A deeper look into machismo and solo female travel
Solo female travel has always been slightly taboo.
And Latin America has always stuck out to me as one of those place you just don’t go alone as a woman. I remember being 18 and I was thinking about travelling to Latin America so I asked a friend who had recently come back from South America. He said to me, explicitly, Latin America is not a place for a woman alone. That well and truly threw a big old bucket of water over the fire that was a dream trip to Peru for a while.
Fast forward a couple of years and there I was living in Nicaragua alone working with a charity after well and truly saying fuck it, I’m not going to wait for someone to do this with me, I’m doing it, even if it means I’m going at it alone!
Maybe you are getting the impression of a steely confident girl who stepped onto an airplane, backpack in hand, ready to take on the world.
Absolutely not, I was absolutely shitting myself (to whoever sat next to me whilst I cried 5 separate times watching Moana I apologize!)
I remember reading SO many other travel blogs about single female travel in Central-America to try and calm my nerves a bit. So, in trying to pay back some of that keeping-calm-karma a bit I’ve written this little article about what solo female travel in Central America is actually like.
Straight off the bat…
First of people ask a lot of questions about what you are doing/why you are here/where is your boyfriend?-
What you have to remember is that whenever you are travelling you are quite probably entering into a society that is potentially very different than your own. Even in England when I tell people I travel alone they are shocked, so imagine placing that entire situation in a continent that is a lot more traditional in terms of what is considered ‘normal’ for a woman to do. In all fairness every question I have ever been asked about travelling alone was said with no malice, but instead people are genuinely interested, and a lot of the Latina women I’ve spoken to about it think it is great! But just be prepared that you may get some strange looks being alone with just a backpack to keep you company.
I cannot talk about solo female travel in Central America without confronting the elephant in the room- Machismo. Machismo translated very roughly means manliness. In reality, the word machismo is an attitude. Machismo is about what a man is supposed to be and how he is supposed to act in the society around him. Though this word is often used interchangedly with sexism I don’t think that is quite right. Sexism is inherently bad whereas machismo seems more unintentional. It is less about causing others harm and more about being a ‘good man’… whatever that means!
But philosophizing and definitions aside, what does machismo mean in the reality of everyday life?
The existence of machismo means men and women play very different roles in Latin society and at first this is hard to get used to as an outsider. To me a lot of machismo seems to be built into the idea of being a true man, or gentleman, and this doesn’t always have to be a negative thing. As I explained in my blog post about protocol of the chicken bus, Central American machismo shows in the priority of who gets a seat. Women are always seated first before men regardless of if a young spring chicken or an OAP that stands up for you. It doesn’t matter, you are a woman and it is respectful to stand up.
In the same regard I’ve never had to struggle as a woman in Central America with ‘man’s jobs’ like lifting heavy objects. For example, before I’ve even tried to lift my backpack onto bus or airplane racks someone will, without doubt, offer to lift it for me. It is considered the gentlemanly thing to do. And maybe it is old fashioned, but you know what, I like it! The amount of times I’ve struggled with a bag in Europe of the USA and people have just watched and sniggered and no-one has helped is countless. In those times I have cursed the ungentlemanly nature of our men.
Maybe these are stupid examples in a much larger and more complicated issue. After all I would rather not get cat called than get a seat on a bus, however hopefully they help to show all the various nuances in this relationship between female solo travel and machismo in Central America.
However, the gentlemanliness of machismo begins to blur when you look at romance.
When I first arrived in Nicaragua it seemed like every single Nicaraguan dude was the biggest Don Juan out there. They have swagger, they have chat for days and they are determined to woo you (did I mention you have the most beautiful ojos claros mami). And you can try to pay for that drink all you like but you will never succeed. They are a man and they pay.
Maybe this seems like the dream, but when you can’t stand alone in a bar for 2 minutes minding your own business without someone trying it on, it can get tiring, and quick. Unfortunately, the only thing that seems to deter men is the old “I have a boyfriend” line, and even then, it is more often than not followed by “he isn’t here”. Persistence seemingly is key in Central American romance.
