Carla Stefaniak did everything “right”, her best friend says. 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 neighbourhood. 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 FaceTime. 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 28 November.
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 says. “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 brutalised 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 travelling alone have raised questions about how the world is greeting the documented rise in female solo travellers and about the role of social media in promoting the idea that far-off lands are easily accessible and safe.
They have also shone a light on the enduring nature of gender violence worldwide and laid bare how a lone foreign traveller’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 travelling; women of colour 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 travellers 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 traveller seeking work; he had kept her locked up in his pig shed for two days.
There is no question that women face unique risks when travelling 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,” says Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women, an organisation that promotes female equality. Increasingly, “wherever they may be” includes alone in foreign countries.
But she says that violence against female tourists is 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 says.
The lure of travelling 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 such as #LadiesGoneGlobal, #WeAreTravelGirls and #TheTravelWomen offers millions of photos of women posing on glistening beaches, trekking up mountains and exploring cobblestone streets – a collective and aspirational lure.
Gavios found her passion for travelling 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 says.
After college, she travelled 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 says 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 hospitalised for months, first in Thailand and then New York, and has 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 organised 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, says local authorities should have done more to publicise 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 says.
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 galvanise agencies such as 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, points 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 neighbouring nations. Officials say they have made strides to combat gender-based violence.
Jaime says she believes her friend might have been targeted because she was a Spanish speaker who blended right in and her killer might have thought the police would be lax. “Maybe because she spoke Spanish, he might have felt no one would have looked for her,” Jaime says.
But she says the attacker had underestimated the determination of Stefaniak’s family. Not only are her relatives fighting for justice in Costa Rica’s courts, they have also filed a lawsuit accusing Airbnb of negligence. Their lawyer in Costa Rica, Joseph Alfonso Rivera Cheves, appears to suggest a callous disregard in the aftermath, noting that the same day Stefaniak vanished, her Airbnb room was being cleaned and new renters checked in.
The family also says that the local host evaded negative reviews by changing the name of the listing, and no background check of the security guard was conducted even though he had access to all the rooms on site.
Airbnb, in a statement, says it has removed the villa where Stefaniak stayed from its platform, and has been in contact with authorities. The company also says it has made strides to address women’s safety concerns, partnering with rights organisations and violence-prevention groups in local communities, and creating policies that emphasise women’s needs.
That includes removing any host or guest accused of sexual assault from the platform and including a clause in its nondiscrimination policy that allows female hosts to accept only female guests.
The power of preparation
Seasoned solo travellers say that preparation can be the key to minimising risk.
For Cassie DePecol, 29, who in 2017 claimed the Guinness World Record as the first woman on record to travel to every country, travelling alone means having a long list of precautions. The Connecticut-born activist practises Krav Maga, an Israeli self-defence technique. She carries a GPS tracker. She makes sure someone knows where she is at all times.
“Some of these might sound extreme,” she says. “But I attribute having safely travelled alone to 196 countries 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 says.
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.”