I love solo travel, but anonymous travel is what I really need

written by Sinead Mulhern April 3, 2024

A British mailman, a Tasmanian tour guide and a Canadian writer walk onto a boat and are shipped out to sea.  

It sounds like the set-up for a great joke but that was my reality as I hopped onto the Grand Queen Beatriz yacht for a four-day adventure around Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands. The Galapagos is one of the crown jewels of South America drawing people from all over the world. Although I’d been living in Ecuador for years, I had yet to visit. I had only heard tales of impeccable waters, mesmerizing landscapes and one-of-a-kind wildlife.  

The adventure is one I’ve signed up for alone. Solo travel, in my view, is a worthy form of exploration. No overly stuffed travel partner’s itineraries to abide by. I can lean into introvert pursuits when I want. I get to call the shots. And as someone who lives alone and writes about travel, solo travel is a situation I’m comfortable with as it’s one I find myself in relatively often. 

That particular spring had been a busy one: I’d hosted family and friend visits back-to-back. I’d led and launched a big project. I’d just celebrated a birthday, one I greeted by sobbing into my pillow (don’t ask), and I found myself wondering if this will finally be my year (no self-inflicted pressure or anything). Despite the fact that it was only May, I’d travelled lots already that year. 

Life was rolling along fine enough though. But even the good days come with anxiety, unknowns, responsibility and the need to pause, assess and step outside of routine. I live an admittedly blessed life but still, I needed to disconnect from it for a hot second.  

So as our trip kicks off, I’m looking to chill. I just hope the energy of this group trip matches mine and I try to read the vibes of the British mailman, the Tasmanian tour guide and the handful of others joining me on this ‘solo’ trip. 

Heading off on the Grand Queen Beatriz

Arriving as a solo traveller in a group can feel so much like the first day of school. My eyes are peeled as I look for new friends while showcasing my personality – but not too much.  

My sense of humour has always been rather dark, sarcastic and quick-witted. If you ask me, humour is the best way to bond. The best people I know are the ones who I can spend hours laughing with. Nothing’s better than finding a kindred spirit who can take my teasing and shoot back a witty comeback. The person who can come up with an absurd one-liner that draws roaring laughter from the group is my person. Be ridiculous, be inappropriate, be clever, just don’t be boring.  

I first pick up on Claire’s dry humour in the Quito airport as we wait at our gate to board our flight to San Cristobal where we’ll board the yacht, and she offers to buy me a coffee. I accept but only after peppering the conversation with way too many, ‘Oh you shouldn’t haves’ and ’I promise I’ll get the next ones.’ Classic Canadianisms that I apparently didn’t shake when I moved south. 

‘Yeah because after paying for a bedroom on a yacht in the Galapagos and flying all the way to Ecuador from Tasmania, this coffee is really what’s going to set me back,’ she quips with glinting eyes and a smirk. I like her already.  

I hit it off pretty much immediately with Claire and Mark, the mailman from the UK. I’m not sure exactly when we formed our unlikely trio. It was either over light-hearted teasing as we ate shrimp and the catch of the day or during coffee one morning. All I know is that when the chuckles started, they soon turned to red-faced laughter.  

Regardless, unlikely friends would be a good way to put it. We are decades apart in age, work in different industries and come from separate parts of the world. There’s no way we’d ever cross paths in our day-to-day lives, but in the Galapagos, we become fast friends as we sail through salty Pacific waters past volcanoes, blue footed boobies, cactus-covered islands and cities of sea lions. 

Mark, Sinead (centre) and Claire in The Galapagos.

We’re sitting together in the dining room before getting ridiculously flippered up to snorkel. It’s that moment when Mark bravely – boldly? – decides to make his Spanish debut.   

In my travels around South America, I often praise Europeans for the way they navigate foreign languages with such ease. I say this with love and tons of smart-assery: the British are absolutely exempt from this (not that Canadians deserve much credit either).  

Mark’s Spanish, bless his heart, has the grace of a sea lion launching itself off the deck and splashing into the sea. (I try not to criticise others’ language efforts considering that my own Spanish often deftly misses the mark. But I did this time.)  

