Traveling solo isn’t that unusual. People do it all the time (yes—even women!). And yet, I guess it’s not exactly the norm. Before setting out on their own, a lot of people wonder, “Is solo travel lonely?”
Here’s what I think.
I’ve been traveling around Peru by myself for three months now. Usually people here don’t look at me like I’m some freak, but occasionally, it comes up.
During a taxi ride across remote land to the salt mines near Cusco, the taxi driver asked me, “Estás viajando con amigos?” (“Are you traveling with friends?”)
“No,” I told him.
“Por que no?” (“Why not?”)
“Prefiero viajar sola.” (“I prefer to travel alone.”)
He shot me a perplexed look, then returned his eyes to the road.
I have had some friends tell me they don’t like solo travel because it’s sad to visit some famous landmark and then have no one to marvel at it with. In my experience, this isn’t true. I don’t see why something of beauty should lose its beauty merely because someone else isn’t there to witness it with me. Do I need someone else to validate my own experience? In fact, the experience may even increase in meaning because there are fewer distractions, fewer schedules to try to match, and I can take my time. I can soak it in completely.
Ask any solo traveler, and they’ll tell you the same thing: Though you’re traveling “alone,” you’re never truly alone. You will meet people at your hostel, on the bus, at different landmarks, at restaurants, on hikes. And people react to you differently when you’re by yourself; they approach you more often, they’re more eager to talk to you, and they’re more eager to help you.
Solo travel has opened up opportunities for me I never would have had if I’d been accompanied by someone. It’s forced me out of my shell. When I need to get something done, I have to do it myself. When I crave company, I have to go out and make friends. Like the time I was sitting alone in my hostel in Ollantaytambo, wishing I could talk to someone. So I went out to a restaurant where some Brazilians were gathered around a little TV set watching a World Cup match. We spoke to each other and told jokes in what little Spanish we knew, and I discovered that one of the Brazilians, like me, had lived in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Then there was the time I ate lunch at a restaurant in Ollantaytambo, and the manager approached me and asked if I’d like my own private tour of the organic farm from which my meal was produced.
Or the time I got an entire hotel resort in Urubamba to myself, taking peaceful walks with the hotel dogs and alpaca in the lush forest surrounding us.
Or the several times I’ve met complete strangers who soon became friends because, for whatever reason, it is so much easier to be yourself when you’re not surrounded by people who have known you for years and assume there’s nothing new to discover about you. With strangers, they actually take the time to listen to you because they aren’t trying to fit you into the box of “Person I Have Known For Years.” You get to start fresh.
Now, I’m not trying to make it sound like solo travel is without its struggles (goodness, what endeavor is?). Of course there are times when I wish I had someone to talk to, but then I go out and make friends, or I Skype with some back in the States. Of course I miss my friends and family, but even if I were traveling with a friend or family member, I would still miss others. And of course I enjoy traveling with friends and family, but I don’t expect to be accompanied all the time.
People are afraid of being alone; it’s why we constantly fiddle with our phones, why we don’t leave toxic relationships, why we huddle together in boxes stacked atop each other in congested cities, and sometimes, it’s why we never go on that dream trip.
I can tell you from my (limited) experience that traveling the world alone is not lonely; it is being back home with the people who think they know you, and realizing they actually don’t, that is one of the loneliest feelings in the world.
So yes, I am independent. And yes, I travel alone. And you know what? I wouldn’t have it any other way.