Safety is a hot topic for female travelers. Especially when you have two awesome parents who love you enough to be worried. And though I have a pepper spray bracelet and a decent amount of experience, I still get that light-chest-quick-pulse-sweaty-hands feeling whenever I walk through an unknown town for the first time.
South America has an unfortunate reputation where I am from. Three words that tend to get associated with the region are drugs, kidnappings, and danger. Which is why I am sure my parents were thrilled when I told them I would be traveling across Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru via bus with a bunch of 19-year-olds.
My first experience was no help. The minute I arrived in Medellin (before I met up with my friends) I gave the taxi driver my hostel address and he said he couldn’t take me there. “It’s unsafe,” he insisted, gesturing towards my solo female body. He begged me to let him take me to a different part of town and I acquiesced, unsure if I was being safe by changing locations or unsafe by trusting this random taxi driver.
Danger is so last decade
As it turns out, the taxi driver had my best interests in mind. That became a general theme for my time in South America; people are determined to help my friends and me experience the best side of their country.
I’m not going to lie and say that South America is a peaceful, safe, harmless place where everyone can roam free without worry. Then again, does such a place exist? What I will say is that there is clearly a movement to make it a safer, more tourist-friendly destination.
When I was in Ecuador my friend and I were shopping at a local market and a man came up with a video camera. He explained that he worked for the local government and was making a video about travelers’ experiences in Quito. “May I film you?” He asked.
His first questions were about what we saw and what we ate. Then he asked, “Do you feel safe here?” I thought about all the blogs I’d read knocking Quito as a dirty, dangerous city. Then I thought of my own near-perfect days there. “I feel extremely safe.” I answered, “I never felt threatened, not even once.”
It was clear that he was doing some sort of rebranding of Quito, trying to show tourists it is actually a fun place to visit (which it is). The effort was palpable. We saw tourism police around town who were more than willing to help and when we arrived in Peru the theme continued.
We had a bus driver walk us to the bank because we were stopped in a less savory town and he didn’t want us to get hurt. When we finally got to our destination—Trujillo—tourism police approached us as we departed the bus and asked where we were staying. We told them the name of our hostel and much like Medellin they encouraged us to stay elsewhere. Then they helped us get a taxi and sent us safely to our new hostel.
Doesn’t protection just prove it is dangerous?
The cynics will read this and say, “See! I told you it is a dangerous place! They have to have tourism police on every corner and can’t walk freely to the bank!” But I see it differently.
There was a time when traveling to South America as a solo white female would have been a death wish. But that time is not today.
Like anywhere in the world, there are unsafe areas, and as a traveler they become twice as unsafe to you. But the locals are clearly making an effort to protect tourists from this danger and in South America I have come across more helpful, kind, generous locals than anywhere else in my travels. Things can always go wrong, but deciding to travel to South America is no longer synonymous with danger. In fact, I haven’t had one bad experience and have only seen South America as a stunning, unbeatable landscape that I hope to return to soon.