I met Jordan in line at the lululemon warehouse sale. I still contend that meeting her was the best thing at that sale (though I do like my blue workout pants!). Two months ago, she told me about her plans to travel to Panama and Costa Rica, alone. I thought that was pretty badass. And then I learned she was going alone was because her travel companions had to bail... and she decided to go anyway. Badass x 1000000! Here's what a reluctant solo traveler had to say about hitting the road on her own.
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How did you end up going to Costa Rica/Panama all by yourself?
The original plan was to travel with some coworkers to a resort town in Panama. I had frequent flyer miles, so I booked with Delta. They chose a cheaper airline. Direct flights into Panama were a new route for this airline, so although they sold seats, they also warned that the flight was pending government approval and could be canceled.
As you can guess, a few months later my coworkers received a call saying their tickets would be refunded. So it was back to square one and tickets had gotten much more expensive. That's when they started talking about whether or not they could afford the trip. In the end, they decided it cost too much and backed out.
When you realized you were the only one still considering the trip, what made you finally say, screw it, I’m going! ?
I had a choice to make: I could pay $150 to Delta to cancel my flight and get my frequent flyer miles back, or I could see what this solo travel was all about. I hate spending money and getting nothing in return, so giving my hard earned cash to a billion dollar corporation seemed ludicrous! So I started reading blogs about traveling solo as a female. It made me feel better because everyone raved about it.
Still, I wavered for over a month. What if I hate it and I am stuck there for 16 days? What if I get lonely? What if these bloggers are just braver than me? What if it is scary? The Hey Eleanor! blog was really influential as well. “Do one thing every day that scares you.” So I thought, why not 16 days of things that scare me? I made my decision and started planning.
Did you pack or prepare differently than you normally would for a vacation?
I prepared very differently for this vacation. I read anything and everything I could about Panama and Costa Rica. I became a TripAdvisor addict. I had a carefully organized folder with every reservation, ticket, and itinerary. I wasn’t going to add international capabilities to my phone so I would have to be dependent on wifi. Therefore, I wanted everything in order before I left.
As for packing, I did what I do every single time I go anywhere…pack too much and only wear a fraction of it! I found so many articles on Pinterest about how to pack for two weeks in a carry on and of course didn’t listen to their advice. Dumb! I lugged around a heavy suitcase and a heavy duffel bag from place to place for 16 days. It was painful. Luckily, I was able to treat myself on the last night of my journey with a 90-minute massage.
What did you worry about the most before leaving? What excited you?
I admit that I got pretty nervous the day before. The same thoughts of fear, loneliness, and isolation crept back into my head. I had to Google “Why Traveling Alone is Great” and read a couple articles (no joke!) to feel better and get back to feeling excited again.
I got there. I woke up so ready to tackle Central America solo! I couldn’t wait to finally see all the everything I'd been reading about.
How did your friends and family react when you said you’d be traveling alone?
Everyone had really different reactions. When I was in my wavering stage of should I go or back out, a majority of people urged me to cancel. However, people started coming around and were very encouraging after I made my final decision.
I think personal safety is a big reason women are hesitant to travel alone. What safety precautions did you take before you left? While you were there?
I meticulously planned everything. I would have liked to have been more spontaneous, but for my own peace of mind, I wanted to have people back home know where I was going to be each day, with the name of the hotel, and a contact number. I also enrolled in the Department of State’s “Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP),” which allows you to register your travels with the nearest embassies in Panama and Costa Rica. Peace of mind if there were an emergency. Can you be too prepared? If so, I was it.
I relied on street smarts, too. I didn’t go walking alone after the sun set. I kept my valuables close to me or in a hotel safe. I walked confidently (even if sometimes I didn’t feel that way). I only took licensed, registered taxis. I was constantly observing what was happening around me. I was surprised at how safe I really felt in both countries. There were maybe a handful of moments that I felt uneasy, but it was mainly because I didn’t speak Spanish and didn’t understand what was going on.
Where did you stay? How did you get around once you were there?
Every few days I traveled to a new place. I started out in Panama City, then went cross country to an archipelago (and my favorite spot!) called Bocas del Toro. From there it was onto Costa Rica and to a small beach community called Puerto Viejo. Then it was up into the mountains for a stay at the base of the Arenal volcano. Eventually, I made it back to Panama and took a ferry to the Pearl Islands before ending in Panama City again. It was a lot of traveling around so I cannot stress enough the importance (and where I made my biggest mistake!) of packing light.