He utters a few phrases to the server in a friendly attempt to make chit-chat. The server looks at me. His entire face is a question. I look at Claire. Claire’s expression is priceless. I look at Mark. Mark looks at me.  

‘Am I saying it right?’ he asks me.  

Claire can’t hold in her laughter. ‘It doesn’t look like you are!’ she says.  

We all laugh. He knows we’re laughing with him of course. I correct him but he continues to pronounce estabalike a bleating sheep.  

The days in the Galapagos wear on. Despite it being a solo trip, I’m rarely alone. We snorkel together and spot sapphire blue fish swimming in giant schools. We sit on the deck and let the wind tousle our hair as the Ecuadorian skies shift from blue to pink to mango orange. We tread on islands scarred by past volcano eruptions. I swim next to Claire as we spot a baby shark, sea lions doing backflips, manta rays and penguins. I gasp, inhale saltwater through my snorkel and proceed to almost choke. The Galapagos is stunning. All jokes aside, it really is a once-in-a-lifetime-experience. Cheesy? Of course. True? Totally.  

I’m having so much fun aboard the Grand Queen Beatriz with our quick-witted banter and dry sarcasm. In one moment, Claire dryly makes an off-the-cuff remark about wanting to push one of our fellow passengers off the boat. In another, I almost jump out of a fishing boat when a menacing sea lion pops up to hiss at me.  

It’s only in the quiet of my cabin one night towards the end of the cruise that it occurs to me that I haven’t given my regular life one single thought in days. I’m not wondering about the guy I’ve started seeing whose “Good morning” texts I’m now missing. I’m not thinking about the project I’ve been working on or clients’ needs. I haven’t thought about the freelancer cheques going unpaid or the stressful questions often posed to single, travelling 31-year-old women like me.  

It feels like my “real” life is on pause. And it’s a much-needed relief. One I didn’t know I needed. Before the trip, I had thought of myself as a solo traveller. But as I lean into jokes and deep-belly laughter with two near strangers off grid in the middle of the ocean, it occurs to me that I’m not travelling solo at all. What I’m really doing is travelling anonymously. Had I travelled to the Galapagos truly alone, I’m sure I’d be overthinking certain day-to-day stresses. I never seem to underthink them. And if I’d travelled with friends, that’s probably what we’d be talking about. 

As I lean into jokes and deep-belly laughter with two near strangers off grid in the middle of the ocean, it occurs to me that I’m not travelling solo at all. What I’m really doing is travelling anonymously.

Mark, Claire and I don’t know the intricacies of each other’s lives other than what we’ve chosen to divulge on this four-day trip through paradise. Here, I can be with others and enjoy their wise cracks, laugh and share a beer. These newfound friends don’t know much about me other than the basics and my personality. That’s what’s refreshing. They don’t have a bias. They don’t have any stake. They don’t care. Our lives have nothing to do with each other and that’s perhaps why we’re better able to relax and genuinely enjoy each other’s company fully.  

This is where the real mental breaks happen. No awkward dynamics to dodge, no gossip to avoid, no pressuring questions about life milestones, questions about the future (which I often can’t or don’t want to answer), talk about work, or accidentally venturing into no-go topics of conversation. No stretches of silence and solitude for the tribulations of life back home to creep into. We’re just here to be silly, off-the-rails and as mischievous as the sea lions.  

When the cruise comes to an end, the Grand Queen Beatriz docks. We leave the boat behind and I wobble on my sea legs which now feel like overcooked spaghetti noodles. We wave the Galapagos goodbye and fly back to Quito. It’s the no man’s land between paradise and reality and so it’s only natural to go to the hotel bar and cheers one last time. With the island adventure now in the rearview, we re-cap the highlights. I’m in a fit of laugher with tears streaming down my face when a traveller at the bar interjects.  

‘I can’t help but overhear your conversation. It sounds like you had a great time. My tour starts tomorrow,’ he says. He’s travelling with his partner on what very well could be the exact trip we just finished.  

‘We managed to get a great group,’ I tell him. ‘You’re going to love it!’ 

Find your own small-group Galapagos adventure – solo, anonymous but never alone – with Intrepid.

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