Seeing as it’s International Women’s day, we caught up with author, co-founder of writer’s community ‘Riff Raff’and South America enthusiast Amy Baker to hear about her experiences and why this vast, vibrant and intoxicating continent is the ideal place to travel as a solo female…
While it’s an undeniable delight to visit countries with lovers and mates, there’s a certain type of transformative magic that comes from travelling alone – especially if you’re on the hunt for a little more than just a party. Venturing to new shores on your lonesome teaches you more than you can ever imagine. This time exploring alone is often the only real chance we get to dig in to what makes us tick. If you’re feeling the pull towards a solo adventure, and you’ve already crossed off the usual English-speaking suspects, it’s time to head south. Here are five reasons why South America is perfect for solo female travellers.
1. It teaches you to be brave
There’s something about South America that feels like more of a challenge than other backpacker favourites. There’s an element of bravery required to venture there, and that’ll need to kick in before you even buy your ticket. While most will be unfailingly supportive, expect a few raised eyebrows when you reveal your plan…or as happened to me, people listing the ways you best prepare for certain death. Kidnappings and drug lords in Colombia, flesh-eating parasites in the Amazon, you name it – those with little travel experience will have opinions about South America (mostly because of Narcos), and they are going to tell you them one by one, while frowning and mentioning ‘pain’ a lot. When people are questioning your decision before you’ve even got to Gatwick, you’ll need to stick to your guns and be brave – you’ve got this.
2. No choice but to go with the flow
Some of us women can be…how do I say it…particular. We have our routines, colour-coded diaries and to-do lists outlining everything we want and need to do for the rest of our day/month/year/life. South America is going to force you to fling this fixation on control out of the window, and it’s going to be glorious. Sure, you might have a roughly-outlined route scribbled down, detailing the hotspots from Buenos Aires to Bogota, but there’s no way of controlling broken down buses in Bolivia, unscheduled visits to Uruguay, and chance encounters in Chile. Be open to the opportunities that present themselves – you never know how things might turn out. I originally planned on spending five weeks in Colombia, but after just two I extended my stay to three months. This allowed me to explore as much as possible and to say ‘yes’ when I was offered a job at Casa Elemento; a hostel in the jungle overlooking in Minca. Good job I did really – this is where I came up with my book idea. It’s this potential for the unplanned that makes it such a fun destination. You’re on South American time now – it’s your chance to slow down, worry less and concentrate on being in the moment.
3. Plenty of time for reflection
Unless you’re a permanent traveller, you’re going to have to ensure periods of working the ol’9-5 to fund your next adventures. In those miserable months or years, we’re all guilty of getting wrapped up in achievements and possessions. South America is perfect for letting go of perceptions of where you should be in life, and is a chance to reconnect with where you want to be. The travel time alone allows you plenty of time for putting things in perspective as you peer from bus windows at the impossible beauty of the Andes or the sparkling waters of the Pacific Ocean. It’s a giant, cheesy cliché but South America affords you essential time to figure out who you are and what matters to you. Revel in that opportunity.
4. A chance to learn the value of your own company
Saying there’s is a lot to see and do in South America is a gigantic understatement. You could spend years there, and still wouldn’t see everything worth seeing. If you’re excited to make friends and have a good old time, there are tours to join to old favourites like the Amazon, the Death Road, the Inca Trail, and the Salt Flats in the south of Bolivia, and party hostels to drink in in almost every stop along the way, especially if you find yourself checked in to any Wild Rover or Loki hostel. What’s nice is the option to take a step back from that, after all, not every backpacker you meet is worth your valuable time. South America teaches you to enjoy your own company. There are plenty of places to explore off the standard backpacker trail, Cabo de la Vela in Colombia being one of my favourites. Plus, often exploring a city on foot with just your music is the best way to see a place. Your time constraints, your food cravings – having no one to please but yourself is a wonderful thing.
5. It’s actually pretty safe for women
Wherever you go in the world, there are risks – South America is no exception. I never encountered anything too nasty, and South American men let me be. I did hear the odd horror story, which served as a good reminder to stay on the ball, observe my surroundings and plan ahead. Places like Huanchaco in Peru and Uyuni in Bolivia don’t appear to be fans of street lights – in which case, you need to be sensible – head out before dark, stay in groups, or hang out in your hostel. Where possible I’d recommend you choose buses that arrive in town during daylight hours, and book hostels in advance, note down the address and always catch registered taxis. If you go out dancing, stick with your mates so you have someone to get a cab with at the end of the night. All of these are steps you’d likely apply in the UK – don’t lose your head just because you’re on a new continent.
In general, being alone meant that people were actually more helpful. I was thanked repeatedly for giving Colombia a chance. A woman held my hand as we crossed the border from Chile to Peru, and repeatedly called me ‘muy fuerte’ (strong) after I told her I was travelling alone. Another time, a whole bus started shouting at the driver for me when it became clear I was on a bus heading back to Lima (where I’d just come from) when I should have been en route to Ecuador. When he eventually dropped at the station, the whole lower deck were hanging out of the windows waving and reminding me not to forget my bag. I was invited to a wedding, a christening, a karaoke night and to a dinner, where I was practically force-fed chocolate biscuits. One woman on a bus in Bolivia even insisted I share her hard-boiled egg when she realised I didn’t have any snacks. I felt the kindness of strangers all the more because I was a woman travelling alone, and I have no doubt you will too.
So, think you’re ready for a South American adventure? Find out more about where to go, how to get there and what to expect with our South America travel guide.
Amy Baker is the author of Miss-Adventures: A Tale of Ignoring Life Advice While Backpacking Around South America.