Swapping Solo Travel for Group Tour – a first timer’s experience!
In this post Teresa Schumacher shares her experience of swapping solo travel to join a group tour of Colombia with Other Way Round Travel.
From Solo Travel to Group Tour
When I was eleven years old, I went on a group tour of Spain with my aunt.
Ten days, all inclusive, the kind of “no hassle” trip that involves plenty of educational tours, meals planned in advance, a new city every day, and hours in between spent on a big bus packed with fellow Americans.
Memories tend to wear thin with time, and only vague, hazy snippets come back to me now. A crowded restaurant where vibrantly dressed flamenco dancers whirled across a stage and prawns stared vacantly up at me from atop a giant heap of paella.
The first time I ever spoke Spanish, just a timid little girl tapping on the host’s shoulders and asking “donde está el baño?” in a shaky voice.
A visit to a famous riding school, where I watched magnificent Andalusian horses prance about and, like any young equine obsessed girl, longed to be the one holding those reins.
My strongest memories of that trip, however, are not of Spain. What I remember most is the bus. The strong smell, an odd mixture of stale air and cloyingly sweet fabric freshener.
Our tour guide, a lanky Austrian with a slightly eery smile and an obsession with punctuality (6 am sharp, everyone, no excuses!).
The fellow travelers, a fairly nondescript collection of white middle class Americans, fully equipped with fanny packs, high SPF sunscreen, and plenty of stories about their grandchildren back home.
We were just a little bubble of tourists fleeting about, snapping pictures and getting our toes wet but never really diving in. Extracting just enough “culture” to fill a scrap book, then on to the next.
Ready to return home and say, “Look, we went to Spain!”
But did we, really?
I was talking with my aunt recently and I mentioned our tour of Spain.
“Oh boy,” she said, laughing. “We were always trying to escape and do our own thing, weren’t we?”
(See also: Group Holidays for Solos Over 30)
Travelling Alone, Off The Beaten Path
And it seems that I’ve been trying to escape and do my own thing ever since.
Nowadays I tend to travel on my own or with a close family member or friend, and I’ve discovered that some of the most memorable experiences are those that occur a bit off the beaten path, especially when certain aspects of the journey are left up to chance.
I remember driving through the heart of Mississippi once and coming across a forlorn, seemingly deserted town that didn’t look like it had much to offer other than a few dusty, worn down businesses and a sad, forgotten past.
I stopped for a bite to eat because I didn’t know where else to go, and the next thing I knew I was being invited to a local event, “down at Big Red’s place”.
Of course my curiosity got the best of me.
Later that evening I pulled up to what appeared to be an abandoned, dilapidated shed and, as instructed, knocked twice. The rickety door opened up into a large, cozy room where a gritty blues chord emanated from a little stage in the center of the room, commanding a crowd of smiling, dancing people.
Shy at first, I accepted a beer and took a seat, admiring this new little world I had stepped into. But soon enough the rhythm got the best of me and I was up with the rest of the crowd, dancing and laughing until the sun came up.
Now this is what travel is all about, I thought.
Over the years I developed a passion for what I call real travel.
Immersive, gritty, unexpected adventures.
I perfected the classic United States Road Trip. I took my mother to Colombia. I explored every inch of Vietnam with my boyfriend. I met my cousins for an impromptu reunion to Paris. I found a rhythm that worked for me, and I did well.
But when you travel independently and leave things up to chance, naturally things can go wrong, and I’ve also had my fair share of complications.
I’ve been lost, sleep deprived, or ripped off more times than I can count.
I’ve made poor decisions and found myself in less than ideal situations. I’ve miscalculated, misjudged, and have wanted to throw in the towel and just go home on more than one occasion.
Solo travel, as wonderful as it is, can be downright hard. And I admit that at times I’ve been tempted to just let someone else take the reins and do the planning.
(See also: Group Travel In Your 30s & 40s)
A Modern Day Group Tour
I was introduced to Other Way Round Travel after my first trip to Colombia.
I began writing some guest posts for the company’s website, and was intrigued by their promise of an immersive travel experience for the adventurous soul, a concept that seemed ideal for a traveler like myself.
My interest piqued, I began doing some research, and noticed an interesting trend developing in the world of travel. In an industry that previously catered primarily to middle to upper class white males or retirees with a little extra cash to spend, there has been a recent wave of new travelers entering the mix from all different backgrounds.
More women are traveling than ever before, and often traveling on their own. The concept of adventure travel has gained popularity as travelers seek out more intrepid experiences.
The creation of budget travel, with the help of such companies such as CouchSurf and Airbnb, has allowed for more people to explore who previously couldn’t have afforded the luxury. And due to a growing concern about mass tourism and its detrimental impact on local communities and the environment, a new form of sustainable travel has taken root, encouraging travelers to explore more responsibly.
