Many of my friends and family were terrified when I said that I was travelling alone to South America for ten weeks. The media is full of so many negative misconceptions about the continent, which mainly focus on drug-fuelled violence, political instability, and crippling poverty. With the popularity of TV shows like Narcos, which follows the life story of the cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar, many Australians’s view of the region is related to drugs and violence. This is coupled with the fact that South America is on the complete opposite side of the world to Australia and often overshadowed by Europe and Southeast Asia as a desirable destination.
People who have never travelled to South America are the first to make assumptions about the safety and characteristics of the region, but they are not the only ones. Even travellers in the continent are guilty of misconceptions about certain countries in South America. These are the biggest ones that I have encountered.
1. Travelling alone as a woman is too dangerous.
I met countless solo female travellers, across multiple age brackets, on my journeys around South America. Yet when I told people back home that I was planning to travel alone in the continent, they were terrified. They truly believed that I would be robbed, attacked, or sexually assaulted if I travelled alone as a woman. The internet is full of tips on how to travel as a solo female traveller in South America. You are told to never walk alone at night, never take a taxi alone, and even in some extreme cases, pretend to be married if you are harassed. I understand that this advice is well-intentioned, but in many parts of South America, it is completely unnecessary.
In the city of Sogamoso in Colombia, my hostel was a twenty-minute walk from the city centre. There were no restaurants any closer and because the hostel was in a residential area, taxis did not regularly drive past. Every night, I walked to and from eateries and never once did I feel unsafe. People showed greater interest in me because they weren’t used to seeing foreigners in that part of the country, but I was never followed, threatened, or harassed. That’s not to say that some cities in South America aren’t dangerous, but I regularly walked alone in several cities in different countries, and never felt like my safety was any more threatened than what it is in my city of Adelaide. I of course used common sense, but I felt like a lot of the advice about solo female travel was overly paranoid.
2. Colombia is full of drug-related violence.
Colombia has one of the worst reputations of all the countries in South America. Many people remember it as the country devastated by the cartel violence during the 1980’s. During that time, no one would have dared to set foot in Colombia, as murder and kidnappings were common practise. There are misconceptions that the country is just as dangerous as it used to be.
However, today, many parts of the country are perfectly safe to travel in. The main gringo trail takes travellers through Bogotá, Medellín, Cartagena, and a choice of many towns. I also travelled off the beaten path to the Boyacá region, and felt just as safe as ever. I regularly walked alone at night, took taxis by myself, met up with locals on Couchsurfing, and interacted with strangers. I never encountered any violence. Members of communities are working hard to overcome their violent histories. It would be naïve to assume that the entire country is safe or free of violence, but you can certainly easily travel around the highlights of the country.
3. Textbook Spanish will help you travel easily.
Unless you are learning in South America, most travellers will be taught Spanish that relies heavily on its origins in Spain. My Spanish teacher in Australia is from El Salvador, but even so, there was little preparation for the kind of Spanish spoken in Argentina and Chile. The Argentinean accent is so heavy and unique that I had to completely reinvent the way that I pronounce words in Spanish. This became an issue when I then went to Colombia and they couldn’t understand what I was saying in an Argentinean accent! In Chile, they speak so quickly that even other people from South America struggle to understand them.
Learning as much Spanish as you can before you go to South America is essential, but you need to be prepared to adjust your accent and pronunciation for different countries.
4. South American men are all sleazes.
Just before leaving for South America, I was warned to keep my eyes out for the advances of sleazy men. However, as I have written about extensively in this post, I suffered no more sexual harassment than I have in Australia. I was regularly catcalled on the streets of Buenos Aires, more so than any other place in the continent, but it felt no more prevalent than what I experience at home.
It seems to be an ugly stereotype that South American men are more sexist, more promiscuous, and less faithful to their partners. But I met several lovely men through Couchsurfing who respected that I had a boyfriend and just wanted to show me around their city. I also made several translator friends in Buenos Aires who I hold dear to my heart. Sexism is everywhere in the world, and by no means any more prevalent in South America.
5. Uruguay is a boring destination.
Almost none of the itineraries that I saw before going to South America paid any attention to Uruguay, other than its beaches. It is largely written off as an expensive and sterile destination. With this in mind, I took a weekend trip to Uruguay from Buenos Aires with low expectations. I was completely blown away.
Uruguay feels like a more laid-back and relaxed version of Buenos Aires. Granted, I only visited the small town of Colonia and the capital Montevideo, but they had a tangible vibe of pleasure and enjoying life. My friends and I wandered the cobblestone streets of Colonia and were offered a seafood dish, free of charge, to enjoy at a café by the waterfront. The chef was cooking up dinner for the staff and had extra food for us to share. The whole town was steeped with a slumberous vibe that alluded to lazy afternoons spent in the sun.
Uruguay might feel like it doesn’t have a long list of must-see destinations or natural wonders, but the country has a feeling that you need to visit to experience.
South America seems to be one of those regions that people are either fascinated by or terrified to visit. It has attracted a reputation of danger, violence, and poverty. But by peering a little closer and taking the time to explore different countries in the region, many of these misconceptions can easily be discredited.