| 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
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
Depending on the length of the traveler's trip, the waterfalls of Semuc
Champey and the Garifuna village of Livingston are also wide destinations
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.