I’m celebrating a first: the completion of my first international solo travel adventure, backpacking through Peru and Ecuador!
Last year, after several incredible months road tripping around the US and Canada, enjoying my adventures to the fullest through prioritizing my health and wellness, my 2018 travel goal was to expand my horizons even further and embark on my first multi-week international solo trip.
My motivation was two-part: First, I was determined to put my carefully crafted wellness travel routine to the test. I wanted to see if I could navigate a foreign cuisine, get by with limited access to convenient Paleo snacks, and survive ordering gluten-free and Paleo-friendly food in a foreign language (would they even know what paleo or gluten-free was?), and ultimately, continue treating my body and mind with care despite the immense challenges of travel, in order to feel my absolute best and be fully present for every second of my trip.
And secondly, I wanted to experience that beautiful gem of inspiration and awe that comes from completely removing myself from my comfort zone and opening myself up to new cultures, new sights, new food, and new ways of life.
I’m proud to say I successfully completed my first solo trip, and in the process, learned a lot about those intangible qualities that contribute to optimal health and wellness. Since returning home, I’ve noticed a subtle, yet powerful shift in my own wellbeing. I feel lighter, more creative, more inspired, more present, more positive, and there’s even been a physical shift: my psoriasis has receded and is looking the least inflamed its ever looked.
This past almost-month of solo travel has left a powerful imprint on my heart – one that I never expected – and not only has it shifted my perspective, but its undoubtedly upgraded my wellbeing and state of mind.
Here are the 6 powerful ways my recent solo travel has boosted my wellbeing and will boost yours, too.
1. SOLO TRAVEL IS EMPOWERING
This trip started by accepting a challenge: hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu (pronounced Peak-choo – this is important, trust me). Even though I consider myself a hiker, this 3.5 day hike on an ancient trail through the Peruvian Andes at 10,000’+ elevation was intimidating. I had all these fears running on repeat through my head: “Am I physically capable of this?” “Will I let my team members (the group of hikers I was joining) down?” and the big, melodramatic one, “Will I survive this?”
I survived – and achieved so much more than simply hiking 26 miles. When my legs felt like they were going to seize up after countless flight of stairs, I pushed through and kept going. When I was sleep deprived after three nights of crappy tent sleep, I put a smile on my face and hiked for 10 hours. When I felt so bloated and uncomfortable after a lunch on the trail, I sucked it up, kept going, and kept cheering my teammates on.
(In case you’re thinking it was all a struggle, rest assured much of the time was spent enjoying breath-taking views of snowcapped mountains, exploring incredibly preserved ancient Incan archeological sites, connecting with my group of amazing hikers, porters, and our true gem of a Peruvian guide, Ruti, and enjoying mouth-watering, chef-prepared food!)
We so rarely have opportunities in our safe, controlled, comfortable lives to push our limits and challenge ourselves both mentally and physically to truly understand what we’re capable of surviving. My experience hiking the Inca Trail certainly can’t be compared to surviving something as horrific as having to cut your own arm off like the sobering film, 127 Hours, but I learned some empowering lessons about how I rise to a challenge, my ability to confront my fears and discomforts, and what I’m capable of surviving.
Having that confidence in my abilities has thickened my emotional skin and boosted my mental resilience and toughness in my day-to-day life.
2. SOLO TRAVEL CREATES INCREDIBLE COMMUNITY
The fear of being lonely can be a huge deterrent for solo travel. But I’d argue traveling alone enables you to create powerful connections. When you’re solo, you don’t have a friend or partner to rely on, which allows the innate human need for community to work its magic, forcing you out of your shell and creating the possibility of meeting and having conversations with people you’d never ordinarily connect with.
Even though I was traveling solo, I never actually felt like I was alone. There was always someone to connect with and learn their story, be it the traveler sitting beside me on the plane, a guide, the local serving lunch, or even the Uber driver. I walked away from this trip with new friends in Peru, Ecuador, Australia, Washington DC, New York, Florida, Holland, Missouri, Scotland… the list goes on and on!
