Do you really need to learn how to be a backpacker?

A lot of travel bloggers enjoy bragging. They are all about the number of countries they have visited (hint: often times, they have just gone through a country during a bus ride on their way to a different once, but since they got a stamp on their passport they still think it’s ok to tick it off their list). They talk about the epic trips they have taken.

They show off their ability to pack light and to travel on an extreme shoestring, to go local, to get off the beaten path and what not. If this is what it takes to become a good backpacker, then I may well be in the wrong place and will soon have start working on a different project, because I don’t think I can fit in with any of that.

In this post, I explain you how to be a backpacker by telling you all the things you should not do. Take it from someone who never really managed to become a successful backpacker. 

group tour

Get that passport stamped! – courtesy of roadjunky.com

How To Be A Backpacker: What Not To Do

I wish someone told me how to be a backpacker before I had my try at it. It would have saved me much time, effort and money. Instead, I have had to learn from experience. And in fact, the biggest lesson I have learned is that I can’t be bothered to learn how to be a backpacker and that I will continue traveling just as I like.

You see, I may well be the lamest traveller in the blogging community because I can’t nearly top the 70+ countries that many others claim to have visited. I have “only” visited 40. Although granted, I have been to most of those 40 two or three times. I have lived in 4 of them for longer than 3 months. And I can actually give directions to a taxi driver to take me to my hostel in Granada, Nicaragua, from Managua international airport.

But, if you care to learn how to be a backpacker, you may want to continue reading this post for two reasons: you can make fun of me for being so lame at backpacking and – most importantly – you can take notes of all the things you really should not do if you care to be an actual backpacker. 

I will try to sum it up all nicely for you.

how to be a backpacker

You may call me Turtle

Pack too much

Rule n. 1 in the course on how to be a backpacker is to pack light. But… Despite my best efforts I haven’t mastered the art of packing light and during my last long term trip across South America my big backpack weighted a full 18 kg (that’s when I actually wore all the heaviest clothes) and my small one was around 10.

But hey, at least I can prove that despite being small I am tough and strong, right? Besides, what would you say if I told you that it was a technique I carefully devised to meet the locals?

I got many bemused stares, a few of them congratulated me on being so strong, others offered their help (which started a conversation!) and some simply laughed (and helped me) when they saw that I could not pick up the pack of tissues I accidentally dropped on the floor, because I could not really bend under the weight and if I did I risked falling on my back and looking much like an upside down turtle. Not too bad, huh?

Buy presents

Do you wanna know why my backpack weighted 18 kg?

 I got carried away in Argentina and bought 3 bottles of wine that I carried around for months (no, I didn’t want to drink them because they were presents, and yes, I broke the rule of all budget backpackers – I did buy presents!) and I even had a whole pharmacy with me because I am really, truly, tremendously afraid of being sick on the road and not having any medication, just in case I can’t get in touch with my health insurance company (ok, I am sounding lamer by the minute – did I just admit that I travel with an insurance?).

Have travel insurance (scrap this: you really want one!)

Speaking of which… Many backpackers will tell you that if you want to learn how to be a backpacker you should save as much as possible and quit the idea of getting a travel insurance. Noooo! Baaaad! You really want a travel insurance, at least with a basic plan – because really, you never know what happens. It’s the safe way of how to be a backpacker. 

In fact, make sure to read my post “Why You Need A Good Backpacker Insurance.”

Spend all your money

Instead of traveling with no money at all, I have managed to spend all my savings on travel. Yup.

Quite shameful considering that there apparently are millions of ways to travel for (almost) free, to get free accommodation and to even make money while traveling. There even are ways to hitch boat rides that go through amazing places, such as the San Blas islands in Panama. All it takes to catch those rides is patience.

But, did I mention I am the most inpatient person you may meet? Seriously. Even the hyperactive globetrotter Diana – master of shoestring travel, incredible travel writer (she actually gets promoted from being a “just a blogger” because she’s won prizes with her short stories, plus she is a journalist) and amazing friend – who’s not really a champion at patience, managed to score a free ride that took her from Panama to Colombia.

