Everyone was talking to the person they were sitting next to. Some had arms propped up on the chairs of their acquaintances, while others were laughing at a shared phone screen or staring at the same map. See, I casually scanned the circle of 11 people I was about to sit down with when I entered the office, and those were the results of my observation. My conclusion? I was the only solo traveler in the briefing room, and subsequently, the only solo traveler on my 5-day Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu.
The warm smiles and introductions began shortly after I took my seat. There were 11 names to memorize, and they were all spoken in varying accents, but all came from seemingly friendly and enthusiastic people. Without asking, the group quickly figured out that I had flown to South America by myself, and that they were the only friends I had in the entire continent. Thankfully, every single one took it upon themselves to act that way.
Throughout the briefing, Felix offered many opportunities to highlight my status as a solo traveler. “Okay, four people maximum to a tent. Who plans on sharing tents with who? Okay, you three are together, you two, you two…and Miss Katie, you will be by yourself?” I knew that the trip would be wildly humorous when one of the three late-20s Bavarian guys exclaimed that I was more than welcome to be the fourth person in their tent; I politely declined, even though it later occurred to me that I would have been significantly warmer if I had just accepted their offer.
There is something rather empowering about shivering in a tent in a foreign country by oneself. This helped me balance out the fact that I wasn’t at all being self-sufficient on this trip, since we had an 18-man portering team complete with a trail chef to take care of us the whole time. But in those 2 AM moments, when I was one base layer away from turning into a human icicle, with no heat-producing companion to curl up next to, full-blown survivalist mode kicked in. Sometimes I contracted and released all the muscles in my body over and over again to keep blood flowing, like some strange fabricated seizure. Other times, I would spend five to ten minutes exhaling all the warm air in my lungs into my sleeping bag. Every now and then I even considered shacking up with the Bavarians, but I refused to be that dependent…even though they quickly became family as we continued along the trail.
Most of the time, large guided group treks like this one bring together people of varying physical capabilities. Someone else will probably always be around to keep you company, no matter how fast or how slow you cover trail, We had the freedom to move at whatever pace was comfortable when traveling between ruins and lunch stops. My pace was always dependent on my prior day’s activity level, my prior night’s quality of sleep, and the intensity of the eagerness emulating from my always-itchy trigger finger on my camera. Sometimes I was near the front, sometimes in the middle, and sometimes at the end. There were long stretches through thick forest settings on rocky, inclining terrain that required the motivating and entertaining company of others. However, I was more connected with the wide open stunning views when I was alone.
The lure of being a solo traveler in a large tour group is that you have complete control over the level of human interaction that you involve yourself in throughout the experience. Solitude enriched certain parts of hiking the Inca Trail, while the companionship of my amazing trail family enriched many others (if any of you are reading this, sexy alpacas forever!!!). My tent was my space. Cold, stinky, and technically rented, yes. But during those three nights (and then again on the fourth night alone in my hotel room in Aguas Calientes), I was able to reflect on the wondrous beauty that I had witnessed, the sheer distance that I had covered on my own two feet, and even the twisting path that my life took to bring me to Peru in the first place.
With all of that being said, though, humans do need interaction…or, at least, I certainly do. Whether it takes the form of a quick smile between strangers, or five days of group hiking, we thrive on being able to share moments with other people. In that sense, one of the survival requirements for a solo traveler is to find people that can satisfy the need for simple companionship. Most travelers bring along their own companions, the way they would bring their own toiletries. That way, when they get wherever they are going, they will neither need to find new friends nor buy a new toothbrush.
I am perpetually doing both. And while it is unfortunate that I have wasted so much money, plastic bristles and cardboard packaging over the past year, I find true radiating happiness in the knowledge that there are people all over this world with whom I have shared experiences. Two years ago, I would have called this “stepping out of my comfort zone.” Today, I am proud to consider it a simple survival technique.