I traveled by bus, shuttle, taxi, and ferry and stayed in some really great places: a couple hotels, some AirBNB spots (great for immersing yourself into a community and getting away from the touristy areas) and a few small B&Bs (chosen for their communal aspect so I could meet people).
What surprised you most about traveling alone?
I was most surprised by how helpful and kind people are to solo travelers. There were so many times when locals and fellow travelers alike went out of their way to help me, get me to the right place, or just sit and talk with me. Before leaving I had read about how people are naturally attracted to solo travelers and I found this to be unbelievably true.
I sat next to a Panamanian guy named Melquis on a 16-hour bus ride. Although we didn’t speak each other’s language (reeeeally should have learned Spanish before going!), we had a conversation almost the whole time with my limited Spanish and his limited English. He also helped me navigate through the confusing customs lines at the Costa Rica-Panama border.
Another time, I got to the bus station only to find out all tickets to Bocas del Toro were sold out. A nice man from Panama City communicated with the ticket agent for me. Together, they figured out a way for me to take a different bus to another city and catch a shuttle to Bocas del Toro from there. Then to top it off, he had some sort of fast pass card that he used to get me in front of the lines and ensured I made it to the right terminal and onto the right bus.
Finally, I met a fellow traveler from Pennsylvania who noticed that I'd left my phone behind as I was leaving our hotel. He alerted hotel staff who phoned the gatekeeper a ways down the road. Our shuttle driver graciously went all the way back up to the hotel to retrieve it without complaining, even though it meant taking a steep mountain road. When I retrieved my phone, he'd attached a note wishing me safe travels and that “good begets good.” It’s my favorite “souvenir” from my trip.
I am still amazed at how many strangers took me in and helped me along the way. People are so inherently good and this trip was the ultimate reminder of that. Isn’t it strange how life gives you exactly what you need exactly when you need it?
Every vacation has high and low points. What was the worst part of the trip? Best?
I didn’t have too many low points, but I would have to say that crossing over the border from Panama into Costa Rica at a town called Sixaola. I had just left Bocas del Toro, I was tired and on yet another really cramped shuttle. When you get to the border, you first wait in a long line and pay to leave Panama. Then, you have to physically take all your bags and walk them across the most rickety old railroad bridge and into Costa Rica. I am talking rotting wooden planks that are missing in spots and the bridge is long. So here I am with my heavy luggage and you can’t just roll your bags along because the boards are too dilapidated.
It’s 90-some degrees out and by the end I was so gross, sweaty, and miserable, but finally in Costa Rica where (wait for it…) I had to wait in another long customs line. Not the fondest memory, but it did make me feel pretty accomplished when I finally broke free from the never ending lines and back into my cramped (but air conditioned) shuttle!
Now for the good stuff! I had the best time in Bocas del Toro. I stayed in an over-the-water bungalow at a little place called Koko Resort. I had arrived early in the morning and was welcomed by the owners, Jack and Lee, and immediately felt at home. Jack makes these fantastic breakfasts everyday and everyone gathers around eating, talking, and drinking coffee. I met great people from all over the world. At night, if I didn’t feel like going out, I would lie in the hammock on my deck, listen to the waves below me, and watch little geckos catching bugs. It was simple perfection.
It is not a feeling I can really put into words, but my time spent on the island holds some of the greatest moments in all my 30 years.
What did traveling alone teach you about yourself?
I am braver, more self-reliant, and far more confident than I have ever given myself credit for. Being alone doesn’t mean being lonely. In fact, I have never felt more connected to people, even if we didn’t speak the same language! Also, when you project kindness and compassion into this world, it comes back to you tenfold. As my friend from Pennsylvania says, “good begets good” and I have never seen that more clearly.
Would you do it again?
In a heartbeat.
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Huge thanks to Jordan for sharing her amazing travel story. I'd love to do a solo trip, and her rave review only makes me want to go more. If you're really jonesing to do some solo lady travel, you should check out all this cool, helpful info my friend Sarah put together. She's traveled by herself many a time has this shizz down to a science.
You can check out my other Everyday Eleanor interviews in the archives. You know you want to.
Have you done something ballsy, like moved to a foreign country for work (or *gulp* love)? Joined the circus? Given up your car? Served as a surrogate? I want to hear your Everyday Eleanor story. Email me at email@example.com.