LESSONS OF A LONG-TERM BACKPACKER

Updated: Apr 18, 2018

A written out, time-tested, categorized guide to traveling along with only a pack.

December 05, 2015


One has to search, recognize and enjoy those little moments of peace as they can be quite hard to find.

< Getting Around >

Bus travel is friendly and very affordable. In most South American countries, expect to pay about $1 per hour for long distance bus rates. Prepare oneself for the haul before entering the seating area, as most luggage will be stowed below in the bodega.


I wouldn't suggest bringing bags onto the bus unless one intends on sitting with it. If the ride is long, consider taking with you snacks, water, a device for research, pen and paper for making a list, but be wary of how much you hold in your hand.


Things happen fast, so people will be grabbing and storing your bag below and one should get on as quickly as possible or could be left standing wondering when the next one will depart/arrive.


Try to get a seat that isn't in line of direct sunlight. The front of the bus tends to be less bumpy than the back. The conductors will drive like crazy, but the people aboard and even the maniacal drivers are a wealth of information. Use this time to ask questions, chat, sleep or simply enjoy the passing scenes.


Know when its your stop if it isn't a direct route. Ask questions and be looking for signs along the way or following along with google maps open. When its your time to get off, stand up and start to move towards the front. Ask again that this is the right area for you as you don't want to have to start over with catching another bus and paying additional fares. Most conductors know the best places to transfer buses.


(a bodega is a storage space, in this instance its accessed from the outside of the bus

a conductor is a driver, in this instance a bus driver)


< Community Kitchens >

It's always a mystery what kind of kitchen situation one will find themselves in when traveling to a new homestead. Whether it be a full, shared, mini, ww2-era or non-existent kitchen and one will have to break out the camp stove, its best to be ready for any and all challenges.


A primary challenge is transporting the food to your final destination. It would be ideal if you could have it transported with you, but the buses will land at a designated terminal. Keep your eyes peeled for any good grocers you might have passed on the way into town. Usually, I would recommend landing at the terminal, selecting a grocer thats on the way to your destination and either walking or figuring out a bus to take you there. From this point, you can choose based on your finances if you can afford to taxi it to your homestead, arrange a pick up with the host, walk or deduce a bus route that will pass by the destination.


Affording the expense of fresh groceries cuts back on the cost of eating out, but its important not to buy anything until you know the situation of the kitchen. If you are unsure, grab a bite or a snack on your way there, and investigate it first. Sometimes one will need a blender. Is there a pan or a pot, any lids?


Maybe the gas unit wobbles and leans, so ones frying oil teeters on sending everyone to the ER for scorched feet. One really just never knows.

The conditions of the shared, community cookware is often abhorrent. How they came to be as if a cannon had shot it through the side of a volcano and then burnt it to a crisp in the magma chamber is unknown. There's often no handles, uneven surfaces. Maybe the gas unit wobbles and leans, so ones frying oil teeters on sending everyone to the ER for scorched feet. One really just never knows. So it's important to 'peep the situation' before filling up those grocery sacks.


< Travel Days >

One of the steepest hills to climb was becoming comfortable with the pack. Both the weight of it and it being broken down and reloaded in a moments notice. I'll say this, the more times one packs their bag, the easier it gets.


The leisurely chat over coffee could mean ending up in a new city, after dark, unsure of its layout and with no way of getting around

One can save a lot of time on their pack-preparation if they pack it the same way and keep a good mental inventory of all their items. During days of travel, catching an earlier bus could be the difference between making those connecting transfers or missing them and having to afford to spend the night in a town you didn't intend on.


So, be careful with time on travel days. The leisurely chat over coffee could mean ending up in a new city, after dark, unsure of its layout and with no way of getting around other than paying steep taxi rates. Get that coffee to go and be out early!


Speaking of leisure, one has to search, recognize and enjoy those little moments of peace as they can be quite hard to find. Travel days consume a lot of time, energy and of course money. Bus travel is slow and periodical. Food options are often limited if not nil and it's being out in the elements too that can be taxing.


The first full day somewhere is good to get ones bearings and explore the new area, but there's necessary tasks too. Like scoping groceries for the next few days and finding your nights stay if not done so already. Coming into a new area means quickly adapting and solving problems like where to find fresh, local, budget foods. This might not be achieved first day, so one should carry with themselves back-up meals like any stored leftovers, rice, lentils, bread, pb & j, cookies, protein smoothies, café and have at least 1 liter of water per person on hand.


The next day is either a splurge to stay in that spot that's affordable and favorable, or else its time to be back on that bus for newer horizons.


