Backpacking survival guide.
So whilst this trip hasn’t been the first impulsive, interesting destination venture I have ever attempted, at nearly a year it is definitely the longest. It is also my first time legitimately backpacking it. In the past when I’ve travelled by myself I was with a volunteer group or on a basic tour. Whilst these tours were amazing, and a perfect option for solo travelers they are hardly financially viable for long term trips. So this blog is not about how I literally survived the trip, that comes down to a little bit of luck and a lot of common sense, but about the best tips, tricks and resources I used this trip to afford it, be comfortable, enjoy myself and just make it a whole lot easier.
Before this trip started I had to do some planning, but admittedly, said planning was very loose, and I was lucky enough to have enough time and freedom that I didn’t need a perfectly strict plan. One of the best things I did during the planning stages was to pay $100 for an extras package when booking my flights with student flights, this included a number of benefits with insurance etc but the biggest thing for me was that it allowed the flexibility to change my flights 3 times without incurring a cost. Since I had no idea how long this trip would take this was the best purchase I could have made.
My favourite resources to use for planning were other travel blogs, I found they had the most up to date, unbiased, relevant guides. I had a hard copy lonely planet for South America and for Central I printed out some info from blogs. Some of the best I found were by NomadicMatt http://www.nomadicmatt.com/ TheIndieTraveller http://www.indietraveller.co/ and PauseTheMoment http://www.pausethemoment.com/
Because of the length of this trip and the amount of climates I would be travelling through all the way from the Carribean to the Andes mountains I had to think about my packing a lot more. I brought a new pack from Kathmandu which opens at the front rather than the top, and has a detachable day pack which is really helpful. My pack has been really great, although heavy, I was jealous of travellers with smaller packs but for the length of time I was travelling it was hard.
Ok, life changing travel investment, BUY PACKING CELLS. I will never, ever travel without these bad boys again. You can purchase them from Katmandhu, or I got a bargain set of assorted sizes for around 11AUD from Ikea. The different sizes are so great and means I literally have nothing loose in my pack. Some of them are double sided, and I use smaller ones for first aid things etc. Surprisingly I have actually stuck to using this the entire time and it makes packing and repacking and finding things a trillion times easier. I had to pack for both hot and cold temperatures, but obviously I have thrown out things and brought new things along the way.
Ladies, unfortunately shoes take up the most room in your bag. But I seriously cut down and started my trip with only four pairs of shoes, hiking boots(a good pair is essential), thongs, sandals, and sneakers. Now I have realised no one here gives a crap if you wear thongs on every occasion I have ditched the sandals and done the majority of the trip with only 3 pairs of shoes. I also ditched a bunch of makeup since I wasn’t wearing any anyway.
SARONGS: these beauties are seriously my number one travel item. I have used them as a towel (I ditched that too), a sheet, a scarf, a curtain (take that hostel creeps), a pillow case (necessary in some hostels), beach blanket and countless other things. They take up hardly any room and especially in the warmer climates they more than suffice to dry you off. Plus every hostel that doesn’t provide towels free you can usually hire one for a small deposit. I have thrown so much out from my pack to make room for gifts etc, but one addition that has been really handy is another multipurpose blanket, shawl, scarf I brought in a market in Mexico. This has been helpful especially on some of the freezing buses. I tried to just pack one really warm jacket, my down one which packs down to almost nothing, and I have brought more warm things and thrown other things out as I need.
The first thing to mention is that we did this trip loan free! In order to undertake this kind of track you will need to save some pennies and make a couple of sacrifices before you leave. But the beauty of backpacking is that it does make travel affordable for many people. Here are some of the best tips for saving money once you’re there.
On previous trips since I wasn’t gone for more than a month I just copped the currency exchange fees or ATM fees, but for long term travel it really is heartbreaking to have to buy your own money. I’ve copped huge ATM fees and it really sucks when you’re pinching the pennies and were hesitant to even spend that amount of money on dinner that night or a hostel bed. My clever boyfriend organised a Citibank card which saved us a lot of ATM fees as they have a lot of overseas branches or sister banks. I used a NAB traveller card which was useful for withdrawing USD and I was able to do an instant transfer since this is my usual bank.
Central and South America can be cheap, and it can be expensive. When we left we said at least every 2 months we’d treat ourselves to a nice hotel but we have never really felt the need. I think we stayed in a hotel once for birthdays. As a couple travelling many people were surprised we were doing the same as all the other backpackers and sleeping in dorms. We found a good balance of mixing this with AirBnBs or cheap BnBs. We usually used bookings.com or hostel world to find where to stay. Bookings are good because they don’t charge a fee and run discounts for frequent users. HostelWorld app is easy to use and helpful to get a feel for a place. Also, hostels in South America are freaking amazing! Many of them have pools, kitchens, Netflix, Pool Tables, bars and hammocks.
