My first trip to Mexico, a short weekend trip of about three days, was with a friend who was visiting from Connecticut. We hitchhiked to Rocky Point, a Mexican resort city on the Gulf of California—a four-hour drive from my home in Tucson, Arizona. Neither of us had ventured outside of the United States before. It was this trip that inspired me to travel further afield. I realized that being out of the United States was not a threat to survival but was an education. The trip was my initiation into other worlds and other countries. It gave me the courage to leap forward, and since then about 50% of my travel has been by myself.
In traveling solo, I have learned a few things which I will elaborate on in this article. Traveling by yourself is a self-discovery, helping you understand more about who you are and what you enjoy. It also allows you learn more about the people you meet. It opens up worlds that you might not have encountered had you traveled with friends or a partner. You have the choice of quiet contemplation or dancing with new friends all night long. You set the pace. I encourage people I meet to try it, it is truly “down time,” or time unplugged from all that is demanding attention back home.
1. It Breaks Stereotypes
I receive a lot of comments when I discuss my travels. Last night at a friend’s house, after registering some shock at my bravery (her word), a visiting American woman asked me how safe the road was. She knew I currently live in a town three-and-a-half hours from my friend’s house in Alamos, Mexico. What I told her is emblematic of what my experience is. Keep your eyes open for cows and horses, and you will be fine. Many people suggest you drive in the daytime. The reason is not bandits. It is truckers, who drive a bit wildly, and cows. The area where I live is a ranching community, and there is an open range law. That is, the cows have the right of way. It is referred to as roaming in Mexico, and indeed the critters do roam.
That same night, a friend told me a story of a couple who drove into Mexico for the first time, had a flat tire, and were surrounded by a group of men within seconds. The man in the couple started screaming about being robbed until he realized the men were fixing the tire. He was a bit mortified, but the couple has returned to Mexico year after year since. They understand the kindness of the Mexicans. So, what is essential is to keep in check your expectations and fears. That is the secret to traveling anywhere, as a solo woman traveler or any other way.
I have always enjoyed the idea of giving others a sense of empowerment. Stereotypes do not empower, they take away any sense of being able to do something different, something outside of what is accepted by a peer group. The option of challenging preconceived notions of what a woman can do or should do has always been a fun journey for me. Taking this path has opened up possibilities that many dream of but don’t allow themselves to do. So, let’s end the idea and stereotype that women can’t travel by themselves. There is so much out there to see.
2. Traveling Alone Provides Peace and Quiet
When I first traveled solo in Mexico, I was in my early 30s and took a bus into the mountains. The town was tiny and had more pigs and donkeys than people. This was another instance of a trip only whetting my appetite for more. In addition to being able to see the country through my eyes only, I noticed how new everything looked to me. How fresh and exciting even the most mundane items looked. When I rejoined friends after my journey into the mountains, I realized how relaxed I felt and how a yearning for quiet that I had not known I had was satisfied. After this trip, I deliberately traveled at least half of the time by myself. Notice I don’t say alone. There is a difference between traveling alone and by yourself. I don’t feel alone when I travel, and if I don’t want to be alone, I don’t have to be. No matter where I have traveled, there are always people willing to try an adventure with a stranger.
Whether sitting on a mountain top in southern Mexico or in the “White Garden” in Sissinghurst Castle, quiet is precious in a very busy world. The opportunity that quiet and the peace of solitude offer is to come to understand what is most important. This quiet allows us to grow as people. It also allows imagination to bloom and develop. Without time alone to imagine and think, we do not have the opportunity to put daily life into perspective. Therefore, I am a fan of peace and quiet.
3. You Meet New People
I have met people from at least seven countries in all of the places I’ve traveled to, and then there are the locals. When traveling alone in rural Japan, I met a woman and her husband who drove me to Kyoto. She had studied English in high school and was thrilled to practice with me. The couple was from Osaka and went a considerable distance out of their way to drive me. There were the guys in Puerto Lobos, a tiny fishing village in Mexico, who lifted my van out of the sand and then said, “Have a nice day,” and walked away.
