Sign up to Facebook groups to meet fellow travelers if you want company and many will add you into Whatsapp groups of other lone travelers. Being part of a like-minded community can help lessen the initial fear of doing it alone and the support makes everything less daunting. Search “Expats in…” or “Foreigners in…” then the city or country you’re in. One of the best online support groups for females is GGI (Girls Gone International) which connects girls from all over the world in hundreds of cities across the globe and has a mix of long-term and short-term travelers and expats.
You are not truly alone and it is helpful to keep that in mind. Throughout South America are thousands of other travelers, some in pairs, in groups, or going solo like you. This is comforting in itself – no matter how incredibly strong and brave it is to travel alone, it has been done many, many times before. By staying in hostels or engaging in the experience whole-heartedly, you can meet other people, if you wish to. Surprisingly, it can be hard to feel lonely when traveling solo.
It’s worth remembering that it is easier than you think it is. South America is an incredibly exciting continent, yet the travel paths are well-trodden and whole economies depend on travelers and tourism. Throughout your trip, there will be many other travelers, guides and local communities that will be happy to guide or advise you – just ask!
Don’t feel shy being alone. In an era where being connected to others is incredibly natural and you can speak to someone on the other side of the world in nano-seconds 24/7, it’s a breath of fresh air to be alone, to discover what you like, what you don’t like, shape your own opinions, and challenge your identity. Embrace going to a restaurant alone and savoring the food without needing to make chit-chat. It may feel awkward the first time, but it gets easier and becomes a pleasant experience.
Prepare your trip well. The scare mongering in the media can paint a frightening image of South America, but this is broadcast in an incredibly narrow context. The reality is it’s not that bad. However, it would be irresponsible to assume anywhere is totally safe, so it’s best to prepare. Do your research on each country and book hostels in advance. Have all the addresses of your accommodation written down as well as important local numbers, such as emergency services. Part of the fun of traveling, though, is the flexibility – try and book hostels with slack cancellation or adjustment policies so you can change dates last minute if you rearrange your plans.
Don’t use unofficial vans or taxis. This is common sense, yet it’s surprising how easy it is to forget this or not realize that a van is not an official tourist van. Book vans in advance to check that the company is reputable, and only use taxis that are obviously taxis – don’t get into an unmarked car that says it’s a taxi as this is potentially extremely risky.
Keep an eye on your bag. Lightning muggings and theft can happen, especially if a thief sees an easy opportunity. Such opportunities include wearing a long-strap bag over your shoulder and not your body, or hanging your bag over the back of a chair – both provide an easy chance for someone to grab it and run. Avoid this complication by keeping your bag close to you at all times.
Be sure to get to know the people that live throughout South America. Most of the time, people here are exceptionally friendly and will help you out with local recommendations and valuable tips that a guidebook won’t have. The exposure to different perspectives and cultures will be eye-opening and life-changing.
Get to know your area. Figure out where the “rough” areas are and avoid them. The tourist spots tend to be very safe. The crime that is often portrayed in the news tends to be in more residential areas or less-privileged districts. Ask at your hotel or hostel, check on forums or just reach out to other travelers and locals to get an idea of where to go and where not to go.
Get copies of all your important documents; more than likely that will be your passport. Many countries in South America require people to carry ID with them at all times. It’s actually very unlikely you will be asked to provide it, but it’s better to be prepared and have it ready. Also, should you lose your documents, it’s handy to have a backup.
Take a spare credit card and leave one behind in your room when you are out during the day or night. If you lose your cards, it can add a lot of stress to your trip that could have been avoided. Also, try not to go out carrying a lot of cash. It sounds dramatic but it can feel heart-wrenching to lose a chunk of your travel funds because it simply fell out of your pocket.
Speaking the local language will enhance your trip considerably and offer a unique chance to interact with locals. While it may be unrealistic to learn both Portuguese and Spanish – the two most widely spoken languages in South America – fluently before you go, try to at least speak a few basic phrases, such as basic greetings and describing yourself. Your efforts will always be appreciated and most locals love tourists attempting to speak their language.
Bring comfortable walking shoes. With so many incredible natural and historical wonders – Amazon rainforest, Andes, Patagonia, to name a few – your feet will be grateful that they are suitably protected for long hikes and climbs.
Try the street food. South America has some of the richest, natural and delicious food, with recipes shaped by cultural influences and regional availability. To get the most out of your travel experience, leave the Western food for when you get home and instead tuck into the local cuisine. Try as much as you can – the flavor combinations may inspire you.
It can be so easy to think that travel insurance isn’t necessary and slip into that comforting thought of, “it won’t happen to me.” Although unlikely anything will happen, unfortunate incidents and illnesses don’t discriminate and public health care in South America is not always in great shape. Private health care is often fantastic, yet extremely expensive. Avoid this risk and give yourself peace of mind by simply getting insurance before you go.
Visa requirements depend on the country you’re coming from – sometimes your visa is automatically granted upon arrival at the airport, other times you need to apply in your country prior to traveling. To avoid a nasty surprise, check your country’s visa requirements and how long you can stay on a tourist visa before you go.
Have a few backup lines ready to get out of awkward or uncomfortable situations or conversations. If someone you’re not interested in tries hitting on you and “no” doesn’t work, or if someone strikes up a conversation and you just want to be alone, have something like, “I’d better get going, my boyfriend is waiting for me,” or “my friends have made a restaurant reservation and are waiting for me, I have to go.” It may be a lie, but is a polite way of getting out of something you don’t want to be a part of and you can slip away quickly and quietly.
This can apply for any part of the world, but this piece of advice never gets old for solo female travelers. It’s never a good idea to drink so much you black out, especially by yourself in a foreign country. Drink to have fun but not to pass out, and always have your address written down so if anything happens, you can at least get back to the right place.
Almost everyone has a smartphone, a tablet, a laptop, a decent camera nowadays – and these are attractive items to rob. When out and about, take a few selfies by all means – you will want to record these unforgettable moments – but just take care to not wander around with your camera out all the time. Take your photos then pop your devices back in your bag. This can help make you less of a target of theft.
Not everywhere in South America requires vaccines or shots, but some parts do, especially remote areas such as the Amazon rainforest. Some possible vaccines you may need include yellow fever, hepatitis B, and rabies. Ask your doctor in advance before you go.
Enjoy every moment. Embrace the challenges and appreciate the good times. Traveling solo is often one of the biggest milestones in someone’s life, so make the most of it. And don’t forget to feel proud of yourself at the end of it all. You’re much braver than you think.