Backpacking South East Asia is an incredible experience and we should all try it, at least once.
When I first visited South East Asia last October during a trip to Indonesia, I felt overwhelmed, for it looked and felt completely different from anywhere else I had been before. It took me a second trip to visit the rest of the region to fully enjoy it, and I eventually fell in love with it. Traveling across South East Asia takes some skills, but a few tips here and there can help to plan and enjoy the trip. So, here’s my top tips for hassle free travel in South East Asia.
Continue reading this post for tips on backpacking South East Asia.
Traveling around South East Asia is challenging – but fun.
20 Absolutely Useful Tips For Backpacking South East Asia
Read before going
Part of the reason for the cultural shock I experienced when I first visited South East Asia is that I didn’t know anything about it. I had read nothing about the country I would be visiting, knew nothing about its culture, its way of life and I didn’t know anything about its people.
My number one tip for backpacking South East Asia is to do some readings before going – whether on travel guides, travel blogs, government websites and magazines. This helps prepare and know what to expect.
Find out about the needed visas and their fees
My second recommendation for backpacking South East Asia is to read about the visa requirements.
Different countries in South East Asia have different visa requirements, and the visas have different costs depending on the passport one may hold. For example, Vietnam grants free 15 days visas to Italian passport holders. Vietnam visas can be obtained online before traveling. Cambodia on the other hand has a fee that should be paid. In this case, knowing the price of the visa will help to avoid the regular border scams.
Make sure to also check if there is any specific requirement for the passport. I was demanded to pay an extra $30 USD at the border, because my passport only had two free pages and the minimum required was supposedly three. I knew that this was not the case (I had done my homework!) and managed to argue my way out of this scam.
Vietnam is gorgeous – but it is better to go prepared!
Make a scan copy of the passport and other travel documents and send it via email
I am distracted, I admit it. I once almost lost my passport in Nicaragua, and the best part of it is that I did so when I was making a copy of it, just in case I’d lose it. Thankfully I was able to retrieve it as I knew exactly where I had left it, but I panicked a bit. I have also met other travelers who had their bag snatched in Phnom Penh, with anything that was in it including their passport.
I generally keep my passport in a safe, and when moving from place to place keep important travel documents in money belts. To be on the safe side in case all precautions fail, I always scan my passport and send a copy to my email, as this will make the process of getting a new one much easier. I also carry a few spare passport photos. They will come handy for visas and it is a very useful thing to keep in mind when backpacking South East Asia.
Vespas are cute, but long distances are better covered by plane
Plan to cover the longer distances by plane
Backpacking South East Asia usually means lots of bus and train travel. But… does it really have to be?
Traffic in South East Asia is terrible, and unless getting a sleeper bus, traveling can be really uncomfortable and tiring, with shuttle buses that are packed to the brim with people and their luggage, and the driving totally mad (honking is the rule here, for whatever reason). It is way better to cover longer distances by plane, especially as it is easy to get cheap flights.
Don’t exchange currency at the airport, and always count the exact change
For whatever reason, exchanging currency at the airport costs way more than doing it at any other place in the city. Furthermore, it is not uncommon that even in banks tellers who exchange the money “forget” to give the whole amount expected. Always count the money on the spot, and demand the whole amount if anything is missing. It’s an essential lesson to learn when backpacking South East Asia.
Having some spare cash will help when buying souvenirs – cards are often not accepted!
Always carry more than one debit and credit card
The last thing you want when backpacking South East Asia (or anywhere else, really) is to be left with no card and no way to get cash.
You see, sometimes banks block cards, or ATMs won’t accept one. Cards can get lost, stolen and even de-magnetized with all the traveling. In the early days of my traveling career, I was so afraid to get my cards stolen that I only carried one, and found out when I tried to withdraw cash that it wasn’t working. I was lucky enough to be able to get some cash through an alternative service, which however involved a long process.
Since then, I always make sure to carry several cards, keeping them separate so that they don’t get de-magnetized and in different places, in case one of them gets stolen. I generally carry one on me, one on my day pack and one on my backpack, carefully hidden.
Carry some spare cash
Cash is king when backpacking South East Asia!
I generally carry a decent amount of US dollars wherever I travel, keeping it in different places. I prefer US dollars as they are widely accepted. In case of emergency, having some cash will mean that I can easily get a meal, a bed and at least local transportation, and call my family to wire me some money until I can sort things out.
Buying tours locally is much cheaper
Don’t book tours in advance – they cost much less locally
Backpacking South East Asia means traveling more or less spontaneously and booking things on the go.
I expected tours to be a bit cheaper when bought locally, but in South East Asia the difference can be up to 4 times less. I have been on a tour of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam where people who bought the package online, from home, paid something like $160 USD and those who bought then locally paid only $40 USD.
Don’t be afraid not to find a tour or not to have time to arrange everything locally: anything is possible in South East Asia, a tour will always pop up, and local operators will play their magic to find a suitable solution – and there will be considerable savings. Here’s more tips on how to budget for South East Asia.
Try to walk around there with a trolley – impossible!
Pack light and use a backpack
Backpacking South East Asia can be truly uncomfortable and having the right travel gear is a requirement: shuttle buses often don’t have a trunk and place the bags in between seats; lots of budget accommodation don’t have elevators and it may well be necessary to carry the bags all the way to the top floor; and when doing boat trips as those of Ha Long Bay it is often necessary to carry bags on and off the boat.
