On a May vacation in Nicaragua, Alison Peters often visited several panaderias after dinner, sampling not one but many desserts. She spent days wearing the same bathing suit coverup. And near the town of Granada, she lingered at Masaya, snapping selfie after selfie with the active volcano.
During her two-week journey abroad, she never once had to defend her decisions or discuss her choices. Because what the solo traveler wants, the solo traveler gets.
“Traveling alone is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself,” said the Washington-area law student. “You don’t have to be rational when you’re by yourself.”
Call it the All About Me trip.
These days, more myselves and Is are venturing out into the world alone. According to the Visa Travel Intentions Study, which surveyed 13,603 adults in 25 countries, the number of people traveling solo doubled between 2013 and 2015. A BookYogaRetreats.com questionnaire discovered that more than half of the site’s 300 respondents will embark on a party-of-one trip this year.
To serve the mushrooming community of independent voyagers, a new app called SoloTraveller offers planning resources as well as a platform for soloists to connect and become, for a short spell, a duo or triplet.
“I consider it a rite of passage,” said Evelyn Hannon, founder of Journeywoman, an online publication for female adventurers. “Now, I am going to go out and test myself against the world.”
Travelers initially set off alone for a kaleidoscope of reasons. A friend bails, for instance, or someone is recalibrating their life after a personal tragedy. Or maybe has unusual taste in travel.
“I really didn’t think anyone would be interested in doing a five-day boat trip to St. Helena,” said Gary Arndt, a travel photographer who created the Everything Everywhere blog.
Matt Kepnes had planned an Australian holiday with a friend in 2004 when his pal backed out at the last minute. Kepnes didn’t want to waste his vacation time, so he sent himself to Costa Rica. The three-week trip altered his universe.
“It opened me up to the possibilities of the world,” said the wanderer behind the Nomadic Matt blog, which he started in 2008. “I loved the fact that everything was different and unplanned. You could be the master of your own ship!”
Lee Abbamonte, who at 32 became the youngest American to visit every country in the world, couldn’t convince any of his friends to take a month off to toodle around Asia in 1999. So he activated Plan B: Go alone. Since that solo trip, he has explored nearly 320 countries, including 100 by himself.
“You can do whatever you want, see whatever you want, eat whatever you want,” Abbamonte, now 38, said. “You can do nothing or everything. I call it absolute freedom.”
For Hannon, the boot that kicked her into the wider world was the end of her 23-year marriage, when she was 42. She rang up a travel agent and requested the cheapest ticket to wherever. She paid $200 and flew to Belgium for her inaugural solo jaunt.
“I was nervous, sad and recovering from a broken marriage,” Hannon, now 77, said. “I had never been anywhere by myself, but I was determined.”
Since that metamorphic trip, the Toronto resident has visited about 70 countries on seven continents. She also created Journeywoman in 1997, to provide tips and support for her solo sisters. The modern-day Abeona — the goddess of journeys — dispenses wisdom like a vending machine. During our phone chat, she advised me on how to foil pickpockets (place several pills and a few bills in a vitamin C bottle and use the container as a covert wallet), blend in (carry a bag from a local grocery store) and fend off unwanted attention from men (mention that you are in town for a policewomen’s convention).
“You learn tricks in order to be able to walk around and feel comfortable,” she said.
Janice Waugh was caring for her ailing husband when she booked a restorative trip to Havana in 2006. She didn’t have the smoothest experience in the beginning: She struggled to find her hotel in Old Havana and was disappointed with the windowless guest room. The next day, she lost her way. She contacted her travel agent about relocating to a more comforting all-inclusive resort. The agent agreed, but the reservation never materialized. The unfulfilled request was an unexpected blessing.
“I learned an important lesson about solo travel,” said Waugh, who started the online resource Solo Traveler three years later. “Sit back and relax. Watch. Give yourself time to settle in and it will happen.”
Soloists are a diverse bunch, ranging widely in age, occupation, nationality and even relationship status. But they seem to posses similar personality traits. Patience is essential, as is flexibility, resourcefulness, confidence and coolheadedness. And while selfishness in a group scenario is ill-advised, self-interest is a survival tool for singlets.
“When you’re on your own, everything rests on you,” Kepnes said. “You have to get from point A to B, navigate countries, interact with locals in languages you don’t know and just survive.”
When Peters fell ill in San Juan Del Sur, she didn’t have to fake good cheer or rally for her mates. She paused her Nicaragua vacation to nurse herself back to good health. She lined her body with cool, wet towels to reduce her fever and gargled with warm salt water. She spent the day glued to the Spanish version of “Keeping up With the Kardashians.”
“I didn’t want to deal with anyone else,” she said. “I wanted to stay in the room and be sick in bed.”
On a three-week trip to South America in January, Dustin Hill hit a rock and flew over his handlebars while cycling along Death Road, a treacherous route in Bolivia. He picked himself up and dragged his badly bruised body back to La Paz, three hours away. He cared for his wounds at the hostel’s bar.
“You don’t have anyone to vent to,” said the Brooklyn resident, who carries a memento of the accident on his hip. “You need to understand yourself better, and that’s exactly what happened.”
The incident became an icebreaker, a singular event morphing into a communal share.
“It was an easy way to spark up conversation,” he said. “ ‘Look what happened to me!’ ”
In the welcoming world of solo travel, any opening line will do; circumstances will often make the introduction for you. Hill befriended two Australians after spending three days in a caravan together crossing the Bolivian desert to Chile. Peters bounced around San Juan Del Sur with a New York couple she had met at an upscale hostel on Playa Maderas. Hannon dined with a young Czech girl who had provided her with directions in Prague. In Paris, she treated an American celebrating her birthday to a Woody Allen movie with English subtitles.
“Traveling solo means that you are leaving by yourself,” Hannon said, “but once you’re at your destination, you’re going to meet people along the way.”
Contrary to their name, solo travelers are typically social and outgoing creatures. One of the draws of traveling alone, they say, is to forge connections with locals and other adventurers, singular or plural.
“The biggest thing I came away with,” Hill said, “was that this was least lonely thing I have ever done.”
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