Carla Stefaniak did everything “right,” her best friend said.
On a five-day vacation to Costa Rica in November to celebrate her 36th birthday, Stefaniak, a dual Venezuelan-American citizen, chose a gated Airbnb villa near the airport. It had a security guard. It was in a safe neighborhood. And she made sure to get home before dark.
The night before she was to fly to Florida, she contacted her best friend, Laura Jaime, on the FaceTime app. She showed off the crocheted earrings she had bought in a local market and gave a video tour of her villa. The friends planned to see each other the next day, when Jaime was to pick her up at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
But Stefaniak never boarded her flight home on Nov. 28.
During their phone call, Stefaniak had made a strange remark. She said the situation felt “sketchy,” but didn’t elaborate.
“Carla knew at 8:20 that night that something was wrong,” Jaime said. “Sometimes we justify our intuition. But when something is triggered and our body says something is wrong, you have to listen to it.”
A week later, Stefaniak’s brutalized body was found wrapped in plastic and half-buried in a sloping patch of forest near her Airbnb rental. The Costa Rican police arrested the property’s security guard in connection with the killing.
Recent headlines about the deadly violence inflicted on women traveling alone have raised questions about how the world is greeting the documented rise in female solo travelers and about the role of social media in promoting the idea that far-off lands are easily accessible and safe.
They have also shined a light on the enduring nature of gender violence worldwide and laid bare how a lone foreign traveler’s cultural and social expectations do not always comport with local views about a woman’s place in the world — and whether she should travel at all.
Thousands of women go abroad every year without incident. Many women experience catcalls and myriad other forms of harassment while traveling; women of color have written about being dismissed or ignored abroad because of their race. And while violence against male tourists is just as devastating, the harrowing experiences of female solo travelers can still shock the senses.
In December, the bodies of Louisa Vesterager Jespersen, 24, of Denmark and Maren Ueland, 28, of Norway, were found with knife wounds in their necks in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Danish officials called the murders an act of terror. That same month, Briton Grace Millane disappeared in Auckland, New Zealand, on the night before her 22nd birthday; she was found slain days later. In 2015, a 19-year-old British backpacker was gang-raped by bikers in Thailand. In March, an Australian man was convicted of kidnapping and raping a Belgian traveler seeking work after keeping her locked up in his pig shed for two days.
There is no question that women face unique risks when traveling solo, experts say.
“We have evidence that shows that women face risks that men don’t face in public spaces, at home, wherever they may be,” saidPhumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women, an organization that promotes female equality. Increasingly, “wherever they may be” includes alone in foreign countries.
But she said that violence against female tourists was a thread in the broader fabric of violence against women around the world. And violent episodes are just as likely to occur, experts note, in rich Western nations such as France, Italy and Germany as in the developing world.
“The root cause of this kind of violence against women in communities and in public and private spaces has a lot to do with the underlying gender stereotypes, social norms, entitlement and patriarchy,” Mlambo-Ngcuka said.
What the Numbers Tell, and Don’t
Solo travel by women has grown in popularity year after year, according to travel industry studies.
Hostelworld, an online hostel-booking platform, found in a 2018 study that bookings by solo female travelers increased by 45 percent from 2015 to 2017, compared with a 40 percent increase for men.
“Solo travel was once seen as brave and risky for female travelers, but a shift of attitude has meant that it is now an adventurous, exciting experience that allows them to feel free with no one else to worry about or please,” the company said.
The online travel company 101 Singles Holidays found in a study of more than 60,000 British travelers that the number of people booking solo holidays rose by 14 percent in 2017 from 2016, and that tour operators were predicting a further rise of 11 percent in 2018. Solo female travelers also outnumbered their male counterparts by almost two to one, the study showed.
A 2018 global survey by British Airways of 9,000 women found that more than 50 percent had taken a solo vacation, with 75 percent of the women surveyed planning solo trips in the next few years. Another ad hoc sign of women’s growing interest in hitting the road alone: Web searches for “solo female travel” have also risen drastically in the past five years, according to Google Trends.
But even as more women explore the world, there is no clear global picture of the scale of violence against female solo travelers, making it hard to pin down whether attacks are on the rise or people have wider access to the grim news.
The reason: Most countries do not comprehensively track violence against female travelers.
