Traveling solo in Latin America
photo: Corbis

Traveling with friends and family is all well and good but solo travel often leads to new connections and a more confident and empowered sense of self. Which is probably why more women are opting to travel alone. Often referred to as “wander women,” 37 percent of ladies have traveled solo this year, up from just 16 percent in 2013, according to a 2015 Visa Global Travel Intentions Study. No, these women aren’t just single, bilingual, and ready to mingle – plenty are married or in committed relationships.

Still, some women are hesitant to take the plunge because of “fear of personal safety, loneliness and vulnerability,” according to a survey conducted by Travelzoo. So we chatted with travel guru, writer, and all around badass Marie Elena Martinez to get some tips on exploring Latin America alone so that you can travel with ease, confidence, and a sense of adventure.

On popular destinations

“LatAm gastronomy is having a moment. Check out both the high and low-end dining scenes (street eats!). A fancy meal in LatAm will cost a fraction of what it would in the U.S.,” Martinez says. Wine country in Argentina, Mendoza is especially memorable. In Peru, the north coast’s sleepy seaside retreat, Mancora, is a good way to get away from Lima’s overcast skies. “Colombia’s political and criminal past shouldn’t deter you from venturing off into the mountains!” Martinez encourages. “Hike a coffee plantation in Medellin, or hit coastal Cartagena.”

On planning your solo trip 

If you’re headed out on your first solo venture and aren’t completely comfortable with the idea, start small. Plan a weekend road trip for your first foray. Then, get bolder and bigger, Martinez says. Don’t overpack, you’ll wear 1/10th of what you bring, especially since there’s nobody to see you repeat an outfit. Plus, you’ll always be able to carry your own bag(s).

On planning accommodations

“Plenty of women I know stay in hostels and they’re quite safe – there’s a huge travel culture kicking around Latin America,” Martinez says. The perks of staying in a hotel are having your own space but that means booking online in advance.

On avoiding certain countries

“I don’t believe Latin America is unsafe for travelers. Crime is mostly related to internal politics,” Martinez says. Stay vigilant in major cities – just as you would here in the U.S. – to avoid petty crime and theft. “I’ve traveled all over Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, and by bus. Be intrepid, it’s much more rewarding.”

On speaking the language 

“Wherever you are traveling you should know how to say basic phrases, greetings, “please/thank you’s” and, of course, “how are you” – in the native tongue. It goes a LONG way,” she says. In small towns, conversational Spanish is always better than English – but you can get by if you don’t speak it. Don’t get frustrated if things are lost in translation. Remember, Spanish is the native language and humility is important.

On public transportation

“The buses in LatAm – from Mexico down to Argentina and Chile – are amazing. First class overnight buses are super cheap, have A/C and Wi-Fi. I try to travel by bus whenever I can in LatAm. It’s a great way to see the landscape AND save some money,” Martinez advices. Tip: In Latin America, most public transport wait until the entire vehicle (bus, train, share taxi) fill up completely before leaving, so arrive early. If you’re in a rush, public isn’t always the best route. And, as you would in any foreign country, keep an eye on your belongings.

On the little things

“Bring a hair dryer, nail file, and tampons (the ones abroad can be a little funky) … and, condoms, because hey, you never know,” Martinez says. Make lots of playlists. Music is helpful when you just don’t feel like making small talk. Throw in those earbuds and lose yourself in your music.