“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.

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Two big caveats

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

phone

Now let’s look at what you can do!

20 simple ways to maintain your safety in Ecuador and Colombia

Money

  • 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?).

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  • 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.

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Bags

  • 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.

backpack train

Accommodation

  • 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.

El Panecillo Quito

  • 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.

night car

  • 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.

La Mariscal Quito

  • 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.

Guayaquil Ecuador

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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Travel-tested safety tips for travelling Ecuador and Colombia

This post is part of The Weekly Postcard hosted byΒ Travel Notes & Beyond, California Globetrotter, Toddlers on Tour, Two Traveling Texans and TravelLatte – check out what’s going on elsewhere!

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Anisa & Katherine (@2travelingtxns)
Guest

Great tips and thank you for mentioning my post! I agree there are some things that can’t be helped so it is important we do what we can to stay safe especially if you are a woman traveling by yourself. Sorry to hear about your lost items, I have had that happen to me too. Thanks for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard.

Lyn aka The Travelling Lindfields
Guest

That drug powder thing sounds really scary because it isn’t something you have much control over. I freely admit though that I should never travel alone. I am just too trusting. I would fall for every con and ruse there is. I have been saved more than once by travelling companions (my husband and sons) who have far better personal radar than I do.

JetsettingJade
Guest

This is such a useful article. Many of the things you mention can apply when travelling to numerous countries. It’s better to be safe than sorry when travelling.

California Globetrotter
Guest

Many of these tips are pretty common sense and useful for every day travel that people often overlook. I think the greatest is always wearing your backpack on your front side while on a bus or train. Thanks for linking up with #TheWeeklyPostcard!

Ruth | Tanama Tales
Guest

So nice you are traveling by yourself in these countries! Thanks for all your safety tips. I enjoy reading how others keep themselves safe. I would say it is important to find a safe place to stay. If something feels wrong, leave or do not stay there. I have traveled with DSLR cameras in Mexico and Central America. I take them out of my purse only when I want to take pictures (which is easier said than done). I do not wear them around my neck when I am in walking from one place to another or in transit (buses,… Read more »

Anda
Guest
Anda

These are very useful tips, Michelle. Unfortunately, like you say, you can control everything and sometimes you find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time. South America is a fascinating continent. I’d love to travel there more often, but I would never dare go there by myself. So far we’ve only been in Argentina, but I’m hoping to return to see more countries. Thank you for sharing this great advice with us. #TheWeeklyPostcard

shere
Guest

totally agree. I used to travel alone too and the only time I was been robbed was in Germany, when I picked up my family at the airport. In the train station, I was too stressed looking after my younger sister and brother (4-5years old at that time) and someone opened my backpack and took my wallet while getting into the train πŸ™

onanothercoast
Guest

beautiful photos! So happy to have found your blog via a mutual blogger’s page! Love your travel adventures and can’t wait to follow along! πŸ™‚

Kathleen
Guest
Kathleen

Great tips, Michelle! A gentle reminder to myself because sometimes I tend to take things for granted when I travel so often but not realising that I could be a brain fart at times , lol! I have had travelled to India 9 times and will be making my 10th trip later this year – many friends have asked me whether it’s safe. Nowhere is 100% safe – we just have to be street-smart and alert. #TheWeeklyPostcard

Agness of aTukTuk
Guest

Ecuador is my dream destination and safety tips are always welcome!When’s the best time of the year to visit it?

Linda @ As We Saw It
Guest

We used to live in Ecuador, Agness. What Michelle said. Also, we found that June and July were slightly cooler, due to cold air coming up the Andes from Patagonia. If you plan to visit the Andes, it’s not as humid and the bugs are less active then as well. Or at least that’s what we were told when we were there.

Also, if you plan to visit Quito, bring a jacket – even though it’s on the Equator, it gets cold!

Jessica @ Independent Travel Cats
Guest

I know Columbia has had its safety issues so I can see why people would ask, but as you said, any place can be unsafe at times. We were in London earlier this year during a terrorist attack (Laurence was almost on the bridge!) and have just missed ones in both Egypt and Paris. Being aware of one’s surrounding and being prepared is a great way to avoid issues and you provide some great tips here!

RobRob @TravelLatte(.net)
Guest

Great advice – and good links to Sally and Anisa’s articles. It’s a great set of posts, and we appreciate everyone’s advice. So unfortunate that it’s needed, but with some thought and advice like yours, that shouldn’t stop anyone from seeing our world! Thanks for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard.

Sally's Tips 4 Trips (aka Toddlers on Tour)
Guest

Thank you for including my post on Choosing the Safest Travel Wallet.
You have some great travel tips here for staying safe when travelling solo. I backpacked through Europe for 6 months when I was younger and followed I lot of these tips – and have come home safely to tell the tale.

Kreete | AdventurousTrails
Guest

When I was travelling in Asia, I used a covert clip-it’s a wallet that clips inside your pants with anti skim proof as well. If anyone wants to pickpocket you, they have to physically in your pants! As for the powder being blown on people, well that’s just too scary! But as you say, things can happen where ever you go and whats the point of not doing things just because you are scared!

emilylynnneil
Guest

This is very accurate, I’ve thought and said many of the same things before. There’s still such a negative stereotype surrounding Colombia, which is very unfortunate. It’s a beautiful country with some of the most friendly people I’ve ever met. Obviously you need to be smart and take the necessary precautions to be safe, but this country has come a long way in terms of safety over the past few years. Anyways, I loved this post, thanks for sharing!!

Lena
Guest

Wow!! Can’t believe you traveled alone for 7.5 months! That’s AMAZING!! These are such great tips! I think there’s something to be said for getting lax with time and it’s important for us to remind ourselves to stay aware even when we start getting comfortable with a city. That map trick sounds insane!

Emily Bloomquist
Guest

Good tips, Michelle. I live in Puerto Lopez, Ecuador and usually travel around the country with my husband but occasionally alone. The scopolamine risk is real though not terribly common. I met one person who’s boyfriend was asked by a lady with a young child to help with directions. Hours later, when he became aware of his surroundings again, he had no recollection of what had happened but he was missing all of his money. The scary thing is while a person is under the influence, they appear normal. I never accept flyers on the streets even when everyone around… Read more »

Megan
Guest

The drug tip is insane!!! We are currently in Costa Rica, and I don’t think this is a prevalent issue here, but definitely something to keep in mind, especially if we leave comfy cozy Costa Rica!