I first traveled solo at age 24 and it changed my life. I honestly feel like there was the “Shelley” before that trip, and the me after who had more confidence, self-reliance, adventurousness, fearlessness and an insatiable appetite to see more, more, more.
At age 46, traveling solo continues to be a life-changing and life-affirming experience.
While at this current phase of my life, 17+ years into marriage to a wonderful (most of the time) man and 13+ years of being a parent to wonderful (most of the time) children, traveling solo is a different experience. In some ways, after living in a crowded house of kids and activities and pets and school projects, the solitude is welcome and appreciated. In other ways, I feel even MORE lonely. I’m just so used to being surrounded by people who need me. Or entertain me. Or complain to me. Or want something from me. Or want a ride. Or $20. Or homework help. Or a snack.
But this is why traveling alone – as a wife, parent and “suburban soccer mom” in my mid-40s – is important. It reinforces for me the fact that the adventurousness and joie de vivre of my youth is not behind me in the rearview. Adventures and new experiences are just as available to me today as they were in my 20s…
On My Own
My winter break trip started in Belize, where me, Adam and the kids went on vacation with his mom, his sister and her family. I’ll blog about Belize separately because it was amazing and I wholeheartedly recommend it for a family vacation. My CrazyTraveler trip started on Dec.31, when the Ducker crew was heading to the airport to return to things like “school” and “work.” But I (thanks to the schedule flexibility I have as a freelance communications consultant) hopped on a series of buses up to Chetumal, the border town with Mexico to travel/backpack there for two weeks.
You may ask, if I was already in Belize, why not stay in Belize?
First, I’m not a beach person. Second, I know from past experience that when traveling alone, I’ll have an easier time meeting people in off-the-beaten path, far-flung destinations. These are the places where backpackers are more motivated seek each other out and swap stories. So I chose to head to Chiapas, Mexico.
But isn’t Mexico dangerous?
Yes, I was aware of the travel warnings. But I assumed traveling in Mexico was a bit like traveling to Israel. If you solely rely on CNN, you’ll assume that Israel is a war zone every day. But if you go, people are living their lives, the cafes are open and the streets are teaming. Mexico was the same. The towns are charming, the churches beautiful and markets colorful with fruits and vegetables and flowers and indigenous women in intricately woven tops and skirts.
The artsy mountain town of San Cristobal de las Casas (SCDLC) was put on my bucket list map by someone I met last year on my Dec/Jan solo CrazyTraveler stop in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. My next door neighbor at my hostal, John, lived in SCDLC and raved about it. I googled it. I was hooked. So this year, I went. It doesn’t take much to lure me. I knew one person. The markets looked cool. The scenery looked beautiful. And there were some cool stops between Belize and Chiapas that would help divide up the journey and give the trip some structure. Bus ticket(s) got bought.
Blue Bacalar: The “Mexican Maldives”
When planning my route from Belize to SCDLC, I had a choice of bussing through Guatemala – which may have arguably been more direct. But as I checked out the route though northern Belize, I stumbled upon a photo of Laguna Bacalar. A freshwater lake that is Caribbean blue because of its depth, minerals and its limestone foundation. The beaches of Belize – which is literally on the Caribbean – could not rival the blues of this “lake of seven colors.” It was about a 40 minute detour passed the Chetumal border crossing town. I made my plan.
Highlight activities: Sunset boat ride in the lake. Smearing myself with the mineral rich mud of the lake and giving an unbelievable natural exfoliation to my sunburned skin. Late night stand-up paddle board in the middle of the lake to star gaze. Kayaking in some of the less explored areas of lake with my hostal owner.
- Highlight people connections: I arrived on New Years Day, alone. But one great thing about traveling alone is that you are rarely alone for long. The owners of Bacalar Camping/El Arbol de la Vida, took me in to their new years celebration. I had gone out for a long walk to explore the town in the morning, and when I arrived back at the hostel parched and tired, they poured me beer (after beer, after beer), fed me and welcomed me to sit in the communal area with some of their friends and other guests. After a New Years Eve celebration alone in a rather sketchy hotel on the Belize side of the border, I was thrilled with the companionship and friendliness!
Ten hours down the road by overnight ADO bus is the puebla of Palenque, which hosts a massive complex of Mayan temples and jaw-droppingly beautiful waterfalls.
