Salento

Cocora Valley, home of the tallest wax palm trees in the world.
Cocora Valley, home of the tallest wax palm trees in the world.

I met Viviane during my day-long hike in the Cocora Valley in Salento, a quaint country town nestled in the Zona Cafetera (Coffee Zone) of Colombia. A small group convened from my hostel to begin the roughly 5 hour hike; Viviane joined our jeep and asked to hike with us. At first I was not very happy to have her in our group – she was an older woman, and I assumed we would have to travel slower and take more stops to accommodate her and not leave her behind. Furthermore she was French and spoke very little English; I was the only one of the 6 of us that spoke any French at all, so reluctantly I became the designated translator. What the day began as a nuisance actually ended with a friendship, and far more importantly, a deeper understanding and appreciation for the art of solo-travel.

Viviane is from Chantilly, just outside of Paris. She spends 8 months traveling and 4 months back home in France. When I met her, she was on her third year of traveling in this way. She spent her first and second 8 month-stints in the countries of Southeast Asia as well as in India and Nepal. This was her third year of long-term travel, and she was taking on the South American continent. This may seem like an incredible experience for most of us. One would assume I was talking about a young college graduate who was taking on the world before settling into a long-term career. Or she could be a freelancer who works virtually, only returning to her home country for a short period of time to take care of offline business.

Viviane is 64 years old. She is divorced. She retired three years ago, exactly when she began traveling. She has two grown children, each with their own families and with little interest in traveling with her. She’s a female solo-traveler just like me. Only she is of an age rarely seen in these circumstances — most women wouldn’t dream of traveling alone, especially at that age when they could take their retirement money and live comfortably in a warm vacation destination. Viviane chose to do things a little differently.

She had never traveled outside of Western Europe her entire life before she retired – she always wished she could go away, but as a single parent with two children, she couldn’t afford to. Instead of taking the route of self-pity for being alone, she chose to travel just as she always wanted to. She wasn’t going to let being alone get in the way of her adventures. And Viviane is not the sit back and relax type of traveler. She hiked up the mountain exactly the way we did – and truthfully that hike was not easy. It was an extraordinary challenge for me, and I could only imagine how Viviane was able to hike up this mountain without any friends or relatives beside her as support. I was in complete awe at her perseverance and strength. She did not give up even though so many people younger than her would have done so.

Cocora Valley's hiking group. Viviane is at the far right.
Cocora Valley’s hiking group. Viviane is at the far right.

More awe inspiring is her travel story. So many people, particularly women, fear they cannot travel long term. Moreover, after a certain age, people feel they cannot partake in the adventurous, off the beaten-path experiences that backpackers skillfully accomplish. The travel as couples and most likely have not backpacked previously in their younger days. They skip the day-long hikes, the excursions to remote jungle areas, to the beaches that require the extra climb, the optional extreme sports experiences. They don’t socialize with younger people, they don’t make new friends. They don’t try new foods or venture off the detailed pre-determined tour itinerary. Instead, they travel in packs, sticking with the tour guide and seeing the most popular sights in each city. They are merely on vacation. It is not the traveling that backpackers know so well. It’s not the traveling I seek and it’s certainly not the traveling that Viviane is doing at this very moment.

View of Salento's mountains from my hostel.
View of Salento’s mountains from my hostel.
Don Elias organic coffee farm in Salento.
Don Elias organic coffee farm in Salento.

Instead of recalling the incredible time I had in Salento visiting coffee plantations and wandering about the Cocora Valley, I chose to tell the story of Viviane. To inspire people to travel. To show them that traveling can be done at any age, and can be done alone and with equal intention as the younger travelers. Of course at that age traveling alone can have it’s downsides; Viviane did mention how sometimes she wish she had a companion. But to make up for the lack of a partner she has made so many friends, many of whom retired as well, who she has traveled to various countries with. She has made friends with local families who have proudly shared their culture with her. It sounds all too familiar to the journeys of the typical young backpacker. It only shows that traveling can be done at any age. And it should be done at any age, and without fear or regret.

I want my last days to be occupied with travel, just like Viviane. Don’t we all dream of this? If she can do it, so can we.

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