The travelers of today have spoken – they crave something more than a generic list of tourist destinations, a stale bus ride through Spain.
And in response, many tour companies, such as Other Way Round, are emerging with an entirely refreshing outlook on an old theme – The Group Tour.
As with anything else, my curiosity got the best of me, and I booked a spot on Other Way Round Travel’s next Colombia trip.
Then, just a few weeks before I was to leave for my trip, my father passed away.
We were very close, and his death turned my world upside down. How could I possibly manage a journey through Colombia with a group of strangers when I could barely remember to brush my teeth in the morning?
But I knew I had to get out of my little hometown, where the wind whispering through the bare trees felt like my dad calling to me and the gray skies were closing in. Everywhere I turned I was faced with endless condolences and painful memories.
So I packed my bags and, practically pushed by my mother, boarded a plane for Medellin.
From Strangers to Friends
When our little pack of strangers gathered in the hotel lobby the following morning, I found myself holding back. I had grown accustomed to the unpredictable nature of grief, where memories and tears come and go of their own accord, and I was desperately hoping I wouldn’t cause a scene so early on in the trip.
“That’s a beautiful tattoo” a voice broke through my reverie, and I looked up to see a fair skinned woman with bright blue eyes and hair the color of autumn smiling kindly at me. I followed her gaze to my forearm, where my skin was still tender from the fresh ink. Three musical notes, D-A-D, followed by a rest sign.
“I’m Kate…I’m. a music teacher” she added, letting me know that she understood.
“He passed away three weeks ago” I replied, my voice catching in my throat.
When I looked up again I realized there was a small group now gathered around me. One woman with dark hair and a camera slung over her shoulder stepped up and introduced herself as Paula, the tour photographer.
“You’re going to be ok, because you are among friends!” she said, as the others nodded their agreement.
“Trust me, you are right where you need to be.”
Paula was right. I was exactly where I needed to be.
The Ease of Travelling With a Tour Group
I had become so accustomed to doing all of my own travel planning that it came as a pleasant shock to discover how easy it was to allow someone else to do the work.
I thought back to my first time in Colombia, when my mother and I stepped off the plane and were immediately bombarded by men offering us taxis into town. Flustered and weary from jet lag, I ended up giving all my cash to man who wasn’t even driving a taxi, just led us to one.
We then drove in endless circles for over an hour trying to locate our AirBNB based on my limited Spanish and a very weak GPS signal.
By the time we arrived at our room, we were so exhausted we could barely summon the energy to get out and explore.
But this was different!
From the driver waiting for me at the airport, to the hotel check-ins, to the day’s activities, everything was planned so meticulously that the traveling was easy. Our group adapted quickly to a routine, and we had a running joke that when we returned home we wouldn’t know what to do without a guide leading us through our daily lives.
Fears of Group Travel Overcome
Of course there were challenges.
In a group setting it can be difficult to set boundaries, and as a quintessential introvert, I sometimes found myself overwhelmed and in need of some down time by myself. In fact, this was my greatest fear when deciding to go on the tour.
But it was easier than I imagined, breaking away from the group now and again and get dinner by myself, or simply go to bed early and skip a rum tasting.
I wasn’t bound by any set of rules, and if I wanted to stray a bit from the plan that was ok, too. I was learning that traveling with a group did not mean I had to lose my independence.
The Upsides of Group Travel vs Solo Travel
In some ways, returning to Colombia felt like returning home.
There is just something about that country that will always pull me back – the stunning countryside, the smiling people, the rhythm of the music that sneaks inside your soul and makes you close your eyes and dream of juicy mangos and endless sunshine.
This time, however, with the help of knowledgeable and experienced guides, I was able to experience another layer.
I learned how to dance to the classic Colombian rhythms of Champeta and Cumbia.
I drove through Medellin with a retired police officer who described his experiences working against Pablo Escobar’s drug cartel.
I sipped coffee straight from the source at a family owned farm and learned the painstaking process that goes into coffee farming.
On New Year’s Eve we gathered in a small neighborhood in Medellin and admired las alumbrados, the incredible display of lights that the city is known for each holiday season. We sat amongst locals that night, sipped our champagne, and I felt part of something truly beautiful.
When I cried, which was often on that trip, I had genuine friends there to hold me up and help me through.
(See also: Solo Travel vs Group Travel)
The weeks flew by in a blur of laughter and adventure, and way too soon I was boarding a flight back home.
But I left Colombia better than when I’d left – my grief still raw but assuaged by new friends and a fresh perspective on a country I already loved.
Just last week I met up with my closest friends from that tour via Zoom. We gathered around our screens from our various places around the world and discussed plans for a future meet up.
A rodeo in Texas, or perhaps a gorilla safari in Rwanda? Who knows, maybe another trip with Other Way Round?
So many possibilities, I just can’t wait.
(Read also: 23 Things to Expect on OWR Trip to Colombia)