The benefit of meeting people from different worlds is it creates an opportunity to see life from a different perspective. This experience allows us to not only learn about others but to learn about ourselves. The unexpected for me has often been how some things are universal, regardless of culture or country. People are curious, often friendly and kind, and want to know more about the world you come from, the world you inhabit. This can present some very wonderful life lessons. Primarily for me the understanding that we are all part of a larger world, a world that has a lot in common.
Saying this, I remember the older gentleman from Germany who stated as we bumped along a very bad road, “We are all citizens of the world.” Then there was a lovely student just outside of Paris who rescued my run-away luggage and the Englishman who saved sweaters that had been packed too tight and exploded on the luggage carousel in Heathrow. He told me that the English were horrid cold people. His behavior did not validate this. I am not gorgeous or incredibly lucky, but I practice one skill set that is vital if you are to travel alone–count on people being kind. I am not saying leave your intuition at home or ignore common sense, but overall, most humans are kind. I have never met a nationality I did not like. I may have this experience one day, but so far, I haven’t. If we are willing to meet strangers halfway, be courteous, and pay attention, traveling as a single woman is wonderful.
4. You Can Choose Your Own Schedule
If you have not figured this out, I love traveling by myself. I love the freedom to set my own agenda and schedule. If I want to have an early start, I can. If I want to sleep late, I do. I set the itinerary and the pace. If I meet someone interesting, I can join them for an adventure. I have what I think is a golden opportunity to meet the locals. In Bali, I met a man who showed me a piece of land for sale by the ocean, and we arrived just as the sun was setting. I trusted my instincts and am still alive to talk about it. My only regret was that I did not buy the property!
If there is a road that looks interesting and you are traveling solo, you can simply turn onto the road and explore. You can follow your interests without compromise. Yes, that sounds a little selfish, but sometimes having the freedom to simply be yourself and dive into what most interests you is well worth the initial challenges of traveling solo. There is no need to talk it over. As a solo traveler, you can honor your own preferences which can lead to learning more about what it is that you enjoy and what it is that you prefer to avoid.
5. You Can Explore Farther
There are things I am pretty sure I could not have done or done easily with another person. I have spent leisurely time wandering museums, including the Louvre and a fantastic art museum in Ubud, Bali, and gotten lost in a rainforest and a cloud forest until I figured out where I was. I met a group of young Russian students in St. Petersburg and played music with them and laughed until the middle of the night. It was in June and the “White Nights,” so I had no idea what time it was. Traveling by myself has been filled with adventures and fun. But, again, I don’t think I have just been lucky. I have been willing to keep my eyes open and explore without preconceived ideas. I have had marvelous experiences. From South America to Asia, I have been able to get to know countries and people without filtering the environment through the anxieties and biases of a fellow traveler.
Recently my niece and I traveled Northern Mexico together, and it was great fun. She, like I, has traveled the world. In fact, she has been to more countries than I have. It was so enjoyable to travel with her because she saw each location and group of people with curiosity and a lack of judgment. When traveling with her, I realized why I like traveling by myself. It is rare to find a travel buddy who is simply curious and willing to try almost anything. She was. Although we both admitted that our culinary limit was scorpions on a stick.
It is not always possible to travel with friends or relatives but by taking the risk of traveling by yourself, you can plan exactly the trip you want. If no one you know wants to travel to Chile, but you do, then you can. Do your research, go to several search engines for options of flight prices, try alternatives to traditional hotels, travel using local transportation, explore. The traditional Japanese guest house I booked on Agoda was a marvelous experience, even though no one spoke English. The food was amazing! And the room came with a bath house and two meals a day. A standard traveler’s hotel would not have these options. The express buses in Mexico are fast, inexpensive, and comfortable, but if I had not “explored further” I would not have known this. So, try what is unfamiliar. I think it will lead to some pleasant surprises.
So, trust yourself, take the risk, pack lightly and bring your curiosity. And forget the Charmin.