Read this if you're sick of hearing people say "you have to travel alone"
Chances are you’ve probably had someone tell you that you have to travel alone at some point in your life. Something about how solo travel is transformative and how every young person needs to try it.
As a general rule of thumb I try not to knock it till I try it so I’ll try just about anything once. After hearing over and over again about how amazing solo travel is I decided I had to see what all the hype was. I think travel is an experience best shared so I was skeptical to begin with but I consciously tried to keep an open mind.
FACT: It’s not all that it’s made out to be and I can safely say “I told you so” - traveling is infinitely better shared - even if it’s just with one other person.
To be clear, this was one of the best trips I’ve taken but it wasn’t because I went by myself.
Why Costa Rica?
My travel wish list is full of Latin American countries, mostly due to their proximity, natural beauty, adventure level, and affordability in comparison to other parts of the world. Costa Rica somehow floated to the top and I when started doing some research I was overwhelmed by how much there is to see and do. Costa Rica is a rare gem with an amazing coastline, deep rainforests, and a rich mountainous terrain but is also a difficult country to travel through. Since there aren’t always roads to get from point A to point B you often have to take a detour which can easily add a couple hours to the travel time. As someone who was going to be traveling alone and relying on buses I quickly realized that I wouldn’t be able to do everything I wanted and be efficient with my time.
I mentioned in passing to a coworker that I was trying to plan a trip and she said that she did a solo trip to Costa Rica and did a yoga and paddle boarding retreat in Santa Teresa. I shifted my search strategy and decided to look into different retreats and began to consider staying in one place for an extended period of time.
Anamaya Retreat Center
Usually when I travel I don’t like staying in one place too long and prefer to move around to make the most out of the trip - so being at Anamaya was definitely different and not how I would normally choose to explore. A retreat center was a cop-out of “traveling alone” since I was surrounded by the same people for the entire week but even so I felt as if I was on my own.
When I finally settled on Anamaya I signed up for the Yoga & Surf Retreat which is 10 yoga classes and 5 surf lessons, so everyday was a surf sandwich with morning and night yoga. Even though the daily schedule at Anamaya was busy this was the first time I’ve come back from traveling feeling rejuvenated, relaxed, and ready to fall back into a routine with a new energy.
Surfing was without a doubt the highlight of the trip. While Anamaya isn’t how I would normally choose to vacation I can’t think of any other way I would have been able to surf everyday for an entire week and actually get “good” at it (see footage below). I can’t compliment the instructors from Nicoya Surf School enough. They were attentive, clear with their instruction, genuinely cared about our progress and made me feel safe. Even after I got stung by a jellyfish.
Surfing is probably one of the most dangerously addictive sports. You can get good enough to ride waves within the first few tries; by the end of the first day all the beginners in our group had stood up at least once. From there it’s all technique and it’s easy to feel yourself get better and understand what you’re doing wrong. Being in the cool ocean, under the sun also makes you immune to feeling tired. I’d compare surfing to basketball: You can shoot a basketball and make a shot without knowing exactly what you did right and sometimes just by fluke -- but it takes a lot of practice to get consistently good.
Even though I was on a yoga and surf retreat I found surfing to be the most spiritual part of the trip.
Throughout the week we were split into a beginner group and a more advance group -- often going to different spots to catch different types of waves. Halfway through the week the only other beginner decided to take a day off which meant I would get a one on one lesson! That was a day after I had gotten really really sick so instead of trying to ride a lot of waves over and over again we focused on being selective of the waves I caught and worked on reading the ocean.
“The stronger the current dragging you into the ocean, the more powerful
the next wave will be”
Standing in the water at an isolated beach trying to predict one of the most powerful forces of nature I’d never felt so focused, calm, yet unsure of what was to come. Meditation is meant to help you become more mindful of your mind and body -- this was a heightened sensory experience of allowing my mind, body, and the ocean to come together.
Here is a video, not of the serenity but of me wiping out, purely for entertainment.
