To read the blog post on travelola.org, click on the post link below or visit the Wanderlust website by clicking the Wanderlust logo.
- 9 reasons why solo travel is great (travelola.org)
To read the blog post on travelola.org, click on the post link below or visit the Wanderlust website by clicking the Wanderlust logo.
What to do when solo travel stops being solo travel? When it becomes group travel? Or couple travel? Maybe the adventures are enriched by shared experiences, maybe the chatter and laughter rolls on late into the night, maybe great plans for the next day are derived around a camp fire or hostel kitchen table.
But maybe something inside of you yearns to sail your own ship again, to break free of noise, to just be yourself by yourself.
It happened to me.
A little over a year ago I was bussing from Brazil to Bolivia, practising Spanish with people in the street, dancing with crowds at random festivals, eating birthday cake with local families and following Che Guevara’s final footsteps. Sure, at times I was mingling with others, but so much of my days were spent and decisions made on a solo basis.
Sometimes I was lonely but mostly I was open to meeting whatever people and adventures presented themselves. My heart and mind were open to the world, to life.
Fast forward to March 2013 and I was employed, in a relationship and had signed a 12 month lease on a town house. A desire to be part of something and to belong took over. And whilst my heart felt other joys, my world closed in. Just a little bit.
And so when all sorts of things built up into a crazy head spin, I followed the scent of my traveller blood and did what made me feel real and alive, and I walked out of my share house, into the houses and onto the couches of friends and soon to be friends.
But what about the solo stuff? Not being on anyone else’s schedule? Not having to be considerate of anyone else for a moment? If I was to get back to a place of generosity and warm spirit, I needed a moment of quiet and a moment of selfishness.
The instant that I booked a tipi nearby one of my favourite beaches within a National Park barely an hour away from my Aussie life, I felt my spirits lift. Adventure. Nature. The ocean. My tick tock.
And now I find myself at the end of a week of small time adventuring feeling almost ready to return to the cosiness and rhythm of settled life.
Just one more night, alone, before I rejoin the party.
Travel, I realise, doesn’t have to be about far away places and exotic appeal. It’s about tapping into that feeling of exploration and freedom, and keeping it local can work just as well.
I’d been on the road for nearly a year and should know better, but somehow Galapagos was giving me a little test. This was the third example of stupidity since I’d arrived. First, I’d left my bank card at El Chato and had to pay for a taxi to take me back for it, completely cancelling out any financial benefits of sharing a ride there in the first place. Secondly, the whole ATM, no-money fiasco once I arrived at Isla Isabela.
And now this. I’d had this horrible feeling that I’d forgotten something, but then I often have that worry. Only this time it felt real.
Sure enough, once I got back to Puerto Ayora and unpacked my bags I realised I’d left my hard drive and banking key hidden under the mattress in the hotel on Isla Isabela. A two hour boat ride away. How silly.
Time to pull myself out of my drifty traveller dreamspace and tune back into reality, switch back on.
‘Dejo mi disco duro bajo el cochón en Hotel Sandrita en Isabela’. I was back on Isla Santa Cruz in the Galapagos trying my best to explain to Maria who ran Los Amigos in Puerto Ayora that I’d left my hard drive behind on Isla Isabela, trying to ask her for some help.
She got the phone books out, made a few enquiries and dialled me through to Señora America at Hotel Sandrita, the place I’d stayed over in Puerto Vilamil on Isla Isabella. ‘Ah yes’, said America, ‘I’ll send it through on a boat tomorrow. Be there at 0800’.
After barely four hours sleep I was up and standing bleary-eyed at the water’s edge trying to decide which boat was my boat. I hadn’t fully understood America’s instructions. My Spanish failed me. So I did the rounds and chatted to captains and crew, but no one had a parcel for me.
After some minutes a guy who had been skulking around (and also looked like it was too early for him to be up and about) approached me. ‘Are you looking for a parcel from Isabela? Are you Finola?’ he asked.
