I'm in a bar in Toronto's downtown core and an acquaintance is talking nonsense. In a stream of incognizant verbal diarrhea, she tells me she’s extremely worried about me, asks if I’ve seen Narcos and punctuates her useless ramble with: "I just really hope you know self-defense."
My smile is fixed on my face in a way I think is convincing (read: it almost certainly isn't) and I take a sip of my beer so I don’t blurt out a rude comeback. Oblivious to my annoyance, she continues.
It’s a good thing I've just darkened my hair, she says, because now I'll blend in. I think about pointing out that as a pasty white girl traveling in Colombia, the only thing blending in will be my roots.
I ask if she's ever actually been to Medellin. She hasn’t. That's no shock.
When I think about "solo female travel" I often think about this conversation and how frustratingly uninformed it was. It came just a few weeks before I kicked off what I then thought would be one year of living abroad (I've since surpassed that timeframe) and as the days to my departure sped by, I was simply going through the motions waiting for my flight date.
Most were excited for me but still, I couldn't help but be bothered by those who, wide-eyed, gasped at my bravery or warned me to stay safe.
I thought about how if I was a dude preparing for life abroad, I wouldn’t be dealing with others' fear-mongering.
Now, a year and some after packing my bags, I have some helpful stories and tips to add to the conversation surrounding solo female travel.
Here are the very best.
My top tips and advice for solo female travelers
1. Take others' opinions with a grain of salt
Before I had even set foot in the airport, I had been given an unsavory dose of opinionated ramblings.
There was that acquaintance who seemed to believe Medellin was a land of chaos and grave danger. There were others who suggested I travel in a different way, questioned my timeline or suggested I hop from place to place rather than settling in one city.
Given my line of work, personal tastes and agenda, I chose a slow-pace travel style where I'd make one place my base and explore nearby areas at my leisure.
I did that so that I wouldn't sacrifice my work and so that I could actually enjoy the slower local lifestyle. That made sense to me.
I'm not saying that you shouldn't consider other people's advice, just know that your opinion matters most.
2. Pay attention to what you like to do and do those things
I'm standing on a ridge in a pine forest looking down on the city of Medellin.
It's silent in the mountains plus it smells great and the sun is on my cheeks. I bite into the empanadas and fresh fruits I've packed for this afternoon hike and observe the beautiful scenery.
I've always enjoyed the outdoors and being active so I'm exploring this new place through its hiking trails. I've arrived two weeks ago and haven't made any friends yet so, on this day, I've brought my pack, shoes and extra water and familiarized myself with a nearby trail.
Even though the clouds open up and give way to a massive storm, I know I couldn't have spent the day doing something better. It sounds so simple but when traveling alone, invest your time in what you love.
3. Document your memories
You've given yourself the gift of solo travel and as a woman, that especially may have taken an extra push.
Don't let it go to waste.
Make amazing memories and document them so that on a rainy afternoon, you can look back on this amazing experience that you gave to yourself.
I say "document your memories" and leave it general because that could mean different things to different people.
Since I write for a living, I rarely journal but I love taking photos during an incredible day. Later, I select the best one for my Instagram; it's my personal photo album.
Recently, while in the south of Ecuador, I was able to show a traveler everything I had done in Colombia thanks to this. But, if social media is your method of choice, there are some things to avoid. Which brings me to my next point...
4. Don't let Instagram dictate your travels
Are you going to that place because you researched it and you think you'd enjoy spending your time there or are you going there because Instagram travelers made it look cool?
Seriously, there are so many places to explore.
If you're not keen, don't do it. If you're doing it just for the photo opp, I personally think that's a waste of time, money and emotional energy. I also hate seeing someone complain through the duration of an activity only to post later about how great it was. What's the point?
5. Give yourself permission to say no
In my first days in Ecuador, I climbed a volcano to the highest point I'd ever been to in the world. Afterwards, I had a minor case of altitude sickness. I was dizzy, slightly nauseous and my head hurt. (It was worth it, though.)
When I checked in to my hostel, I was immediately invited for drinks. The group seemed really fun but honestly, I had zero interest.
It's not a crime to turn down an invite because you're tired.
I say embrace your introvert, ignore your #fomo and do what’s best for you.
The next day when I was recharged and feeling great, that same group was going to a pub next door. I joined, had an awesome time and connected with several of them.
6. You don't owe anyone information about yourself
I live in Ecuador and almost every time I get in a taxi, the driver asks me if I'm married, if I have a boyfriend, who I live with and if I have any kids.
