I deigned to travel Latin America a few years ago. I was unsure on my exact route (and still am). I was unsure on my duration of travel (and I still am). But I was certain that I would be travelling solo. It is the best decision I have ever made.
I began doing smaller trips on my own 5 years ago. People are often shocked or fearful when I recount my solo plans. Many have expressed an interest in doing the same, but are hesitant at the prospect of being alone for so long. I have compiled the blog that would have been useful for me when I felt the same, to debunk some common misconceptions about independent travel, give a heads up re the classic mistakes (I’ve made all of them, trust me), and provide a general checklist about what to prepare for.
A lot of what I have written about is the dark side of travelling. But disclaimer: my most cherished, affirming, exhilerating and deliciously chaotic times have all been when on the move. I could write a million odes to travel. I could give travel a big kiss on the mouth. This blog meerly aims to address the recurring concerns surrounding it. I have placed the more practical queries (packing, Covid and prep) towards the end for any first-time travellers to peruse at will.
How do I spend so much time alone?
Most travellers use the app ‘Hostelworld’ (obvious, but before myself and my best friend went on our Gap Year in Asia we had never heard of it). You can gage from the app how social different hostels are, and book them in accordance with your mood. If I desire time for myself, I use booking.com where there are often cheap deals on private rooms. If I want fun, I book a party hostel.
Route-planning is something that I can only really do with the guidance and recommendations of others. Honestly, I rarely route-plan alone; there is usually at least one other person – if not a congregated group – with whom to move on, and between us we can usually glean the next logical step. Otherwise, a quick Google of good destinations in your chosen country, a social media callout for advice and asking people in your hostel/locals of where they would recommend usually does the job.
However, when there is no one to unite and plan with, befriending yourself is beautiful! It is important to open ourselves to the sacred intuitions that are ordinarily overwhelmed by societal obligations (get a career, save up, buy groceries). Having time to read, write, listen to waves, and snuggle in hammocks is a gift. Falling in love with yourself is hard, but travelling alone is a special way to nourish the process.
Lo and behold, immediately after scribing this standing ovation for solo travel, I felt the lowest that I have on this trip. I had forgotten how to process the pain – I was so used to living in the present, without confronting future dangers. I craved the familiarity and physical closeness of my best friends. I was hostile to the earnest interaction of my roomies, and forced over-animated responses to them to compensate before retreating into my gloom.
This wasn’t the type of sadness to fizzle. It mutated and regenerated over the weeks.
My sad stint gave way to a determination to summarize how to overcome it for the purposes of this blog. Here goes:
The Love Languages model!
So simple. So naff. SO effective.
Originally intended to clarify methods of affirming communication in romantic relationships, the theory is perfectly applicable to solo travellers. There are 5 Love Languages: preferred enactments of intimacy by a partner so that our relationships hold strong.
OF COURSE, be your own partner.
As an example, one of my preferred love languages is Quality Time.
‘Quality Time here I come,’ I thought, slumped on a sofa in my hostel in Colombia, unwashed, in my pyjamas.
Then I sat there for a while, waiting to feel better. Astonishingly, I did not. Not even when I flicked through Instagram for 45 minutes, Not even when I watched Netflix. Not even when I wallowed in self pity.
I had overlooked the key word in my love language category: ‘quality’. If you were feeling sad, would you want your partner to sit beside you on their phone or laptop? Would that make you feel like they cared? Is that really time spent fulfillingly, or is it just time spent sat together being disconnected?
‘Quality time, Mia,’ I prompted, and rose from my despair. I showered, turned off my phone for 24 hours, bought myself an Oreo Frapuccino, then went on a 3-hour hike in the jungle. I listened to birdsong. I read my book in the sunshine. I wrote some blog. I dipped my toes in a waterfall basin.
Over the weeks, I learned to tune in to my self-care intuitions: following them became a priority. I relaxed into the idea that sometimes I wanted to distract myself with socialising or Facetimes, whilst other times I needed long walks alone with my headphones in. I avoided substances that I knew would incite negative emotions. One rainy Wednesday I even went shopping.
I nourished my soul, and it nourished me back. I jolted myself back into existence instead of scaling it with scorn. Sadness is not to be avoided; it cannot be. It is the indelible and tender bruise of our being. It is important not to expect too much of yourself; travelling does not vanquish trauma, emotional turbulence or hormones. It is simply worth the tumultuous ride. We can become engrossed in our present instead of our despair. We are not dismissing our sadness; we are feeding our joy instead.