One of the most profound connections I made was with my Ecuadorian host mother, Rocio, during my two-week stay in Quito. As part of the Spanish language school I was attending, I stayed with an Ecuadorian host family to give myself the full immersive experience – both culturally and linguistically. Even though I was there for a short amount of time, Rocio took me in like one of her own children, showing me such kindness and hospitality. Despite my broken beginner-level Spanish and her broken English, she always chatted with me, sharing stories about her and her family’s life, making me feel like part of the family.
Had I been traveling with a friend or family member, I doubt I would’ve allowed myself to open up as much, be as vulnerable as I was, and make the connections I did. I’m so deeply touched when I think back to all fascinating people I met and the connections that were forged.
With each passing trip, my community expands, and the number of people I support and am supported by grows, and that feeling of worldwide community is so, so fulfilling.
3. SOLO TRAVEL IS AN OPPORTUNITY TO REASSESS YOUR DIET
One of the thrilling things about travel is that it exposes you to unfamiliar ingredients and new ways of cooking. For example, on this trip I ate both Guinea pig and alpaca for the first time in my life (the Guinea pig was questionable, but the alpaca was excellent!).
Knowing it would be a challenge to eat strictly Paleo on this trip (and it was), I went into it with relaxed standards, committing myself to simply maintaining a gluten-free diet. But also knowing South America would inescapably be the land of sugar and carbs – potato, white rice, beans, corn, fruit, cane sugar – I decided to view these foods I seldom ate and was about to consume with gusto as a dietary experiment.
And an experiment it was. I learned some valuable lessons that I would not have otherwise taken the time at home in my carefully crafted dietary routine to discover.
First, all the carbs didn’t impact me the way I thought they would. I pictured myself gaining weight, my energy levels being all over the place, and my digestion in shambles. Though my body did feel a little fluffier at times, my energy after half a plate of carbs was not noticeably better or worse, (warning: TMI) my bowel movements were better than at home, and there was only one time I experienced real digestive distress. However, half a plateful of rice or potatoes with just 2 or so ounces of protein at every meal was not mentally or physically satiating (which could’ve been my body crying out for nutrients) – I was craving green veggies and obscene amounts of protein so hard!
The second lesson I learned was that sugar is indeed an energy-wrecker. As part of my Ecuadorian homestay, my host mother cooked breakfast and dinner for me. Wanting the full Ecuadorian cuisine experience, I happily accepted the breakfast fruit smoothie, side of fruit, and single egg. But I noticed something strange. Two hours later in my private Spanish language lessons, I was struggling to keep my eyes open. Then it hit me – the sugar in the fruit smoothie and fruit had me sugar crashing! As I later found out, my host mother added about a tablespoon and a half of cane sugar to each smoothie serving (no wonder it tasted so delicious… sigh). After this epiphany, my host mother graciously agreed to make my smoothie without the sugar and my energy levels were steady from there on out!
4. SOLO TRAVEL HELPS YOU UNDERSTAND YOUR BASIC HUMAN NEEDS
When you’re completely removed from your comfortable routine, it’s easy to feel off balance. Your routine is your routine because it makes you feel good, brings you pleasure, and nurtures all the little aspects both mentally and physically that keep you feeling your best. When you’re traveling, however, you have to build that routine from scratch.
I’m pretty in tune with knowing what I need to eat, how much physical activity I need to feel good, and how much sleep I require to thrive, but one basic human need I discovered that was less obvious to me was my need for rest and recovery.
No, I’m not talking about sleep. I’m talking about that all-important mental downtime. Time I’m not completely consumed by following directions to make sure I’m going to the right place, remaining vigilant about my safety and security, or even just exploring and seeing everything there is to see. When I’m go-go-going like that from the time I wake to the time I lay my head down to sleep, it’s a recipe for travel burnout. And the last thing I want when I’m traveling is to not enjoy it.
So I accepted that some days it’s okay for me to do nothing (aka watch Netflix, spend time in a coffee shop catching up on social media, or FaceTiming my boyfriend) because those hours or even half days of downtime (aka “me time”) fuel me and make my light shine brighter so I’m at full capacity to conquer the adventures or explorations that require my full attention!
This awareness I’ve created around this particular need of mine is something I’ve taken home with me. Despite a demanding work schedule, I’ve made sure to schedule in this me time, which in turn, has boosted my creativity and productivity!
