Refuge in the Andes

After a few weeks of traveling alone in Ecuador in the summer of 2017, I had decided to go home early. It was my first solo trip, and I had ambitiously planned for a full three months of backpacking and exchanging labor for lodging. I had planned things so I would end up on the beach in time for my birthday in July, but by early June, a deep loneliness had caught up to me, and the beach no longer felt that important.

It felt good deciding to come home, and knowing that I only had one more week to see Ecuador renewed my sense of adventure. I changed my route, and decided to end the trip at a hostel located several hours outside of Quito.

Secret Garden Cotopaxi, Ecuador

I took a bus back to the city, and the next day I clustered with other backpackers on a narrow sidewalk, waiting for a shuttle to whisk us away to the mountains. The last hour of the drive was on a dirt road, going about 15 miles per hour, winding us slowly past vivid green farmland in the low valleys of the Andes.

After we piled out of the van and stretched our legs, an Australian ushered us inside to a cozy living room, sheltering us from the chilly mountain air. We were handed ceramic cups of mulled wine, and listened with warm bellies as the staff explained the house rules and described the activities that were scheduled for the next few days. We would have group meals at a long, wooden dining table. Food was prepared in a large kitchen adjoining the living room, where there was always fresh banana bread waiting on the counter.

There were a few separate cabins for shared dorms, complete with bunk beds. My roommates for the weekend included two women and a few French guys on a trip together. They were all in their twenties, making me the youngest at eighteen.

Later one of the staff took us on an introductory hike, leading us as we stumbled after him in our borrowed galoshes. Our small parade of foreigners alternated between hacking through the deep moss of the forest and slipping upstream in cold water. The stream, it turned out, would widen and eventually reveal a waterfall in the midst of the volcanic jungle.

I sat with the other girls and we watched the French boys strip down and plunge into the icy water. The scene was like some kind of mythic painting- our young, happy bodies splashing around in near-perfect wilderness.

The clouds were so low where we were- and we were so high up- that we only saw the mountain tops a few times from the hostel itself. The best view would come the day before I left, rewarding us for the several hours we spent huffing and puffing our way to a total elevation of 4200 meters.

From the peak we had muddied and exhausted ourselves to reach, the clouds granted us fleeting glances of the swaths of farmland below. Shades of green were knitted together with curving seams of vegetation, and the edges of the mountains around us framed everything like jagged curtains.

On the way back, we passed wild horses. We slowed to watch them as they gazed down at us from their grassy hillsides.

The days passed quickly, and suddenly it was time to coordinate my delivery back to Quito, along with the other travelers on their way to the next place. I felt torn as I packed my bag, fielding questions about why I was leaving already. I felt I had finally found something good, and people I wanted to be with. But I couldn’t get out of my flight- I had already changed it once- and it was time to say goodbye.

After learning in the weeks prior how isolating traveling alone could be, I was grateful for having arrived somewhere that felt so comforting yet still pushed me towards adventure. I felt especially affectionate to the people who had been so kind to me along the way, buoying me through it all. In the airport, I took stairs instead of escalators, paying a small homage to the mountains my body had so recently scaled.

In the trips I have taken since then, I have learned that the loneliness of traveling by myself is almost always offset by scattered sparks of joy. For me, those sparks often come from connecting to other people. That feeling of mutual care, even for a split second, has propelled me through all kinds of sadness. There have also been moments that I am reanimated by something inside of me- maybe a realization of where I am and how wonderful it is to by tiny on an enormous earth.

Traveling alone challenges me to make my own joy despite the loneliness, and to see myself for where I am. Then, when I finally arrive in the company of others, it feels that much more precious, and I find that I would happily do it all again.

This piece was originally written in Fall 2020.