Highlight activities: The ruins were beautiful, but – ouch! – the ancient temple staircases hard on the knees. My favorite was actually not the ancient man-made attractions, but the nearby waterfalls in the jungle. Cascadas Roberto Barrios had level after level to explore, each with swimming holes. Agua Azul and Miso-Ha also did not disappoint in their power and beauty. I swam in the natural pools. “showered” in the falls, hiked in caves behind the falls and more. ‘
- Highlight people connections:Meeting people on the road doesn’t always happen organically. Many times, it takes proactivity. But once I made the decision to be proactive in marching up to people and asking if I could join them, I built a community of friends in minutes. At the ruins, I was too cheap to hire my own guide. But when I passed by an English-speaking guide with an solo traveler Scotsman, I asked if I could join. We spent the day tackling the ancient temples and walking in the surrounding jungle with the guide.
- I hate eating dinner alone. But after a long day of exploring, I sat alone in a café feeling tired and a bit lonely. Then I heard English at a table across the room. The speakers were not backpackers. Two looked about my mom’s age. One resembled Santa Claus in girth and greyness. But they spoke English and were having an animated conversation. So I introduced myself and asked if I could join them. I ended up dining with some world-renowned experts on ancient Mayan culture, and a retiree – Diana- who was creating a new life for herself in Palenque, improving her Spanish and studying shamanism. I learned a ton, and even made plans for a waterfall hike & local animal sanctuary visit the next day. In fact, I ended up enjoying Palenque so much that I extended my time there…and even had a sleepover on Diana’s couch.
San Cristobal de las Casas
I generally hate arriving into places at night, alone. But SCDLC was charming even when my bus pulled in at 11pm after a 7 hour drive from Palenque on a curvy mountain road. It was an adventure trying to wheel my bag on the town’s cobblestone streets to my hostel, but even late at night, cafes were open and street lanterns lit the way. In the morning, I got to roam the squares and churches and town squares by daylight…and eat/shop my way through the town.
Highlight activities: Eating, shopping, navigating myself to the churches that ring the city, and venturing out to two nearby towns of Chamula and Zincacantan. There, indigenous Tzotzil Mayan communities wear sheep’s wool coats and flower-woven tapestries and where the local Catholic church rituals reflect Mayan traditions, and as such host shamans and healers and chicken sacrifices (which I heard about but was not lucky enough to see).
- Highlight people connections: In Guatemala last year, I bonded with John in the courtyard of our hostel, sharing beers and stories and wisdom. He is very much a cerebral & spiritual seeker, while I am more an adventure/see-do-touch physical experience seeker. But we had great talks back then. And although we’d really only been in touch via a few Facebook messages over the year, we picked up where we left off. John guided me to a restaurant where I had the best mole sauce of my life, and he generously shared his insights and wisdom with me. I am a chatterbox, I know, and I rarely “go deep.” John lives in that deep, and taught me so much about myself in our conversations. Building those sort of connections are the best part of traveling alone. I’m glad I have an excuse to go back to SCDLC and check in on him.
Whether its called Mexico City, El Centro D.F. or CDMX, what can be said about “La Ciudad” beyond AMAZING. My two days there were not enough to scratch the surface. I splurged on a hotel that had hammocks on its roof and that was built directly into one of the historic cathedrals in Alameda Park. I took advantage of several free walking tours and explored the historical center/Zocalo by day did a nighttime food tasting taco tour in La Roma Norte neighborhood at night. (Well, really Ok, I taco tasted every day, this one was just guided and supervised!)! I wandered the La Merced local market as well as the more touristy Zona Rosa and Zocalo artisan markets. I drank cheap beers and smoky mezcals. I tried pozole, a traditional Mexican corn and meat soup that has its roots in Aztec feasts of human sacrifice. (Let’s just say the original meat in the soup wasn’t chicken.)
The Wrap Up: Falling in Love with Life Again
The trip was amazing. Amazing scenery. Incredible food. Interesting people. Safe. Even my stomach held up…for the most part. And I even got a few hot showers. Not every time, but most of the time.
As always, after this adventure I came back both exhausted and refreshed. Importantly, I came back in love with life again.
That is what travel does for me.
I admit, I am not always in love with homework help and carpool pick-ups and scheduling orthodontist appointments and managing my freelance writing/communications consulting projects and worrying about what to make for dinner (or microwave, it is me we’re talking about!). I’m glad that – thanks to my incredibly supportive husband and local, helpful parents – I am able to have my feet in both worlds and move between “CrazyTraveler Shelley” and “Mama Shelley” so organically…and so frequently!!
Looking forward to more trips ahead.
WHO WANTS TO COME WITH ME FOR A FEW WEEKS THIS SUMMER?
I’m planning a trip in the mid-July to mid-Aug timeframe (July 16 – Aug 10 specifically) while my kids are at sleepaway camps. Thinking about Turkey, or India (again!!), or Cambodia, or Thailand, or Mongolia, or…or…or…. I’m open to suggestions. If you have an itch to be a CrazyTraveler with me this summer or in the future, shoot me a note!