In Barcelona for Vacation—and Fertility Treatments

When I traveled to Barcelona at the height of the pandemic, it was an insurance plan for the future.

In Barcelona for Vacation—and Fertility Treatments

Sunset at Park Güell, one of the most popular attractions in Barcelona

Photo by Martijn Vonk

Chocolate ran down my elbows as I took another bite of xurros, the hard-to-resist fried dough treat I found steps away from my Barcelona hotel. The xurros were on a long list of things a leisure traveler to the city might do—and that I did, too: I dined at trendy vegan brunch spots in Eixample, Barcelona’s stylish central neighborhood. I gazed in awe at the vaulted ceilings inside the Sagrada Familia. I booked tapas dinner for one at the Rambla de Catalunya Boulevard and browsed the stalls at the Mercado de la Boqueria, the city’s landmark market. Late one afternoon, I made the trek to Park Güell and watched the sun illuminate Gaudi’s whimsical structures in striking golden hues.

But this trip wasn’t all leisure. Every night, after a day spent exploring the city, I’d return to my hotel room, alone. Like clockwork, I’d settle down in my bed at 9 p.m. to inject myself with follicle-stimulating hormones. I was in Barcelona with a mission: to freeze my eggs.

For decades before I found myself in Barcelona, I traversed new continents, cities, and neighborhoods—solo. I’ve fallen in love in Jordan, made a life-changing decision to quit my brand manager job in Morocco, and faced my fears of aging by booking a remote bed-and-breakfast in China as a birthday gift to myself. An avid traveler, I’ve built a life centered on this identity as a travel journalist. While my friends celebrated engagements and baby showers, I stood six feet apart from gorillas in Rwanda and shared a roof with nomad shepherds in Mongolia.

The collective time-out we went through when the pandemic first began had shaken all that. Somewhere in the stillness of our initial lockdowns, I found enough space to think about my life. Who was I if I was no longer a traveler—and what did I want for myself? Like other women before me, I faced the question: Do I want to have kids?

At the time, I was 37 and single. I knew I didn’t want to have children alone, but it was impossible to predict when—or if—the right partner would come into my life. Keeping in mind that our chances to get pregnant diminish as we get older, I started looking into my options.

Turns out, I don’t have that many in the United States. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, women’s fertility starts to decline by the time we turn 30; this decline becomes more rapid at 35. The aging process affects the quality and quantity of the eggs women produce during each menstrual cycle, resulting in decreasing chances of a successful pregnancy as years go by. But with advances in fertility science, women can now safely retrieve and store younger, healthier eggs to use later in life. The procedure, called egg freezing, has been gaining popularity in the past decade, and the pandemic has created an opportune window for many more women to take advantage of it.

But egg freezing is also expensive. Family planning resource site FertilityIQ estimates that one freezing cycle can cost anywhere from $8,000 to $15,000, with more than one cycle often needed. Most U.S. insurance policies treat it as an elective procedure, which means it is rarely covered. Add another $7,000 on top of that for medications and storage costs, and egg freezing in the United States quickly becomes out of reach for many women, including me. So when a friend posted on Instagram about her experience with a fertility clinic in Spain for a fraction of the cost, I paid attention.

Working with Ovally, a startup matching women with fertility clinics across Europe, I selected a clinic in Barcelona that would oversee my procedure for the next few weeks. I learned that egg freezing would cost me about five times less in Spain than it would in the United States. (Indeed, the Ovally fee, full treatment, four-year storage of eggs, and medications amounted to $5,200; my total bill, which also included three weeks of meals and accommodation in Barcelona, rounded up to $7,500.) The clinic would continue to store the eggs and would even be able to transport them to the United States, should I ever decide to use them on American soil.

In recent years, Spain has become a popular destination for fertility tourism. According to the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology, it’s been a leading provider of all fertility treatments in Europe. But I selected Barcelona for a different reason. A first-time visitor to the city, I’ve long heard about its beaches, Catalan food, and relaxed cosmopolitan atmosphere. I was determined to make a real vacation out of my fertility trip. Barcelona, then, seemed like a natural choice.

When I told my friends and family of my plans, they had a different take. “Can you really do this on your own? Aren’t you afraid to go through something like this alone in a foreign city?” they asked. But for me, going through this major life event in another country didn’t feel like a big deal. As a traveler, I have come to trust the world, fiercely. Traveling taught me to land on my feet and embrace wherever the road takes me. I knew that this mindset would help me in Barcelona.

At first, it did. After my initial consultation with the clinic, I picked up my hormone medications from a local farmacia and the 10-day treatment began. I stocked up on fresh fruit at a nearby market and planned my visits to Barcelona’s top sights. A medication mix-up one morning led me to argue with the pharmacist, neither of us fully understanding each other. I remained calm through it all. But somewhere between day six and seven, the reality of what was happening started to catch up with me.

Where a normal menstrual cycle produces one egg to maturity, the goal of the treatment was to mature as many eggs as possible to harvest and freeze. My body started reacting to multiple eggs growing inside of me with pain and hypersensitivity. The surging estrogen made me feel extremely emotional—I burst into tears at the doctor’s office upon hearing the news that everything was going well. In the lowest moments, I felt acutely lonely. Besides an occasional FaceTime call with a friend, I was indeed alone in Barcelona going through a medical procedure that, in a way, was a culmination of all my choices to date. I wasn’t married, I didn’t have children, and here I was, a lone traveler creating a backup plan.

By the 10th day of treatment, I could barely get up from bed. I no longer left my hotel room, save for a Vietnamese pho spot across the street that became my go-to. I counted the days until the extraction, a procedure in which mature eggs are retrieved and flash-frozen for storage. The night before my appointment, a violent summer storm came over Barcelona and threw barrels and barrels of water out onto the city for what seemed like hours. Then, everything was quiet.

The first thing I whispered when I woke up from anesthesia the following morning was “I love you, Yulia.” As the healing began, I experienced an intense wave of falling in love with myself, anew. I marveled at the courage that got me to this moment and the body that took me through it.

After a few quiet days spent in bed, I returned to the city, watching residents stroll the palm tree–lined Bogatell Beach promenade and joining crowds of tourists on the narrow streets of the Gothic Quarter. On my last night in Barcelona, I treated myself to a meal at Brugarol, a 21-seat izakaya-style tapas bar, marking the occasion with anchovy nigiri and caramel miso mousse. Walking back to my hotel that night, I felt immense pride for looking closely at my fertility, taking it into my own hands, and traveling this far for this important step. Perhaps for the first time ever, I also felt at peace with how my life was unfolding.

Going into this experiment, I wasn’t sure I would ever actually want to have children. I’m still not entirely sure. But I am glad to have done it. However things come to be, I know this: Freezing my eggs in Barcelona turned out to be an act of self-care and love, no matter where the road takes me next.

>> Next: In Big Sur, Learning the Value of Being Alone

Yulia Denisyuk is a travel photographer and writer with a passion for the Middle East. For past assignments, she’s shared a roof with nomads in Mongolia and learned the art of Imigongo with artist collectives in Rwanda.
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