Traveling Central America
Gaëlle Sévenier, June 2003

In Central America there is a route taken by more and more young backpackers. Thousands of people in their twenties come from all over the world to rediscover the continent. Every trip being unique, the backpackers end up having many similar adventures. Whether one is just starting the trip or about to leave, everyone should be able to easily relate to the following experiences.

Corn Island, Nicaragua
The Instinct of traveling
Since prehistoric times, some people have migrated from one region to another. The survival of mankind was certainly dependent on the migration of tribes all over the planet. Once a tribe was settled, overpopulation meant starvation for the inhabitants. The strongest people were to leave and travel for years, until they felt the need to resettle and start another tribe somewhere new. The instinct of survival was the force that pushed these young primitive man to discover what lay further ahead.
One can suppose that we are today the decedents of those nomads searching and populating the world. We have invented frontiers, nationalities; distance and time have shaped cultural differences and language barriers. Has this instinct of discovering the unknown disappeared, or has it just have been transformed into the need that many young people have these days to travel the world? The unknown - the untouched places - tends to have disappeared in the world, which has left millions of travelers wandering the earth to fulfill the same instincts their ancestors once had. Some say long-term travelers are searching for themselves, or that they are escaping from something. What if those people where only pushed by a powerful human instinct? Perhaps some individuals just do not fit in a stable life close to the village where they were born; they by instinct need to search for a new place far away. It is becoming more and more common to travel for three months to a year before settling into a career and starting a family life. However, some backpackers become hooked on traveling and can never really return home, as they are searching for the place where they could resettle, risking to never find it simply because they are addicted to the search.

On the way
After having worked hard to save as much money as possible, the traveler buys a guidebook to mentally prepare for his trip. The Lonely Planet, or the 'Bible' as many ironically call it, helps the future backpackers create a mental picture of what they are about to experience, and it gives them a sense of security. Many travelers are a little afraid prior to every long trip, especially when traveling alone. However, once they arrive at their destination, they often realize that they are no different from the million other travelers, a majority going solo, all following the same routes mentioned in the 'bible'.
Backpackers are by nature on a strict budget. The average price for a hotel night in Central America is around $3. While cheap, this adds up very fast and the feeling that the less money we spend, the longer we can travel can be stressful. The traveler will soon get used to taking cold showers, drinking unpurified water and eating tortillas or Gallo pinto at every meal to save money. One can be a little annoyed of having to throw toilet paper in the trash, or of sharing a two person seat with an entire family in a chicken bus but the traveler will rapidly get used to it.

First steps in Guatemala
Arriving in Guatemala, most travelers decide to stay for a little while in either Antigua or Xela (Quetzaltenango) to study Spanish in one of the numerous schools offered to foreigners. Going back to school has the advantage of preparing the backpacker for his future experiences in Central America by learning about the Latino culture and language. The student will live with a family, study up to five hours a day with a private Spanish teacher, take a few salsa classes and go on excursions organized by the school during the weekends: climbing the volcanoes, going to the Tikal ruins, to the market of Chichicastenango or to the beach of Monterico. Very often, a traveler will meet people in his Spanish school he will travel with in the future.
After a couple weeks of intense courses as well as intense parties, our future backpacker needs to rest. Lake Atitlan offers the perfect setting for a little vacation inside a vacation. Everyone is able to find a village fitting its personality around the lake. Those who will want to party and meet people go to Santa Cruz on the weekend, to taste the BBQ and the flavored vodka offered by the Iguana Perdida. As there is no electricity, candles and guitars make a very special atmosphere. Those who prefer to relax go to San Marcos. They will stay in a little wooden lodge, take a yoga class or maybe even experience a moment of silence in a seminary where students are not allowed to speak for an entire week. San Pedro is probably the most popular and charming village, very hippy oriented. Next to the women and children selling pan de banana (banana bread), the Canadian who looks like a druid in the Lord of the Ring will sell his space cookies, very famous for giving the worst nightmares. Santiago de Atitlan and Santa Catarina are two villages where travelers generally only pass by for a short visit. Finally Panajachel has its famous market, where most travelers buy the typical red pants with a colorful line on the side.
Depending on the length of the traveler's trip, the waterfalls of Semuc Champey and the Garifuna village of Livingston are also wide destinations in Guatemala.

