I have been traveling the world solo for many years and to lots of different destinations. When asked, I’m the first person to sit up and spout the benefits of solo travel: you can go anywhere you want anytime you feel like it, you have complete freedom, you change your plans on a whim. But the greatest benefit of traveling alone that I willingly promote is that traveling alone hardly ever means that – you end up meeting a plethora of like-minded individuals and traveling together with all sorts of people from a day to weeks at a time.
Regardless, I always have the same set of fears before I set off on a trip with regard to the aspect of doing it by myself. What if I don’t meet up with anyone when I get there? What if I’m forced to spend days and weeks alone without anyone to talk to? What if I get robbed and there’s no-one to help? What about eating meals in restaurants alone? I had these exact questions in the week or so leading up to my flight to Lima.
It’s not like I had actually really planned this trip to begin with. As some of you know, I suffered a serious personal loss and I wasn’t myself anymore. I’d lost purpose and focus. Travel is what I always have turned to in similar situations to feel better. So it seemed like the right thing to do. Though given my already precarious and fragile emotional state, my concerns regarding traveling solo were more acute this time around. How would I handle my anxiety? What if I felt really sad and was crying with no-one to talk to? Memories of South America, 2009 came flooding back. While I’d had a good trip, my tears could have filled a swimming pool. I had a broken heart after a relationship ended a few months before my departure from the States.
I didn’t want to repeat that.
Nevertheless, despite the fear, I decided to proceed with the fear not because of it. I said goodbye to my boyfriend and my house and I got on a plane (well, 4 planes actually) and flew to Huaraz, Peru.
It wasn’t long before my fears were allayed. Upon arriving at the tiny Huaraz airport, I discovered that the transport I’d arranged to get to my hostel hadn’t shown up. 3 girls from Germany very kindly offered to share their transport with me, and before I knew what was happening, I’d made 3 friends with whom I’d go on an acclimatization hike with the next day. And I did. They were great – and it was the perfect segway to my getting up the courage to book my 4-day and 10-day treks that I’ve since written about. Incidentally, my German girlfriends had invited me along on their Cordillera Huayhuash experience, but since it was twice as expensive and only 8 days in length, I’d politely declined.
So all was well.
Until I got back from the trek.
I arrived back to my hostel on Saturday night and was perfectly happy spending Sunday resting and recovering. In fact, I did go out and have a celebratory dinner with the Polish-French Canadian couple from the trek that day. However, the following day I left for Ecuador and I’ve been alone most of the time ever since.
Monday set up that classic set of fears one has traveling alone (especially as a woman.) I thought I’d devised an ingenious way of getting to Cuenca, Ecuador whilst avoiding 3 days/nights of buses, which is what it would take to travel overland. I decided to fly to Lima, then fly to the northernmost city in Peru that has an airport, Piura, and then figure out a bus across the border from there.
All was going well until I got to Piura. The woman at the airport told me there were two companies that could get me across the border and they both had night buses, however, that night buses were not safe for women traveling alone, plus crossing the Peruvian/Ecuador border was quite “peligroso” as she put it to begin with. Not really wanting to spend a night in this town, I left for the bus terminals by taxi undeterred.
I was faced with a dilemma: take an uncomfortable night journey with a non-reclining bus seat through the “safe” border, or a “semi-cama” reclining seat on a better bus through the “dangerous” border. Just when I was starting to feel quite anxious as I was trying to keep an eye on all 3 pieces of my luggage attached to various parts of my person at all times (the number one most annoying aspect of traveling alone – having to keep track of your bags at ALL times, INCLUDING! ALWAYS having to take all your luggage into the bathroom with you…ugh!) my eyes laid down on two gringos also in line for tickets! Someone who spoke English that I could talk to!
As it turned out: Gustavo and Javi were Chileans but spoke fluent English. Gustavo was also unusually fair skinned with red hair, and so forgave me for assuming he was Scandinavian or Scottish. After about an hour of debate and lugging bags back and forth between the two bus companies, we all decided to take the better bus and worse border crossing combo. Gustavo and Javi were staying with the bus straight through to Guayaquil, however, the additional issue was that I’d have to change buses in Machala and we’d be arriving there around 4:30am in the dark. Since Peruvian travel agencies would NEVER take it upon themselves to have more information on hand than is necessary to do the bare minimum required for their job, no-one had a clue about when the first bus might be to Cuenca from Machala. I might be waiting around for hours. Alone. In the dark. With my luggage.
Screw it, I could deal.
I can’t tell you what a delight it was to hang out with Gustavo and his girlfriend Javi for that hour or so that night. They were so wonderfully conversational, involved, enthusiastic and funny. We had dinner at a seafood place and I was thrilled to finally have some ceviche before I left Peru! It was scrumptious, but soon enough – we were sitting in our designated half-bed (not really) bus seats and drifting off to sleep. That is, until the border crossing – which turned out to be completely benign and the 3 of us giggled as we filled in our forms half-asleep and I dealt with a particularly offensive banana explosion in my backpack.