CAPTION: Sometimes you think you got it... but you really don't. I came up clutching my head because I crashed into the board as I fell off, that one hurt and that bruise lasted a few days. Real talk though -- I did eventually get the hang of it and I did get it on video for proof. Keep reading. P.S. Shout out to Katie Nulty for letting me borrow her GoPro for this awesome footage!
The idea of traveling alone didn’t make me nervous and I couldn’t imagine a situation when I’d feel the need to have someone with me. Part of me wants to attribute this to me being immune to anxiety and always open to adventure -- but I know better than that. Being alone makes you realize how often you rely on the kindness of strangers to get by.
Particularly in NYC, we’re groomed to be skeptical of strangers and their intentions but I prefer to believe that people, most people at least, are inherently good. A majority of that fear is buying into the idea that you are actually alone. We forget that some feelings, emotions, and fears are universal and exist beyond language and artificial boundaries and are part of the human experience.
When traveling it’s important to realize that you have opted into this experience and that you are a guest in someone else’s country -- not the other way around. This local resident did not ask for you to join their daily commute and look at them with skepticism and question their intentions.
There were two specific instances when a tiny voice in my head almost made me forget this.
When I got to San Jose I had a full day to unwind because I was taking the “vacation” portion of the trip pretty seriously. Since I had the time and I landed around 11am I took the local bus to get to my hostel. I had roughly looked up what this would be like but I didn’t have any service once I got there to map a route on my phone, look up stops, and calculate my travel.
I must have let at least three or four correct buses go by before I had the courage to board one that I was about 90% sure was going in the right direction and would take me where I needed. I knew I was going downtown but I didn’t know the name of my stop, how long it would take to get there, or pretty much anything else that would help me identify my hostel.
I had an address and I knew my hostel was in San Jose so I began to assess the people around me to decipher whether they’d judge my broken Spanish and be able to help me. I quickly became aware of how much I stood out and where my valuables were (I’m not proud of this). After some overly cautious judgements I showed the address to a few people who were able to help me out.
While I had a rough idea of Costa Rica’s geography I didn’t quite understand how addresses are laid out and the relevance of the different names (i.e. Street Address, City, State, Zip). I learned that me saying “my hostel is in San Jose” is the equivalent of getting on a bus in NYC and saying “my hotel is in New York”... yeah major facepalm.
After some gesturing and pointing the bus driver was able to help me out and I got to my hostel seamlessly, but not without me realizing how open everyone had been to helping me, despite my ignorance.
The second time was during my one on one surf lesson.
Our surf lessons were on a semi secluded beach that required us to walk about 30 minutes from our drop off point. The walk wasn’t a flat walk along the shore but more akin to a hike. We were in the jungle, going up hills, and soaked through with sweat by the end.
While walking with my instructor, the day of my one on one lesson, I suddenly realized I was walking alone in the jungle with a strange man with absolutely no one around me. We were walking to a somewhat private beach with very few people, the surf school was a couple shacks with surfboards and usually empty, and we’d be in the ocean by ourselves. There were subtle moments when I considered letting the tiny voice in my head takeover but I focused on letting my gut instinct dictate my choices.
Looking back I don’t know how I could have acted on this fear. Regardless, if I had held onto the apprehension that came with it it would have kept me from having my best day at sea.
So now what
Part of the glamour, atleast as people have explained, of traveling alone is learning something about yourself that you didn’t know before. Maybe I wasn’t away long enough and maybe I wasn’t alone enough.
But I burned through four books in a week, I wrote, I relished in deeper connections with fewer people and I sought adventure with nature. I’m not sure about a transformation but I came back even more of who I already was, for better or for worse.
The few pictures I managed to take
LEFT: View walking back from our evening surfing lessons. Felt like the gateway to paradise.
RIGHT: I started the week at Anamaya taking pictures of everything I ate but I quickly realized that every meal was just as delicious and colorful as the last. Hats off to chef Jeff for reinspiring me to experiment with new flavors and foods!
CAPTION: Proof that I did somewhat learn to surf.