There’s a lot to be said for solo travel–I will even go so far as to say that I truly feel it’s something everyone should strive to experience at least once in their lives. Understandably it’s not for everyone, but if you can manage to hurdle the initial fear of heading off to an unknown land on your own, I guarantee you’ll come out on the other side a changed (for the better, barring the miniscule possibility of some traumatic experience) human being.
Some of the benefits of traveling solo include, but are certainly not limited to: complete and utter freedom–no one’s making the decisions except for you; loads of interaction with locals and other travelers, which for me is the real bread and butter of traveling; plenty of peaceful time to think and reflect– you really do get to know and understand yourself on a deeper level with so much time for uninterrupted daydreaming. Hitting the road on your own, if done thoughtfully and with purpose, can indeed prove to be a transformative experience.
On the other hand, there WILL be times when flying solo will really, really suck.
When I began my travels in Latin America, I technically planned to travel ‘solo.’ I got lucky, however, and was able to meet up with a good friend right from the start. I met Allison, another Berkeley grad, on my first stop in Colombia. I got even luckier to meet a few other awesome Americans in Cartagena as well, and even luckier still when the 5 of us decided to join forces for a while and make our way up the Caribbean coast together.
That’s the funny thing about solo travel–unless you’re a leper or seriously socially inept, you will likely never truly be alone, and in fact this turned out to be the case for me for the first 5 months or so, until I left Peru in mid-January to head to Bolivia. And it’s no surprise really, considering travelers often stick to what’s known in South America as ‘the gringo trail,’ hitting all of the most popular backpacker destinations and often finding themselves on the exact same trajectory as others they meet along the way. And if your schedule is even remotely flexible, it’s a no-brainer to hop on a bus with someone else rather than go it alone; the long overnight buses can be painfully boring, and it’s always safer to have strength in numbers when you don’t know your way around in a new foreign city.
So through Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, I was lucky. I was the non-solo ‘solo’ traveler. I met amazing people who became my very good friends and shared some unforgettable experiences with them. Every goodbye was heartbreaking of course, but I consoled myself with the fact that I was sure to meet more incredible people in my next destination and make even more memories.
Bolivia and Argentina proved to be somewhat different. I continued to meet great people to wander new cities and play tourist with, or to grab a few beers with at a local bar, but I was never again presented with the opportunity to spend an extended period of time with another traveler–my new friendships were all cut short after just a few days.
Roughly 6 months into my trip and somewhat travel-worn at this point, this new development began to prove quite frustrating. I missed the comfort of being around people I already knew on a deeper level and with whom I felt comfortable enough to be my eccentric self.
Fast-forward to Buenos Aires, my last stop in Argentina. I knew I wanted to get to know this city well, so I arrived with 11 days to do so. This included a quick trip to Iguazu Falls on the Argentinian-Brasilian border, which I decided to do in as little time as humanly possible to maximize my time in the city. I never even considered trying to find a companion for this trip; my mind was made up that it HAD to be done in exactly two days and I couldn’t be bothered to change my schedule to accommodate someone else’s plans. Besides, I was used to long bus rides alone and figured since they were overnight I would just sleep the whole time anyway.
What I failed to consider was how much more I would have gotten out of my time at the falls if I’d had someone to share the experience with. I’m sure most of you are at least vaguely familiar with Iguazú Falls, or Las Cataratas del Iguazú, a semi-circular series of waterfalls stretching nearly 3 kilometers through subtropical rainforest on the border between Argentina and Brasil. It is a spectacular natural wonder and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The national park on the Argentinian side is vast–the guides at the information booths estimated I would need at least 5 hours to walk the whole complex. I was given a map and instructions on how to arrive at the upper and lower circuits which each give a unique view of the falls. It was a gorgeous sunny day so I rolled up my sleeves, slathered on some sunscreen and headed on my way.
The falls WERE absolutely breathtaking. I particularly enjoyed the view from the lower circuit and the short boat ride I took which takes you right underneath the falls, drenching every single passenger from head to toe in the process.
What I didn’t enjoy so much was getting lost in my pathetic attempt to read the confusing park map and arriving at the boat ride late, frustrated, and drenched in sweat, marvelling at the sights and wanting to express my awe only to have no one around to talk to, and cautiously offering my camera over to the most trustworthy-looking strangers I could find just so they could take a series of photos of me, alone in front of some waterfalls. Instead of ending the day feeling inspired, I was overcome with a feeling of loneliness.
It was at this point I realized that for me, the really incredible part of traveling is having shared experiences. Making a human connection, if even just for a day or a few hours, and seeing the world through more than one set of eyes. I couldn’t help but think of all the little details I undoubtedly missed as I wandered the national park, having only my own eyes and my own ears to take it all in. Sometimes, we need the help of others to make an experience whole.
And if I learned anything about myself in that day of [not-so] quiet contemplation at Iguazu Falls, it’s that I never want to travel ‘solo’ ever again.