Shannon Wolf | May 27, 2015 11:00 PM ET
37 Life Lessons Learned While Backpacking Through Central America
Christmas “family” dinner with travelers from all around the world in a villa we rented in San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua —celebrating our new friendships and healthy, happy lives.
After four months on the road living out of a backpack, I inevitably learned some valuable lessons about life, relationships, and what makes me tick (or at least I think I did). Travel is all about growing and learning — sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s common sense you looked passed, and sometimes it’s useful tips and tricks you can pass along. Either way, I have compiled a list of lessons I have learned along the first stint of my journey through Central America:
Lesson 1: Don't assume you'll be able to have luggage as carry on when the plane is full. Make sure to tell them you have a connecting flight if they take your bag (otherwise you'll be stuck in a foreign country trying to explain to customs that your bag is on the other side and having to convince management to give you a new flight).
Lesson 2: It is not so much about the present or even the past as it is about your state of mind and how you react.
Lesson 3: A TRUE traveler’s wives tale: In a foreign country, if you drink a can of coke after every meal it will kill or at least reduce the chance of getting food poisoning. Hard liquor works as well. (Everyone told me I would end up getting food poisoning at least once while I was in Central America. I drank pop and a lot of hard liquor. No food poisoning, no problem).
Lesson 4: Mini pocket travel phrase books are worth having and can get you out of a jam.
Lesson 5: If you want a hardy meal for dirt cheap while you are on the road, buy tortillas, a can of vegetables (or fresh), a bag of mashed refried beans, a small bottle of salsa and an optional bag of no-name cheese Doritos for extra crunch — put into a tortilla and enjoy. Will give you at least 3 meals and cost you under $2U.S. It's a staple for travelers throughout Central America.
Lesson 6: Keep a mini notebook on you instead of relying on your phone for keeping track of directions, phone numbers, phrases, etc. This comes in handy for not getting robbed or getting directions from locals.
Lesson 7: Buy bug spray with a minimum of 50 percent DEET. (And bring a lot for Nicaragua — nothing lower will work. Bushman was most effective.) If you get bit, Benadryl extra strength itch stopping cream helps a bit.
Lesson 8: Do a homestay and learn the local language for a week or two (it helps to understand people better, you learn firsthand about the culture and see the world from a new perspective).
Lesson 9: Before traveling to another country, learn these key phrases:
• Thank you
• How much
• Where is
• What is this
• Excuse me, do you speak English
• My (local language spoken) is bad.
• Can you speak slower.
• I don't understand.
• (How to say numbers)
Lesson 10: Remember to take time to yourself to read, to think, to write. Alone time is important in traveling because it permits reflection, refreshment, and peacefulness.
A friend taking some time to reflect on his life on his last day before heading home to Denver, Colo.
Lesson 11: When you travel, do what makes YOU happy.
Lesson 12: Bad decisions make good stories.
My second cliff jump off of a waterfall in Montezuma, Costa Rica
Lesson 13: It is possible to have sex in a hammock.
Lesson 14: "Drinking alcohol is stealing happiness from tomorrow."
Lesson 15: “Gringo pricing” is real. The key to making your money stretch is bartering and knowing when to put your foot down. It is easy to barter in Guatemala, but gets harder the further south you go.
Lesson 16: Bring a backpack that doesn't scream "rob me" on top of your travel backpack for any items you don't want potentially taken, such as electronics, passport, etc. that you keep on you at all times. (Your bag will be thrown on top of the chicken bus or in the back whether you like it or not).
Lesson 17: Don't wear Vans or Converse to go on hikes. Invest in real hiking shoes or you'll be sliding down volcanic ash on your ass with your arms flailing. Nike air shoes work better than the above two.
Lesson 18: Eat ALL the street food. SERIOUSLY. Tacos in Guatemala, papusas in El Salvador, BBQ meat in Leon, talapia in Costa Rica.
Lesson 19: Hammocks are comfier than most hostel beds. Buy a hammock with a built- in mosquito net if you go to Central America.
Lesson 20: Vicodin can be bought over the counter in Central America and is great for long torturous bus rides or panic attacks from seeing giant bugs in your room.
Lesson 21: LOTS of weird bugs in Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Check your bed for scorpions and giant cockroaches (Yeah, for real).
Lesson 22: Traveling is pushing yourself: It changes what you think you know of yourself and your boundaries, what it means to be truly alone. That some days, the grass truly is greener, and at other times it will rain for days. What I have learned so far is that nothing changes if we don't change ourselves.
Lesson 22.2: Nothing changes if we don't heed our own advice.
Lesson 22.3: Don't get mad at yourself for not following lesson 22.2. Refer to lesson 12.
Lesson 23: Double check you're on the right chicken bus. Always ask more than one person such as a passenger to verify.
Lesson 24: Be wary of cab drivers in San Jose, Costa Rica. Do not get out of the cab until the cab driver does first to open the trunk to retrieve your bags, and do not pay until you have your bags. Avoid cabs at all cost — if you must take one, agree on a price, double check and if they attempt to scam you, give them the amount you initially agreed on and walk away.
Lesson 25: Ignorance is bliss.
Lesson 26: Don't allow yourself to get too attached to people because the ending and departing is inevitable. As my friend Courtney said "backpackers are here for a good time, not a long time".
Lesson 27: The best aspect of traveling? Having the opportunity to live in the "NOW."
Lesson 28: A woman from Oregon said to me at 9:00 a.m. that she wanted a beer and made a great point: "Might as well start now. You can't drink all day unless you start to drink in the morning" so we had a beer for breakfast.
Lesson 29: Yoga is the best way to start your mornings.
Lesson 30: Learn to laugh things off. Don't let situations dictate your happiness. When something happens that's uncomfortable/weird/awkward, just yell "plot twist!" and you'll end up laughing.
Lesson 31: At the end of the day we are all searching for ourselves. Each person I have come across in my journey has been of different backgrounds, age groups, careers, and ideas but one thing was the same. We were all on a journey, some longer than others but at one point each of us experienced something eye-opening, where our viewpoints on life shifted to the belief that travel was the only thing left that made sense.
Lesson 32: There is no better feeling than sitting in the back of a pickup truck with a cool breeze against your face. Everyone at one point in his or her life should hitchhike in Central America.
Lesson 33: Have an open itinerary. Life on the road is always shifting. If you’re too planned you'll miss out on a lot of incredible experiences.
The start of our 2-day mission from Costa Rica to Santa Catalina, crossing the abandoned Panama Bridge
Lesson 34: Ladies, the only makeup you need is mascara and red lipstick. Nothing more.
Lesson 35: The best coffee in Central America is exported, so you may have to search high and low for a decent cup. 90 percent of the time you will get instant coffee (BLECH).
Lesson 36: Say YES to everything (unless your gut tells you NO).
Lesson 37: In the end, everything will work out as it should.
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