5. SOLO TRAVEL INSPIRES AND BOOSTS CREATIVITY
Inspiration is everywhere and when you’re on your own, all your attention is free to focus on taking it all in: the detailed fabrics, the colorful buildings, the food, the elaborate churches, the animals, the tantalizing (or not so tantalizing) smells, the music of a foreign language, and other ways of being. You are in full control, able to experience it at your own speed, in your own way, without the judgment of others. There’s magic in that.
One such moment that has stuck with me was my visit to a traditional Peruvian community about an hour outside of Cuzco. When our van pulled up, we were greeted by smiling faces, the music of flute and drum, and a lovely Peruvian woman in traditional costume took me by the hand and led me into their compound.
Over the next several hours, I soaked up everything I could about how these people, people who were so different from me, lived. I learned about their farming practices, the rustic tools they used, their food and inventive food storage techniques, the animals they raised, social structure, and the mind blowing wool spinning, yarn dying, and weaving. I was even invited to wear a traditional Peruvian costume, an experience which really stuck with me.
Throughout this incredible experience, I was so touched by the unwavering hospitality, the joyful smiles, the belly laughs, and the pride this community presented in sharing their way of life. Despite having what, to American eyes, seemed to be so little, the Peruvians appeared to be so joyful and content. That realization resonated with me deeply.
Seeing the world through these different cultures for the past three and a half weeks has shifted my perspective. My way of living isn’t “the right” way, it’s just “a way” and that epiphany has helped me to approach my day-to-day with fresh eyes and let my very structured and logical brain step aside to make room for my creativity to roam free. Already with this reawakened creativity I’ve semi-decorated my new apartment, refinished a coffee table, developed a new recipe (coming soon!), and fabric painted some baby onesies! Who knows what’s next?!
6. SOLO TRAVEL OPENS YOUR EYES TO THE ADVENTURE AROUND EVERY CORNER (EVEN AT HOME)
No matter where you live, tomorrow you have the opportunity to discover some place new. It’s something that’s easy to forget when you’re existing in your comfortable day-to-day routine, but I can say with confidence, there’s a new park, a new restaurant, a new town, a new hike, a new you-name-it, waiting to be discovered right around the corner from you. Sometimes you have to take the initiative and seek out these gems and other times, if you’re open to it, the adventure will find you.
Though I’ve always been aware of this, this reality hit home during my last weekend in Quito, Ecuador. I was considering getting out of the city to visit a small cloud forest town called Mindo when an American I’d become friendly with at the Spanish school mentioned he, too, was thinking of traveling to Mindo and that we should join forces and go together. Though the introvert in me was resistant at first, the adventurer in me had assessed the situation as safe and was screaming, “Yes! This is an opportunity! Take it!”
So I took it, and saying ‘yes’ resulted in one of the most memorable adventures of the entire trip. From a $3.50 bus ride, to getting a lift into town riding in the back of a friendly local’s pick up truck (probably the highlight of my trip), to having the worst Airbnb experience ever, to eating the best trout I’ve ever had, riding a cable car, and hiking to five waterfalls, the whole 24 hour trip was an epic adventure – one I never would’ve experienced if I hadn’t led with an open mind.
Now that I’ve returned home to Seattle, I’m even more committed to saying yes to the large and small opportunities that present themselves. One simple ‘yes’ could lead to a unforgettable experience – and you better believe I want to fill my life with as many of those as possible.
TRAVEL SOLO TO BOOST YOUR WELLBEING
Anyone can experience the magic of solo travel. If you’re nervous, afraid, overwhelmed, or just plain don’t think you can do it, I want to let you in on a secret – I’ve felt all of those feelings, too. I’ve felt them, embraced those feelings, worked through them, and moved forward. And the result? A life that is exponentially richer, more vibrant, and more fulfilled than I ever thought it could be.
If solo travel interests you, start small. This weekend, take an afternoon road trip to a nearby town or state or national park. Start to get comfortable being on your own and having to rely on your instincts and intuition. Then gradually increase your solo travel time and distance. Take a weekend road trip, spend a long weekend exploring a city you’ve always wanted to visit, spend a week hiking through the US’s stunning national parks. Once this has all become second nature to you, you’ll be ready to book your first extended solo international trip! And the cool thing is, you don’t have to wait to travel internationally to reap the benefit of solo travel I mentioned above. They start to manifest when you start traveling.