Diving through Honduras
From Guatemala, most travelers will take a shuttle to Copan, a very charming Honduran village close to the famous Mayan ruins. Those who have a little more time will experience the life of the Garifuna communities in the villages surrounding Tela. The Garifunas are the descendents of Africans slaves mixed with indigenous who have spread all over the Caribbean coast of Central America.
Roatam and Utila in the Key Islands are the favorite Honduran destinations. These two islands are world renowned for being the most inexpensive spots to become a certified diver. The small island of Utila is the least expensive of the two, and is surrounded by minuscule islands where travelers spend the day trying to find a way to open the coconuts. Roatam, on the other hand, is much bigger, and offers many white sand beaches surrounded by palm trees. Perfect setting for a short-term romance!

The undiscovered treasures of Nicaragua
Nicaragua is often crossed over very quickly by backpackers, and deserves way more attention than it is given. The country is the only one in Central America where people have fought and won a revolution. Even if the counter revolution led by the United States overcame the sandinistas a few years later, the population is proud of who they are and are incredibly hospitable. San Juan del Sur on the Pacific side, lovely little village surrounded by deserted beaches, is a perfect spot for backpackers. Another favorite place is the Island of Ometepe on the Nicaragua Lake formed by two volcanoes: Concepcion (1610m), the higher of the two cones, and volcano Madera (1394m), both linked by a sealed narrow isthmus. Backpackers will opt for staying at the finca Magdalena, a cooperative of sandinista farmers on the bottom of the volcano Madera which holds a beautiful lagoon.
The backpackers who have more time to dedicate to this amazing country will take a plane to the Corn Island (going there by bus can be an experience, but requires lots of time and patience). Big corn and Little corn are two islands still untouched by massive tourism, where backpackers will have an indigestion from over indulging in the delicious lobster and will discover one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.

The "point break" of Costa Rica
Backpackers tend to be surprised by the level of development in Costa Rica. The first reaction is often excitement: finally a supermarket where all sorts of products are available, the country is clean and feels safe, and the environment is astonishing. The second reaction can be rejection. In fact, unlike the other countries in Central America, Costa Rica is a popular destination for rich Gringos coming just for a few weeks. The backpacker dislikes this form of tourism as there is a gap between the different approaches to traveling. Anti-Americanism is wide spread among the backpackers, including among Americans themselves, who are often the first to criticize their government's policies.
The traveler will try surfing in the gorgeous spots of Puerto Viejo, Pavones, Mal Pais, or Tamarindo and will either love surfing or hate it.
Volunteering in a natural reserve is also very common in Costa Rica. However, the traveler will soon realize that volunteering in Central America became a huge business to make money on those willing to donate their time.
San Jose and Mexico City are the only two capitals where backpackers dare to spend a few days. This is because they will often take flights to and from these cities, but also because both cities offer interesting cultural opportunities in their museums or night life.

The Contrast of Panama
There is much more to see in Panama than it's famous canal. The name Panama means in Indigenous 'abundance of fish'. The country offers in fact some of the finest birding, snorkelling and deep-sea fishing in the continent.
Backpackers will still feel the influence of the 'American way of life' in the country, due to the US military forces who left in 1999 after occupying the canal for 85 years. English is widely spoken in Panama, while the indigenous cultures are surprisingly very respected. For example, the Kunas, ex warriors, are one of the only indigenous people in Central America who have fought against the army of Panama to protect their traditions and culture, and who managed to find external help to remain an autonomous territory.
From David to the Darien, Panama offers the traveller every experience the world can offer. Complex, invigorating and exciting, Panama is a country not to be missed.