He directed me to a little office and sure enough, there was a small package. For me.
Oh happy day.
Privileged worries and a shallow blog posting ? Yes, maybe. But, a reality of backpacking nonetheless, and another story from the road.
I’d climbed Volcán Sierra Negra in the morning and was now back in the middle of Puerto Vilamil on the island of Isabela trying to figure out how to get back to Isla Santa Cruz where I was hoping to meet the captain of a catamaran bound for French Polynesia.
A hitch later and I arrived at the marina where I asked a couple of guys perched on some railings about boat times. ‘That man there’, one said, gesturing towards a guy walking towards us, ‘he’ll take you for $30’.
Half an hour later I found myself riding up top in the captain’s cab – up on the flybridge – whilst twenty nine kids and their teacher snuggled in downstairs under the sun protection of a tarp and the safety of a burly deckhand.
We bounced along, away from a sunny Isabela and towards an increasingly greying sky. Rain started to patter down.
‘Can you…?’ asked the skipper, pointing to the wheel and the captain’s seat, having clearly remembered my earlier jests about being able to captain his boat. My friend Ollie had pulled a similar trick back in 2011 during a trip between Koh Tao and the mainland in Thailand. Whilst he may have got away with dishing out a bit of bullshit in order to convince the crew that he could captain the small ferry, why did I think I could pull the same cheek?
‘I can drive it, you know’, I’d told him, ‘can I drive it?’ It had been a mischievous ask, and now he was off of his pew and I had to deliver. I jumped over into the hot seat whilst he pulled across the rain screen and secured things up top.
And in those few minutes that I turned the wheel the wrong way and in the moments that I tried to steer us on the least choppy path possible, all my Galapagos photos went sliding down the tarpaulin. My little camera made a secret escape attempt. Oblivious, I continued taking my steering seriously until captain finished up his rain mission and returned to his rightful duties.
I sat back in my co-pilot seat and pondered what lay ahead in my adventures beyond this Galapagos trip. This little moment at sea and at the helm had got me thinking: how would it feel to do three weeks without stopping? The stretch from Galapagos to Tahiti could either destroy me or cure me of my ocean fears, I figured.
And then, finally, I realised that my camera was missing. I did a panicked scout about, and the captain killed the engines. Because there she was, nestled on the edge of the tarpaulin, waiting for a big wave to give her enough lift to fly off into the sea. Burly deckhand reached up as we held our breaths; he would either knock her into the ocean depths or save her from a watery death.
Thankfully it was the latter and the remainder of the trip, although wet and stomach lurchingly rough, was accompanied by a little bit of fuzziness. My Galapagos photos may be poor compared to what other people manage to capture, but they’re still my photos, some of my memories.
Ah, another little adventure with a happy ending. (And I meant the fact we got the school group across from Isla Isabela to Isla Santa Cruz safe and sound. Of course. What were you thinking?!)
I’m sitting on a little stretch of beach in Puerto Villamil near to a hotel whose outdoor areas are covered in a blanket of sunbathing iguanas. I think back over what has been an interesting year full of big decisions, of solo traveling, of various dramas that have been emotionally consuming but far from unique in the bigger human picture. It has, undoubtedly, been full-on.
But now, I realise, I’m peaceful and content and grateful. I feel so, so lucky. The people I’ve met, the struggles I’ve overcome, the guidance, the goodness, the inspiration I’ve found at home and along my way. My eyes have been opened, my heart healed.
And then bang! – in a moment of stillness this great wave of love for life hits me. (Reading this may make some of you squirm and look away, but most of you will get it. At least I hope you will.)
And I’m feeling this all in paradise. Alone. On a beach.
A warm salty breeze dries my hair as I sit shading from a strong sun. I look around.
In the distance, boats and liveaboards bob about on a turquoise sea with a bit of chop. White seahorses ride messy waves that splash over black lava rocks and break onto a stretch of damp, golden sand. I can hear the light sound of laughter as a girl and boy scramble around on sharp stones and dip into a nearby rock pool.
