I said I loved traveling alone and I lied

I met Juan Diego in Colombia; we haven´t become particularly close as he likes to keep to himself – but after talking to him a couple of times, something clicked together in my head.

Diego has walked hundreds and thousands of miles across South America, camping in the wild, playing his flute and admiring landscapes. He is a biologist and loves to watch nature, knows everything about plants and loves his calm – he is not much of a party maker. He didn´t prepare, save up and plan for every minute of his journeys – he didn´t speak much of it, he just set on the road. Alone.

Doesn´t he need company? you might wonder, same as I did. Apparently not. He stays clear of other people and keeps to himself. He doesn´t talk nearly as much as I do, he doesn´t feel the need. I, on the other hand, need to get my daily dose of blablablabing or otherwise it strikes on my mood. Juan Diego, for me, is a hardcore traveler. I have walked across mountains so I am familiar with that kind of pain, but let me tell you –

the company of other people has always been a great help when it comes to putting one foot in front of the other and making this neverending chain of steps lead somewhere.

Everyone should travel solo…or?

Nowadays, everyone will tell you to travel alone, be it a fortune cookie, fortune teller, your hippie aunt or your best friend. Plus, of course, all the 354 intrepid travel blogerinas you follow on instagram (because they have mastered the art of taking a selfie without it looking like a selfie) will second that. Because, let´s be honest, to leave your porch and walk ahead fearless makes you feel like Xena, the princess warrior, and that´s a hell of a good feeling, am I right? Sure I am.

Solo travel gets praised from many sides and for many reasons. You get to decide what you do and when you do it, you can eat and sleep wherever you like or not at all, you get a huge amount of me-time when you don´t have to change your plans because of others and obviously, leaving behind the people who have known you for years gives you a shiny new opportunity to be whoever you want. Although I doubt that Juan Diego was thinking of any of these; he is not an egoist. He simply likes to be alone.

Port of Santa Marta, Colombia
Port of Santa Marta, Colombia

Is solo travel about big egos?

I agree that one shouldn´t resign on his or her travel plans only because they do not have a suitable travel buddy; however, I myself have set on several journeys by myself, ending up meeting my husband, learning (or attempting to learn) new languages and skills, completely changing my life vision and mixing up my priorities set.

However, I have also come to wonder if the aura of sanctity that is forming around (especially female) solo travel is a result of our highly individualized society which values one´s own ego over the sense of community – although I am sure many solo travelers would give me a slap in the face upon hearing that. Anyhow, even if it is so, it doesn´t necessarily have to be a bad thing – (more than) a little bit of emancipation would certainly make many (wo)men happier and more fulfilled (empowered, to use a more fashionable word) in their lives.

Read more: 5 weirdest places I slept at when traveling

On the other hands, my happiest moments on and off the road have always been connected with the company of other special human beings. Leaving my home on my own has been a much needed nudge for me to connect with strangers and create fleeting acquaitances same as some strong bonds. I would strike up random conversation with people on trains. I would cook with strangers. I´d have a blast sharing stories with whoever liked to have a laugh with me. I´d feel sad when I´d have no one to turn to and say – wow, look at that beauty!

Now I understand why my friends were shaking their heads, thinking I´m weird. I only told them half of the truth. Because, as much as I love slamming the door behind me and walking towards the horizon on my own, I would hate to have a lonely dinner more than three days in a row.

How it all began: Camino de Santiago

When I was twenty years old, I packed my 80 (!) liters backpack full of unnecessary stuff and, clutching a blue hardback copy of Paulo Coelho´s Pilgrimage in my hands, I set on a journey of thousand steps that would lead me closer to enlightenment and wisdom – or so I hoped. While I haven´t reached any higher spiritual state in Spain, I learned that there were people willing to befriend you literally everywhere; one of my best friends from the road is an Italian guy I´ve spent one day with in A Coruna, after meeting in the bus in the morning and before taking our respective flights back home. Making friends on the Camino is somewhat similar to making them in the kindergarten – it is the easiest thing ever.

