I celebrated my 30th birthday at Norton Rats, an expat bar overlooking Cusco’s Plaza de Armas with the remaining members of our trek.
My birthday had come at one of the highest points of my life, the day after I climbed up Machu Picchu’s stone steps.
In a rather serendipitous twist of fate, my October 12 birthday was sandwiched in between Holly and Elle’s. The three of us solo traveling Libras had intersected at precisely the sweetest moment. We toasted over tequila shots, hugged and cried when it was time to say goodbye. In just a few short days these strangers had become some of my best friends.
Elle was bound for Bolivia. Mike and Elizabeth were heading to the beaches north of Lima. Holly and I were boarding an overnight bus to Arequipa.
The birthday coincidence confirmed I wasn’t as crazy as I thought. Contrary to popular belief, traveling solo as a woman does not make you unique or rare. Even though the reaction I had gotten from family and co-workers had made me believe that I was doing the riskiest, craziest thing possible, it simply was not the case.
By the end of my trip I knew that it would be difficult to travel any other way again.
Solo travel had ruined me. Here’s why:
It Renewed My Faith
I’m not going to lie. My first day of solo traveling was rough. After spending 16 hours traveling from Orlando I arrived to Cusco to find my backpack had been lost somewhere in Mexico City. The first time I tried to order a cup of coffee in broken Spanish, the waitress looked at me like I had two heads. My hostel in Cusco was located on the outskirts of town and I didn’t find another soul staying there on my first day. I felt like a rookie as I sized up the travelers with expensive gear walking with purpose along Plaza de Armas. In search of company, I headed out to a hip bar listed in my Lonely Planet travel guide on my first night but turned back when I stumbled upon a gaggle of street dogs.
The next morning I sent a desperate message to a friend back home who had been on the same journey a few years ago.
“GO TO JACK’S FOR BREAKFAST” she responded. “It’s a bit of home to give you comfort. “
And in regards to the lost backpack that threatened to cancel my trek (I would have to cancel the trek If my backpack didn’t come by the next morning.):
“Don’t let this ruin in your trip! Seriously!” she said. “You’ve waited too long and traveled too far to get there. This may not be the trip you planned but it will become a wonderfully different adventure. HAVE FAITH.”
And it was at Jack’s Café, an expat hotspot, where things started to turn around. Curious English-speaking travelers approached me in droves to chat and offer travel tips. I had delicious coffee and avocado toast for breakfast in a sun-streamed corner. That afternoon I found a $20 horseback riding tour through Cusco’s countryside. That night, a friend from home put me in touch with another solo traveler in Cusco and we met up for dinner and swapped stories as a harp player serenaded us next to a wood burning oven.
The next morning, the airline called me at the hostel. My backpack would make it to Cusco just hours before I would depart for the trek.
Everything was going to work out after all.
I made my own mistakes
A two-day hike to the bottom of Arequipa’s Colca del Canyon seemed like a great idea until I was sitting in a tour company’s office booking the trip. Holly, being the superwoman that she is, was ready for more hiking but now I wasn’t so sure. I suddenly had a vision of sitting on a sunny beach with a cool drink and a stack of books. THAT was what I wanted to do.
“Are there any beaches around here that I could go to?” I asked the tour operator.
“Well you could go to Camana but it’s the off season and there won’t be anyone there,” she said.
To me, it sounded like a dream. All that solitude would be perfect for writing. I would finally get away from tourist traps and see a real Peruvian town.
“It sounds so existential,” I said to Holly, who laughed.
So we split ways and I climbed onto a bus to Peru’s southern coast to see the town my Lonely Planet guide had highlighted in one small paragraph. A puzzled bus attendant took my luggage and said “Camana?” with a raised eyebrow.
My uneasiness grew as we passed a motley crew of empty crumbling buildings along Camana’s beach. The gritty town was bustling with street vendors selling homemade food on corners and taxis zipping along. Locals seemed confused at the sight of a Gringa walking down the main drag with a huge-ass backpack and I didn’t blame them. What the hell was I doing here?
I paid $40 to stay in the nicest hotel in town, with a drained pool and print of Mona Lisa hanging over my bedpost. The next day I took a 20-minute taxi to the beach where I roamed around abandoned buildings and then walked all the way back to town. If obscurity and solitude was what I was looking for I had found it. For two days I didn’t see another traveler. The Amazon may have been sweltering but Peru’s coast in October was overcast and windy. There would be no sipping cocktails and sunbathing here.
My lack of Spanish prevented me from having conversations that didn’t involving miming every other word. I had expected to find endless dishes of Cerviche but as the sole diner at a beachside restaurant I was lucky to get an overpriced plate of fish covered with flies.
The only silver lining here is that I didn’t drag anyone along for this excursion. Despite warnings that this place kind of sucked, I was hell bent on going and no one could have talked me out of it. But my lack of travel companion meant no one would be throwing the “I-told-you-so” card. This was all on me.
I became confident in my own skin
The happiest day I’ve ever had was the day I spent riding a bicycle around Lima. Even now I can’t figure out why this was the happiest of days but it just was. The previous night I had danced on stage with a Peruvian 80s hairband as they performed “You Give Love a Bad Name.” The weather was perfect. The view of the rocky cliffs and hang gliders along Lima’s coast was stunning. By the second visit to a bodega for coffee, the woman behind the counter already knew my order. I made tons of friends at Flying Dog Hostel and watched the annual procession of Senor de Los Milagros from the hostel’s balcony. I petted cats in Parque Kennedy. I realized that this trip had brought out the best parts of myself, and by the end of my journey I felt like I gotten to know what I was made of. I felt confident in my own skin. In just two short weeks I had gone through such a transformation. I knew this all came about because I had stepped out and done this trip on my own.