What it’s REALLY Like to Travel Solo and How You Can Too

by - August 23, 2022

Travelling solo, especially across international borders, is quite a scary thing to do. It requires bravery, a sense of adventure and a lot of careful planning.

When I decided to solo-travel to Costa Rica in 2019, despite all the things I could have been concerned about, my biggest fear was being lonely in a foreign country, having a miserable time and coming home with a sense of regret for having wasted a lot of money.

Being South African didn't help either as the rand (our currency) doesn't get us very far and we tend to be hyper-aware of crime to the extent that our concerns for our safety in an unfamiliar country make us reluctant to journey into the unknown. (Even more daunting if you’re a woman.)

In this post, I'm going to tell you what my experience of solo travelling was like in the hopes that it will inspire others to do the same and then I'm going to tell you how to plan a solo trip safely, relatively inexpensively (travelling is always somewhat pricey) and to a country that will have you (if you have a weak passport like mine).  

Solo traveller on beach at sunset


My solo travelling experience

Why I wanted to go on a solo trip:

In 2019 I decided to go on my first properly solo trip. Working on cruise ships, I had had many solo adventures in different ports and it was time to level up. There were a few reasons that I wanted to do this: 

  • Firstly, I had just left my career on cruise ships a few months earlier and in a way, I felt as if I had left a serious relationship. (We ended things amicably and I might go back one day but I felt I needed time and space to process things.) 
  • I had also just spent five years travelling because of my work and I just wanted to take back control of my destination and itinerary. I desperately wanted to watch the sun set over a warm ocean (not you Western Cape) without feeling like I had to rush back to be on a ship and back at work before nightfall. 
  • Also, I had just lost my father and losing a parent warrants a grief-cation — That's a thing, people! I didn't make that up! 
  • Finally, and I don’t want to admit this, but it’s become something of a cliche for single 35+ women who have read Eat, Pray, Love to want to go off on a hopefully life-changing solo adventure to rediscover ourselves when life turns out differently from what we expected. #justsaying

What I was looking for:

  • People: As an extrovert, I was afraid of paying a lot of money to go halfway around the world to be lonely and miserable. I didn't want to stay in an Airbnb by myself and have to go out of my way to find people to interact with. I wanted to stay in a hostel or backpackers so there would be people around me if I wanted to hang out with them but I also wanted to be free and safe to go off on my own and just be. 
  • Purpose: I also wanted an activity to engage in so that I felt had a reason to be there.

Why I chose Costa Rica 

  • It’s safe. (I learned this from many a Facebook group for solo women travellers. Costa Rica is practically a solo female traveller’s beginner country. It gets you your yellow belt in female solo travelling karate.
  • It's inexpensive. (Well, it’s Third World prices.) 
  • No visas are required for South Africans. 
  • I do love Latin culture. 
Bicycle silhouette on beach

Why I chose the town of Jaco, specifically 

  • It was on the Western Pacific coast. (Sunsets over the ocean = √)
  • Being on the Pacific coast, it meant there were waves, good ones and with them, surfers. I would go there to learn how to surf. (Activity =√) 
  • And I would stay in a surf hostel. (People to interact with = √)
  • Being in a small town with a reputation for being a safe place for solo female travellers (safety = √), I knew I would be able to walk around and wouldn’t have to rely on expensive or unfamiliar transport systems. (Transport = √)

Why I chose Selina:

I looked at a number of hostels in Jaco and I settled on Selina. I wanted to be right on the beach so that I didn’t have to spend money on transport if I discovered it was not as close as it appeared on the map. I also wanted to be within safe walking distance of a supermarket and local restaurants, and it was. The price was very reasonable and it also had free Wifi. Also, it just looked pretty! 

Exterior of Selina Hostel, Jaco, Costa Rica

It was everything I dreamed it would be:

The dorms

There was a range of accommodation options available. Male dorms, female dorms, mixed dorms, all of varying sizes. There were also private rooms/concrete pipe things, that looked somewhat sustainable or repurposed or Instagrammable. Definitely one of those three!