If your love language is Acts of Service, will you fork out on a massage or plan and organise a trip for yourself somewhere special? If it is Words of Affirmation, will you write yourself a love letter in your journal? If it is Gift Giving, will you buy yourself that organic chocolate or that bracelet? You will feel better with time, adventure and phone chats with loved ones.
Language and Culture
Most countries in Latin America use Spanish. Learn some Spanish before you go if you are heading to this part of the world, or as soon as possible when out here.
It is a colonial legacy that English people expect everyone to cater to us by speaking English. In countries such as Colombia, where schools have been closed for 21 months, is learning the native tongue of people from the other side of the world so that they may ‘serve’ us adequately likely to be their priority? I spent the day with a couple of English girls who barked at locals as though they were vermin for not speaking English… in their own, non-English country. I am sure both girls posted a black square on their Instagrams in ‘support’ of Black Lives Matter. I am sure that both of them pertain to oppose white supremacy. Nevertheless, they overlooked their own racism that manifested as grotesque arrogance.
‘Do none of you know how to speak English?’ one of them hissed at a waiter (I translated their orders for them, so I am unsure as to why that was a problem).
This is where comparisons may be drawn between backpacking culture and colonialism. Are we not enacting our colonial privilege as (generally) white, (generally) wealthy citizens who can sweep – at times visa-lessly – across the globe, and expect to be served and pedestalled all the while? When these rich, unique cultures are comodified for Western consumption, their very essence is warped to cater to our tastes and demands. When international communities – many of them swathed in poverty – come to rely financially on the backpacker’s coke-dusted banknote, then the very ‘exotic essence’ that we seek becomes fragmented and regurgitated to convene our preferences. In ‘culturing’ ourselves, we steal actual culture from those who have a profound right to it. And they depend on us. In fact, we may advocate for global economic equality whilst participating in activities that rely on its obverse. And here, the colonial power dynamic is perpetuated.
For an insight into the nuances of the white-saviour travel slant and how it might be subverted, I found this article useful: What Does it Mean to Decolonize Travel? | Bitch Media
I acknowledge the hypocrisy of writing a blog promoting travelling whilst condemning us travellers. But we can enact less problematic travelling, by language-learning, shopping locally and not treating locals like shite (because apparently some people do need to be told this).
- Spanish schools in Guatemala in particular are notoriously cheap . For me, ‘La Orbita’ on Lake Atitlan was the best one I attended, with a gorgeous view to match.
- I stayed with host families when studying so that I was completely immersed in Spanish. No English allowed. It was hard but so beneficial.
- In Antigua, I was studying for 6 hours per day. My brain was so frazzled by the evenings that I could not engage in conversation with the family. 3-4 hours is my personal limit. Learning a language is an immense mental workout. It is tempting to cram in as much as possible, but be sure to give yourself processing breaks.
- It is also possible to have online lessons via Guatemalan Spanish schools, which I would again recommend prior to your departure. They have fair prices, and have struggled since Covid has meant a plummet in demand for lessons. Give them a use instead of someone in the UK! (La Orbita website: Learn Spanish in Guatemala | Spanish Courses with Orbita Spanish School)
- I recommend using the app ‘Quizlet’ to make flashcards and learn vocabulary.
Travelling as a girl
Female travellers will get sexually assaulted when travelling. I have been wanked at, forced into a dark tunnel and groped, had my crotch grabbed in the street as a younger girl whilst holding my mum’s hand, been publically and non-consentially dry-humped, and been stalked. The bare minimum is being ogled, catcalled or ‘gently’ followed. I have friends who have been raped, spiked, or both when away.
I intentionally avoid sugarcoating this reality. Some female travellers will chime about their continuous safety when voyaging. This is a dangerous lie (and one of my pet peeves – don’t be such a fucking Pick Me Girl). If you are one of these women, please stop feigning infinite safety; some people carry unimaginable trauma, and should be genuinely advised that traveling alone could be triggering.
I try to diminish these risks by staying in more public places when wandering alone, covering up in dangerous areas, not accepting too many open drinks from others (or at least watching them be purchased), being generally sensible with my substance intake and trying to disassociate from creepy men (cos duh). SIM cards are also a good idea so that you are not without a communication facilitator. Take the same precautions as you would on a night out, but on a more permanent basis.