The Camino de Santiago is a place where many people walk alone and it is easy to explain why you don´t want any company walking it – after all, a pilgrimage is a spiritual enterprise and you are supposed to have some kind of an inner goal that pushes you forward – there is even some kind of elitism, saying that you shouldn´t walk it just because you “like hiking”. (Bullshit. You should walk it no matter what, the scenery is divine enough for everyone.) It is also a community – really, it is a community more than anything else – of people who want to share with, help out and fend for each other in all kinds of difficult situations. I have never seen so much harmony among people – the St. James´ way remains in my memory as a place where the universe is just perfect as it is.

This travel buddy never gets tired.
This travel buddy never gets tired.

Fast forward to 2014, Colombia.

It is october and I am spending my week off on the Caribbean coast – my boyfriend couldn´t leave work at that time and my colleagues never made it out of Bogotá where we work, or were too shy (and scared of rumors and my boyfriend) to tell me they will also be in the area. I am visiting the Tayrona natural park and spending the rest of the time in Palomino, reading 100 Years of Solitude and Brave New World and discussing literature with my newly found friend from Tunisia who is a true gentleman, showing a lot more interest in my opinions about Marquez than in my boobs. Which, considering the size of my bra, is truly impressive.

Read more: No, you can not travel for “free”. Here is why.

On the other hand, when I visited Ayutthaya (Thailand), I was taking my time to photograph the temples, collected some lucky clovers and kept close to the only other lone person in sight in hopes to strike up a conversation and make friends to share the wonderful place with. (I didn´t succeed.) That night, I packed my bag and took a night train to the north, in hopes of meeting someone new there, someone to hang out with. Ayutthaya was a place of high interest for me as I have learned about it in my prior studies, but I haven´t enjoyed it half as much as walking&talking across some God forgotten villages in the middle of Spanish nowhere. When I think of those temples, I always remember the loneliness first.

You see, it is a cliché but it is true that you cannot achieve happiness without sharing with the others.

Read more: Exploring the ghost village of Kayaköy

Or, I´d better say, I cannot.

The practical side of having a travel buddy

Happiness though is not the only thing to achieve when traveling; sometimes, plain surviving is also on the menu.

On a more prosaic note, I will share one more experience with you today.

In the summer of 2013, I was having the time of my life hitchhiking around in Cambodia with my brand new boyfriend, now my husband. Unfortunately, a couple of days after arriving to the capital of Phnom Penh, I contracted the dengue virus and was limited to sighing and sweating in the breaks between vomiting and crawling to and from the bathroom during long, painful days. If it weren´t for the kindness of my companion, I would probably have died of dehydration and kidney infection at some point – he was the one who convinced me go to the hospital, brought all my stuff along and made sure I ate something every day. (I have to shamefully admit that I was a far worse nurse when he got the virus some years later.) I think you don´t need me to spell out the conclusion of it.

Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, 2016
Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, 2016

While I think it is useful to push your limits and leave your comfort zone, I have come to a realization that the company of other people is something that enhances the overall feeling, not the other way around. Most of my friends do not share my vision of a perfect trip and I understand it – not everyone is excited about drinking a 60 cents worth glass of borovička in a bar that used to be a public bathroom in its youth. I am certainly equally unimpressed by a offer of a week at a resort and it is perfectly fine that way.

Read more: Why do women hike naked?

Still, somehow…I do love to travel with my partner. Traveling with him has made me bold enough to hitchhike, stay in sleazy places and walk into risky zones in search of a karaoke. (Oh, wait, I have a history of wandering into red lights districts all by myself, forget about that one.) I used to say I´d never want to stop traveling on my own, but have found out I miss my husband when he´s not around, not because there´s no chance of meeting other interesting people, but because I enjoy and value his company. I surely do want to go on some trips alone in the future (I don´t think it is healthy to be together 24/7) but at the same time, I love the lack of weird comments and sexual harassment and have gotten used to it very quickly. Thanks to traveling with a man, I was also allowed to experience situations that would be normally out of reach for a female – not that I would not want to sit, eat dog meat, drink beer and dance with Cambodian policemen who let us hang our hammock at their station, but I think we all can agree that the Cambodian society is more sexist than their traditional stories of smart women suggest.