I opted for a bed in a 14-bed female dorm room. (It was cheap.) It was actually subdivided into 4 sections.  Some nights I had my section to myself, other nights it was full of girls, some of which had to lie in their friend’s beds loudly whispering to them about all their boy-related issues while said friend played dead, probably to indicate that she really wanted to sleep.  The other girl did not get the message. 

Dorm room exterior, Selina hostel, Jaco

The people I met

I met a lot of interesting people, most of whom were back-packing throughout Costa Rica and just stopping here for a night or two. I was almost made to feel like I was doing it wrong by staying put and not just transiting Jaco like it was a minor stop on a bigger tour. 

I met a Brazilian guy in the swimming pool who I later met up with for a cup of tea. Then there was the strange American lady who was staying for the entire summer (for a reason I can’t quite remember) and was unable to go out in the heat of the day. She behaved like that one lady in your apartment complex who always knows who’s coming and going and shouts at you if you temporarily park in the wrong spot for even two minutes.  There was an unusual religious group and a pair of German girls who had worked “really hard” at a MacDonalds for about three months so that they could use the money they earned to travel the world for another nine. I also met some people playing Uno one night in the kitchen area who I ended up clubbing with. 

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Surfers watch sunset over ocean on beach


My usual routine:

I would wake up, cover myself in sunscreen and then hit the supermarket where I bought a drink and empanadas. From there I went to the beach where I would walk, swim, chill in the shade, have lunch, and swim some more. I would head back to the hostel at sunset, have a dip in the pool, followed by a shower and then I would take myself to dinner. 

Pool at Selina Hostel, Jaco, Costa Rica

There were many restaurants to choose from. On one of the first nights, I stumbled upon a beautiful Italian place where I sat in a garden in the warm open air. It felt romantic and exciting even though I was totally alone. Every night I went somewhere different, there was a mix of fancy international places and inexpensive diners run by people who didn’t speak English.

The evenings were a bit muggy and it often rained warm rain on me. I was worried that this would be the loneliest and most awkward part of my trip but I felt a sense of peace hanging in the air like the humidity.


Italian restaurant in Jaco, Costa Rica


How I organised my activities:


Surf lessons

I was determined to do some surf lessons. I didn’t have to go very far to find those. There were the very overpriced tourist-centric lessons where all participants got matching T-shirts and a professional photographer was on hand to capture the moment if they actually managed to stand up on their boards. (I did not do that tour.)  Then on the beach, there are plenty of people in their own gazebos with their branded banners who can call their friends to teach you to surf. 

Pro tip: The further down the beach you go away from the hostels, the cheaper it gets.
 
I did two surf lessons, each with a different instructor:
The first guy claimed to be a former Costa Rican World surfing champion. Yeah, and do you know how many cruise ship guests I met who had met a “prince from South Africa” and were surprised when I didn’t recognise his name?  Mr World Champion was full of professional advice as he instructed me to keep my hands on my board in line with my “boobies”. He also invited me to his house for a full-body massage, free with my lesson. Yeah, I passed on that offer…

My second surf instructor was a lot less creepy. He was a Russian guy who had lived in Cape Town and he was kind enough to carry me over the rocky uncomfortable section of the beach but not in a creepy way. 
The guy who organised my non-dodgy-surf lesson was a guy known by the locals as "Javi-Rasta." (Just to backtrack, in my experience, Javiers are to Latin people what Ryans are to white people. Yes, there are some ugly ones but most of them are hot.) 

Anyway, Javi-Rasta just happened to be playing volleyball at my hostel after I messaged him to confirm my lesson. I mentioned that I was going to a dance class at the local Mexican restaurant and he came to join me. 

Surf School on Jaco Beach, Costa Rica

Dance classes

As you may know, I absolutely love Salsa (which is obviously from Cuba). Bachata (from the Dominican Republic) is cool too. So when they had Salsa and Bachata lessons twice a week at the local Mexican restaurant taught by a Floridian man, even though absolutely none of this had anything to do with Costa Rica, I went along with the rest of the tourists for an authentically interesting Latin cultural experience. 