That moment of fear returned when we arrived in Machala and I got kicked off the bus. Gustavo was so sweet getting off with me very quickly to enquire about next buses. He looked at me and pointed across a very dark 4 lane street to a fruit stand where a handful of shady characters were standing around and said “That’s where they say the bus to Cuenca stops. He says there should be one in half and hour. Good luck!”
And that was that.
I swallowed hard, held my head high, and walked with my 3 pieces of bodily-attached luggage in the dark hours of the early morning and sat down next to the shady fruit stand and tried to appear very confident that the bus was coming any moment. I even got up the nerve to buy some drinking yogurt. Luckily, they use the US Dollar in Ecuador… Even more luckily – a bus to Cuenca came within 15 minutes and I was saved from having to continue to put on a brave face when I really just wanted to cry.
I spent all day on Tuesday in Cuenca. There was literally no-one in my darling little hotel, La Casa Cuencana, and after a little nap, I wandered the streets of the city for hours and then ate my first Ecuadorian meal alone.
I took a photo of it.
Cause that’s what you do when you’re eating alone when you’re traveling!
Cuenca was a beautiful little city – and recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. However, no matter how much I enjoyed the architecture, or the ambience of the central park and cathedral, and even smiled at the crowds of happy families and amorous couples enjoying the festivities of Corpus Christi (where, apparently, we devoutly remember the gift Christ gave us with his sacrifice by pounding our faces at hourly intervals with sweets, donuts, chocolate, and ice cream)- I felt completely alone. And lonely.
I believe there is a difference between the two, and I felt both.
The following morning, I was convinced I’d meet up with some cool people. Maybe taking in a musem in Cuenca? Maybe on the bus to Alausi? (I was heading up north to ride the famous Nariz Del Diablo train)
But no. I walked around the city again, this time in a light drizzle, visiting the medical museum (recommended by a friend because it was super creepy, and she was right) and the town market where I ate fresh pork sliced off an entire roasted pig together with pico de gallo and potatoes for 2 bucks. Then I caught a taxi and a bus to Alausi. The bus was packed, and I don’t know why – but of the 3 buses I’ve taken so far in Ecuador – I have each time ended up with an indigenous woman with a newborn attached to her back sitting next to me. Which is fine, I’m glad she got a seat, except that I’m sorry to report, the clothes these women wear, whilst very attractive in color, have not seen the inside of a washing machine, or tub for that matter in months or years. At one point today, I had to stick my head out of the window because I thought I was going to hurl from the horrendous odor.
So I got to Alausi and had another scary experience worsened by my being alone. The bus “dropped me off” on the edge of town without driving into the center. It was dark, around 7pm, and there were no taxis, just a lot of people staring at me as I asked directions to the center of town. I had to walk for about 15 minutes down a very steep hill with my luggage bouncing along in front of me. Still no taxis. Got yelled at by some drunk guy.
The whole atmosphere of the place was worsened by the kind of dense fog that would make John Carpenter proud. I was feeling kinda stupid for coming all this way to ride a train where I wouldn’t even be able to make out the tracks let alone any scenery from the carriage window. And then I did something I almost never do – I walked straight to what seemed like the first clean, nice, well-lit hostal I could see.
Hosteleria Verana was lovely. I almost cried I was so happy when I was offered a room with private shower for $15. The lovely owner, who had just laid out dinner for her kids, offered me a plate of the same with an ice cold beer. Spinach soup, Beef with potatoes. I was so happy to feel safe again, I forgot my loneliness.
This morning I rode the train (will write about this more later) and did meet a very nice American man who is teaching English as a second language in Colombia, and two Taiwanese friends touring South America. We chatted briefly, but all left quickly after to return to Quito and Cuenca respectively.
And so, I got on another bus, with another indigenous woman co-passenger, and then repeated this step after changing buses via taxi in Riobamba and arrived in Banos today around 5pm.
I will admit that I cried when I got into my room at the little Planta Y Blanca hostel. I feel so lost. The weather is matching my mood with rain and large, dark grey clouds looming above. I was so lonely, I decided I needed a massage – if only to feel some human touch.
Feeling a little better, I went in search of a good restaurant for dinner. After having sat down, I noticed another traveler eating by himself. Taking a deep breath for courage, I approached and asked if I might join him. “I’d rather you didn’t,” was his response.
Ok. That’s fine. How could I assume anything – he might have had a bad day himself.
Even so, I was so glum when I ordered my food. What is going on? I never have these issues when I travel solo! What kind of sad vibe am I giving off that no-one wants to engage? Oh God: I’m bringing this on myself through the laws of attraction! I came to Banos to go hiking, mountain biking and visit the thermal pools. But I don’t want to do any of those things by myself. I have no motivation.
And then…3 very young Americans walked in and allowed me to join them. They are so sweet and fun and innocent (ranging in age from 19-22.) Tomorrow we will go bike riding together.
I hope for now, the spell is broken and I’ll start liking solo travel again.