The travelers relationships among themselves
"Hello, where are you from? Are you going up or down?" meaning, "is your direction for traveling up north or down south of Central America?" Sometimes the traveler is tired of having the same conversations over and over again, and of exhibiting his or her nationality ten times a day as a sort of indelible title. However, everybody asks one another where everyone comes from, maybe to avoid having a conversation in the wrong language or to unconsciously identify a person with the stereotypes we have all been raised with.
Surprisingly, one realizes while traveling how small the world can be. It is extremely common to run into someone over and over again in different countries, and even sometimes continents during a round-the-world trip.
The traveler is limited by time. Some people say friendship needs years. Reality in traveling proves otherwise. Sometimes along the way, one finds incredible connections with others after only very short periods of time. Those rare moments of intense conversations, of sharing deep moments with someone of a different country and having the feeling that this person really understands you more than anyone ever will back home, are probably the best aspects of traveling. Because of this lack of time, some backpackers tend to be more sincere, more straightforward, jumping the steps of any formal relationship. After all, there is nothing to loose…
The backpacker's world is a world of seduction. Most travelers are singles (or at least pretend to be!). Casual relationships with other backpackers are extremely easy, especially since romanticism is fulfilled by the paradise settings. It seems to be part of the experience of traveling to experience one night stands, short term romances, sharing warmth for a few days, or filling up the whole of loneliness with marshmallow…
The traveler is searching for instantaneous pleasure, is seizing every opportunity for experiencing new things and having strong sensations. However, everyone wants to remain free: compromises are often not an option and real commitments hardly ever made. Nevertheless, whatever kind of relationship exists between the backpackers, it is always sincere, simple and intense…

A Bulimia of communication
Today, one says "I'm going to check my e-mails" with no more originality that "I am going to brush my teeth!" All along the way, the locals have understood the urgent need of travelers to keep in touch with their life back home with long distance phone calls and Internet access. It is cheaper to call Europe or the United States in an Internet café than to call the next village in a telephone cabin. Cyber cafés grow along the road just as mushrooms grow in the woods. Unfortunately, in certain isolated places, some northern owners have understood their monopoly and charge up to $15 an hour instead of the usual $1.
After a few months of traveling, the traveler will have in his wallet tons of little pieces of paper filled with e-mail addresses of people he has met along the way. Sometimes travelers keep in touch, sometimes they develop virtual relationships, sometimes they see each other again. Anyway, the Internet has transformed the life of a backpacker, leaving travellers totally addicted to this way of communication.

Going home and preparing for the next trip
"Are you ready to go home?" Some are, after months or years of traveling. Others are not at all, and their anxiety about facing their lives back home increases as the final date approaches. Once at home, the ex-traveler faces the difficulty of sharing with others his experiences, which often leads to a big frustration and feelings of loneliness.
If the traveler has been hooked, approaching departure is time to mentally prepare for the next trip. On the way, he has discussed other destinations: the full moon parties of Ko Pha Ngan in Thailand? A trek around the Anapurna? The waterfalls of Iguazu in Argentina? All those discussions ignite the burning fire of the passionate traveler. Such as alcoholics or drug addicts who need to drink or take drugs again the next day in order to be able to handle the hang over, the backpacker needs to plan out his next trip to handle the downfall of going back home. Simple addiction…
Most Central American travelers feel the attraction of Columbia. Everyone 'traveling up' who stayed in Columbia has fallen in love with the country and its people, even if the discourses are sometimes spread with a few scary stories. Dangerous place or heaven on earth? "Well… it's time to check it out then!…"

Traveling the global world
Independently from the "good reasons" one finds for traveling, such as the intercultural exchange, the search of a new lifestyle, personal enrichment… we can not fail to mention the "fake travelers"; those looking for doing abroad what they cannot do back home, legally or morally: exploitation of labor, pedophilia, old gringos going out with Latino young girls, or people escaping from legal charges in their home country.
Today, globalization has become for the majority a negative term linked to the economy: only for the purpose of making profits, northern countries do not respect cultural differences; it is seen as normal the unfair difference between the 'haves' and the 'have nots'. Some denounce this phenomenon of globalization, which "increases inequality within and between nations, threatens employment and living standards and thwarts social progress." In the mean time, globalization can be brought back to a positive aspect, where the world became one, with an ever increasing possibility of getting to know one another. In the same idea that once travelers populated the world in the prehistoric times, it could now be the traveler's mission to give back to this global world it's authenticity where differences are a source of enrichment and in no mean a source of manipulation and conflict.
In a sedentary world, the traveler inspires others to reanimate their instinct of discovering such a diverse planet, which unfortunately one lifetime isn't sufficient to circle around.


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