‘You can’t do that.’ Juan Carlos said to me. ‘You can’t camp on the beach on your own. It isn’t safe.’ He warned.
I had received warnings like this since I first decided to travel to South America. People came out with comments ranging from the cautious ‘my, you are brave, aren’t you’ to the downright fearmongering ‘you’re crackers, it’s really dangerous over there, don’t go.’
As I travelled along, the comments continued. Some were less than helpful. A bloke I had met once in a hostel, half-Columbian, half-American, told me not to travel alone on buses but failed to give me any practical safety tips. He had, it turned out, only visited Columbia, a country that it was not in my plan to visit. He knew little of the rest of the vastly diverse continent. When my Argentinian friend’s mother (who had heard, first hand, my somewhat limited Spanish) learnt at short notice that I was leaving to travel independently, she panicked and ushered me off with a bag of granola, possibly in case I became unable to point to what I wanted at market stalls and on menus, possibly to use as a kind of chunky weapon against any potential assailants.
Others were more encouraging. My host in Argentina was mostly excited for me but gave me reasonable warnings of common crimes and advice on how to stay safe. When I reached a jungle lodge in the Peruvian Amazon, the middle-aged female tourists from France and Australia positively rallied around my kayak to congratulate me on my spirit of adventure as I paddled away up-river.
In Paracas, a town several hours south of Lima in Peru, I decided to visit the national park and camp on the beach. Juan Carlos, the owner of my hostel, practically forbade me to go. ‘There are fishermen,’ he said threateningly. I’d heard of sailors and what they can do to women like me. But I also knew how unlikely it was that I would be attacked by a day fisherman. I knew there were several free campsites in the national park. Presumably people did camp there and stagger out alive. This was such a vague warning that I decided to risk it.
‘You haven’t even got a proper tent!’ he laughed. He had a point; I was underprepared in that respect and my attempts to rent one did not go well. But, having already travelled across four countries successfully by that point, I felt emboldened to push myself further. I rejected the three hour bus tour of the highlights and set off walking. I hopped in a colectivo or shared bus taxi for one Peruvian Sole (about 25p). I walked and hitch-hiked around the national park, past lagoons of flamingos, soaring pelicans, coastlines of endless turquoise water. In the afternoon, I spotted a napping sea lion, chased lizards across the sand and swam, sunbathed and read by turns. I discovered the deserted Playa Roja, a stunning beach of protected red sand, gorgeous layered cliffs and hundreds of waders and seabirds. I jumped in a car and chatted with some scallop fishermen on their way back to town after a long day.
As the afternoon light began to dim, I found myself a suitable sand dune near the campsite and settled down with my blanket to eat some bread and fruit. I watched the birds swirling in front of the sunset and the stars light up. Hundreds of flamingos chattered to me softly all night. It was absolutely magical and I was so glad that I rejected Juan Carlos’ advice.
Along my way, I also met a surprising number of other solo, female travellers. Men, it seemed, tended to stick together in packs and I rarely came across one who would venture further than the hostel bar alone. Women, however, perhaps tired of the constant restrictions imposed upon their freedom, seemed much more confident to break out independently, visit the hostel bar, all the others in the vicinity and befriend a couple of locals along the way. These were many of the most soulful, brave and enlightened travellers that I met along my journey.
So if it is possible to have adventures as solo female travellers (and there are certainly enough travel blogs to prove it), why are we still listening to the blokes who tell us we can’t? To give up and stay inside. To leave the adventures to the men.
Ultimately, I concluded that people tend to have different reactions based on their experience level: where they were from, their gender, their age, their education level. In general, men were much more cautionary to me because they saw me primarily as a woman and therefore more vulnerable. Of course, as a woman, life is more dangerous let alone travel. Violence and sexual assault are heavily gendered crimes that adversely affect women. In countries with higher rates of these crimes, women are more vulnerable. Furthermore, as a traveller, there is always the possibility that I could walk into an unsafe neighbourhood without realising.
However, statistically, the most common crimes to affect tourists, even female tourists, are pickpocketing and muggings. These are less gendered crimes and, for the most part, are easy to prevent. I always kept my valuables with me, even in hostels where I felt safe. I rarely walked around with my iPhone out and never put it in my back or other easily accessible pockets. If I felt unsafe, I would put money in different places. I never hailed taxis on the street. I was less willing to walk around after sundown. I researched routes before I went. I kept an eye out for Wi-Fi spots. I asked and read advice on the relative safety of areas. I made friends with other travellers or locals and made sure I wasn’t always alone, or people knew where I was going.
And, as a woman who isn’t straight, I certainly felt less inclined to be open about revealing my sexuality. Men would frequently ask whether I had a boyfriend. Friends advised me to answer in the affirmative and, although it felt dishonest, I thought it might make a quick end to the conversation. This rarely seemed to work, however. My skills of deception left a lot to be desired and several men continued to interrogate me about my imaginary partners. One man, a full time traveller, working in a hostel in Argentina, questioned me for a solid ten minutes about whether I missed him, the quality of our relationship and insisted upon seeing a photo. Mostly, I left people to assume I was straight; sexuality isn’t always immediately obvious. A transgender friend was even more cautious about revealing his ID photo in Peru as he was used to expecting harassment at airports and hospitals even in his home, the United States. The exception was the notoriously gay-friendly Uruguay. As the first country in South America to legalise gay adoption, it felt like a safe place to be open.
But all of this did not detract from my experience. I was cautious; I accepted practical advice, but I refused to heed the men who told me not to enjoy myself. In the end, I took a lot of risks to get my adventures. But, as I lay on that beach in Paracas, amid the chorus of pelicans, I knew that they were considered risks and that I did not regret them. I would not have had such an incredible journey if I had never strayed from my comfort zone. And, in fact, I was amazed and inspired by how many other young women had been brave enough to travel solo too.
Charlotte Graham Spouge
Charlotte is a passionate explorer, feminist, hippy and lover of all things unusual. She is the writer, photographer and editor of https://mywildday.wordpress.com. She enjoys meeting new people and collaborating on art and writing projects. Contact her on social media @mywildday