I think Javi-Rasta may have been the only local to go to Salsa night at the Mexican restaurant in the history of Jaco. He didn't offer me a free full-body massage like the creepy guy but perhaps he was hoping I'd give him one? I can't imagine what else would have inspired him to go there that night.


Boogie boarding


I rented a boogie board on the first day and then bought a cheap one the day after that (for roughly the price of two days’ rental) so when I wasn’t attempting to surf, I would entertain myself on that. Boogie Boarding is so underrated! It’s not just for inland kids visiting surf towns on vacation, okay?

Boogie boarding on Jaco Beach, Costa Rica

Hiking waterfalls in the rainforest 

I wanted to do more than just exploring the beaches of Costa Rica so I decided to go climbing waterfalls in the rainforest. In order to do this safely, I booked a tour through Airbnb. The site allows you to message the tour guides so I managed to join a tour that other people had already booked. I didn’t want to book a tour only to discover that I was the only one and find myself alone with some stranger in the middle of the rainforest. 

I used Uber to get there. FYI: It turns out that Uber is illegal in Costa Rica. I don’t know if that is still the case but it was in 2019. You can still use it, there’s still a digital footprint of where you are and who you are with, so it is still a lot safer than other forms of transport. The driver may just get into trouble with the law. Therefore, they asked me to sit in the passenger side of the car with them instead of the backseat and I was happy to oblige. I do love talking to strangers and Uber drivers often make for great conversation. 

If you’re going to do this and you do not have international roaming on your phone, I recommend checking with your tour guide before the tour if they are able to give you Wifi access after the tour to hail a ride share service or schedule a pick up in advance. 

Hiking through the rainforest was quite magical. We saw quite a lot of wildlife, sampled some local fruit (I can't remember what it was called but it was similar to a pomegranate) and jumped into some waterfalls.

TMI: I may have been mid-pee when one of the other people on my tour asked the guide if they have those fish in Costa Rica that swim up your urethra. He confirmed that they do not. Those are found in the Amazon. 

Solo traveler stands in waterfall in rainforest in Costa Rica
Always wanted to be in a Timotei shampoo commercial.


And, finally watching sunsets

This is what I went for:

Sunset over Jaco Beach, Costa Rica

And:

Beautiful sunset over Jaco Beach, Costa Rica

 

How to Plan Your First Solo Trip

Step 1: Choose a Destination

The first thing you need to consider is where to go, taking into consideration where you can afford to go and any visa restrictions. 

If you have an SA passport and a budget to match, I’ll summarise your options for you:

  • South / Central America
  • Asia
  • Some other countries in Africa

Things you should look for in a solo trip destination:

  • A place that is safe for solo female travellers. (There are loads of internet forums and Facebook groups filled with adventurous ladies who will give you advice on this.)
  • Safe and reliable forms of transport (i.e. familiar ride-share services) or the ability to walk safely between locations.
  • Safe and incredible experiences that you can treasure for a lifetime. 

Solo traveler on Jaco Beach, Costa Rica
This is how safe Jaco is: You can set your timer, run this far from your phone (that's me)
 and when you come back, it's still there!


Step 2: Confirm that you have the right visas and vaccinations to go there

Or get them. 

Step 3: Buy a ticket

Google Flights is one way to discover cheap flights as well as Cheap Flights. Always compare the rate on a third-party site to the rate offered directly by the airline. If you’re going to more than one location, check out Kiwi.

Step 4: Plan your accommodation

If you are an extrovert like me, I recommend hostels. If you are an introvert, Airbnb or Booking.com is a good way to go but make sure to familiarise yourself with the cancellation policies before you book and make sure that they have good ratings. Always read the reviews. And make sure it has free wifi if you can’t afford roaming. 

