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April 12, 2006 3:20 AM   Subscribe

I want to travel through South America. Help.

I have this... romantic idea. It mainly consists of taking a month off my job, taking a plane to "South America" (yes, it's as vague as that - although I know I would love to see Chile), "traveling" (oh dear), and "coming back" (the qualification here would be "alive" and "not raped").

The traveling would be by whatever means I can. The idea of the trip would be to go there and see what happens. The snag is, I would have done this already had I not been a girl. Lady. Woman. Whatever. See, I have two friends who've been there and 50% of them got raped. This is not a good score. And of course I realise with my head that not 50% of all single female travelers get raped in South America, but still, it's quite a thing to just ... not think about.

Apart from this I would like to know other things. Is traveling by whatever available means a fun and possible thing to do? Is hitchhiking an option at all? Can you, say, buy a motorcycle at one point, learn how to ride it, ride it somewhere then sell it again? Or will I probably end up taking tourist buses all the way?

I don't even know where I'm going with this question. Let's just make it "tell me about your South America experiences!".

Oh, and I had two years of Spanish at school 10 years ago. It's not much but I guess it will help me get started again.
posted by Skyanth to Travel & Transportation (18 answers total)
Chile is lovely. Don't know much about the motorcycling and hitchhiking, although I don't think I would ever recommend hitchhiking for a woman travelling alone (especially one who already has anxiety about being raped). When I was there I was travelling with my boyfriend, so I can't offer much help on the single female thing. Do you have a friend you could convince to go with you? This site might be useful: http://www.journeywoman.com/

(Do you know much about the circumstances under which your friend was raped? If it was a matter of going home with someone she shouldn't have as opposed to being attacked in the street as a random passerby, I'd recommend using good judgment.)
posted by srah at 3:49 AM on April 12, 2006

Get the Footprint South American Handbook. Glance through it and you'll get ideas and the best advice. It's been published since 1924 and probably has the best advice on the market.

As for rape, in the big cities you probably have the same probablity of getting assaulted than in a big American city. Use good judgement. Some people consider using a wedding band even if you are not married to drive away attention (not necessarily attention with bad intentions). But it kind of depends of where you are going. The big cities are like anywhere else but then the countryside might be different in attitudes towards gringos. But read the advice in that book.
posted by keijo at 4:20 AM on April 12, 2006

And of course I realise with my head that not 50% of all single female travelers get raped in South America

No, it's not that high. But when you start sprinkling words like, "hitchhike", "single woman", "don't speak language", "motorcycle" (that you can't currently ride, and would presumably be doing solo) your odds start to rise significantly.

Don't be stupid. If you insist on travelling alone, stay in populated areas. If you want to get off the beaten path, even if it's just to run your toes along the edges of the river that flows just on the other side of the beaten path, don't travel alone. Either find some friends to come along, get some travelling friends when you get there, or only venture out of the cities in tour groups (they can be arranged in the cities).
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:49 AM on April 12, 2006

Chile is pretty safe to travel in, and yes, you can hitchhike here, I've done it, a lot, but I'm a guy so...
If you come down alone, it's easy to hook up with people in hostels, etc.
Mails in profile if you need spefic info about Chile.
posted by signal at 5:36 AM on April 12, 2006

As for rape, in the big cities you probably have the same probablity of getting assaulted than in a big American city.

I have never been to South America, but from what I've heard from natives, the cities are a lot more dangerous than the American cities I've lived in (Chicago and New York).

Safety comes in numbers.
posted by onalark at 5:46 AM on April 12, 2006

Response by poster: The thing is that I'm kind of a loner (I already get restless on three-day city trips with my best friend) and having people around me all the time during a long trip is going to kill my enjoyment.

On the other hand, so will getting raped.

But on the, er, third hand (hey! having three hands might deter rapists!), not going is just lame.
posted by Skyanth at 5:53 AM on April 12, 2006

from what I've heard from natives, the cities are a lot more dangerous than the American cities I've lived in (Chicago and New York)

I bet you didn't live in New York in the 80's!. It depends on which cities you are refering to and how you behave in them. I live in Argentina and if you get advice on where not to go you will be probably as safe as in the US. On the other hand my experience with tourists is that they don't care about advice and generally put themseleves at risk needlessly.

Chile is the safest of all. Bolivia is not so much fun if you are a girl travelling alone (but amazing otherwise). Brasil and Argentina need care when you are in the big cities.

