Landing in Mexico as a first-time solo female backpacker was a completely new experience for me, and it was so far outside of my comfort zone. If you had told me two years ago, that I would be traveling to Mexico on my own, I would never have believed you. I have grown so much in the last two years and I am so proud of the strong, courageous, confident and independent woman I have become.
Making the decision to travel solo to Mexico was one of the best decisions I have ever made for myself. It was also one of the scariest. Facing your fears is never easy but it’s something that has to be done. If you want to truly live life and grow and learn, you have to do things that are scary and out of your comfort zone. I remember reading some quotes online about this: “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone,” and “A ship in a harbour is safe, but that is not what ships are built for,” and finally, “A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there.”
Nothing you do beforehand can adequately prepare you for traveling solo. It doesn’t matter how much research and planning you do (like I did!), you just have to be thrown into it and you will figure it out and you will learn how resourceful you really are. In hindsight, I had probably over-prepared and researched everything to death! But researching more, does not necessarily mean that you will feel more prepared.
I am an introvert and used to be super shy as well. However, I had such a desire to explore more of this world and I after reading so many blogs from other solo female travelers, I decided that this was something I wanted to try.
The hardest step was making the decision to just go. Purchasing the flight was the most difficult for me, because that meant it was finalized and real and that I was actually going to be doing it. I remember getting an email from WestJet on the morning of February 11th, 2015 informing me of a one-day seat sale for select destinations. Cancun, Mexico was one of the places that was included in the sale. I bought the ticket that evening before the sale ended (and ended up saving myself over $200 on my ticket), but I remember the feeling after I had been sent the confirmation email. I thought, “Am I doing the right thing?” “Am I crazy for wanting to travel to Mexico alone?” “Will I get murdered or kidnapped in Mexico?” I can now say with confidence, that I am so glad that I didn’t listen to those voices inside my head giving me doubts about my decision. I trusted myself and I went through with it and battled those voices.
The second hardest part of traveling solo was saying good-bye to my family and especially my mom, as she dropped me off at the airport at 3 in the morning on May 21, 2015. We both shed some tears. Up until this moment, the fact that I was traveling on my own hadn’t truly sunken in to my brain yet. I know I was going to be doing it and I had researched and planned everything, but it still didn’t feel real. But when my mom dropped me off at the airport, it immediately felt real and I had a lot of emotions running through my mind; excitement, anxiety, fear, worry, and sadness. As I sat on that plane, I missed my family, I missed my cat Bella, and I wished that I could go back to my bed and cuddle with my cat. But I was also excited for the future of my trip and knew that I would be waking up the next morning in a new country, experiencing new sights, sounds, tastes and culture and realized that leaving was the first step to conquering my fears.
I had researched my destination extensively and read so many blogs and forums. I am a planner and an organizer, and I had studied everything from transportation options, safety as a solo female, things to do, hostels, places to eat, etc. Even after doing so much research, I was still scared; nervous; anxious about what lie before me in the unknown. I had never done something like this before and embracing your fears is difficult for anyone. But I know that stepping outside of your comfort zone is how you grow.
When I told my friends, family and co-workers that I would be traveling on my own to Mexico, I received mixed reactions. Some people said that they wished they had done something like that when they were my age. Others offered their support and excitement for me. And still some believed that I was crazy for going to a country like Mexico, by myself. When I told them that I would be staying in hostels, they thought I was even more crazy.
There seems to be a stigma surrounding hostels, which is not necessarily true. Sure, there’s probably some hostels that are horrible. But the majority of them are clean, comfortable and sometimes even as modern as hotels. They offer both dorms (female only, mixed or male only) and private rooms for the fraction of the cost of a hotel room. A lot of them include all of the modern amenities of a hotel, like free Wi-Fi, linens (towels not included), maps and tourist information and recommendations, common areas for meeting other travelers, free breakfast, a guest kitchen, bike rentals, and more. The hostels that I stayed at were not grungy or dirty places. They had a dedicated cleaning staff and all areas were always clean. Even if you stay in a dorm with other people, there are still many opportunities for you to get privacy and have alone time. You can read in a hammock or couch in a common area, or leave the hostel and find private space elsewhere in your destination at a park. I had no issues with the dorms, except for the one night in Tulum when this one guy was snoring so loudly and his cell phone alarm would not stop ringing super early in the morning. Other than that, I had a great sleep every night. Everyone had good hostel etiquette. My roommates were respectful and quiet if they came in late or went to the bathroom in the night, nobody was noisy if they had to pack up early in the morning, and nobody turned the lights on in the middle of the night.