What would be the main point of this essay, then?

Well, there are several; first, to travel alone is enjoyable if you are not alone for the most part, at least for me. Second, being a couple makes hitchhiking easy and safe and I love that. Third, traveling with a man (sadly) feels more comfortable for a young woman I am (until your boyfriend gets an offer to exchange you for two fifteen years old girls who surely are more fit and tanned than I will ever be). Fourth, having a friend by your side, be it a woman or a man, is extremely helpful when you are fighting an injury or a disease.

Along with all of that, applying for a Couchsurfing spot as a couple filters most of the weirdos quite successfully, but let´s not start that one now.

Read more: Why Being a Long Term Traveler Sometimes Sucks (at www.likeridingabicycle.com)

What is your experience? Do you love to travel alone ALONE?  Have you tried to travel with friends from your home or do you prefer to find someone to share the journey with on the spot?

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Everyone says traveling alone is wonderfull, especially for girls. Or at least, all the female travel bloggers say so. I have had my share of solo travel and I enjoyed myself - except I only enjoyed myself when I was surrounded by people. Read my travel essay on why I no longer yearn to travel alone.
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  1. I think you’re extremely right and I feel exactly the same way. I’m in the editing stages of an article about what long-term travel would mean for me (in terms of companionship). I’ve both lived abroad and traveled quite a bit, and coming home and having the people I meet have an extremely dissimilar spirit to those I met while on the road, had me longing for an extension of those fleeting connections. It doesn’t help that I’m generally above-average when it comes to the “keeping in touch” skill, so when I reach out and people I’ve met on the road (understandably) don’t reach back – it starts to feel hopeless. I love travelling, and I’ll continue going on trips- solo or not- because I simply *have to.*

    • It is difficult to find a companion that has the same passions as you – but when you have them, travel is amazing. I am also sad about many acquaintances that have remained only that as I have hoped to keep in touch with more of them than what I actually do – but what can we do…anyway, thank you for commenting!

  2. Meg

    I loved this.

    I have travelled alone and been fine and I have travelled alone and felt crushing loneliness. And it’s hard to accept that sometimes, but I tell myself to be realistic and remind myself to try to embrace the full arc of emotion that comes with doing what I want to do (i.e. travelling to places by myself).

    I agree that when you are alone you are rarely lonely as I find myself also making the effort to talk to strangers in a way that I would never do in my home environment. I like how travel almost forces me to break down my barriers and seek out interaction with others. But, on the flip side, there are times when I fail at this for whatever reason and I must use it as a experience to bolster my self-esteem and confidence and say ‘hey, you’re ok by yourself after all’ and keep travelling.

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  4. Love this article. As always, something different to the mainstream. Solo travel seems to be a real trend at the moment, which as you say is great, but getting to experience all the magic with someone else is incredible. I love travelling with my wife, and whilst, like you, I’m sure we will still do our own thing at some points, having someone special to share the good AND the bad with is priceless.

  5. Lucia

    mne by bolo smutno, lebo ja stale potrebujem rozpravat a preto by som asi zosalela, vydrzat len so svojimi myslienkami! 😀 ale z chrisa ma obcas ide porazit ked sme na dovolenke takze si hovorim vzdy ked sa pohadame ze konec, nabuduce ta necham doma! ale viem ze to nikdy nenastane.

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  8. This is a really great article, I’ve read this a few times now and it always brings about certain emotions.

    I only recently started travelling alone and absolutely love it, but as you said sometimes just eating alone day in and out can prove to be lonely.

    Personally I’m used to dealing with excessive solitude (for one I’m an only child)!