Small advice: Just hanging around in South America is an adventure, you don't need to buy a motorcicle to feel it. Oh and I second the comment about buying the footprint book.
posted by Manouk at 5:55 AM on April 12, 2006

South America is of course, frickin' huge, so a month is not much time. Better to concentrate on one country/region. How about signing up for a tour, for at least part of your vacation? Tours don't have to be all old ladies clutching their purses. Google around for terms like eco-travel, or visit the Lonely Planet discussion board on Latin America. A well-guided tour could bring you to more adventurous places than you would find on your own, exponentially increase your personal safety, and give you some company.
posted by LarryC at 5:58 AM on April 12, 2006

Hey Skyanth,
I was in a similar situation a few years ago. I went to SA (Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia) for 5 weeks in 2002 with these people. I don't speak spanish but there was enough people in my group (12, which is the max) that this wasn't a problem. The trip was affordable and my guide was awesome. It was also a small enough group that we could vote to change the itinerary (which we did). Our guide also had several contacts along the way so we were treated to free wine or deserts at a couple of the restaurants we went to. I went with a tour like this because it was such a breeze to travel with all of the transportation and accomodations arranged. If you want more info feel free to email me (email is in my profile). Happy Travels!
posted by LunaticFringe at 6:31 AM on April 12, 2006

part 1

my partner (chilean woman) hitched the length of the country, with an all female group of friends (they'd have been about 18, i guess, so this was some years ago...).

not sure riding a motorbike is that good an idea (is this a che thing?) - there's basically one road, goes up and down the entire country, and it's rather busy (and often just two lane). but if you have the appropriate licence (prolly need an international drivers licence) then of course it's possible. the buses here are excellent and very low priced (my weekly commute is $20 for a 7 hour overnight trip in a luxury coach with seats a bit like airline business class - three seats across the vehicle width, blanket + pillow, small breakfast)
my partner (chilean woman) hitched the length of the country, with an all female group of friends (they'd have been about 18, i guess, so this was some years ago...).
posted by andrew cooke at 6:39 AM on April 12, 2006

part 2

as signal said, you're probably best finding someone to travel with in a hostel (no need for month long commitments - just someone to travel with that day, weekend, whatever).

you certainly get more crap (comments, whistling, very rarely even contact) as a woman here, than in the uk (same person mentioned above frequently turns round and starts arguing/abusing the source of comments, and is generally met with embarassment and silence), and there's a certain amount of petty crime (snatching bags, wallets, etc) that i suspect comes with the wide range in wealth, but i've not heard anything to suggest that rape is more prevalent here than elsewhere. i feel safer here (santiago) than in a big american city, but i speak spanish (and am male). the culture is very much anti-confrontational, non-agressive, but it's also somewhat macho, very insular (you didn't mention your skin colour, but expect to be stared at and occasionally questioned by strangers, if you're african american/asian - even being "white" gets the ocasional odd look outside santiago), religious/conservative, and homophobic.
posted by andrew cooke at 6:39 AM on April 12, 2006

part 3

being friendly to others counts for a lot - smile, make conversation, hold doors open, greet people like they've been lost in the desert for the last 6 months, etc etc. this is even more true outside chile (but i think americans are better at this than english/europeans anyway).

in my limited experience argentina is similar, but perhaps more extreme - people are both friendlier and more agressive. it is also even cheaper (at least, was a while back).
posted by andrew cooke at 6:40 AM on April 12, 2006

sorry about that - haveing problems posting long texts.
posted by andrew cooke at 6:42 AM on April 12, 2006

Please seriously consider what others are saying about traveling with other folks that you meet there or finding another loner, introspective friend to bring with you.

I am also a woman and have traveled quite a bit in South America (primarily Brazil, also Argentina and Uruguay, a little Paraguay), speak Spanish and Portuguese as well as English, and I would not consider doing a trip like this alone.

If you pursue it, of the places I've visited, I'd recommend Uruguay (low crime rates, incredibly friendly, entire country is off-the-tourist-track but a great experience) and Brazil (very approachable people, beautiful country with a huge variety of cultures and ecologies; take Rio over São Paulo, and if you can get contacts in the interior, even better) over Argentina (low cost, but as andrew cooke says, more aggressive/overwhelming; Buenos Aires gives me the same feeling as being in New York) and finally Paraguay (chaotically aggressive).

