In January, my friend and I, one Black, one Indian, two just over five-foot millennial women who could probably, at first glance, be mistaken for Gen Z, decided to hop around a few countries in South America: Colombia, Brazil, and Argentina. Why does this matter? Well, because for a while, I had been convinced that traveling to South America as a woman was asking to be kidnapped by a gang for ransom or worse.
I'd even heard an account from a White female acquaintance who trekked around South America solo for months about her horrific experience being fondled in the middle of the night by a man while staying in a local family's home.
Now, her story was inspiring (OMG you traveled the world solo?!) and was a catalyst for me concocting my own plan to travel the world solo. BUT, it also made me take a hard pass on including South America in that plan (and not just her, but the media, civil instability, and of course, worried friends and family members). I would travel there one day, maybe with a man. Also, I would NOT be staying in anyone's home. Oh yeah, so why does it matter that she was White?
Well, I'm not saying that she was fondled or targeted because she was White. If anything, I wondered if I might've suffered a worse fate because I'm not White. You see, traveling while Black usually means looking up a travel destination before you go to manage your expectations on how you will be treated there. You may be well aware that in many countries outside the US, overt racism, classism, sexism, and all the -isms are the unfortunate norm, and no one is being blasted online and losing their job for being an intolerant [insert foreign version of Karen].
I've also had my butt grabbed in a club in London, and felt powerless to do anything, where back at home, I might have security calling the cops and filed a report. But, I honestly don't think anyone would be bold enough to even try that in USA, land of the lawsuits. And don't get me started on a friend of a friend who was grabbed by a restaurant staff member for attempting to skip out on the tab because they brought her the wrong order and still expected her to pay for it (she was African from America and this was in Spain, I believe). Then the police got involved....
So there are those negative instances of traveling as a Black person, American, and woman. But, over the years, through my travel experiences, I realize that I, probably unsurprisingly, can feel relatively more at-ease than my non-Black counterparts when venturing around countries that are primarily Black and Latino because:
I don't stick out like a sore thumb, so I'm less likely to be approached or scammed unless I open my mouth,
even after being approached, locals may not automatically assume I'm rich (like my White counterparts), so I likely get better deals as long as I haggle, and
many times, locals treat me like a friend or family, as they're happy to see people who look like them traveling the world and contributing to the local community (and in turn, offer me special treatment - especially true when I'm at resorts in the Caribbean).
My theory was further validated in an example I'll give for Rio de Janeiro. All the blogs will tell you to be extra careful in Rio. Two Black women I know personally (a cousin and a friend) both traveled to Rio solo and reported no safety concerns at all. One from Brooklyn and one who lived in DC, "Just use common sense," was their advice. Easy-peasy coming from NYC (Although I considered myself a little sheltered, and I won't lie, some instances in Rio felt sketchy, but never threatening). Anyway, for all these reasons, I wasn't worried about traveling to Colombia or Brazil for this trip (plus I had been to both countries prior, to be fair and transparent).
My other example would be Mexico. I'm often told to be careful in Mexico City. Don't take the subway. Don't walk at night. Don't go, the CARTELS!! I've been to Mexico City three times and am even entertaining a move there. Plus Black expats are flocking to Mexico City, San Miguel de Allende, and Puerta Vallarta.
While I will continue to always research others' experiences before I travel to places of more homogeneous societies (think Northern Europe or Asia), I do think I'm becoming less cynical and more optimistic about how I can navigate the world. My two amazing trips to Japan certainly helped.
Now, what about this trip to Argentina?
I don't have many places struck off my travel list besides North Korea, Russia, and anywhere there's an active war going on, but Argentina was one place that I HAD stricken off my list because of the reports of racism I've heard time and again. Buenos Aires is labeled "the Europe of the Americas" and rightfully so, with its heavy Spanish architecture, coffee and croissant specials galore, and even bidets (the only bidets I've seen outside of Europe/Japan). Through my experiences in Europe, I was expecting the Argentinians to mimic the aloofness of the Spanish, French, and Italian people I'd come across while in their countries.
