The following is an interview on solo female travel in Colombia.
In the past, Colombia was considered too dangerous to travel to. But these days, things have improved and some more adventurous travelers are falling in love with the country.
Ginger Kern is a travel coach, TEDx speaker, and former expat. Gigi Griffis is a writer, guidebook author, and full-time traveler. They each traveled to Medellin and Guatape, Colombia within the last few months and had very, very different experiences as solo females.
This dual interview shows both perspectives on the issue of female safety in Colombia.
Why did you decide to travel to Colombia by yourself?
Ginger: I’d been telling myself for over a year that I wanted to visit Latin America, and I have a rule that if I hear myself saying the same wish for over a year I simply have to prioritize it and make it happen. That way, I get to stop dreaming and actually experience what I’ve been looking forward to for a long time!
Two major reasons I wanted to visit Colombia in particular: visiting friends and improving my Spanish. Two Colombian friends of mine are female entrepreneurs in Medellin, Colombia and I hadn’t seen them for nearly two years. I also wasn’t satisfied with my level of conversational Spanish, so I chose to book a week in the Colombia Immersion program to improve my Spanish. (I had been learning it online via Baselang, a language learning startup also based in Medellin.)
Gigi: For almost four years I’ve been traveling the globe solo, and for me Colombia wasn’t going to be any different. I haven’t often had travel buddies, but I never let that stop me from exploring the world.
Did you have any trouble traveling solo there?
Ginger: My plan was to stay put in Medellin for two weeks and really get to know the city, rather than bouncing around to a lot of different places. It was surprisingly easy to get around within Medellin, especially with how many Uber drivers there are. The only mildly daunting thing would have been getting from the airport to the city, a 45-minute drive away. I arrived at night, and was grateful for my friend Ana, who met me at the airport and helped me get into town.
Otherwise I had no trouble traveling within the city by myself, even at night. It was simple to take regular taxis too, and my Spanish rapidly improved to the point where I felt comfortable hailing one and explaining where I needed to go.
I also didn’t experience any violence or theft whatsoever, even in the most touristic parts of Medellin. Everyone I met was welcoming, happy, and proud that I came specifically to experience their city.
Gigi: Unfortunately, yes. I’ve been to a lot of the world (every continent except Antarctica) and had little hassles or harassment here or there, but everything has been overall pretty smooth sailing…until Colombia.
In Colombia, I witnessed domestic violence (and stepped in to stop it, which is doubly terrifying), was harassed on the streets daily, was followed home by men on motorcycles, had men block my way into my apartment, had other men attempt to grab me while I stood in line at the ATM, etc.
Did you ever feel unsafe?
Ginger: No, I didn’t truly ever feel unsafe. As I mentioned, if I hadn’t met my friend at the airport to share a ride, I would have been alone at night taking a taxi through the countryside and into the city. That typically has me slightly on the defensive, of course, since an extra dose of common sense never hurts when I’m traveling solo. But there was no immediate danger whatsoever.
As for in Medellin proper, I felt safer walking alone at night in districts like Poblado, Laureles, and the municipality Envigado than I do in many U.S. cities. I keep my eye out for the type of ‘unwanted attention’ I receive from men from different countries, and I was pleased that the only thing Colombian men threw my way was a polite “¿Cómo está?” along with an appreciative head nod.
Gigi: All the time. I don’t say this lightly and I’m not someone who is easily scared. I’ve done walking safaris in Africa, walked home at 2 a.m. alone in Mexico, and lived on my own all over the world. And I’ve rarely ever felt unsafe…again, until Colombia.
Just going to the grocery store one day, I had a man attempt to wrap his arms around me while I waited in line at the ATM, then stand outside and stare at me until I left, then attempt to follow me home on his motorcycle.
Another day, I was sitting on a patio having coffee and Skyping with a good friend when a man leaned over the patio railing and started screaming at me.
And then there was the guy who used to linger outside my apartment and stare intently at me. Once he even tried to block my way back inside. Another time he stood there creepily even while a male friend was sitting with me (his response: “what the f***? I can’t believe that guy.”).
The thing that made these experiences even scarier for me was the apathy I encountered from the locals. When I witnessed the domestic violence that first month, the locals shrugged it off, saying “that happens all the time here.” And I spent the rest of the month wondering if anyone would step in if something horrible happened to me or if it would just be another thing that “happens all the time.”
These are just a few examples. This stuff happened to me nearly every time I left the house. If I went to the grocery store and no one tried to grope me or scream at me or enter my personal space, I started to feel a sense of elation. By the end of my trip, I was truly scared for my safety and just praying I would make it out of Colombia without actually being physically assaulted (which I did, thank god).
>>Check out these 10 tips for travel safety
Tell us about one of your favorite experiences from traveling solo in Colombia.
Ginger: It might sound simple, but I absolutely love going to supermarkets in foreign countries. In Colombia, the first thing that hit me was how overwhelmingly full of beautiful, delicious exotic fruits the produce section is! Then there was the wall of refrigerated arepas, Colombian corn- or wheat-based tortillas in countless variations, sweet and savory, big and small, thick and thin, for every occasion.