It's exhausting and guess what? I don't owe anyone the truth if I'm not up for that conversation that day.
Us women get a lot of questions about our life status.
Others will make our life choices their business and judge. Often times, the curiosity comes from an innocent, well-meaning place. That doesn't mean you owe the answer.
Sometimes, I just tell people I don't speak Spanish. Other times I say my husband is waiting at home. Neither of these things are true and I don't care.
7. Note if the culture goes against your values but don't try to change it
I live in a part of the world where the machista culture is obvious to me.
I'm a feminist and I don't agree with a lot of what I see. For me, the best thing to do is note the personal conflict and stay true to my values without trying to change it.
I can't change the gender roles that are so prominent in this corner of Ecuador. I can't change a part of the culture just because I don't like it.
I'm not telling female travelers to be passive or to not support local initiatives whose causes you believe in. Be proactive and keep your values close, just don't kill yourself doing so.
8. Keep your purse close and know what's in it
Keep your stuff in a purse that's zipped up and close to your body.
Even better, if you're not totally familiar with where you are, keep your money and ID in a zipped pocket on the inside of your jacket.
Know what valuables you're carrying at all times and keep your eyes on them. Just saying.
9. Know that yes, there are risks that come with being a woman
You are at risk of gender-based violence, harassment and sexual assault just by being a living, breathing woman who exists in the world.
Gender discrimination is certainly worse in some parts of the world than in others but it exists in every country, every city, and every town.
Precautions always include: researching where you're going; familiarizing yourself with the area during the day; wearing culturally sensitive attire; walking with pals at night; surrounding yourself with responsible and smart friends, etc.
As women, we know this all too well.
... but don't let them get the better of you.
Soon after I left my city, my heart broke at the news of a gender-based act of violence that occurred at home. It reiterated what I always knew: these things can happen anywhere.
At this point, I'd dare anyone to argue with me when I say that the world caters towards men.
My advice to other women: live your life in spite of the associated risks of being female... because living is better than backing yourself into a corner and staying home.
10. Befriend other women who understand what you're doing
Some people will understand your travel goals and intentions. Others... won't.
Surrounding yourself with like-minded women will leave you feeling confident in your decision plus, you're more likely to bond with and learn from these female friends.
I look up to the women who are fluent in Spanish, have lived in several different countries and travel to little-known Ecuadorian towns for the weekend. They've inspired my new path.
11. Forget about keeping up with the Jonses
I played a stupid game of keeping up with the Jonses early on in my travels.
By that I mean, I spent outside of my budget because the friends I made were doing things that, if I'm being honest, I couldn't afford.
It can be tempting to justify every experience while abroad but keep in mind that great experiences can come at no or little cost too. Think, a picnic along the river, a day at the beach or cooking a group dinner.
12. If it's high on your travel bucket list, do it
I left Colombia having done so much.
I climbed mountains, I sunbathed on the beach of an island off the Caribbean coast as fishing boats docked. I partied until dawn in Medellin, had my first conversation poolside on a sunny day, learned how to cook my first Latin American dish and I bathed in volcanic hot springs.
Still, there were activities that I always assumed I'd get to and didn't.
When traveling, especially alone, make time for your bucket-list dreams and activities because sooner or later, time runs out.
13. Be assertive
If you sense that someone is treating you differently because you're foreign and female, there's a good chance that that's true.
Stand up for yourself and be assertive (while being respectful of course). Where I live, many locals my age live with their parents and more than once, a guy has shown interest seemingly to invite himself to my apartment. My answer to that is a firm no.
Similarly, if someone enters my personal space, I will without a doubt assert through my own body language that it's not ok.
When traveling, don't feel you have to be too polite.
14. Ask yourself what you want out of these travels
Do you want to learn the local language? Are you soul-searching after a difficult period? Is it time for some unwinding after burnout?
Have a honest conversation with yourself and decide what you want to get out of this time alone. Keep those intentions in mind as you fill your days.
In a world that is cluttered with time commitments, it can feel that months get swallowed up and your time isn't your own. This can be especially true for women. By traveling alone, you're saying to heck with all.
Sleep in if you want or, rise at dawn to summit a mountain.
Indulge in local desserts or use this time to reset poor eating habits.
Lounge on a beach or schedule multiple activities for your days.
Interact with others or use this time for solitude and getting in touch with your creativity.