The wooing from a Latin man, though an inevitability, is like marmite. You either love it or hate it. Either way, it is an omnipresent part of travelling as a female in Central America.
Which brings me to my next big point- Cat Calling.
Guaoo que lindo!
Or my personal favourite “ I will love dyou forever baby!” (especially when they know no other English).
It is literally unavoidable. You can wear the most modest outfit, you can walk with a large group of people, you can avoid certain streets. It doesn’t matter, men will still cat call.
This cat calling was the bane of my life and used to make me so angry when I first arrived in the region. But the longer I stayed I realized I could continue to get angry and feel appalled that I couldn’t buy a mango without getting hassled, or I could learn to laugh at it all and not ruin my mood.
But when I take a deeper look it all gets more confusing…
What is interesting is when I asked Nicaraguan men why they do this to women they seemed confused as to why we were annoyed by it. To them it was a compliment- after all, they were just saying how beautiful you looked. What surprised me more though, was that this was a view that was shared by a few of the Nicaraguan women I spoke to also.
And as I thought about this conundrum more and more, I compared the catcalls in Central America to the ones I received back home. In England it was usually by white van men (men with ven lol) making crude gestures, shouting what they wanted to do to me or about the size of boobs. When I compare that the cat calls of Central America, they were usually based on how beautiful you look or elements of your face. I am not saying either is good, but I do think there is an element of respect in play. In Central America very rarely did any of these comments feel menacing of make me feel intimidated. It felt more like cultural confusion. Whereas in in England these comments were made to make me feel uncomfortable as a woman on a fundamental level of disrespect. I am not saying any of this to say you should enjoy these cat calls- a less shitty version of a shitty thing is still shit.
Either way it is unavoidable so be aware it will happen and just try to ride the cat calling wave the best way you can.
In all seriousness
Now to touch upon the serious shit. I can only speak on my own experience in this area but I have never felt significantly more unsafe travelling as a female women in Central America that in other areas of the world. And when I have felt unsafe very rarely has it been because I am a woman, but rather because I’m a gringo. So long as you follow the rules of the areas and basic safety rules everything should be fine.
Walking out alone at night along empty streets is not a good idea anywhere in the world let alone Central America. Do I know girls that have done that- yes. Were they all fine- yes. Am I saying you should do that- absolutely not. However, would I suggest anyone do this in Europe either- no. Obviously please be sensible but don’t feel so scared by the rumors of something that you never ever go.
Often times the rumours of something just dont match up to the reality. For example, if I were to mention Latin America, how many people would immediately think of cocaine and violent drug wars (especially with the rise of programmes like Narcos). However, a tourist you are so unlikely to see any of this. This assumption is just that, an assumption.
Though you may be travelling solo, you are never alone
I always feel surprised by the number of solo female travelers when I am out backpacking. For example, in Guatemala over half the people staying in my hostel were women, and nearly ever single one of them was travelling alone. As women we were aware some things were just different for us, but we looked out for each other and loved the experience. Always remember you are never alone when travelling and there is a massive safety network out there for you!
A very rough conclusion
I’ve tried to be as objective as possible in this and I can’t really say in a succinct way how I feel about some of these topics. Even after an extended period of time being a female travelling in Central America, sometimes I love it and I love the culture and other times I feel exasperated and misunderstood.
I suppose like life, none of this is black and white, instead it is just a big old shade of grey! Regardless, you have to live your life and achieve your goals, and if that goal is to travel to Central America give it a go! I promise there are so many single women who have done it before you and continue to do it now. It is definitely a culture shock and takes some adjusting to, but it really isn’t all that different from being a woman anywhere else in the world. Yes there are issues, I wont pretend there aren’t, but there are also positives, and maybe you might learn something about how you view gender roles along the way.
Afterall life is a learning experience.