Spiky, foot-long iguanas amble away from the water’s edge, back to their basking point on the wall of the deserted beach front hotel. A man wanders down and climbs into a hammock, rocking to the sound of small crashing waves and music that is spilling out of an empty, rundown bar.
For a moment, before the shrill whistle of a father calling his kids pierces the air and before an approaching tour group encroaches my space, I have my little slice of paradise.
La Isla Isabela, tu es bella.
‘Isn’t it dangerous?’ asked my family when I mentioned that I wanted to travel in Colombia, ‘why do you want to go?’ Having chatted to a Colombian girl who had told them that it’s not really a safe country, particularly for a solo female traveller, they were worried. Understandable.
But no need to worry! My new idea of crewing on a sailing yacht across the Pacific Ocean meant I’d have to skip Colombia in any case. In order to stay within a safe sailing window I had to act quickly and be in either Panama or Galapagos, Ecuador within the next few weeks. No cyclones and stormy seas for me, please. And Colombia? Well, it would have to wait.
Or would it?
As often happens, life likes to have a bit of a giggle. The cheapest flights I found routed me via Bogota, Colombia. And when in Colombia, even if just for a few hours, it would be rude not to check out a little of the capital.
Now, on hindsight, I wish I hadn’t bothered. Sure, I can smile about some of the confusion and discomfort and the waiting around, but was it really worth it? Hmmm…
I’d half hoped one of two friends might be waiting at arrivals for a few hours of brunch time catch-up, but the exit was lined with taxi touting middle-aged men. Although unsurprised, my heart sunk. Just a little. After nine months of travelling, arriving into places with no familiar faces to greet me was starting to become a bit tiresome. Ah, what I wouldn’t have done for a big hug, a warm smile and a friend to show me around.
But! – no time to get down in the dumps. Climb back into your gutsiness and get out there, girl! After changing up some money, I went for a chat with a guy in the tourist info point. He turned out to be a smartly suited bearer of bad news.
‘The city and all the interesting things are too far away for your stopover’, he told me. I thought momentarily about retreating back into the comforts of the airport lounge. No. Come on! I’m in Colombia! Let’s go live it, even if only for a moment. ‘You could get a bus to Gran Estación ’, he said, ‘There are shops and places to eat, and it’s only ten minutes away’.
Everyone stared hard at the solo gringa as she tried to figure out where to catch a ride, as she struggled to make sense of buses that bore signs stating that they were going to Gran Estación but actually weren’t going anywhere close. She was clearly no Latina and curiosity stopped the odd passer-by. If they looked a little beyond the straggly, mousey hair, the tall, fair-skinned body and the light, blue eyes, they would have seen a touch of deflation and a mood that was synonymous with the grey, morning sky.
And then at 930AM I was finally there, wandering around an empty shopping centre close to Bogota airport. Nondescript, homogenised, brand focused. Yawn. Do I project my excitement with enough conviction?
Within an hour everything was open and trickles of people got down to some serious spending, interspersed with fast food refuels.
After a few hours of watching the wealthier and professional people of Bogota meet with colleagues or tap away on laptops over a McCafé coffee, I reversed my Colombian journey back to the airport and a promise of a better tomorrow.
Ecuador, my love, I am returning to you.
One rainy day back in Sucre I felt super flat. New friends had left and moved on and I was still sick. I sat sipping some coca tea by myself in the hostel kitchen, gazing out at a blanket of greyness, the odd flash of lightning streaking the early evening sky.
At this stage I had been living out of my backpack for eight months and I was having one of those travel moments where I felt pretty lost and alone. Travel tired? Maybe. But did I want to go home? Where was home? Nope, it wasn’t a consideration. I thought hard about what would put the spark back into my travels.
A couple of days later I booked what I hoped would be my final flight for a little while: a one way ticket to Galapagos. Why, oh why, though, was I heading back to Ecuador? And why am I once again heralding solo travel?