Global agencies like the United Nations have traditionally collected data on gender violence as a whole. The State Department offers tips for women but does not break down data on violence against travelers by gender, a spokesman said. A British Foreign Office spokesman said the agency no longer compiled the Helping Britons Abroad report, making 2015 the last year for which figures were available, when they showed a 4 percent increase in sexual assaults against Britons abroad from 2010. But the statistics are not gender-specific.
Experts find the lack of such figures troubling.
Mlambo-Ngcuka, of UN Women, said that countries had little incentive to collect and publicize information that could be detrimental to their image. “This would not be seen by many countries as important data to collect,” she said, “so you are unable to track the prevalence or patterns.”
The Lure of Traveling Alone
Women have always been explorers on a scale both grand and personal — long before British trailblazer Freya Stark visited inhospitable areas in Turkey and the Middle East and before Irish travel writer Dervla Murphy saw the world on a bicycle.
Today, women’s increased spending power has given them the means to travel more for leisure and adventure. Shifting attitudes in the West about who can travel alone have also added to a growing industry. Social media plays a big part, offering intimate glimpses of far-off lands. A scroll through Instagram hashtags like #LadiesGoneGlobal, #WeAreTravelGirls and #TheTravelWomen offer millions of photos of women posing on glistening beaches, trekking up mountains and exploring cobblestone streets — a collective and aspirational lure.
But some women, like Hannah Gavios, 26, of Queens,discover horror away from home.
Gavios found her passion for traveling solo while studying abroad in college. “I feel like it gives me the luxury of seeing the culture in the way I want to and being able to paint my own experience,” she said.
After college, she traveled to Southeast Asia on her own, visiting Thailand in 2016 on a break from teaching English in Vietnam. One evening, she was walking alone after dinner in Krabi, known for its beaches and as a popular hangout for young tourists, when a local man offered to guide her back to her hotel.
She said she was afraid of getting lost, so she followed him. But just as she grew increasingly uneasy, he attacked.
Fleeing for her life, Gavios tumbled from a cliff and fractured her spine. The man sexually assaulted her while she lay helpless for 11 hours.
In the morning light, he left — but, surprisingly, returned with help.
Gavios was hospitalized for months, first in Thailand and then New York, and had to learn to walk again using crutches and custom leg braces. Her attacker was eventually arrested and sentenced to five years in prison.
A Shattered Family
The week Stefaniak vanished, her friends and family scrambled to alert Costa Rican authorities. They organized a campaign through a Facebook page, “Finding Carla.” The State Department quickly became involved, and the FBI pressed local officials.
When her body was discovered near her villa, her relatives were shattered.
Jaime, her best friend, said local authorities should have done more to publicize the risks to women in the country. “They have a responsibility to tell tourists of all the risks, and they are not doing it,” she said.
Stefaniak was the third foreign woman killed in Costa Rica in three months. But the country was also grappling with a deeper, more systemic problem of brutality against local women, ones who did not have the power of an American passport to help galvanize agencies like the State Department or the FBI on their behalf.
At least 14 women were killed in gender-based violence in the country from January to August 2018. In September, the government declared violence against women a national problem.
The National Institute for Women, a government ministry, pointed to the murders of foreigners last summer in a statement to illustrate the issue: “We are faced with the fact that, beyond the damage it may cause to the image of the country, they are clear examples of the serious situation of violence against women, which has its most brutal expression in femicide.”
Still, Costa Rica is considered one of the safest countries in Central America, particularly for tourists, with a lower homicide rate than many neighboring nations. Officials say they have made strides to combat gender-based violence.
The Power of Preparation
Seasoned solo travelers say that preparation can be the key to minimizing risk.
For Cassie DePecol, 29, who in 2017 claimed the Guinness World Record as the first woman on record to travel to every country, traveling alone means having a long list of precautions. The Connecticut-born activist practices Krav Maga, an Israeli self-defense technique. She carries a GPS tracker. She makes sure someone knows where she is at all times.
“Some of these might sound extreme,” she said. “But I attribute having safely traveled to 196 countries alone to these specific procedures.”
DePecol says that gender-based violence is an unfortunate reality for women who travel.
“The awareness of needing to always watch our backs when we’re both alone and in public places is something that men don’t necessarily need to be aware of,” she said.
Jessica Nabongo, 34, is on a mission to become the first black woman to visit every country in the world. Born in Detroit, she has been to 158 so far — 54 of them alone — and hopes to complete her journey in October.
Her road map for safety includes trying to stay in hotels with 24-hour security. If she stays in an Airbnb, the host has to have received consistently excellent reviews and achieved “superhost” status. She takes Ubers so that her location is tracked.