    Sometimes I do wonder if this individualistic pursuit is healthy; be it to feed your ego or preserve your sanity.

    Your writing is absolutely captivating and thought provoking!

    • Awwww, thank you so much! I feel very honored by what you say! I am happy to hear that you can relate to my writing; I think it is important to just do what one feels fits best with their personality – some people enjoy solitude less, some more, but I don´t think the “go alone” advice is equally good for everyone…

  9. I used to swear by traveling alone and I still for the most part do, except that now I have a wife and two kids, so I can’t really travel alone, and I have adapted, and also love traveling with them.

    One of the reasons I always loved traveling alone and this is how I visited more than 30 countries is that I had so many bad experiences traveling with others. I had people latch on to me that I couldn’t get rid of. Almost broke up with ex on the road. Sacrificed places I wanted to visit because my companions didn’t want to. Found that I was constantly waiting for others or debating where to eat out. And so on.

    I don’t agree with you that you need to be with others to appreciate a place fully. I always found that alone I could take things in more thoroughly and peacefully, and focus on the energy of the place rather than of the person I was with. This doesn’t mean I didn’t get lonely though, and I had various ways to cope with that. One was to spend a lot of evening time online writing long emails to close friends and family at home (I guess I prefer talking to old friends over strangers), another was to drink, listen to music on headphones, and dance alone (or sometimes cry) in my rooms, or to think endlessly and past memories and upcoming plans with loved ones.

    I also wonder what effect being a solo male traveler has on it? For example, I had a hell of a time finding anybody to accept any of my CS requests, other travelers just about never randomly approach me or talk to me, and I am a soft-spoken/borderline shy kind of person, so I am not big on randomly trying to chat up others, either. I’m not complaining (boo hoo, I’m a privileges white male…) but I’m just saying that solo females travelers get approached way way more (in negative and positive ways), while I found that if I didn’t make a point of talking to others, I could go days or weeks on end without having a single meaningful conversation beyond buying stuff from locals or random locals asking me where I was from.

    I think it highly depends on the place too. On my last big trip alone I traveled to more than 10 countries mostly in the Middle East, where other travelers were pretty sparse. It seemed like everywhere I went, there were only couples or people from other countries that I somehow just couldn’t develop any connection with. So over time, I figured I might as well just avoid other travelers entirely, and enjoy meeting more local people. But after months of that, I got immensely lonely and just wanted to like…have a girlfriend or go back home or something. It was a weird mixture of feeling. So I guess now I have mixed feelings overall about the topic of traveling alone. I don’t really know which is better, but they are certainly very different. Definitely I would say that traveling with a suitable travel partner is a great thing, but not easy to find, and for me many of those short meaningless conversations with other travelers are not very important to me (certainly there is value in developing connections with random people, but it just didn’t happen to me often enough for it to be worth it). I love traveling with my family now and it’s a different kind of fun, but sometimes I wish I could just go off on a week or month on my own again and enjoy a bit of silence, kill an afternoon doing exactly what I want to do, and meditate in the forest like that get you met in Colombia

    Thanks for the thought-provoking piece!

  10. Really enjoyed reading this! I am a big introvert, which is why I love traveling alone, but that doesn’t mean I’m lonely for the whole trip. People think that being an introvert means you’re shy or hate people, but it does NOT mean that at all! I’m actually pretty comfortable with striking up a conversation with anyone I feel like, and make friends easily. For me, being an introvert means that as much time as I spend arond other people, I have to spend ore time by myself gaining the energy back that socializing drained from me. So I love to travel alone and do my own thing, but always end up making friends on the road and talking to random fellow travelers. I prefer it that way – the people you meet while traveling always seem a lot cooler than the people you meet back home.

    • I know what you are talking about! I also need my alone time, that I usually use writing and going through my photos and get quite upset when somebody is disturbing me. I like meeting locals and other travelers too, I find it a lot easier to connect on the road than elsewhere 🙂 Thank you for stopping by and reading! I really appreciate that you took the time to write this comment.

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