Travelling with someone else is beautiful.Friend, partner, lover, whatever, – to share special moments on your journey is undoubtedly something to be treasured. I met back up with a friend in Brazil, someone I’d wandered with before. Travelling with them for three months previously had been easy; decision making fluid and compromise pretty unproblematic. No mean feat when we were in each other’s pockets 24/7.
But paths and desires inevitably take different turns and when my friend announced that Colombia was the next step, I wasn’t so sure. I did want to go to Colombia but there was the ticket price to take in to account (it required a flight) and there was my own personal journey to consider. And my gut instinct told me to do something different.
Three days later, I ended up on a bus making its way through Paraguay to Bolivia. It was one of the best decisions of my travels.
Travelling in a group is fun.Bolivia turned out to be a nuisance to my health but completely blessed in terms of the people I met, the landscapes and natural wonders that I encountered and the experiences that I had.
Strangely enough, despite all the amazing things that Bolivia presented me with, most significant to me were the other travellers that I befriended. Party people, caring people, fun people, thoughtful people, adventurous people, genuine people. People a little, no, a lot like me. We clicked.
Arriving into La Paz with a few of them gave a different angle to arriving into a big, South American city. It was more fun, less of a mission. So what if I ended up changing my plans a bit so that I could stay and hang out with them for a little while? Absolutely worth it. Lake Titicaca will still be there in a few years’ time, if I choose to come back. Hopefully some of these friendships will still be around too.
But then our paths started to part. If compromise with two of you is difficult enough, try it with a group of five or more. Nah, best to go get on with your own thing and meet back up to share stories and fun times when your paths next cross.
Travelling solo is freedom. When in Sucre I wondered what would really inspire and excite and challenge me. I suddenly returned to this random thought: I have my RYA Competent Crew and Day Skipper qualifications, I’m a little scared of the massive oceans, I like to face my fears. Wouldn’t a Pacific crossing be an amazing adventure?!
Not having to consider anyone else, I got right on it. Within a few hours I’d started the research, within a few days I’d heard back from skippers who needed crew for the crossing, and within a week I had booked a one way ticket to the Galapagos Islands with no real certainty that I had a place on a boat.
But I had bucket loads of enthusiasm and a whole lot of hope and trust that life would deliver something special. If it meant I ended up stranded in the Galapagos for a few weeks, how bad could it be? A slight monetary concern, but little else.
This is what I wanted my travels and adventuring to be about. Freedom for my path to unfold.
To me, really travelling solo is not when you latch on to a group or another person (although this inevitably happens when travelling alone, and often it’s great, sometimes just convenient) but rather when you travel and experience things solely by yourself, whether that be climbing a mountain, watching the sun set or crossing borders.
For many people the idea of true solo travel is a real challenge because we’re not used to our own company. It can make us uncomfortable; bring about too much thinking time; make you face yourself and your fears alone. But wow, once you step beyond that, there are a whole host of reasons why you should give solo travelling a go. At least once.
And a few reasons why travelling alone isn’t such a sweet option? There is no one special to share and remember those moments with, no one to care for you when you’re sick, hitchhiking is more dangerous, going to the toilet with your backpack is a bit of a chore and, particularly as a female, you may get approached by some right weirdos.
Overall, I love to share experiences with other people and I can get pretty flat when I’m too isolated. But equally, I value moments by myself. It keeps me sane, helps me to feel balanced, gives me space to think about and question what’s important to me and whether I’m on the right path.
At some point in your life, if you haven’t already, give it a go.
Murders, rapes and people on P. I was warned: stop hitchhiking or there’s a good chance it will go wrong. But would I listen?
When I first got to New Zealand, I realised that public transport was going to be pretty expensive when the half an hour journey from the airport to the city centre cost me $16. In all fairness, I had just come from Ecuador where buses cost $1 per hour, and in many respects it’s unfair to compare New Zealand with South America. Nonetheless, it was a bit of a shock. So when the Sunday bus connection to Raglan didn’t work out, I thought it was time to start sticking out my thumb.
