Upon arriving at Los Angeles International Airport for my flight to Peru, I felt a few extra butterflies floating around in my stomach.
I’m not your typical worrywart or even a nervous flier, but this trip had me more anxious than other getaways because for the first time in a long time, I was going it alone.
There was no travel partner to lend a hand in carrying my extra-large backpack through the check-in process, no one there to help me find LAX’s notoriously difficult international gates, and no one beside me to assist when I got off the plane in Cusco, a city I had never been to in a country I had never visited. But all those jitters paled in comparison to the one thought lurking in the back of my mind during the entire nine-hour flight: What if I don’t make any friends?
I was headed to South America for an over-the-top adventure to Machu Picchu with Mountain Lodges of Peru, a company specializing in unique experiences for the “active-upscale traveler,” a category of tourist we'd all like to be considered a part of.
Mountain Lodges offers three different options to choose from: The Salkantay trek, the grand Andean experience, and the Lares adventure. Each trip only takes a handful of people for a five or seven day trek through some of Peru’s untouched mountain areas, meaning I was about to have the experience of a lifetime with a few total and complete strangers, and the way I interacted with them could make or break my travels.
While traveling alone is without question a journey of self-discovery, it’s also nice to meet like-minded sightseers along the way. The Lares adventure indeed offered me the opportunity to share in my exploration with others, but it also gave me the chance to seek out those moments of solitude every solo traveler is hunting for.
But when the sun has set on each day of your trek, you want to be able to share in the joy with new friends and companions (preferably over a locally-made dinner and cocktails). Here are a few tips I learned along the Inca Trail in Peru that might help you make the most of your solo trip without feeling too lonely along the way.
Do your homework before you go.
Traveling to a new place usually means acclimating to a new way of life. To help you make friends in the country you’re traveling to, it’s important to do your homework and understand what is and isn’t acceptable behavior for both locals and tourists. And doing your homework could even mean attempting to learn a few basic phrases in the national language. Not only will this show you’re respecting the culture you’re entering, but it will also help you survive your trip. Moreover, you can share your newfound language skills and knowledge with fellow travelers throughout your tour. For quick language skills, try apps like Duolingo and Babble to pick up a few key words and phrases in no time.
Share with your new friends in more ways than one.
Along the Inca Trail, I had the pleasure of sharing key tips I read about before heading to South America, such as packing wet wipes, as there are no toilets on the trail. I made sure to pack enough wet wipes, hand sanitizer, and ibuprofen for myself and a few to share just in case. Not only did all those things come in handy, but nearly everyone on my trip enjoyed having the little luxuries as well, or were willing to trade some of their extras for mine.
During my hikes, I also engaged in what could be the most useful practice for solo travelers in the modern age: offering to take photos for someone else’s Instagram. Not only did this allow me to chat with other people on my route, it also gave me the opportunity to ask them to return the favor. It was in these tiny moments that I was most able to bond with my group and create new shared and solo memories.
And at the end of each day, under the stars in the Peruvian mountains, we’d share our favorite photos, stories, and learnings. These conversations always grew far past our favorite destinations in Peru to include our favorite travel experiences from around the globe, sharing interesting tips, tricks, and best practices for seeing the world.
Ask as many questions as you can.
Arriving in Cusco, the first thing you notice is the city’s astonishing beauty with its old-world churches resting inside a valley of lush, green mountains. The next thing you notice is your throbbing headache, as Cusco is located more than 11,000 feet above sea level.
When I approached the hotel concierge looking bleary-eyed and rubbing my temples, he suggested drinking a bit of local coca tea to help mitigate my impending migraine. He told me that the tea, typically made by brewing raw coca leaves, is used widely in the Andes Mountains to relieve headaches, altitude sickness, and a plethora of other illnesses. While coca leaves aren’t a proven remedy for everything that ails you, those tiny, bitter, green leaves can help ease a headache thanks to their stimulant properties (just don’t try to bring them back to the United States).
After learning about my new headache remedy, I happily shared it with the other adventure-seekers on my trip, who in return shared everything they had learned along the way with me. These two-way conversations with locals and fellow travelers helped to deepen the solo experience as I now got to take in the entire trip through not only my eyes, but through my group’s experience as well.
Go with the flow (and know when to go it alone).
Each night, our intrepid Lares adventure guides would explain the two different activities available to us the following day: a hike or a cultural excursion.
Though up to each individual, it was always more fun to experience something unique together, such as visiting the master weavers in Pisac, who taught us how they dye their alpaca wool using vegetation, or hiking up to the isolated community of Viacha to learn about the 4,000 different varieties of potatoes that grow in Peru.
And while being a solo traveler means often making sacrifices to go with the flow, it’s important to remember why you’re there and when to break off from the pack to go it alone. Exploring a place in complete solitude allows you to get an unobstructed view of a place, with no outside influences guiding your way. Take the time to stop, breathe, and be alone. That way, you’ll have plenty to talk about with any and all new friends at the local watering hole.