The public also tends to hold a distorted perception about Mexico and it’s safety. If your only knowledge about Mexico comes from the news reports of the mainstream media, then it’s understandable why one would assume that Mexico is a very dangerous country. The reports detail violent gang attacks, drug violence, murders, deaths of tourists in resort towns, kidnappings and bus robberies among other stories. If you do your own research, you will find that these violent incidents predominantly occur in the northern border regions of Mexico or on the Pacific Ocean side, not in the Yucatan. According to the statistics, the Yucatan Peninsula is actually the safest region in Mexico, and is said to be even safer than most large American cities. The media tends to sensationalize these violent incidents and generalize the violence to include the entire country of Mexico, when that is simply not true. As a solo female in the Yucatan, I felt completely safe walking alone in the cities and towns, in residential areas, biking alone, walking in the evening alone or with a group, staying in hostels, going off the beaten path and taking local transportation.
My biggest piece of advice to those females who are on the fence about traveling solo and are not sure if it is the right decision. would be to just do it. Just go. Book your flights and figure the rest out as you go. Do your research, plan ahead, but make room to be flexible. It is scary and embracing your fears, stepping outside of your comfort zone and into the unknown is never easy, and there is never going to be a “perfect time” to do something like this. Life happens regardless and we will still have responsibilities and challenges to overcome.
Traveling solo is such a rewarding, enriching and transformative experience.
The freedom you have while traveling alone is amazing! You are able to explore at your own pace, do whatever you want, whenever you want and with whomever you want, and stay for as long as you want. You don’t have to make compromises with anyone and you can make your own decisions, based on what you really want. You can go for long walks by yourself, take as many photos of something as you want, and eat at the same restaurant more than once without worrying that you are disappointing someone else.
I gained confidence in myself and what I am capable of through figuring out how to navigate a foreign country on my own using the public transportation system; learning how to handle the language barrier and unexpected situations; being forced out of my comfort zone; practicing my Spanish for purchasing bus tickets, ordering food and having simple conversations; learning how to get from place to place; understanding maps and the navigating Mexican street system; and successfully researching and planning an entire trip on my own.
I gained independence. Having never been apart from my family for more than 3-5 days at the most, I spent 12 days in Mexico on my own and it was absolutely liberating and empowering. I am so proud of myself that I did it! I learned that I am resourceful and can figure things out on my own.
When unexpected situations arise (as they inevitably do when traveling), I learned that I am able to think of solutions on the spot. When I was buying a bus ticket from Playa del Carmen to Tulum, I hadn’t had much practice yet in practicing my Spanish. I told the woman that I wanted a bus ticket for “manana,” which can either mean “tomorrow” or “this morning” in English. The woman interpreted “manana” differently than what I had intended, and she printed me a ticket for that morning. However, I needed one for tomorrow morning. I was lucky that I realized the mistake I had made, as I double-checked the ticket when walking out of the bus terminal. I turned around and attempted to point to the ticket and explain to the woman in broken Spanish how I had actually needed a ticket for tomorrow morning. Thankfully, she understood what I meant and re-printed a new ticket for me without charging me extra. This happened on my second day in Mexico and it was definitely unexpected. I had to think quick about what I was going to do. I am glad that I listened to my instinct to check my ticket before leaving the terminal. I also learned that I need to clarify myself when buying bus tickets and to say “manana por la manana” if I want to buy a ticket for “tomorrow morning.” It was a good learning experience and a mistake I didn’t make a second time.
I learned a lot about my strengths and weaknesses and I also learned a few surprising things about myself. I discovered that I am more adventurous and outgoing than I thought I was. I think that a lot of people who know me perceive me to be shy. However, being shy and being introverted are completely different things, and I learned a lot about myself; how brave and strong I am, how little things don’t bother me as much as I thought they would, how I am able to make friends easier than I thought and how willing and open-minded I am to trying new things and engaging in new adventures. I climbed Mayan pyramids, jumped from a rope swing into a cenote, rode a bicycle alone to the Mayan ruins, and more. Through every experience, you persevere and you find courage and confidence to get through everything. You learn how much you can handle when you look back and realize how much you saw, did, experienced, endured and it makes you really proud!
I developed improved social skills. Even as an introvert and someone who feels more comfortable on my own, I was able to make new travel friends easily and effortlessly and approaching people and initiating conversations was not nearly as daunting as I had imagined it would be. It is especially easy to meet people in the hostel common areas and through participating in evening hostel social activities (movie nights, pina colada nights, BBQs and more). Most other travelers are interested in doing the same activities and seeing the same things as you are, so you can ask people if you can join them in their next day’s activity or ask if they want to join you exploring or going out to eat. When I wasn’t spending time with others, I found comfort in enjoying my own company.
Traveling solo also helped me to let go; let go of living in the past or the future and just go with the flow and live in the present moment and enjoy the now, let go of the little things that may be unexpected or not go as you had planned (if you can’t change something, change your attitude), let go of time and learn to live life at a slower and more relaxed pace like the Mexicans, and let go of worries and anxieties.