Research ways of saving and then actually ignore them

She may have spent 2 full weeks in Portobelo, she may have become the subject of a few jokes at the hostel, but who cares, when she managed to save the $550 USD that the ride normally costs?

how to be a backpacker

Why ride a car, if you can go by horse? – photo courtesy of George Kenyon

All of this, when I was the good student to begin with. I did all the homework: researching the best boat companies that crossed from Panama to Colombia, enquiring on dates, routes, and discounts, reading all the online reviews, checking the recommendations to get a decent boat and stocking up on motion sickness pills “just in case” I may unexpectedly get seasick.

I studied so hard that then, when I had to sit the exams, I was so nervous that I failed: I happily boarded a boat that was a whopping $110 USD cheaper than the rest. “Blimey”, you may say, “that is actually quite good saving!”

Ha, I say. Wait till you hear the rest of the story. Because you see, on top of being over 1/5 cheaper, the boat was also smaller and more crowded – understandable, considering that there were 10 passengers, including the 3 backpackers who had actually managed to score a free ride (how did I miss on that?).

The crowd, combined with the worst case of seasickness ever (you can read about it here) led me to abandon the boat after 24 hours of suffering (even back then I knew I was lame, and proudly so!), having to wave farewells at my $440 USD, to arrange my return to Panama City and eventually find a flight to take me to Cartagena.

Read more about my horrible sailing experience on my post “Sailing San Blas.”

So, just to give you a rough overview of my expenses: something that normally costs around $500 USD, and that a few good backpackers manage to do for free ended up costing me around $800 USD, including the one night accommodation in Isla Porvenir, the extra meals, the fast boat and 4X4 ride back to Panama City, the extra night at the hostel in Panama City and the flight.

how to be a backpacker

A sunrise worth $800 USD

Never do a homestay

Yay me, I am the champion of going over the budget! Now, don’t come to me and say: “Oh Claudia, that’s ok – you didn’t really know that you could travel on a budget, and get freebies in exchange for a little bit of work!” Errrrr… actually? I knew. All those beautiful programs that allow backpackers to get in touch with farms, hostels and to do homestays, housesitting, and “volunteer” were known to me. I even subscribed to one – and paid my subscription.

And by all means, stay away from cockroaches and the like

But really, is it not my fault that all those gorgeous farms were infested with cockroaches and I really really have a phobia for them so when I got to the third one in a month and the (very green, tree hugging) owner told me I should just tell them to go away I thought I’d had it. It is not my fault if I like to eat real food and all those very green and very environmentally friendly farmers think they can save the world by eating (and feeding others) just mango and papaya.

Never volunteer

And truth be told, as a former human rights lawyer, I cringe at the thought that people consider working all day in exchange for a bed at a farm or at an hostel (aka actual businesses making profits) as “volunteering” when in actual legal terms it should be considered slavery. Never mind the lawyer in me! Call me a lazy ass, but quite frankly I could not be bothered to work while traveling after having spent years and years working hard and saving to be able to backpack across Latin America.

Not my idea of fun! Besides, I may be picky but I really am not interested in the oh-so-cultural experience of dealing with a bunch of 20-something western drunk and often stinky backpackers; and I have already done my good share of toilet scrubbing, dish washing, glasses filling, plates serving, fruit picking, animal rescuing which is enough for 3 lifetimes (and, shame on me!, I did not even do that to support my travel addiction but to actually pay my tuition fees while at university).

Read more about my opinion on voluntourism on my post “Is voluntourism really worth the time and money?”

I actually felt lonely in Cuba

I voluntarily spent all my money on travel

It’s not that I have anything against 20-something western backpackers (I have also been 20, you know), but although a good portion of the travel media industry tries to perpetuate the idea that age doesn’t matter, to me it does – I am 40, for Christ’s sake! (thank you, thank you, I do get told that I look younger!).

I do get tired, I do get back pains, I can’t be bothered to binge drink and party all night (been there, done that), I need a good meal at least once a day, I value my beauty sleep and my idea of getting to know a local culture has evolved into a more sophisticated, quieter and introspective one that sometimes required taking part in a guided tour (and paying for that).

Mind you, I am not against the concept of working while traveling, when one doesn’t otherwise have money. But yaaaaawn – been there, done that, end of story.

Read more about my opinion on guided tours on this post.

Practice at being a tourist

I also confess that I don’t get the big frenzy about going to off the beaten path places. Wait a second, what did you just say? “Going local, silly!” Oh, ok. “Getting to know the culture of a place, darling!” Mmmm. True. Granted. Then forgive me, but I truly must be less than intelligent. Because I actually do enjoy touristic destinations, so much so that I even pay the entrance fees without trying to find a way to sneak in for free, and on top of that, I even go to the same place three times!

