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by Holly Cook about a year ago in solo travel
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My first solo volunteer abroad adventure changed my life

Middle-aged Giant Galápagos Tortoises excited for meal time.

After years and years of fangirling over nature documentaries, volunteering at the local wildlife sanctuaries, and a zoology degree later I realized I needed a bigger change. And that change was a trip farther than I had ever gone before, solo that is. Freshly out of undergrad, I made the best decision of my life: to go volunteer abroad on the Galápagos Islands, with none other than my favorite animal, giant tortoises.

I set up this grand adventure, with some strategic travel planning, to make my way over to one of the smaller inhabited islands, Isla Isabela, at this amazing breeding center for Giant Galápagos Tortoises. I realized quickly that my luggage choice wasn’t the best choice, but I was already on my journey.

Three plane rides, an hour bus ride, and a two hour speed boat ride and I had finally made it. I had some assistance and got some funny looks, as I dragged my luggage through the dirt road onto the flatbed truck to head down to the main city stretch. I was amazed at all the wildlife about: sea lions napping on park benches, blue footed boobies resting in large groups on large rock islands jutting out of the ocean, and black iguanas skittering away as you walk towards them on various pathways. I had arrived to my own type of paradise, not one people usually think of. As I learned the city was run fully on diesel fuel and water was not potable like I was used to.

The nights were comparably stunning. Going out for drinks at the beach bar Casa Rosada with my new friends as we bonded over our various excursions, snorkeling, hiking, eating, and all about our profound love for all things animals and nature. We danced in the shallow crashing waves under the full moon and let our howls and screams to fully let go and provide thanks to our beloved mother earth. I never would have thought an experience like this would be so profound. Meeting other like minded individuals, creating a lifelong bond filled with other adventures to beautiful lands. That experiencing life outside of the bubble created and sustained by your parents can be extremely eye opening and grounding for your soul. Money is somewhat important, just needed to get by in life however not meant to be life’s main purpose. I spent about $2100 to spend 5 weeks in the most amazing place I could imagine in the winter of 2016, with only a bedroom and bathroom provided along with two prepaid meals per day. The windows only had screens and you could not throw toilet paper in the toilet as the water pressure associated with plumbing was not as strong like those in America (instead had to throw it away in the trash can beside the toilet). All these interesting adjustments, giving insight to life away from my norm.

During the early parts of the day, we would hike past the ponds where flamingos and iguanas resided to make our way to the tortoise breeding facility, El Centro de Crianza de Tortugas Gigantes (now renamed). Here we spent time raking up piles of poop, feeding out large stemmed plants (stems for adults and leafy tops for the babies and younger tortoises), and assisting the parques workers with a helping hand.

This alternative to my own personal reality was exactly what I needed. Fast food didn’t exist. Main food staples in each meal was a soup appetizer and for the main course some sort of protein in a sauce (I usually ordered the shrimp, mmm) with white rice, papas fritas (thick wedge potato fries) and a small fresh salad. Even better, always had a freshly squeezed juice to complement, my favorites being blackberry juice and mango. And can’t forget about coconuts! Utilized for alcoholic drinks mixed with caña (sugar based rum) and when you're done to eat the delicious fleshy inside.

After taking a few days to adjust to my personal room in the volunteer building, we had one night that the power lapsed. Island wide black out. I took this opportunity to try to pulpo, or octopus, on the menu at the restaurant I had my volunteer meal plan through. I figured it would probably be best to not fully be able to see what I was eating, as we had mere candle light to illuminate our tables (and I’m sure what the cooks had to cook with in the back as well). A bit too chewy for my preference, but definitely worth trying. The island appeared so calm and spooky with no lights on for hundreds of miles in every direction.

Wandering back to my room, I stopped at the beach nearby and found my eyes glued to the sky. I had never seen quite a scene like this before. In Ohio, and in much of the world, there is so much light pollution that you can only barely catch a glimpse of the stars and galaxies visible from our planet. Here though, I froze in amazement. I’ve never seen anything so beautiful, mesmerizing, and vast all in my life. Not only was the beach lit up by the moon and stars, but the swirls of the various galaxies as well! I wish I had a camera that could give justice to what I was seeing. I felt like I was standing there for an eternity gazing about at all the universe was displaying for me. I felt so lucky, yet so small and insignificant compared to all that is out there.

I probably looked quite dumbfounded if anyone was around to see me at this exact moment. The cool night ocean breeze sent shivers down my spine as the feeling of pure peace and surrealism rushed over me. This is real life, this isn’t just a dream.

Anyways, the whole entire point I am trying to make here is that YOU (yes, you) should always be challenging yourself to push boundaries of your own comfortable bubble to have exceptionally life changing experiences, to meet new people, and learn about something that might not cross your path willingly. I can promise you, it is worth it and you will love it and never want to return to the old life you thought you loved. Keep growing and make your life’s journey one with many stories filled with love, laughter, and memories that will be shared for lifetimes to come.

solo travel

About the author

Holly Cook

Animal enthusiast and writing hobbyist.

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