Pool at Selina Hostel, Jaco, Costa Rica at Night
 

Step 5: Plan your activities

No one wants to go halfway around the world and feel lonely and miserable. Activities give you a sense of purpose. They also give you people you can interact with so you can make friends.

Step 6: Plan how you will get around

Factor in the travelling distance between where you intend on staying and the activities you want to participate in. If you can stay within walking distance of them, that’s great. If not, familiarise yourself with the public transport system, its prices, route maps and schedules, as well as transport packages. Figure out where to buy what public transport card and download apps in advance that may help you navigate them. 

Step 7: Plan how you will stay in touch

It’s important to communicate with family back home especially if you are travelling alone. Roaming can sometimes be crazy expensive. Research local cellphone networks and the packages they offer before you go or make sure that your accommodation comes with free WiFi.

Solo cruising is also a great way to travel solo and possibly one of the simplest and safest ways to plan a solo trip. 

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Step 8: Plan a budget for all of the above

Also, investigate bank fees if you're going to use your credit card or figure out how to get ahold of local currency. 

Surfer at Jaco Beach, Costa Rica

Safety Tips for Solo Travelling Internationally

  • Communicate with people back home all the time. 
  • Have emergency numbers on you. 
  • Make sure someone knows where you’re going if you go on a tour. 
  • Know how to claim from insurance or cancel your credit card before you go.
  • Carry a door stopper. It sounds weird but a lot of female solo travellers do this. If you are staying alone (not in a 14-bed hostel dorm room like me) and you’re worried that someone may have a key to your room, pop a door stopper under the door so that even with the key, it’s harder for people to break in. 
  • Don’t do anything that makes you uncomfortable. No matter how innocent it may seem. If you're an amicable people-pleaser like myself, prepare your excuses in advance. I always bring my family into everything: “My family would be upset with me if they knew I was  _____.” 
    • "…hiking alone in the rain forest alone with a complete stranger" 
    • “…getting into an unmarked taxi” 
    • “…getting a full-body massage from my surf instructor,” etc. 
  • If you're South African, your completely ingrained safety culture will go a long way to keeping you safe, so just behave like you would at home. 
  • Act confident, even if you’re not. You will be less of a target if you do. 
  • Always ask the locals what is not considered a safe place or activity for you to experience. 
  • And whatever you do, don't watch Taken on the plane!
Beach chairs at Jaco Beach, Costa Rica

Other tips

  • Buy flights on your credit card. You usually get free travel insurance this way. 
  • When you find a deal through a third-party site, whether it’s flights or accommodation, always check if you can get the same deal (or a slightly better one) through the company directly. 
  • Plan your transfer from the airport to your accommodation well so you don’t get caught by nasty surprises. 
  • Download offline maps and the offline version of the local language on Google Translate. (This was very helpful when I got flashed in Havana.) 
  • Make sure to let your credit card company know where you are going so they don’t block your account if they see what might otherwise be considered suspicious activity. 

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6 comments

  1. I just travelled for the first time by myself in June. It was such an experience! These are all tips that are helpful for people to know before they travel. Thank you for sharing

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  2. Oooh I've found this so interesting! I'm someone who has often considered traveling solo but stuck in a bit of fear. This has given me some great inspiration!

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  3. Thanks for sharing your experience as a solo female traveler - I am excited to visit Costa Rica, and I'm glad you found it safe.

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  4. Your Costa Rican adventure sounds amazing. Such fantastic travel tips! I grew up in a beach town (Richards Bay) and owned and used a boogie board and my son has one now - it's great fun in the surf. Timotei... LOL!

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  5. I’ve been to Costa Rica and it is a beautiful, laid back country with a lot of stray dogs! I’d love to take a Eat, Pray, Live Trip. Thanks for the info on how to do it!

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  6. Fantastic tips! I did my first solo trip to the UK in 2008 and I planned it out as much as possible. I was lucky that I had friends living in London so I could crash at their place for a few days. I'm curious about the door stopper - I've never seen one, but it sounds like a great idea.

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