But I cannot always be stringent with these measures, without compromising my enjoyment. Honestly, I haven’t been harrassed or assaulted here any more than I was in Manchester (which is a backhanded compliment to the world). It is not your fault if something happens. Just do what you can to be careful.
Travelling During Covid
Queries relating to the feasibility of Covid-inflicted travel are my most received. In what is already a daunting venture, a pandemic throws ethical and practical curveballs. It seems a little backward to travel in a country with poor healthcare, whilst clubbing and sleeping in dorm rooms. However, most of the countries that I have visited have paid little heed to Covid in comparison to their Western counterparts. Shops, clubs and restaurants are generally open out here irrespective of Omicron. In Guatemala there were curfews (the clubs closed at 9pm so we arrived at 6:30pm… a first for me). Even with said curfew, I attended a 2-day techno festival that finished at 6am both nights. I have never felt fun-starved.
There are obvious considerations: is it justifiable to galavant about countries in which you could be inadvertantly spreading Covid to poorer communities? I am hesitant to push my thoughts on this – it depends on your own valuation of the pandemic. But I will posit that many of the locals that I have spoken to have been very grateful for the rise in tourism, since the economic plunge that they have endured during Covid was due in large part to dwindling backpackers. Again, see above for the problematic nature of this dependency. But I have never felt that locals have been avoiding the activities in which myself and my fellow backpackers have been partaking – many dorm-bed dwellers are natives, and clubs and treks are often comprised of locals too. I therefore feel less like a burden; I am not forcing the continuation of any activities with which the locals are not seemingly comfortable.
Countries vary in their Covid-related entry requirements. Alas, my ambition of minimising air travel has been floored by the closure of many land borders, which means that the only way to journey between countries is flying. It is absolutely necessary to check prior to departure the Covid requirements for your destination; you will be refused entry to the flight if, for example, the country requires a negative Covid test and you fail to provide one. It is a ballache to organise a test beforehand, especially in Latin American countries where even professional organisations are VERY haphazard. Having my vaccines has usually been sufficient for entry into countries for me, but I know that Brazil and Ecuador where I plan to go in the next few months require entry tests. Planning ahead is the best way to minimise stress as you go.
The general sentiment of my friends back home in the UK has been that it has been another really difficult year for them. I promise that if you come out here, your Covid outlook and anxiety with be altered.
What to pack:
Let’s end at the very beginning.
- Pack light. Ensure that your bag is not full when you leave. You will shed clothes (20% by choice, 80% due to accidental loss) but you will probably collect more than you misplace/abandon.
- Pack a folder, with all of your most important possessions in (passport, Covid vaccine documents, complete list of your vaccinations, bank cards, cash, etc). Ensure that you lock this away at every hostel, and keep it in a seperate bag to your main rucksack.
- In this seperate bag, store all of your other valuables too – especially your electricals. When you get on buses, your big rucksack gets stored in the storage space below the passenger section. People could take your bag if their stop is before yours. When I was in Mexico, I retrieved my big rucksack at the end of the trip to find that someone had undone all of its compartments to scour for valuables. Thankfully, I had them all on my lap for the trip’s duration in a smaller rucksack.
- Bring a padlock. Keep both its keys safe. (In Mexico I locked both keys inside my locker and had to get a locksmith to come open it for me. Don’t be a Mia).
- Bring a bum bag. Handbags/open bags make for easy targets for thieves. I met a boy who put his bumbag – filled with passport, bank cards and cash – by his feet during a bus journey, and when he retrieved it someone had crawled under his seat and removed all of his valuables from inside. Actually wear your bumbag.
- Get travel insurance.
- Check on all of the required vaccinations for your trip in advance, and get them. I recommend getting your rabies jabs, although they too are expensive.
- I also did not pack a towel; you can nearly always rent fresh ones in hostels, or get them for free.
- Bring 3 debit or credit cards. Also, don’t use Halifax – they have been useless about getting a new card to me. Revolut seems to be the predominant favourite.
Above all, allow yourself the life that you had hoped for. Allow yourself some turmoil, fuck ups and I’ve-achieved-nothing days. Allow yourself the space to explore your own preferences and boundaries alongside your ventures in the physical. Travelling alone means opening yourself to the diverse landscapes of your soul; submit to the challenge.