A Single Girl’s Guide to Navigating Solo Travel
By Ashleigh Cook
I know, I know – we’ve all read a million of these advice pieces before, but it seems that the majority that I’ve read either skim over or completely skip the bits of advice that I wish I’d learned before I ventured off on my own. I know for a fact that my mum would have been a lot happier as well, had I have been a little more prepared for what I was getting myself in to.
Traveling around Central and South America, you don’t meet too many solo female travelers (apparently, it’s pretty dangerous for girls to travel by themselves around those parts… who knew?). But for the ones that you do meet, a few beers (or Jägerbombs, or pretty much whatever alcoholic beverage is on hand), and you’re all friends from way back, bonding over the trials, tribulations and shared experiences of your trip. However, the one thing that I noticed we all had in common, besides the obvious love of living out of a backpack, was that there were certain truths, certain bits of wisdom, that we all wish we’d known before jetting off.
1. It’s okay to be scared
It’s a daunting thing to venture out into the big, wide world by yourself. If you haven’t traveled alone for an extended period of time, then you will never understand this feeling. Traveling with a friend or partner gives you a sense of security, a little reassurance that you will be okay. Even with the encouragement of friends and family, you just can’t seem to shake that nervous, anxious feeling. I’ve always traveled alone, and I’ve always known that I would make it out alive, have an amazing time, and meet fantastic people – but that first step is always a bit intimidating, for me at least. Just know that you are not alone in feeling this way, nor will you ever really be alone on your trip.
2. The necessities
This is one of my most important pieces of advice – and it’s one that you may not expect to read. But that being said, I feel it is my duty to impart on you my experience, to help you on your journey. ‘The necessities’ are not the two-weeks-worth of underwear, the socks, the T-shirts, and the hiking boots that your mum is ticking off the list. While those are definitely important items to pack, they are also things that can easily be purchased, borrowed, or replaced. What isn’t easy, is navigating a strange country and a strange language when you are sick and in need. Trust me, broken English and sign language will only get you so far. Now, I’m not suggesting that you become Dr. Quinn the Medicine Woman, but what I am suggesting is a little forethought. Broad spectrum antibiotics will be your best friend – trust me, kidney infections are not fun at the best of times, let alone when you’re stuck on a 20-hour overnight bus with a bunch of boys whose idea of medication is the vodka they smuggled onto the bus.
The same goes for anything that can help treat UTIs (who knew you could get those bad boys from swimming in hot springs!). Guys this one goes for you too. Never before have I seen a grown man cry as the result of a swimming pool, that is, until we were 3 days into a 4-day hike in Peru with no access to a pharmacy (or even an Amazonian medicine man) to offer relief for what was described to me as ‘the worst pain known to man’. And the last one, girls, is probably the most important, even if you don’t see it now – emergency contraception. I cannot stress enough how things just happen; maybe not on purpose, maybe not to you, but to someone, some poor girl who wasn’t prepared or isn’t quite sure of exactly what happened. And I can guarantee that the last thing any girl wants to do – the morning after or the night before, on the other side of the world, by themselves – is try to navigate the tricky world of emergency contraception in a country where more than just the language is different. Even if you never have to use it, I’d much rather be safe than sorry.
3. Do it your way
The big mistake I made leading into my last trip, was focusing too heavily on what other people had done or were doing. I was so concerned with ticking off all the places that I had seen others go to, determined to experience the same things, that I almost missed out on the joy of this being my trip, my adventure. Learn to trust in your own ideas, and listen to yourself; you know what you want to do, don’t compromise that. I did a lot more touristy stuff than others, and I loved every minute of it. After all, I may never again get the chance to board down the side of an active volcano, or jump off of a 100-meter bridge.
That being said, I did venture off the beaten track a lot more than I thought I would, and a lot more than my poor mother would have liked. I stayed in places longer than I had first imagined, or found that I disliked places I was sure I would love. But that’s the beauty of being by yourself, you get to make all the decisions. I understand the urge to plan, to have it all sorted – and trust me I’m a control freak. But there was something completely liberating about heading to Mexico, knowing that I wanted to finish in Bolivia, and having no idea of what I wanted to do in between. The things I learnt along the way and the amazing places and experiences I had, proved to me, beyond a doubt, that not everything in life needs to be planned.
4. Say yes
Now, I’m not suggesting that you forgo your sensibilities and do things that you consider dangerous or not well thought out; as girls, we do need to be careful, after all. But what I am suggesting is that you open yourself up to all the possibilities that traveling offers. Not many people get the chance to truly be free, to truly be whoever they want to be. Traveling allows that, and you will learn so much more about yourself when you push the boundaries and step outside of your comfort zone. Try new things, meet new people – it’s a big world, and you don’t get to explore it by saying no. You don’t surf? You’re scared? Let the locals in Costa Rica teach you, and I can guarantee you’ll be standing up by the end of the first hour. Never ridden a horse? Let the boy behind the bar take you on a ride to see the sunset on top of a volcano in Nicaragua. Dance salsa till the wee hours of the morning in downtown Cali, even if you don’t know how. That’s half the fun.
I cannot stress enough how saying ‘yes’ allows you to experience so much more; how being open to new people, new plans and new experiences will change your trip for the better. I cannot count the amount of times my plans changed with less than an hour’s notice. All of a sudden, I’d find myself and my backpack in the back of a truck with a bunch of travelers I just met, convinced to go someplace I’d never heard of over a cold beer.
5. Say hello
Something I learnt to do and do well, was make friends. As a girl traveling by myself, I didn’t have the luxury of a permanent friend, partner or travel buddy, I had to make an effort, each and every place I went, to meet new people. I wasn’t on a big group tour; there were no ready-made introductions. Sure, there were times when I just couldn’t be bothered, and was happy to spend a few days alone, but mostly, I wanted people to share my experiences with. I wanted to build memories with new people. This is a skill that will serve you well for the rest of your life. There have been so many times since being home that I have ended up in conversations about the most random things with total strangers, and I love every minute of it. Don’t be embarrassed to introduce yourself, don’t worry about feeling like you are interrupting or intruding; going places by yourself to make new friends is all a part of it. As cliché as it sounds, the people you meet while traveling will become life-long friends. It doesn’t matter where they live, they will come to hold a special place in your heart. Be confident, be brave, smile and say hello. It is that easy.
There will be low times; there will be times that you miss home so much that you want to get on the first flight back. There will be times that you just want a familiar face to turn to, and you are not alone in feeling like that, it’s normal to miss the familiar. But, what you need to remember is that you are just a phone call away, and that you are never alone unless you choose to be. Head down to the bar, get yourself a beer and say hello to the first person that walks past. After all, you’re all in it together, you’re all there for the same reasons, and, if nothing else, you have traveling in common. You are blessed to have the freedom to travel, and the things you are going to see will blow your mind. Be prepared, be ready to say yes – but most of all, have fun.