This continual movement can be taxing. Especially in the case of having to pack up the next morning because a place is crummy with sparse, gringo priced foods or possibly one is left with the conflicted feeling of being in a thrilling environment, but the cost of staying and ones budget unfortunately won't allow perpetual existence.


Staying nourished on your budget is also a task. Planning ahead is how one can ensure they are getting the nutrients they need. One probably won't see themselves eating out and having that comfy feeling of being stuffed with every meal. One will have to cope with task of walking past juice stands and ice cream shops selling exactly what the palette is craving. No, these options are not for the disciplined backpacker.


One will have to cope with task of walking past juice stands and ice cream shops selling exactly what the palette is craving.

However, when one is disciplined and has managed to stay on budget, they can state the cost of their next room, what their next 2-3 meals will consist of and their cost, THEN one can find themselves enjoying a tasty treat.


And there's reason to this madness. When I crunched my numbers I could see that by going over budget by just $30 a week over the course of 6 months, its total would take away a city that I could have gone and visited, exploring and deepening my journey.


(a café is a coffee. yummm. Also can be called café tinto, which is small and sweet)



The tools that helped out the most along the way we're the following...



< Air bnb >

Relied on this service heavily. Not only did it provide the best deals, at some of the coolest locations with some of the nicest people, but it revealed what areas were traveler-friendly and could be visited with ease.


Some tricks of usage.. Use their maps maps page and redo the search in different areas to finds towns to visit. Use filters to cap prices. Always circumvent the service charge when you can. A $3 fee does add up very quickly over time. If it's a hostel or they reveal a property name either in the description, a photo or a review.. Do a google search for that and contact directly. You can also send you number covertly through messages by typing out your number (six six seven ninety-five eleven).


I typically went with listings that had reviews and preferably recent ones. Be wary of their map locations being slightly wrong. Confirm address with host prior to arrival.


< Google maps >

Google maps is always a trendy, helpful map. Don't expect too many locals to be able to interpret the map for you. It's still a foreign concept, but it does tell barrios and street names and that's a common identifier for where you need to go.


It also shows train stops and depending on the levels of tourism, boat routes to scenic water destinations.


(a barrio is a small neighborhood, often cities are sub-divided in this way)


< Spending app >

Doesn't matter which one you select, but keep and use daily a system for monitoring your spending. I knew exactly what I could spend in a day to stay on track. I could also see what I had saved or was needing to make up towards the set budget.


< Sawyer gravity filter >

Doesn't matter where you are, you will need potable water. The first two countries I visited had potable water with exception to remote or outer island regions.


Colombia did not have potable water in any location. I have heard of a few people drinking the water in Colombia with no issue, but my body took a toll from the amount of foreign bacteria and even filtering wasn't enough to keep those little germmys from messing my systems up.


(Update: Since returning to Colombia, I drank tap water and had no issue. I ordered from online a probiotic and did 12 days of intense gut flora resetting. It did the trick)


Sawyer makes a great two bag with inline filter system for filtering water. Each bag is 2L+ so you have the option to take up to 4.5 liters with you (one bag would remain unfiltered). You can also attach a drinking tube to the filtered bag and use it as a camel back. The system is relatively cheap when considering the other systems, cost of replacement filters or the cost of buying water along the way. Not to mention the destructive footprint of doing so! I rigged up a little bit of paracord for the bags and the minute I got somewhere, I'd go to the bathroom or kitchen and fill the gray bag (dirty) and suspend the blue bag (clean) below on the paracord.


Make sure there is the maximum amount of distance between the two. If flow is weak and once you have a quarter liter or so in the clean bag, unplug the gray end of the tube from the dirty bag and back flush a little through the filter line. I do this frequently. Usually once at the start and again before disconnecting the hoses.


< Plastic shopping bag >

Something I came into using often was a reusable shopping bag for toting around snacks and groceries. I primarily took the route of shopping at grocery stores and cooking meals. So this bag was a handy way of cutting down on bag consumption and compiling the load into a single source for carrying back to the homestead. A lot of of the smaller pueblo towns didn't have adequate grocers, so I would transport the goods from a larger city I stopped off in, to the final destination.


I found the bags to be primarily sold in the centro shopping squares. Just look for the street vendors selling lots of book bags. Or you might see shoes and clothes first, but around and in that same vicinity someone will have them for sale.


Also, which can be quite handy is a smaller, day-pack style backpack. Something that doesn't take up any space in the main pack and can transport goodies when stopping off in town or can pack supplies when going out on a treks.


(a centro is a designated 'middle' of town, often with commerce and transit)



#travel #guide #expedition #CostaRica #Panama #Colombia #Ecuador

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