(The thing is that everywhere I've met really wonderful people, but this can be difficult if you don't speak the language much, so I've tried to describe the overall climate a bit. Feel free to email me if you have any questions about these areas...)
posted by whatzit at 7:50 AM on April 12, 2006

I'm a woman, and I've lived in Venezuela, Brazil, and Panama, in addition to travelling extensively through Mexico and Ecuador. As others have noted, South America is a huge continent and by no means monolithic. I was never mugged or assaulted but many of my friends were, so I understand your concerns. Generally, a woman alone will inevitably attract attention from men. If you are very fair/blond/redhead/tall you will attract even more attention. Also, I never travelled alone, although I certainly spent plenty of time wandering around the cities I lived in on my own. My advice: always, always be aware of your surroundings. Going out to a bar solo is asking for trouble in many places (not necessarily everywhere), so think twice. Maintain an awareness of what the people around you are doing. My personal rule was that stares were ignored; unsolicited comments got no response, (albeit a pointed "I'm not listening" non-response) but anything that intruded on my physical space, any touch, got a sharp immediate negative response. A loud "NO!" is universally understood, and then make a quick exit. If you think you are being followed, hop on a bus or in a taxi. Some parts of Latin America are rather conservative and women are expected to dress modestly; wearing things like shorts and tank tops outside of beach areas is iffy. Anecdotally, in Brazil my friends and I noticed that wearing glasses, as opposed to contacts, cut the stares/creepy comments/ wierdos following us by about 30%.

I understand the romance of the idea of riding a motorcycle around South America. If you were a guy, and an experienced rider, I'd say "I want to hear all about it when you get back!" But for a woman, alone, as an inexperienced rider, going through unfamiliar places with unknown quality/availability of roads, motorcycle mechanics, and medical care, it sounds like tempting fate. That a different standard exists for women than for men is really crappy and unfair, but it is what it is.

My understanding of Argentina and Chile is that they are generally safe. I think that you would be fine in Brazil as well. Personally I was hassled more in Ecuador than anywhere else, but that's just my experience.
posted by ambrosia at 8:36 AM on April 12, 2006

I recently travelled around Chile and Peru for six weeks. I did a lot of bussing and flying, took some trains and some boats and a bunch of taxis. It was generally pretty easy to get around, and easy to adjust plans on the spot, but I often ran into weird schedules and couldn't leave exactly when I wanted. It sounds like you won't have a lot of connections to worry about making, though, so that shouldn't be a problem.

Busses are pretty cheap and you can get to/from just about anywhere that way. They're how many local people get around, so it's not a "tourist" thing.

The snag is that South America is big. If you want to see lots of different parts of (say) Chile, you'll spend a lot of time on busses. Even in smaller countries (like Peru), you might decide that you'll get more out of your trip if you spend the money to fly and save the travel time. I didn't find it quite as easy to take a plane on a whim in South America as I did in Central America (where you could get to an airstrip in Belize five minutes before a flight, buy a ticket and get on), but it wasn't that hard either.

Please don't buy a motorcycle that you don't know how to ride and try to learn in country where you don't speak the language well. As a rider, I was really disturbed by the total lack of safety gear that people seem to use down there. Riding is dangerous, and it sucks to try to get health care when you don't know how to explain what's wrong (I had trouble even understanding my doctor's instructions for taking medicines when I got sick in Guatemala a few years back). I can't imagine dealing with insurance or legal problems in a foreign language.

I'm male and I traveled both alone and with friends for parts of the trip ("I'll meet you at this hostel in Cuzco next Sunday" kinds of things). Chile felt quite safe to me. Peru a little less so, but the places I went weren't dangerous like bad neighborhoods here in the States. My female friends definitely mentioned getting catcalls when they walked around in Peru without me, but didn't seem to get as much of that in Chile.
posted by aneel at 10:27 AM on April 12, 2006

If you're worried by the language barrier you can always travel to Guyana! Most people don't think of the northeastern non-spanish Guianas when they think of South America. But these countries are beautiful and still largely untouched by corporate tourism.. In Guyana (British Guiana) the languages most spoken are Creole & English; In Suriname (Dutch Guiana) Creole & Dutch; In French Guiana is French.
posted by thandi at 12:57 PM on April 12, 2006

I will let others with more experience speak to their observations and only you can assess your own judgement. Here is some factual data on rape (per capita) around the world. Statistically it looks as if you are reasonable safe--stay away from South Africa. Granted this does not differentiate between tourists and indigenous populations.
posted by rmhsinc at 2:28 PM on April 12, 2006

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