“You’re travelling alone? Aren’t you scared??” The friendly woman on the cramped Colombian minibus looked shocked. She shuddered. “I would never do that.”
Having been a solo female traveller for 7.5 months in Ecuador and Colombia, I got such questions a lot, especially from friends and family. It’s particularly disconcerting coming from a local, though – is there something I should know??
In an increasingly unpredictable world, safety is high on our priority list. Friends heading that way often ask if it’s safe. I always say: I felt safe enough, but you do need to take basic common-sense precautions.
Two big caveats.
- You can’t control being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The terror attacks in Spain’s Catalonia region, one of which was in the popular Las Ramblas locale, is regrettable proof of that. Not to mention the recent attacks in other European cities that have never been considered unsafe. But short of locking yourself indoors for the rest of your life, it’s a risk we have to bear.
- All the precautions in the world can’t prevent brain farts, carelessness, or forgetfulness. Unless you tie your valuables to you! Which is not a bad idea actually. Some of the things I’ve lost in this way include a pair of jeans I left at my host family’s house, a battery pack when I had to evacuate my room in the middle of the night, and (what hurts the most) my phone which I left on a bench in Bogota.
Now let’s look at what you can do!
- Keep your cash in various places. I have an amazing travel jacket (you might remember it from Kickstarter) that has approximately a bazillion pockets. Super useful for stashing cash, cards, phone, and a ton of other stuff. I also have a small anti-theft travel sling bag from Pacsafe (it’s a pain to open and close, but that’s kinda the idea, right?).
- Don’t bring your cards out and only take enough cash for the day. I drew money in broad daylight from the ATM nearest to the hotel/hostel and then headed back immediately.
- In the beach context, consider a beach safe/wallet which my friend Anisa from Two Traveling Texans discusses here. I like the dummy can of Arizona Ice Tea!
- There are myriad options for safe travel wallets, as Sally from Tips 4 Trips discusses here.
- My backpacks are also anti-theft bags from Pacsafe.
- If you have a sling bag, keep it in front of you, not to the side or behind.
- Try not to have loose items, and if you do, secure them to your bag.
- When taking public transport, wear your bag on your front. (I avoided peak hour travel and, therefore, the super crowded buses, but I heard that pickpockets are a real issue then.)
- On buses, put your luggage either in the hold or on your lap for the entire trip. It’s not safe at your feet – I met a girl in Quito who lost her passport and wallet that was in her bag by her feet.
- Find a safe place to stay. If something feels wrong, don’t stay there. Better safe than sorry! Check reviews before booking so you know what others are saying. (Many thanks to Ruth from Tanama Tales for this tip!)
- Use a door-stopper in your room especially at night. That way, if someone manages to open the door / break in, you’ll at least have an extra second to react.
Out & about
- Avoid areas known to be unsafe. Ask your hotel/hostel/local friends about this. E.g. in Quito, the area south of El Panecillo is known to be a bit seedy. Trust your gut. If it feels dodgy to you, get out of there.
- Avoid going out alone at night. I’m not much of a partier (am I showing my age yet?) – so this wasn’t hard for me. If you do go out at night, try to stick with people you know and don’t venture into deserted areas.
- If you need to take a taxi, it’s preferable to call for one rather than hailing one on the street – at least there will be a record. I used Uber once for an early morning departure, and it was fine, but you do need an internet connection for that.
- Don’t wear showy jewellery. The only jewellery I wore was tiny ear studs. I’ve heard horror stories about people getting their earrings ripped right out of their ears!
- Avoid taking your phone out in public. If I want to take a picture, I’ll step to one side and try to keep my back against a wall. And if I need to check directions, I’ll step into a shop or at least to one side. (The more familiar I got with a city, the more lax I got about this rule. That’s how I lost my phone! So learn from my mistakes and just don’t do it.)
- When walking along the streets, look behind you periodically – both so that you don’t get lost and to see if anyone’s following you. You can use reflective surfaces to check if you don’t want to look paranoid.
- Memorise your route so that you don’t have to keep checking your phone/map for directions – it’s a dead giveaway that you’re new to the area! And if you get lost, just keep walking purposefully as if you know where you’re going, until you can subtly check your directions.
- Let someone know where you’re going and what time you expect to be back. (I confess I didn’t do this all the time, but since I hardly went out after dark I figured it was fine.)
- Don’t touch anything offered by a stranger. My Ecuadorean friends warned me of a very disturbing ruse in Guayaquil involving scopolamine or burandanga, a drug that reportedly robs the victim of the ability to control his/her actions. They pretend to be lost and hand you a map with the powder on it, asking for help. In some cases, the powder is blown on people or slipped into a drink. I guess you can’t really control whether someone blows powder on you, but if you’re in a group, it would be safer. And if you drink, you should of course never leave your drink unattended. That said, in my 9 months in Ecuador I didn’t meet anyone who had first-hand experience of this, so I don’t how how much of a risk it really is.
What safety precautions do you take when travelling? I travel with a point-and-shoot camera, but I’d like to know what you do if you travel with a DSLR!
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