, I heard a lot about the Death Road biking experience, and was well aware that at least one tourist died every few months. Yes, there were freak accidents, but I have no doubt that some of them would have been avoidable if the equipment had been better maintained by the companies.
Freak accidents do happen (as we saw above in Colombia) but it’s so much more advisable to limit the risk from the beginning by paying a decent amount. Not only will you hopefully avoid accidents, but you’ll also be ensuring that the hard working guides you meet get paid a decent wage. Now there’s a win/win that I can get behind.
Download the best (and free) technology
I’ve written previously about my love of adventure apps for travelling in South America, and I’ve relied on many of these technological pieces of magic throughout my travels. If you really want to get adventurous when you travel, making sure you’ve got the correct mapping technology (and GPS) to get you out of a hiking tight-spot is essential.
The wonderful Travel Break website have also put together a fantastically useful guide to other apps that will help you travel safely. Although I can’t vouch for their usability in South America, they all sound like excellent ways of staying safe. (Please share if you’ve had any experience of using them in this continent, as I’d love to know how they worked for you.)
What I personally love about technology for helping you to travel adventurously is how much easier it make situations which could very easily become exceptionally stressful, or downright dangerous. For example, in Bolivia I found how complicated it was to ever stick to (or even find) a path when you’re walking in the country, so having an app downloaded to my phone that could give me a hint as to which direction I wanted to be headed was invaluable.
Speaking of which, if you’re thinking of checking out the beautiful countryside of Bolivia, make sure you do some research beforehand with my guide to South American walking routes: I’ve done the hard work of finding out how the hell you trek around parts of the country so that you don’t have to. Enjoy!
Learn some of the lingo
I’m a massive advocate for travelling that involves language learning because it’s this type of travel that gets you closer to a country and its people. Even with just the very basics of a language, it’s incredible the moments you can share, whether it’s them telling you to sopla (blow) the clouds away so that the sun comes out, the hilarity that ensues when you refer to yourself accidentally as loro(parrot), or playing a game of charades so that you can buy some thrush cream. It’s also exceptionally useful for solo female travellers in South America who need to kill unwarranted advances (tengo novio – I have a boyfriend can help get rid of “admirers”).
Knowing enough language to understand what is happening around you can also make you feel very safe: having been asked by a Bolivian woman on a bus if two noisy American passengers were talking about robbing her (they were in fact discussing reasons why the bus smelt like it was about to go up in flames – but that’s another story), I realised how I’d forgotten what it’s like to feel all at sea in another language.
Knowing that you’ve got the capacity to understand when the mood changes in a situation or even just so that you can understand what time you’re being told the bus will leave, will do wonders for putting you at ease. And if you’re like me, learning a new language means you can put yourself in ridiculous new situations, like appearing on live Bolivian television.
While apps such as Duolingo might be useful to get you started, staying put for a few weeks to learn the language in a school will always lead to better results. Thankfully South America has a myriad of excellent (cheap) countries in which to learn. I’ll always vouch for Sucre, Bolivia, but Antigua, Guatemala and Cuenca, Ecuador always seem to appear high on most travellers’ lists as the best places to visit – and learn – in South America.
Be aware: a little more aware than you might be at home
I know personally what it’s like to feel yourself getting a little bit too comfortable when travelling. After five months of living in relative safety in Sucre, Bolivia, I’ll admit I’d gotten a bit lax when it came to personal safety. After quite a number of Jaeger bombs on my birthday (and a trip to Sucre’s favourite – and most unpleasant – club), I took a taxi home from the club and found myself with the driver attempting to put his hand up my skirt. Not cool.
I survived the incident, but it served to remind me that I’d let my guard down far too much, and that getting drunk in a foreign country, particularly as a solo female traveller, is never a good idea. Yes most of these countries are safer than you might have heard, but as a tourist, you’re often more of a target, whether it’s for sexual advances or for plain, old mugging.
Thanks to my beautiful Halifax Clarity credit card which doesn’t charge me to withdraw from many cash machines in the countries I’ve visited so far, I’ve never had to carry lots of cash on me. I also never take my credit card with me anywhere if I’m not planning on withdrawing money (believe me, having to get a replacement card sent from the UK to Peru because someone’s been using yours is not fun), and will certainly not trot around with my beautiful Nikon DSLR on display.
On buses, I’m always sure to attach my handbag with my passport and money in it to my person and wedged between me and the seat so that no one can get it without me noticing, and will ensure that my bag with laptop and camera are jammed somewhere so that if anyone attempts to move them I will certainly know about it.
The longer I’ve travelled, the fewer awful stories I seem to hear, but these things do happen and it only takes you to wander down the wrong street, get distracted and have bird shit thrown on you (yup, Buenos Aires), and realise that someone’s stolen £500 from your rucksack. Don’t let it happen to you: be sensible.
Safe travel in South America is easier than you think
There we go: my guide to how adventurous and safe travel don’t need to be mutually exclusive. If you’re contemplating a solo trip, hopefully this list should prepare you for backpacking in South America and the fact that, yes it’ll be an adventurous experience, but ultimately the experience will make you realise how courageous, self-reliant and capable of travelling alone you are.