Because my friend really wanted to go to Argentina, I obliged, since at least with her, I might feel safer or at least have a witness if anything went down. Now, we are both tan, but she is ambiguous enough to be Latina/Southern European. Meanwhile, I have distinctively Afro-texture hair - my kinky twists could've been (and have been, in the past) mistaken for dreads. I was concerned I would stick out like a sore thumb. And when I landed at Buenos Aires (AEP) airport, my fears were being realized - I was the ONLY Black person in the immigration line and literally the darkest. Ok, no big deal....
At immigration, they asked a lot of questions and took our fingerprints (ok, never done that before). We arrived to Buenos Aires late at night and checked into the gorgeous Marriott near the Obelisco monument. I braced myself for the puzzled glances as this Black girl entered this prestigious hotel...nothing. And all throughout, the service was wonderful! We enjoyed our pick of the rooms, our free welcome drinks, and the rooftop pool staffed by a friendly, young guy. Awesome!
Here's the pool :)
The next morning, we roamed the city of Buenos Aires. We ordered croissants and coffee, my friend got her hair done, we shopped, had a lovely steak dinner, and ended the night with a magnificent tango show and wine. All the while, I enjoyed my time, and everyone we encountered was friendly or cordial, at worst.
The next evening, we flew to El Calafate to explore Argentina's Patagonia. We checked out the whimsical Yeti Ice Bar in town, where we were merrily greeted and informed on how the bar experience works. The next day, we took our booked tour to the captivating Perito Moreno Glacier and in the evening, enjoyed dinner and stargazing with another booked tour (it was a LONG day, but worth it)! Through it all, I had fun, took lots of photos, and all was fine and dandy.
BORING!!! I know, you expected something else. Fine, if you want some adversity, I guess the lady at one of our hotels seemed to grow a little curt with us over time. Maybe because we returned once after midnight and apparently the lobby was locked and supposedly we had already given a code. Or, maybe my friend was dissatisfied with something and let it slip a little too loudly. There was also a time we were told we can store our bags in the staff-only room at check-out, so we did, on our own, and at our own risk. Upon collecting them, she, this time, followed us to retrieve our bags, which I think is understandable, except, we were the only ones with our bags stored.
So what is this to say? I guess, if you're looking for something, you will find it. But otherwise, I didn't let those little incidents ruminate or spoil my mood. Also, the same lady also complimented my hair when we first checked in. Would a racist do that?!
My tone may be little facetious - it is me making fun of my own worries and assumptions being challenged. This is certainly not to discredit the very real instances of racism that others have experienced on their trips. I also do recognize the "light-skinned / petite / American" privilege I likely hold, and that being darker, curvier, or non-American Black can contribute to the differences in our experiences. After all, in Argentina, I was assumed to be Brazilian, greeted on a tour with a "Bom dia!" (and funny enough, my Brazilian friend told me I may get treated worse if they think I'm Brazilian). I also think my broken Spanish was a plus for me in Argentina, despite my fears they would turn their nose up at me, like the French.
Final thoughts: I'll always be cautious traveling as a woman and being Black. But, I won't be deterred from visiting any one place I want to go unless there is a Level 4 Travel Advisory (because Colombia is at Level 3). However, you should always go where you feel safe and welcome, and I encourage you to do your research and travel within your comfort level.
One thing to remember is that many countries depend heavily on tourism, so they want tourists to feel safe (and spend their money). You are usually safe, as long as you stay in tourist areas and use common sense, like not walking in deserted areas at night, not getting drunk solo, etc. Of course, if people start dying at resorts again, reconsider travel.
Anyway, I want to hear your story now! What's your demographic, and how do you feel it's affected your travels? Comment below, and subscribe to my blog to be notified when I post detailed recaps and itineraries for this South America trip coming all this month!