This first dalliance with hitchhiking was indeed pretty safe: I was with three other guys who I’d met in the hostel in Auckland. With so many of us we were lucky to catch a lift, but standing on Whatawhata Road in Hamilton was a winner. Within ten minutes we had a ride. All good.
In Raglan itself, I realised that if I wanted to go surfing I was going to need to hitch to the beach. And on all occasions it was fine. People picked me up, even with an 8 foot board in tow. All decent people, who on a couple of occasions even lent me a wetsuit. Can’t complain.
So when a lift to Auckland airport to meet a friend fell through at the last moment, it was a no brainer: hitchhike.
My first pickup was a warm, smiley man who dropped me at a better spot. It started to rain.
A woman stopped when she saw me standing alone, starting to get a bit soggy. ‘You really must be careful’, she said as she drove me a few miles up the road, ‘follow your gut instinct and if it feels dodgy, don’t get in. There are some bad people on P and there’s no reasoning with them’.
I later read that in the past ten years there have been two hitchhiking murders in New Zealand, that of 17-year-old Jennifer Hargreaves and 28-year-old Birgit Brauer. Both young women travelling solo. I thought about where I had packed my penknife and remembered that it was in a little section right at the bottom of my bag. Next time I hitched, I told myself, I would have it to hand.
Another time a sweet girl in her early twenties picked me up. She was really worried about me hitchhiking alone as a female. What did surprise me was that she picked me up with her young child in tow. It made me wonder: what about the opposite? – What if the hitcher was a bit of a psycho? The assumption is that a solo female traveller = safe.
A few days later I stayed with a family up north of Whangerei and I got chatting with the mother, Nellie. ‘When I see a female hitchhiking, I’ll always pick her up and then give her a telling off’ she said, ‘Women shouldn’t hitchhike alone.’ And hitchhiking full stop? In twos its fine, but alone, no.’
So what to do now?
Hitchhiking brings with it a real sense of freedom and adventure – who knows who you will meet? What conversations you will have? It is undoubtedly a great way to meet people, in many cases locals who are keen to share stories and history of their area. It In New Zealand, it has been a fairly common way of getting around. The most recent figures that I could find were from 2005 that showed nearly 16,000 visitors were hitching their way around the country, and although there was a predicted downward trend, these numbers should still be balanced against any negative statistics. Hitching is also sometimes more convenient than catching public transport and clearly there is the benefit of saving some cash, although it’s good etiquette to offer a bit of petrol money.
I was totally fine, but then I guess that I was also lucky. For now I’ll knock it on the head. If I start to travel with someone else, then fine, I’ll go for it again.
The idea of being away from home at Christmas is a big deal for many first time backpackers who have more often than not experienced the middleclass comforts of home-cooked turkey and stacks of presents under the tree. I wasn’t too worried about being away from my family, but Christmas is an important festival for me and I hoped to mark the occasion by doing something special.
I had ended up in Raglan, a small town 100 miles down the road from Hamilton, New Zealand. My plan was to be here for Christmas, but whereabouts I’d stay, well, I was clueless. The motley crew that I had bussed and hitched with to get here had disappeared into backpackerland whilst I went and had my first CouchSurfing experience with a belly dancer called Paul who had some good conversation and taught me about different styles of belly dancing, from traditional through to tribal fusion and the crazy contortions and carefully considered movements of Rachel Brice.
I managed to arrange accommodation for the week (with use of a surfboard thrown in) in exchange for doing some gardening and helping around the house, and my good fortune continued with the offer of a housesit over the Christmas weekend itself. Things were looking up! And I was glad to have a breather from the cost and chaos of NZ backpackers (Raglan town was full in any case, Christmas by the surf and sand was obviously a popular choice).
The prospect of a lonely Christmas started to fade, but I figured that even if I was alone and a little lonely, at least I would have a surfboard and the sea and that would be enough to complete my day.