Nabongo acknowledged that “we tell women what not to do to avoid being attacked instead of telling men not to attack women.”
But she says she dresses conservatively until she can assess whether what she wears matters in the place she is visiting.
She would prefer a world where women can just pack up and travel without having to do the extra legwork that solo male travelers don’t have to, but says that’s idealistic.
Nabongo, however, like many women’s advocates, believes that any focus on the way women dress — or the fact that they travel alone at all — provides a convenient scapegoat and does not address the true causes of gender-based violence and rape culture.
Most headlines tend to highlight the experiences of young, white or Western victims — partly because of a dearth of public data on any violent experiences of women of color who travel alone. But Nabongo noted that as a black woman traveling solo, she has to deal with a whole other level of safety concerns, anxiety and fear.
“In many European cities that I’ve been in — like Barcelona, Madrid, Rome, Milano — women of color are in more danger because a lot of people think we are prostitutes,” she said. “My fear is always that if something happens to me in a European city, no one will care. I could be running down the street screaming in Italy and onlookers won’t care because I’m black.”
To help one another traverse the world safely, women have formed their own online communities.
Dianelle Rivers-Mitchell founded Black Girls Travel Too, which coordinates group travel, to serve a growing market. On her company’s Facebook site, thousands of women share tips on where to stay, eat and visit, and hash out safety concerns.
“We are each other’s keeper, especially when it comes to travel,” said Rivers-Mitchell.
Apps provide another level of support for women traveling alone. Free ones like Chirpey, RedZone, MayDay, Tripwhistle and Noonlight let women flag incidents and areas of danger, and contact local law enforcement.
A Rape, and a Fight for Justice
Even with the best preparation, trips can go wrong.
Born and raised in Moscow, Vasilisa Komarova grew up in the 1980s behind the Soviet Iron Curtain. She studied law, moved to London, learned English and became a British citizen. But she dreamed of traveling the wider world.
In 2016, at 35, she embarked on a solo motorcycle journey through the Americas.
She visited Cuba and spent time in the Atacama Desert and Chilean Patagonia. She linked up with motorcyclists and got odd jobs in a bike shop and in fitness training. She was living a dream, chronicling it all with photos on Instagram and posts on Facebook.
Then, everything changed.
“At some point, maybe because everyone I was meeting was so kind, I think I put down my guard a little,” she said.
While she was camping in northern Bolivia on June 4, 2017, in an area people had told her was safe, three men with machetes dragged her out of her tent. They beat her, dislocating her arm in three places. While two held her down, one raped her. Then they broke her motorcycle, stole her belongings, urinated on her tent and left her for dead.
Afraid that they might come back, Komarova lay still all night. When the sun rose, she used her laptop, which her attackers had missed, to summon help.
But what she experienced was a climate of impunity, she said.
Authorities didn’t want to take her to a doctor; the doctor didn’t want to see her because she could not pay.
“Only after the Russian Embassy was involved did the police listen,” Komarova said.
But the embassy retreated after connecting her with local authorities, saying she was not in immediate danger. She felt she was on her own.
Experts say such a response isn’t unusual. “Some of these law enforcers are themselves part of the problem, and they do not take these crimes as seriously as they need to,” Mlambo-Ngcuka, of UN Women, said.
Bolivian and Russian authorities did not respond to several requests for comment.
With the help of the British Embassy, Komarova, made contact with an advocate who helped her file a criminal complaint and begin the legal fight against her attackers.
Komarova said she knew she had to be her own biggest advocate; she couldn’t move forward in her journey or return home without getting some form of justice. But between the local bureaucracy and the corruption, she said, it was an arduous fight.
“The attack, the process, it broke me down,” Komarova said. “But I had to find strength inside myself.”
A year later, she watched as her attackers were sentenced to a combined 42 years in prison.
In November, Komarova rode out of Bolivia on her motorcycle. The first night she put her tent up after leaving, she was afraid, she admitted. She is still on the road, and wants other women to travel, but to be on alert — always.
“My guard is really high,” Komarova said by Skype from Ecuador. “People don’t always deserve my skepticism, but that is how it is. That’s how it has to be.”
As for Gavios, she is still partly paralyzed, but since the attack, she has become a yoga instructor and has learned Krav Maga. Last fall, she completed the New York City Marathon — on crutches.
“It hasn’t prevented me from moving forward or traveling by myself,” she said. “I don’t feel defeated.”