Machu Picchu, Peru

Tourist x 3 – I have actually been to Machu Picchu 3 times!

Don’t go off the beaten path

The Colosseum in Rome is touristy? Call me a tourist then, fine by me! Everyone goes to Chichen Itza and Machu Picchu? I am one of those everyone. There are better sites than Tulum? Matter of opinion, I say – but, come to think of it, I really have been to pretty much all Mayan sites in Yucatan and I have yet to find one as beautiful as Tulum.

Besides, I think some locals must take a real pity on me because even if I find myself in the middle of tourist-landia Cartagena, or right at the market in crowded Cusco, I eventually get to talk to the them. They really must feel bad for me that they eventually start spilling little local secrets about the city.

Oh no, I swear they were not trying to rip me off! Unless being offered a whole bunch of eucalyptus leaves to cure my sore throat is an attempt at poisoning. Mind you, I don’t have anything against going off the beaten path. I actually end up off the beaten path – because I get lost, or stuck. Or both.

Like the time I went to the insanely beautiful Marcahuasi, in Peru, and realised there was no bus going back to Chosica, where I could catch the bus to Lima. So I did the only thing to do: spend the night in the lovely, quiet (aka isolated) village of San Pedro de Casta, listening to the village donkeys bray, do like the locals, and wait around. Some bus would come. Eventually. Just in time to catch my plane from Lima to Cusco.

Marcahuasi, photo 2, Peru

Getting off the beaten path in Peru: my only company was a dog!

Avoid street food

Looking to learn how to be a backpacker? Street food you must eat!

One thing I do well when I travel, though. “Finally!”, I hear you say. “Ha, you see?!”, I answer. Yes. I do eat street food. I really do. Except when I do get a terrible stomach infection from eating tacos in Palenque and end up having to stay in bed for 2 full days (well, not really just in bed, but you get what I mean).

And except the times when I really, really want to read a menu and sit at a table and eat whatever I am served in more than the 5 minutes it takes to gorge down street food.

Tacos Guadalajara

Mmmmmm, street food! – photo courtesy of Bill Walsh (flickr)

How To Be A Backpacker – Take Two

Why am I telling you all of this if it looks like I really don’t know how to be a backpacker? Why am I spilling the dirtiest traveling secrets I have? It is not like my opinion matters more than that of anybody else, or that I am more authoritative on the subject. Not at all. But I am tired of reading article after article that try to give the definitive and right idea of what travel should be, and since I am at it, and I write a travel blog, I may as well give my very humble opinion on how to be a backpacker.

What I want you to understand is that there is no learning such thing as how to be a backpacker, and it is ok to make budgeting mistakes (ahem, it is, isn’t it?). We are not all accountants who walk around with an in-built spread sheet to tick off expenses as we go. I am not even good at math – in fact, I am so bad at it that my sister keeps saying I am a perfect target to rip offs, although with time I managed to master the art of haggling.

I also think it is ok to be attracted by touristic destinations and major attractions. Because seriously, for as crowded as it is, for as expensive at it may be, Venice is an incredible place to visit (and you’d be surprised, even I managed to do good there).

And, more than anything else, it is ok to travel and spend money, because money comes and goes and there will always be a chance to make some and ultimately, travel is a huge revenue and a great source of income in many countries (even the ones where it is possible to travel on a shoestring, such as Nicaragua) and we may as well show a little support for the local economy.

Ziplining, Argentina

Rule #1 of how to be a backpacker: Do whatever makes you happy!

So no, I do not feel like a loser and I don’t feel less than amazing for having spent all my money on travel (except when I don’t have money to buy a new fancy camera, that is). The truth is that traveling already is epic enough and already brings us outside of our comfort zones for having to deal with places we don’t know, cultures we are not familiar with, and languages we may not understand.

We are free to enjoy it in whichever form we want – an all inclusive luxury resort were we splurge and pamper ourselves, or a bed in the cheapest hostel in town. That’s the beauty of traveling: there is something for anybody.

Planning to travel long term? Make sure to read my post “All The Useful Backpacking Essentials For Long Term Travel.”

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Discover how to be a real backpacker - via @clautavani

Discover what it takes to be an unsuccessful backpacker - via @clautavani

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