Hostels are great socially but can get expensive for sucked-in backpackers who organise everything through them. Party hostels can be a trap we’ve watched people who eat/drink/play all at the hostel and then realise they’ve spent a week in a place without barely stepping outside, which defeats the purpose if you ask me. I’ve also been able to save money by not drinking much and never touching drugs. Which is a huge thing over here and a huge expense for a lot of people. All that obviously comes down to personal preference.
Transport has probably been our biggest cost, central is a little costly but easy to get around via Bus. South American buses are not cheap but are a fantastic service, beds, movies and snacks included, but obviously the distances are far greater. Sometimes domestic flights are cheaper or only marginally more costly than bus tickets, but international flights are very pricey, so it will be inevitable that a few flights will be part of your trip. BusBud is a handy website for booking online in some countries.
In terms of food which can also be a large expense, we made a blanket rule of eating one proper fulfilling meal per day and street food or a cheap meal for the other. We always tried to pick hostels that include breakfast as this saves you money and hassle of trying to locate breakfast. A wise backpacker once said* ‘if you get a decent hostel breakfast, you can eat late and stretch yourself to 2 meals a day’
*it wasn’t a wise backpacker, it was a desperate backpacker, ME! But it works for reals.
When my family came to visit me in South Murica they kept commenting on how ‘well’ I looked. Partly I think just because I had a tan but also because I had been taking care of myself. I had visions of eating tinned beans and bananas but at least in these countries you really don’t have to stretch yourself that much. The ‘Menu Del Dias’ you can get almost anywhere are your best bet, and often include an appetizer and a drink. But also, *public service announcement!* As a general rule, Latin America does not do salads well but they do do salad buffets well. If the idea of this kind of icks you then never fear, ‘Crepes and Waffles’ is here. Now, Crepes and Waffles is a chain located all over Latin America but I have to confess, not once did I devour a single crepe nor a waffle!! Why?? Because their salad bar. Is. The. Tits. A legendary local introduced us to these AND gave us the hint that it’s cheaper and a bigger serve if you order take away. These babies are my lifeline. They have all the trimmings, boiled eggs, quinoa, crunchy little seeds and dressings to put on top, all serve yourself in teeny little bowls that you know are regularly replaced. Not to mention this chain only ever employs single mothers so knowing that is good for your tummy and your heart! It might sound like I’m sponsored by this place or something but I just really love salad and finding such a good thing can make such a difference to long term travel.
To save money you also just need to work out what you like and what is worth spending extra money on in your opinion. For example Machu Picchu was a huge drainer on our budget but an essential in our opinion, but I decided to skip the anxiety of Death Road and saved money because I wasn’t particularly interested in it. If you love nature, base your travels around nature if you love partying do that! People can advise you all they like but at the end of the day it’s your money and your decision. If you just want to fly instead of stomach another 17 hour bus do it!
There are some Apps I have on my phone that have made this trip so much easier. There are the obvious ones, trip advisor and bookings.com, but some other new ones have been integral to getting ourselves around. Maps.Me is like google maps but you can access it fully offline, including banks, ATMs, restaurants, driving and walking directions for all destinations. All you need to do is download that countries map before you arrive and then you have full access. I made a habit of pinning our hostel before we arrive in a town so from the bus station all we have to do is look up on the gps how far it is and if it’s a walk or a cab ride away.
A good currency converter that is full functional offline is really helpful for bargaining and changing money, or just working out if your getting ripped off. Changing currencies so frequently can get confusing so this was super handy. I use Currency Converter Plus. If you’re in a country where English is not widely spoken translation/dictionary apps like SpanishDict or Google Translate are endlessly helpful, as well as apps to actually help you learn the language like DuoLingo or Babble.
Latin America has an app called Flip Flop which will use your GPS location to tell you about activities like markets, parties, sports matches in the area. For photography I mainly just use my iPhone and VSCOcam to edit because it’s easy to upload and store. Brendan has an underwater camera we use for iPhone unfriendly areas. A laptop with a hard drive full of movies and TV series is also the best for long bus rides or having some alone times in hostels. We recently invested in a headphone splitter which makes bus watching a lot easier. I also pay to use Spotify monthly so I can download and change offline playlists whenever I want so I don’t get bored of my music.
The moral of the story
Look, at the end of the day it all comes down to a little bit of luck and a whole lot of common sense. Before I even left, I had people right hand to god convince me that I WOULD be robbed, I WOULD be kidnapped and I started to believe them so much I spent the first few months of overnight buses being really anxious. But not one of those hiccups even slightly happened to us. We met people who had been robbed or ripped off. But we also noticed a lot of stories started with ‘so I was totally wasted..’ and then, *insert bad thing* happened. Which is fine, all the power to you and it often makes for a great story. But I hate to think that people are put off travelling to some amazing places because of what other people have said. A lot of backpackers get ripped off/robbed and even worse in many parts of the world and there are also millions who don’t!
At the end of the day the whole point is to experience a cutlture other than your own and that may come with some uncomfortable situations but you have to push through that to get to the times that will take your breath away!
I am more than happy to answer any questions about Latin America or backpacking in general.
Book the god damn ticket!! And never stop adventuring ✌🏼Sarah