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Solo Woman Travel in Oaxaca, Mexico

A Little Paranoia Never Hurt Anyone

I will be the first to admit that at times I can be less than fun when I travel. Many of the safety tips that I often talk and write about are innate to me. But some travelers may not wish to continually think (consciously or not) about holding on to your bags, locking up your luggage, keeping an eye on your passport, not going out at night if you are on your own, etc.

I did learn a minor lesson in loosening up during a solo adventure in Mexico when I was visiting the town of Oaxaca. I had arrived early in the day and checked in to the youth hostel, located not far from the zocalo, the town square. The hostel entrance opened up into a small courtyard where backpackers from around the world were milling about. There were plenty of other travelers to meet, but that would have to wait. I had arrived after a long bus ride from Mexico City and I was eager to stretch my legs and see the town.

I set out to walk the streets and markets of this fascinating area. Cobblestone alleys branched off in all directions. Outdoor vendors sold fresh fruit and handmade tortillas. The local market had the freshest mozzarella-like quesillo cheese that I have ever tasted. I was thrilled to be in this vibrant town - until I tried to find my way back to the hostel.

On this rare occasion, I had neglected to pick up a business card or make note of the address of my accommodation. I thought I had paid close enough attention to the direction that I was going and where the hostel was in relation to the zocalo. This was so central to the town that surely I could find my way back…

I was getting tired and not thinking clearly. I circled back around areas that I thought for sure would get me closer to my goal. Determined to find it on my own, an hour or more had passed. I did not start to panic until someone started following me.

I did not turn around to see him, but I could hear him calling. He was clearly shouting after me as there appeared to be no other English speakers within range. “Hello… hello… stop!” I was lost... and now someone was tailing me. Though it was broad daylight I found it disconcerting to have someone following me while I was simultaneously trying to lose him and find my way through the maze of downtown Oaxaca.

When I finally gave in and turned around, I realized the man tailing me was a young German from the hostel. He had been loitering in the courtyard when I arrived. He too was lost and could not find his way back. We laughed at our stupidity and together finally found our way.

Of course, I felt dually silly. Not only for losing my way, but by making an assumption that I needed to fear the person who eventually helped me.

Central America is not a place in which a woman should necessarily let down her guard. It drips with machismo. And foreign women, particularly solo travelers, are sure to be harassed, harangued, and whistled at. I am often greeted with shouts of, “Guerita…” or “little white girl” by the locals. Harmful? No. Annoying? Yes.

But what do you do when an annoying individual has ill-intentions? And how do you know the difference between a potentially bad situation and one that is harmless?

When to grin and bear it:

  • Middle of the day flirtations, whistles, and the like are probably not going to cause you any physical harm. With many people around, it is unlikely that someone will take a chance on making too much of a scene.
  • Shouts from cars and trucks driving by, stares from passersby – these are generally harmless, as it is doubtful that someone will attempt to physically approach you.
  • Even if you meet someone on a park bench and spend a few moments learning each other’s language, if the situation does not feel right, move on. Explain that your husband or fiancé is waiting for you.

Do not even think about it:

  • Do not let yourself get caught at night (or even dusk) alone in the streets. Doing so just opens up too many chances for something to happen.
  • Do not accept food or drink from anyone you meet unless you have seen them take a sip or bite from the same bottle or container.
  • Particularly in cities, avoid taking taxis on your own, especially at night.

I lamented once to a (male) friend that I felt like I sometimes missed opportunities because I was being overly cautious. His response was, “Yes, but you’re here to talk about it.” He was right. I never did see the lights on the Coliseum in Rome because I did not want to be out alone at night, and I avoid camping on my own unless I am absolutely certain that I am in a safe area. I am alive, well, and ready for future adventures.

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