I learned that traveling solo is not as hard as I thought it would be. Many solo travelers before me, have traveled the same route as I did and they survived and thrived, so why wouldn’t I? I learned that I am just as capable as anybody else who has done it and successfully traveling alone reassured myself that I am smart, capable, and resourceful and it helped me to believe in myself more and not doubt my capabilities.
I learned that everything works out in the end, and not to let little things and cultural differences get me anxious.
I learned non-verbal communication skills, through performing charades for the staff at a local Mexican pharmacy when I found out that they didn’t speak English and I needed to buy band-aids and a nail clipper. Amazingly, they understand what I wanted with my poor actions. When there is a language barrier and you need to communicate, you learn to find ways around it.
Through traveling in a less developed country and observing the locals around you, you learn what you really need and what is truly essential and important in this life of yours. When you see observe the locals smiling and interact with the warm, welcoming and cheerful nature of the locals, despite what little they have, it reaffirms the fact that happiness does not come from consuming more and accumulating more “stuff” and wealth. Happiness comes from the little things in life; the simple moments of joy; personal growth; continuously learning about oneself and the world; contributing to the lives of others; living simply; maintaining your health; the memories and experiences that one makes with family and friends; the relationships that one builds and maintains. These are the most important things in life. When you are living out of a backpack for 12 days, you realize how little you need in order to survive and thrive and how you don’t even miss most of the stuff you left behind at home. Because ultimately, that’s not what matters in this life.
You learn how to trust yourself and your intuitions when you travel alone, because sometimes that is all you have to rely on. You have nobody to ask for a second opinion and every day you are making decisions, big or small. As time goes on, you get better at noticing your “gut feeling” and following it. You gain confidence in what you are capable of.
I learned how readily I learn new things when traveling, especially in terms of the Spanish language. I would see stores with the name “abarrotes” everywhere and quickly realized that “abarrote” is a type of convenience store, based on what they were selling. I would see the word “estacionmento” near open parking lots and a symbol on the streets with the letter “E” and a line through it. I quickly realized that this meant parking and the symbol meant no parking. When I observed the locals and their exchanges with one another and shop or restaurant owners, they would always say “buen dia” as they left and waved good-bye. This means “have a good day,” and I started saying that every time I left a restaurant, store or bus. The locals seemed to appreciate my attempts at learning their language. I could go on and on with similar examples of words and phrases that you pick up very quickly in a new country that speaks a different language. I can understand how immersion is the best way to learn a language.
You learn to face your fears every single day when you travel alone. You learn that you just have to do it. Everything from riding on the local transportation, practicing your Spanish, buying bus tickets and ordering food in Spanish and worrying that you will mess it up or that they won’t understand what you’re saying, walking alone around town in new areas and being unsure of how safe you are at times, wondering whether or not there will be a taxi or colectivo waiting for you when you’re finished visiting some ruins or a cenote, fearing that you won’t meet anyone to do activities with or make any new friends before you leave, taking a plane by yourself and enduring it and putting on a brave face even through hours of bumpy turbulence, approaching complete strangers in hostels and making conversation, arriving in a new city and trying to find your hostel, etc. etc. These situations can be scary but when you just make the decision to push past your worries and fears, it gives you such a rush of adrenaline followed by confidence, knowing that you did it successfully.
I learned that the first step is always the hardest. As I said earlier, buying the plane ticket is a tough decision and it makes the trip feel so much more real. Planning and researching your travels is easy, but the act of physically leaving your family is the hardest.
You learn that you are never truly alone. There are always new travelers to meet and make friends with at hostels and it is very easy to do so. There were only a handful of times when I was actually alone (visiting the Tulum Ruins, Cenote Zaci, taking the buses to my next destination, and going out to eat a few times) even though I was traveling solo. You can choose how often you want to be alone. If you want to read a book or journal, you can often find a quiet spot in the hostel or at a nearby park. And if you want to meet people, just hang out in the common areas of the hostel and start chatting with somebody. I met some amazing people and lots of other female travelers like myself. We went out to eat together, visited ruins and cenotes. There was even two Australian girls who I met in Tulum, and then later met up with them again in Valladolid!
I learned that experiences are more valuable than material possessions. Before this trip, I was already making travel a priority by setting up a separate travel savings fund at my bank and depositing a large chunk of my paycheck into this account bi-weekly. After experiencing the joys of travel on my first solo trip and the amazing memories I made, it gave me even more of a reason to keep embracing minimalism and simplicity through pursuing my passions instead of accumulating wealth and more possessions that I don’t need. Experiences and memories last forever and they are worth so much more to me than “stuff” to clutter my life and my brain.
I learned that quality is better than quantity. A lot of people dream of traveling the world and visiting every continent or every country, checking items off of their bucket lists as they go. I learned that this is not my preferred style of traveling and that I would much rather spend more time in one destination and learn about its culture, history, language, and people than try to visit too many places in too short a time period.
