Women traveling alone seems to be the hot topic in the travel world. At 25, a recent Uni graduate and ready to start a career, I announced that I was about to leave for Latin America. I wanted to do something completely different, and had decided to travel in Cuba and then volunteer with a non-profit organization in Colombia. An independent Scandinavian girl, living in international, gender-equal and open-minded Europe, I still got more than enough of rolling eyes and perplexed (read: annoying) questions: “Shouldn’t you be settling down and doing something serious?” “Alone, don’t you have a boyfriend or friends to travel with?” and “To Colombia! That’s way too dangerous for a girl!”
Sure, I could have found a job and started a responsible adult life, but I didn't. Also, I like a lot traveling with my friends, don't get me wrong, but this time I wanted to really challenge myself and experience it on my own. And it was great. However, to truly understand how it is to choose a different path, and despite a general disapproval become a vibrant, cosmopolite woman traveler, I would like you to meet my friend Aida. She is a not-so-typical 30-something Bolivian, with a big heart and big dreams. Embark the adventure and discover what she has to share with other solo woman travelers, and those who aspire to be like us.
Sipping a mojito on the sunny terrace of El Baron Café in Cartagena, Aida starts to tell me her life story. She was born in Cochabamba, the third biggest city in Bolivia. In late 80’s and early 90's it was still a traditional small town, where everyone knew each other. When Aida was 6, the whole family spent one year in the US. She learnt English and understood that there was so much to discover in the world. ‘I never paid attention at school, my mind was always somewhere else. Vacation was my favorite time because I could go and explore. I was always thinking of what was happening outside my world. My grandmother’s house was on top of a hill and I would climb up there and just sit, look at the city, and think. I was a shy girl and didn’t have that many friends. I loved to read and listen to music, and I often locked myself in my room and danced for hours.’
Growing up she decided to study art. ‘It suits me because it is all about being curious and having a different perspective of life. I hope to become an actress one day, but before that I am seeking life experiences. I have a freelance job that I can do from anywhere. That enables me to travel, travel and travel. I love it.’
When asked about a typical Bolivian woman of her age, she sighs and gives me the list: Married, or at least in a serious relationship. One or two kids, and a stable job. Some still live with their parents, or work in a family company. And yes, she gets inquired every time she goes back home. ‘There is nothing wrong with living like that, but I wish people understood that I have chosen a different lifestyle. There is so much to see in the world, and the whole set of husband, kids and career is just not my priority right now.’
‘My younger sister Annie encourages me to travel, but the rest of my family and friends were very scared in the beginning, and still are. I guess it is normal. They always want to know where I am, and who I’m with. That is when I send them a picture of me on a fabulous beach in Colombia, to reassure them that I am doing perfectly fine. They have now accepted that I am not ready to settle down yet, that this is what I enjoy. Still, I sometimes have the queasy feeling of disappointing them.'
Traveling alone is literally what brought me and Aida together. I was working in Cartagena, and decided to do a weekend trip to Cali. I consider myself quite an extrovert and sociable, and had already done successful solo trips. Somehow, arriving to El Viajero hostel in Cali, I suddenly panicked. The place was very big, and I saw a happy crowd of people chilling at the swimming pool area, talking and having fun. It looked like they all knew each other, and I felt like crushing a party. A free salsa class was just about to start, so I decided to get over my shyness and pick out one friendly-looking person to talk to. After that, it would certainly be easier to make more friends and to fit in. That person I randomly chose was Aida, and since then we are inseparable. With my life between Paris and Cartagena, and her traveling around South America, we are over-consumers of the WhatsApp voice message function, and try to meet whenever possible.
We are both proud travellers, and want to empower other women to do the same. We think that it is very brave to leave a comfortable life, and jump on an adventure. To constantly change cities and to share a hostel dorm with 8 strangers. To be forced to start over and try to make friends in every new place. To tell people the same things about yourself all over again. To bond with them, and days later see them leave. To often feel tired, lost and lonely. For most of us, traveling is not glamourous, and the beautiful pictures you see on Instagram are only one side of the truth. Also, traveling for a longer time, you have to fit your whole life in a backpack and carry it around. For me it was a big challenge to give up “first world necessities” like a hairdryer and high heels, but I was surprised how fast I got used to it and felt pretty in just a pair of shorts and flip flops. ‘Yes, I know, I am wearing the same black-and-white dress in almost all the pictures’, Aida laughs.
Traveling, especially in rural and disadvantaged areas where people have the strict minimum to live with, really changes you as a person. You see things that are sad, shocking and unfair, and even if you want to change the world, you realize that you can’t. ‘I’ve learnt to be empathetic, to have less for me and more for the world’, says Aida. To me it has been a lot about learning to go out of my comfort zone to explore new things, to do my best to help those in need, to enjoy simple life, and to appreciate how lucky and privileged I am.