So Christmas started with a night out in the Yot Club on Friday 23rd December. The theme was Sexy Christmas but barely a soul turned up in fancy dress. A few antlers were spotted about the place, a couple of Christmas hats, but it seemed that Raglan’s version of sexiness was simplicity. Some beers and smokes and a Jaeger Bomb later, and the party continued back at the house, but not before a little fight broke out in the pub garden. Kinda obligatory for an emotionally charged night out on the town, right?!
Christmas Eve meant a house switch for me: my own pad for a few days. But it also meant that it was time to concoct some party food. Raglan was a bustle of preparation and FourSquare, the local supermarket, heaved with people doing a quick last minute dash for beers and bread and other basics. Together with a new friend, I cleared out the vegetables and fruit sections and got to chopping kiwi and mango and nectarines for a fruit salad, an offering for the evening meal. We covered the salad with juices from freshly picked oranges, – sweet, sugary nectar from scruffy, little balls of sunshine. No plumped up shop stuff. Beautiful.
A few hours later I carefully carried the bowl of goodness and a bottle of wine and crashed a Latin American gathering. They were welcoming, a real international mix of family and friends and then me. Clearly unable to let go of my recent trip to South America, I was back in the swing of being surrounded by Spanish and feasting on beautifully made tamales and tasty frijoles and other great food.
The Buena Vista Social Club played in the background and people talked about dancing; stockings hung by the fireplace and a little tree lit up the corner of the room. It was definitely the most Christmasy I had felt since arriving into the country. Throughout the evening we supped on wine and sipped shots of Mezcal. Nothing too hectic. We ate dessert, a homemade ice-cream cake drizzled in a rich chocolate sauce, complimented by cream topped meringues, an indulgence absolutely suited to a hot Christmastime.
Not a typical New Zealand Christmas, I’m guessing, but a beautiful experience nonetheless. A little out on the fringes, I still felt welcomed but my mind drifted to my own family and those close to me and how they would be celebrating Christmas, and as much as I tried to be in the moment and enjoy the ‘here and now’, I felt that little pull. I guess that Christmas does that you, right? So I was part of something, yet still not.
Christmas day started late. I had an amazing sleep in. As I walked through Raglan, the town itself was still, all shops shut. The waterfront, however, buzzed with activity; kids jumping in the water, people going for a Christmas kayak, families picnicking on grassy patches.
Some more food preparation began, this time a Mexican lentil soup and some salsa style dip. It was an unusual Christmas dinner, served out on the veranda in the shade of the sun, but why stick with the usual?
And then I turned down an invite to join a couple of others for the afternoon and evening. Christmas is usually so hectic and family focused, and I thought, if I’m away from all that and doing it alone, let’s do it alone. I didn’t feel like being social. So I wandered down to a secluded spot at the end of the boardwalk and wrote Christmas messages in the sand and read my book and did some writing.
And I watched the world go by. I saw families with shrieking, happy children running around all over the place; and couples paddling in the water, squelching the mud between their toes; and fathers and sons out collecting cockles; and fancy speed boats passing by; and kids splashing around in the water with friends, ducking in and out, bombing each other.
And then I saw one teenage figure sitting on a bench overlooking the water, hood pulled up so it was impossible to identify whether they were male or female. Christmas, it reminded me, isn’t a happy occasion for all. And I felt for this character and hoped that future Christmases would throw up some more hope.
So, how was a solo Christmas? It wasn’t so bad really. I had company when I wanted it, I had the sea on my doorstep and the sun shone down on me all day long. For me, a Brit, it did feel strange not to have the cold and the dark nights and the Christmas lights twinkling all over the place, but I enjoyed observing the differences between an English and a Kiwi Christmas; the introverted family occasion all cosied up and huddled around trees and fires versus the outgoing ‘let’s-enjoy-the-summertime-and-get-the-hell-out-of-the-house’. All a good experience. Now where the hell are my presents?!