I like going to farmer’s markets or supermarkets alone because I can take my time and get to know a country’s food culture quickly by what is and isn’t available. In an hour, I had learned about drinking chocolate, coffee chains, local specialties and more just through exploring that one local store.
Gigi: Honestly, the only good thing that happened in my two months in Colombia was that I met a fellow traveler who I’m now dating.
Were there any special precautions you took to feel safer while traveling solo?
Ginger: I traveled solo, but stayed with a local friend. Even if I hadn’t known Ana, I would have reached out to friends who had traveled to Colombia before through Facebook and asked them to do me the favor of putting me in touch with people they met while they themselves were there.
One of the best ‘precautions’ I believe we can always take when solo traveling is to put ourselves out there and get connected with real people on the ground, in advance. It takes a bit of work, but is well worth the effort to have a friend if you’re in need of advice on places to avoid or things to watch out for in a new place.
>>Should you listen to female travel safety advice?
Gigi: As usual, I tried to book in a nicer part of town. I researched places ahead of time and only chose towns that others raved about. I didn’t go for walks in bad neighborhoods or alone late at night. I didn’t wear big cameras or flashy jewelry. And at the end of the trip, once I’d been harassed endlessly for weeks on end, I got to the point where I was actively trying not to draw attention to myself. Wearing frumpy clothes. Foregoing makeup. Always wearing my hair in a ponytail or bun. Unfortunately, none of this seemed to work and I was still relentlessly harassed.
Did you meet any other solo female travelers while you were there?
Ginger: I met a lot! Many were on long-term trips around all of South America and I was envious of them! It’s more and more common nowadays to travel alone as a woman, as we’re savvier and more connected than we ever could be before. Plus, there are tons of great online platforms to support solo female travelers, like Girl About The Globe, The Traveler’s Mindset and Traveling Jackie, to name a few.
>>Read about meeting locals through meetup.com when traveling.
Gigi: Yep. There were more solo males, but plenty of solo females wandering around as well. Harassment was a daily feature in all our lives, but some got it worse than others.
What luggage did you bring with you to Colombia?
Ginger: For a two-week trip, I brought a carry-on sized rolling suitcase from Ricardo Beverly Hills and a small backpack to keep my MacBook Air and everyday things in. The suitcase easily fit all that I needed for warm weather and occasional light rain, and though I brought a pair of tennis shoes I could have gotten by with a pair of dressy sandals/shoes and a pair of everyday walking sandals/shoes. I enjoy traveling light, and left plenty of room to bring back Colombian coffee and chocolate back with me to share with my friends and family!
Were there any items you were glad you brought with you or that you wished you had brought?
Ginger: I’m happy I brought plenty of light, flowing tops to wear casually during the day, and dressier clothing to wear when going out at night. Colombian women know how to dress elegantly and sensually, so it was fun to match that style with a few classy dresses and skirts! One other thing to note: though it’s normally 70-80 degrees Fahrenheit in Medellin, not many people wear shorts, so bringing a pair of jeans was helpful.
Gigi: I wish I had pepper spray. But not even sure if that’s legal there.
What’s your number 1 tip for females traveling solo to Colombia?
Ginger: Get in touch with people on the ground before you go and ask to meet up with them, whether that’s through mutual friends on Facebook, CouchSurfing city groups, interest-specific groups like Global Shapers, and Facebook groups like the Medellin Entrepreneur Society. Put yourself out there and make the connections, as they’ll make all the difference once you’re in the country and ready for great people and even better adventures!
Gigi: Firstly, know that harassment is a really big deal there. If you are going to go, be prepared for it. Be on your guard. I really wish someone would have told me how constant and how scary it is. I’ve been harassed before, of course…I think all women probably have. But usually it was an isolated incident, one crappy guy doing crappy things. In Colombia, it was every day. And it wasn’t just cat calls and whistles…things you can ignore. It was being followed and blocked and touched and rubbed on. It was having people enter my space and scream in my face. If you are going to go, I think it’s really important that you know what you’re getting into.
And I know this is a second tip, but I’ll go there anyway: I’d plan to spend a lot of time non-solo. Even if you don’t have friends to travel with or if you love traveling solo, I’d plan on scheduling tours, staying in resorts, and otherwise surrounding yourself with people. If I had it to do over, I probably wouldn’t have gone to Colombia at all, but if I did, I would have booked tours instead of being totally on my own for two months (and I say that as someone who usually enjoys being on her own for two months).
About the authors:
Ginger Kern is a coach, TEDx speaker, a Fulbright alumna and the Curator of Global Shapers’ Boulder Hub. After working in Europe for over three years and traveling to 25 countries around the world by the age of 25, Ginger wanted to bring the ‘traveler’s mindset’ back to the United States. Through her transformative travel coaching, The Traveler’s Mindset, and speaking at universities and organizations across the U.S., Ginger turns people into adventurers who are confident and powerful on the road and in their everyday lives.
Gigi Griffis is a world-traveling entrepreneur and writer with a special love for inspiring stories, new places, and living in the moment. In May 2012, she sold her stuff and took to the road with a growing business and a pint-sized pooch. Since then, she’s dropped two dress sizes, learned to love and stand up for herself, moved to Switzerland, moved out of Switzerland, and really created the life she wants. She’s the author of seven unconventional travel guides and the travel site gigigriffis.com.
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