Solo Travel: Is It For You?

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I’m heading down to Guatemala in about a week — solo. I’ve always wanted to be a Spanish speaker and in Spain my love for the language grew even more. I’m a teacher and just got my Master’s degree in Urban Ed. Leadership. My goal is to be a leader of some sort in a large urban school setting. This means that Spanish will most likely come up every so often and I should probably be able to say more to a parent than “Su hijo es muy malo.” or “¿Dónde está el baño?”

So, I started looking into immersion programs in Central and South America. I found that Antigua, Guatemala is the perfect place to go.  There are over 70 schools there. They set up a home-stay for you (including meals) and give you 5 hours of lessons a day for under $250 a week! How could I not jump at that? I chose the Sevilla Academia de Español. The best part? You pay by the week! If my brain feels fried after three weeks, I’ll stop, if not, keep going! There’s no financial commitment or pressure.

Street market in Bangkok’s Chinatown

The only thing is, I’m not sure if I’m the solo traveler type. Sure, I can hold my own on “the streets” and not get ripped off by tuk-tuk drivers. I know the ropes of avoiding scams and don’t feel nervous about staying in a hostel or home-stay on my own. It isn’t the “travel” part of the trip I’m nervous about.

There are two things I worry about and I imagine the way applies to many women traveling alone: not enjoying it and being safe.

For me, a lot of the fun of traveling is sharing it with someone. And, I don’t just mean with a spouse.  When I think about my past travels, the memories I have are about the people, not just the places. The moments I remember are heading out with Jesse in London in search of a Harley Davidson shop on a college choir tour, gazing at the Jefferson Memorial from a paddle boat with three high school friends, or stopping in Janesville, Wisconsin to take our pictures with the giant cow with Heather and Allie. I enjoy traveling with people.

Old Town - Dubrovnik, Croatia

Lonely street in Dubrovni

I was a solo-traveler two times on our RTW trip for just a couple of days when the computer broke. I walked around Dubrovnik for a whole afternoon and pretty much got nothing out of it. I only made mental notes of where to bring Clark when he arrived and which ice cream shops to avoid. I didn’t even take photos. I spent another day reading and relaxing on the beach alone. I didn’t even get in the water. What’s the point when I’m by myself?

Will I even enjoy doing this next leg of my journey alone? More importantly, how will I take pictures of myself with a big SLR camera and short stubby arms?

The other source of anxiety is my safety. Solo women travelers sometimes have a hard time in Latin American countries.  I’ve been reading up and talking to friends who’ve been to these countries. The general idea is to stay in crowded areas and not go out at night, especially alone. Don’t take overnight buses or encourage any cat calls. Don’t respond at all, as that could be considered encouragement.

I experienced some of this in Egypt, Jordan, and India, but I have a feeling it’ll be kicked up a notch in Guatemala, especially without Clark by my side. By the end of our RTW trip, I began to feel pretty safe almost anywhere. I definitely have encountered more violence and theft on the train in Chicago than anywhere we went on our trip.

It doesn’t help that Clark even mentioned being a little worried for my safety. He never had qualms with me riding the El in Chicago late at night or wandering the streets of India alone. Will it really be that bad? Maybe I should re-read our Travel Trepidation post on fear and remind myself that if I don’t jump in and do it, I’ll regret it.

At least during my time at the language school in Antigua, I’ll be able to stay in safe areas. The place is overrun with tourists and I’m sure the school has lots of great advice and tips.  But, I don’t want to just stay in Antigua. After I’m done with classes, I’d like to head out and see more of Guatemala and practice my newly acquired Spanish expertise.

Can I do it alone? Should I try to find another solo traveler to join up with? Can I just tag along with a small group of people? Should I join one of those packaged tour groups I’ve spoken out against so strongly?

So, with all these thoughts running through my  head, I’m getting my gear ready and packed up again. I downgraded to the smaller Ridgeline backpack and am very happy with that decision. (Yes, REI took my old one back after 9 months! The new one was on sale so I got a RTW trip’s use out of the Venus, traded it in for a brand new pack, and got $65 back. This is why I love REI.)

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