Even compared to Aida, I acknowledge that I come from a lot more modern and developed world. For me, hopping on a plane and traveling alone to the other side of the world was a bit of an impulsive decision, and not even that difficult. Then what about her? ‘My first encounter with a traveler was 10 years ago, when I met a French guy, Laurent, at my work. He would tell me about all the cool places where he had been, and how he had worked hard to be able to travel. I wanted to be like him. I left my hometown and moved to La Paz. I learnt to live on my own and started to save money. It was so exciting. It took me 8 years to gather the money and the courage to make my first solo travel. It was to Buenos Aires and it was awesome. I didn’t know anything about living in hostels, I didn’t even know how to read a map! But I loved meeting people and hearing their stories. My time spent in Argentina encouraged me to look for a way to keep traveling and living my dream. And here I am, wandering around in South America, and planning my next trips to Europe and Asia.’
Even if it is not easy, traveling alone is rewarding in so many ways. Aida knows it, and that is why she is not ready to stop anytime soon. ‘I have had countless great experiences traveling alone. I have made wonderful friends from all over the world, who have taught me to say hello and bad words in their language. It is a rich exchange of cultures, every day you discover something new. I’ve admired sunsets on the Colombian coast by the Caribbean Sea. I’ve climbed Machu Picchu, and chased llamas and alpacas on the Peruvian countryside’ (Author's note: I would have loved to witness that!). ‘What I enjoyed the most, was traveling in my own country, Bolivia. It is inspiring to talk about it to foreigners, and it made me recognize the beauty of the place I call home.’
‘I’ve got lost in Buenos Aires, and had trouble with a nasty bus driver on the Bolivian-Peruvian border. I always learn something from the unfortunate situations, and make funny stories out of them. You shouldn’t expect too much. It can be storming when you have traveled to a paradisiac island to celebrate your birthday. Flights will be delayed, buses crowded and dirty. You are eager to experience something amazing and unique, yet you find yourself strolling around alone in a small countryside town in Colombia, and nothing exciting happens. It is like that for all of us, better days and worse. But you have to learn to love every moment, good and bad, and take them as a life lesson. It does not need to be perfect, and you don’t need to live up to those Instagram expectations.’ I am constantly amazed by Aida’s optimistic mindset. I have never seen her other than smiling, she really manages to focus on the positive, and is always ready for a new adventure.
Time to address the question that both of us have heard way too many times: “Is it dangerous for a woman to travel alone in South/Latin America?”. Honestly, no. I said this last summer already when I came back from Colombia: Terrorism has changed Europe, and when something bad happens, it hits us unexpectedly and unpredictably. I live in Paris and I know how dangerous it can get here. Whereas in South America, tourists are unlikely to get into serious trouble, as long as you know where it is safe and what regions should be avoided. General precaution is of course recommended: don’t wear expensive jewelry, don’t use your phone on the street, always keep an eye on your belongings. It is true that being an exotic-looking woman traveling alone, we attract a lot of attention – but also in a positive way. When you are alone and look friendly, the locals want to talk to you and show you around. You get to practice a foreign language, and you learn about new cultures and lifestyles. You are living your travel experience to the fullest, instead of just being a tourist. Being alone forces you to socialize and get by on your own, and teaches you valuable people-skills. ‘Trust your instincts’, adds Aida. ‘Be careful when trusting people, someone who seems nice may have a hidden agenda. If something doesn't feel right, don’t do it. But you can’t constantly be afraid, if you are you miss out on good things. Traveling is not always a fairytale, but when you relax and go with the flow, surprising things can happen.’
And that is when you find yourself in that “Insta-moment”, the one you want to share with the whole world: In a beautiful place surrounded by likeminded people, that is when you are truly happy in the traveler-life you are living.
Our message for girls who want to go traveling alone? Do it! Follow your heart and work hard to make your dreams come true. If you are a bit scared, even better, you will be surprised how well it will go. Traveling alone, you choose exactly what to do, and you do it in your pace. You have time to breath, think, and take it all in. And before you even notice, you have made new travel buddies and you don't feel that alone anymore. Also, be more than just a traveler, try to live with locals and as locals. That way you experience the most, and learn precious things about life. When one day you decide to go back home and settle down to an ordinary 9 to 5 job, you are a different person. This of course, if you ever go back...
Lots of love, laughter and cool travel vibes,
xx Emi + Aida
Ps. Feel free to share your thoughts and experiences about women traveling solo (or about anything else for that matter) in the Comments-section!
To follow Aida's travels on Instagram: @aidajimenezs, and to follow Aida the actress on Facebook: click here.
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I'm Emilia, Finnish-Parisian, a recent Master's graduate. I'm currently traveling around the Caribbean and on a volunteering mission in Colombia. I'm passionate about writing, music and different kinds of sports. I can't wait to discover new places and cultures - and share my adventures with you!