Interestingly enough, the questioner was usually female and paired with another female buddy for protection. Well folks, I made it through Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica alone and with nary a scratch. My six months in Mexico City had definitely prepared me but I believe that any woman, if she follows a few simple rules, can make her own way. Here they be:
- Wear a money belt. It's not a very cool fashion accessory but it is guaranteed to hold your passport, extra money, and credit cards with zero possibility of theft. Also, your bra can serve as a great impromptu holding place for your fancy phone, money, etc. NO ONE is going to be able to sneak a hand down there without you noticing (you would hope).
- Make friends. Whether it's the owner of your slightly sketchy hotel, fellow travelers on the bus, or your dorm mates, make buddies or at least strike up a conversation. They'll be more likely to come to your aid if things go south. A man I chatted with on a bus in Nicaragua insisted on finding me a safe and cheap cab to my next destination. Priceless.
- Paranoia is your friend. Feeling sketched out by everything? Good! Listen to your fear, it's trying to keep your safe. It is always MUCH better to play it safe and not die. MUCH.
- Be lame. You know that voice that says, "Hey these random people inviting me for a drink seem slightly sketch but isn't it time for real fun?" Maybe, or they could be real trouble. Be lame and skip the wild adventures. You will see and do enough amazing things on your trip that will be risk-free (or are the right kind of risk, like zip-lining).
- Go home before dark when you're unsure about your surroundings. My first few days in Guatemala I headed home as soon as it started getting dark, which turned out to be at about 6 p.m. Lame. It wasn't exactly my dream to hang out in my hotel room with a book and Internet all night but I was completely safe and I got an early start the next day.
- Research! Grab a guide book and read about places to avoid, special safety concerns, local customs etc. And then cross-check that information (especially hotel reviews). One hostel recommended by my guidebook had a new "creepy" employee, as per the reviews. Definitely something I didn't want to deal with.
- Ask the locals. If they don't think the bus is safe, forget about it! Get insider information if you can from locals or expats. This will really guarantee a smooth journey.
- Be smart with your money. Having enough on hand will help you make good choices. To catch a 6 a.m. bus in sketchy Managua I had the option to either book ridiculously overpriced $10 cab or walk out to the main street to try my luck. Sure I could have saved a few bucks but what is $10 for my safety? There was no way I was going to go wandering around Managua in the dark with all my possessions. Spend the money. You're worth it.
- Travel light. Having too much baggage will make you feel vulnerable especially if you happen to get off the bus in a so-so place and you'll only have that much more worth stealing. Stow everything you can stand to lose in your big bag (clothes, books), everything you could lose if you had to in a small backpack that you keep on you (laptop, camera), and the absolutely must-not-lose items in a money belt (credit card, passport, the bulk of your money).
- Take calculated risks. Sometimes, despite all your precautions, things start getting funky. I took a bus from Tegucigalpa to Managua that was supposed to get me in before dark. But the bus was delayed and when we rolled in what did I see but endless shadowy streets filled with loitering men. Perfect. I exited and eight million taxi drivers swarmed me (I then remembered that Mangua taxi drivers have been known to rob passengers). A friendly-looking cab driver steered me away from the mob and without any other options I decided to trust him. As it turned out he drove me around in circles for over half an hour and charged me about $15 but I eventually got to a safe hotel. I trusted him enough and things worked out, more or less. Be prepared but when things go down know that you have the good sense to manage them.
Overall, trust your judgement! If something feels wrong, listen to that feeling.You have the capacity to take care of yourself in any circumstance--believe in that and you'll find travelling a much less stressful and more enriching experience.