Traveling Solo as a Young Woman
Learning the Hard Way
I remember the day with great clarity. It was a Sunday in late October 2009, my third day in the Argentinean town of Puerto Iguazú. The settlement itself had little to offer apart from a few tourist shops and restaurants; I had come here primarily to visit the spectacular Iguazú waterfalls, along with three American friends. I mention their nationality because all three of them would have needed a visa to enter the Brazilian side of the falls. Since the visa cost about $100 and applications need to be made well in advance, my friends decided to skip the Brazilian side and head back to Buenos Aires.
I decided to see the Brazilian side of the waterfalls as well. While the never-ending debate about which side is “better” probably should be left to each individual visitor to decide. I am glad I saw both. Soon thereafter, I returned back to the Hostel Inn Iguazú—which, by the way, resembles more of a resort—and still had a few hours left to my Sunday. I asked at reception what could be done for the rest of the day, and was recommended the Aripuca, a museum-like park dedicated to honoring nature. It was supposed to be within walking distance.
Getting there was no problem. From the main road, there were clear signs leading to the Aripuca; it seemed that all you had to do is follow the dusty and uneven terracotta paths. Completely enthralled by the museum upon arrival, I realized that I had paid less attention to the fact that it was getting dark. Seeing the colors of the trees dimming, I headed off in the direction of what I thought was the main road. In the deepening dark, however, all the terracotta roads assumed the form of a labyrinth, and the signs that were previously so clear were now seemingly absent.
I began to panic. This certainly had not been part of my plan of seeing Iguazú. Straining to keep the tears from my eyes - it was already apparent that I was a tourist in the area and did not need to attract additional attention from strangers - I finally made my way back to the Aripuca. The museum was closing, but in my despair, I managed to find a friendly employee and asked him to call me a taxi. “To where?” He asked. “The Hostel Inn,” I replied. “But that’s only a 10-minute walk,” he said.
“I know, I know, but I hurt my knee,” I pretended; I did not want to confess that I could not find my way back alone. The taxi arrived and again, I had to explain why I was taking a cab for such a short distance. The driver, male, began to ask me questions about whether I was traveling alone; once more, I pretended, “No, and my boyfriend is waiting back at the hostel.” A white lie, of course, since no one knew where I had been, and no one would come looking for me. When we finally arrived at the main road, I asked the driver to stop, paid and bolted out the door, running towards the hostel. He must have been surprised; it seems that my knee was quite alright after all.
What It Means to Travel Solo as a Woman
After bolting out that taxi, all I remember is spending the night covered by bed covers. My diary entries of the trip are scarce, but here, I wrote prolifically. Writing then proved to be a kind of therapy, allowing for reflection upon what it means to travel, travel solo, and moreover, to travel solo as a woman.
Traveling Solo, But Not Completely
Although initially such an experience may leave one with the desire never to travel alone again, the perspective did not linger for long. In fact, I strongly believe that solo travel can be a great learning experience, precisely because one is exposed to such situations. (And as long as all goes well, the experience is bound to be very meaningful, if not life-changing. The reasons, for and against, traveling solo merit an article in and of themselves, so I will not go into detail here, though others on this site have.)
No matter whether you are female or male, as a solo traveler, it is important to be honest with yourself. Though it seems easier said than done, know your limits. As young backpackers, some like to put themselves in extreme situations. Whether it is climbing the highest mountain peaks, paragliding, or simply going out at night alone, many young people like the thrill of adventure. But for the sake of safety, there should be some reflection as to when it is time to set boundaries.
Know Thy Surroundings
Of course, determining whether you can venture out alone will vary significantly on your destination. The variance is not only related to the country, but also to the precise area of the country you find yourself in. Going to a museum in Buenos Aires at six in the afternoon would probably have provoked in me less of a panic attack than doing the same in the rainforest of Iguazú. It always depends on what you are used to, and how you react. Some of us have no problem reading a compass and journeying out into the mountains, while others may be more comfortable in the city. Try to combine your knowledge of yourself and your surroundings in order to craft a wonderful trip.
- Tell people where you are going. Traveling alone does not mean you cannot talk to other people. If you are going to venture out by yourself, at least tell someone about your plans. Whether it is the guy at the front desk or a friend you made a couple days earlier, make sure it is someone you can rely upon.
- Carry a cell phone. Sure, for some of us our dream of traveling is to disconnect entirely from the world. But for the sake of safety, have a cell phone with you – you can keep it off if you want--this way people will not call you but you can call them. And save the emergency number of the respective place you are in!
- Be informed. Know the country, area or town you are in. Reading the guidebook section on “safety” really does not require a whole lot of effort. There is even often a section dedicated to traveling as a woman in the respective country.
- Make friends with locals. The guidebook can only tell you so much. Locals, on the other hand, will give you the “down-low” on the area. Not only can you get great tips for restaurants, but the streets to avoid may be even more useful advice.
- Do not look and behave like a tourist. The first couple days you arrive, observe the locals around you. See what they are wearing, especially the women. If none of them ever wear short skirts, you should not either. The idea is to fit in with your environment.
- Learn the local language. This will allow you to make friends with the locals and learn about their culture. In situations that may have made you panic, knowing the local language can save you a lot of trouble in the end. Also, people are more likely to take you seriously if you make an effort to integrate yourself.
- Do not make yourself vulnerable. If you do find yourself in a dangerous situation, try to maintain your calm. I know it sounds easier said than done. Use your common sense and try to rationalize.
- Use common sense. This is essential to preventing danger. Do not walk around alone, at night. Do not drink excessive quantities of alcohol or drugs as this a sure way to make yourself vulnerable.
Above All, Enjoy!
Having said all this, there is really no need to panic. It is possible—and enjoyable—to travel alone as a woman. Keep in mind the advice above and you should encounter few, if any, problems. Take things as they go and you shall be rewarded.