I learned to love myself and be comfortable with who I am, my interests, passions and opinions, regardless of whether or not other people like those things too or agree with me. You spend a lot of time with yourself when you travel solo and have to learn to become comfortable with eating out on your own, doing things by yourself and believing in your capabilities and relying on your strengths to face and overcome difficult emotions, fears and unexpected challenges.
You learn to disconnect from technology. It is freeing to be able to turn off your Wi-Fi and go experience something amazing, without checking your phone to see if anyone messaged you, or seeing what new things your friends and family are up to on social media. Putting down the technology for a little bit helps you to truly live in the moment and take in everything around you without any distractions.
You learn that you still have so much to learn. There is so much that we don’t know about our world, the people, different cultures, religions, phenomenons, perspectives, etc.
A downside of traveling solo, are that you will feel lonely sometimes. The feeling of loneliness usually crept up on me most often when I was by myself in a quiet place, like traveling alone on a bus to my next destination, lying in bed before falling asleep, on the plane and in airports, and going for walks in the morning by myself. The natural and ancient beauty that I saw was magical, awe-inspiring and breathtaking and the places I ate at had the most delicious authentic food. It would also have been nice to share some of these experiences with my family. It was better when I visited the sights with travel friends, as then I could share the experience with someone. Realizing that I was completely alone and on my own for everything when I stepped off the plane into Mexico, was an overwhelming feeling at first, but once I started exploring and getting used to my surroundings, it quickly went away. When I felt lonely, I would text or call my mom and then hang out with people from my hostel to take my mind off of it.
Traveling solo is addicting. I felt like I was fully and truly alive and not just going through the motions of life. I was living in the moment, and using all of my senses to experience the culture, the natural beauty, the ancient history and food. Everywhere I went, there was something new and exciting to see and there were always new people to meet. I loved the feeling of going to sleep each night and not knowing what kind of adventure I might have the next day, what amazing new people I might meet, or what I might learn about the culture, history, cuisine or myself. There were adventures to be had in the smallest things, that you would take for granted in your own country, such as figuring out how to order food and buy a bus ticket using Spanish (the language barrier was more difficult than I was expecting), shopping for groceries, and navigating the streets of a new town or city.
What I also learned traveling solo, is that none of the things I (and others) feared or worried about, actually happened to me. I didn’t get murdered, kidnapped, robbed, caught in the cross fire of gang/drug violence, etc. I will admit, I was a little worried about my safety before I left for Mexico, because you just never know. But after walking alone in new cities and towns and feeling surprisingly very comfortable and safe, I realized that bad things can happen anywhere in the world. They can happen in your hometown, and you may never know how many times you came close to being harmed in the past (intentionally or by accident). As long as you have common sense, remain aware and alert to your surroundings and belongings and are informed about the safety issues and potential scams in your destination, you will more than likely be perfectly fine. The fear for your personal safety in a new place shouldn’t stop you from visiting that place.
The thing I love about solo travel is the amazing connections and friendships you can make with complete strangers. There are always new people to meet and hang out with in hostels and the common areas and dorms are a good place to introduce yourself to others. As an introvert, I had thought that approaching groups of people and initiating conversations would be scary and challenging, but it was actually so much easier than I expected and feared. Every day, I met new friends to hang out with in the evenings, chat with, go for lunch or dinner, go to ruins and cenotes and more. I feared that I would be lonely but when you travel solo, you are never truly alone (you hear this being said so many times from solo travelers and bloggers, and it is actually very true), and even when you are alone sometimes, you learn to become completely comfortable with yourself. There were only two activities that I did on my own; visiting Cenote Zaci in Valladolid and the Tulum Ruins. I rarely ate alone and I was always busy doing something, with someone else or a group of people. I kept in close contact with my family via texting and Skype phone calls throughout each day, which helped me to have peace of mind (although I still missed them, especially when laying in bed at night and everything was quiet, or traveling on buses alone, or on a flight, keeping in contact really helped with the loneliness).
Before I left home, I doubted my capabilities and feared that being introverted would limit me while traveling. But I learned that you do not need to have a certain personality (ie. outgoing and extroverted) to be a successful traveler. Fellow travelers are very welcoming and it is much easier to make friends than I thought it would be. If you are introverted and have a desire to travel, know that you are just as capable as anybody else to travel and figure things out on your own. Do not let your personality type limit you from truly experiencing everything that the world has to offer or stop you from traveling altogether.
Don’t let your fears stop you from traveling or pursuing any of your passions. Traveling solo is something I never thought I would actually go through with, but I did, and I am so proud that I did! I am already planning my next solo travels and will do it again in a heartbeat. I hope this blog will inspire you to consider traveling solo, or to take that next step if you are on the fence about it. The rewards are so worth it!