All of this is much easier when carrying travel backpacks rather than suitcases, and even better if backpacks are packed light. Picking the right backpacking gear is a key factor when traveling in Asia. I have two backpacks and they are both comfortable and have proved excellent for active travelers like myself.
One is this one and the other is this one. Besides, it is so cheap to shop in South East Asia that if a pair of pants break, it is easy to replace them! One thing I always carry though is a pair of good hiking boots, as I always end up hiking. And since they are too heavy on the backpack, I normally wear them on flights.
Opt for solid toiletries
Knowing what to pack when backpacking South East Asia is essential. Solid shampoo properly placed in a tin, solid conditioner and a bar of good soap instead of shower gel are way lighter than their liquid equivalents, and occupy less room in the backpack. There’s even solid sunscreen and solid insect repellent.
Solid toiletries help to pack lighter and can also be packed in a carry on. A good solid shampoo and conditioner last for up to 4 months, even on hair as long as mine. I call that value for money!
Always carry a toilet roll in the daypack
I have learned from many years of traveling that, especially in developing countries, toilets don’t necessarily come with toilet paper. I normally pack up a toilet roll in a sandwich bag, and keep it in my daypack It comes really handy especially during long bus journeys.
Do carry prescriptions medicines
It is quite common to get sick when traveling. Crowded buses and trains and even planes are known to be excellent vehicles for viruses. That is how I got my laryngitis in Vietnam and lost my voice for a few days (which according to my sister wasn’t necessarily a bad thing).
But in a place where not many people speak good English, it is hard to explain what one needs when feeling sick. I was surely thankful that I had all prescription drugs with me. I normally carry a little bit of everything, just in case.
Food in South East Asia is delicious
Eat local food
Food in South East Asia is good and cheap pretty much anywhere. Even after a month there, I didn’t miss Western food at all, because local cuisine is so tasty. The best places to eat are actually on the street, as I have learned in Bangkok.
Wherever there is a good amount of people eating (and possibly even a line), a mixture of locals and travelers, and even women and children, is bound to have good food which is tasty, cheap and more importantly completely safe to eat.
Learn to cross the street
I thought I had learned how to cross the street when I was a child, but once I arrived in South East Asia I realized that any good pedestrian behavior was useless. Traffic in this region is unprecedented. There’s lots of cars, and millions of scooters. The key to crossing the street is to – literally – never stop to look. Nobody will stop to let pedestrians walk by, but they will swing their way around them.
Ask to use the taxi meter
Taxi drivers often try to set a flat rate, but the price they suggest is generally higher than the one passengers should expect to pay otherwise. For example, when I arrived in Hanoi, the driver suggested a flat rate of 400000 Vietnamese Dong to take me to my hotel. I paid 360000 with the meter.
In Saigon, the driver suggested a flat rate of 300000 to take me from the airport to the backpackers area, but I had read beforehand that it shouldn’t cost more than 150000. I demanded to pay by the meter and ended up paying only 120000.
Bring ear plugs
Traffic never stops in South East Asia, and people have a real passion for honking: they honk to get others out of their way; they honk to get the traffic moving; they honk just to say they are driving by. Personally, I can’t stand the noise of traffic when I am trying to sleep so I was really glad I had carried a pair of ear plugs to wear at night – at least I could get some decent sleep.
South East Asia has a special light!
Don’t necessarily trust online reviews
It often happened to me that tour operators, hotels and restaurants that have glowing reviews were a total disappointments. I asked myself how it was possible that such poor services had incredible reviews. It is quite simple: those reviews are often fake. A hint into knowing that the 5 stars reviews are fake is when the reviewer has only left that one review.
Do check who is leaving the review before trusting it. Furthermore, be advised that hotels, restaurants and tour operators can (and will) pay to remove bad reviews and get good ones.
Carry a travel towel
Hostels tend to skimp on towels, or guests have to pay to rent one. A travel towel is a good solution, as it is extremely light and it dries quickly, and it can also be used as a beach towel.
Wear flip flops in showers
I often see people walking around barefoot in hostels, including to go to the toilet. I may be a neat freak but I would rather avoid getting athletes’ foot or other sort of skin issues. Getting in the shower with flip flops is a good way to protect against nasty stuff.
People in Asia love to have their picture taken
Ask permission to take photos
People in South East Asia love to pose for pictures, so much so that whenever they saw me taking a photo they would actually stop me and ask me to take one of them too. A few also asked me to be in the picture, actually! Regardless of that, I find that asking for permission to take a photo, even if it is just with an iPhone, is always polite and appreciated – and I did so with a huge smile!
Do you have more tips to share? Let me know so in the comments!
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Everyone really knows by now. I love traveling – so much so that I have even opened a blog and made a profession out of it. Each year, I spend around 4 to 5 months on the move, on a combination of long and short trips. I have a countless number of suitcases, backpacks, daypacks, carry-on bags, trolleys and what not, of various sizes and different quality.
With all the traveling I do, I should have become a pro at packing by now, and have a consolidated packing routine. But guess what? If there is one thing that I truly, wholeheartedly hate about traveling is having to pack. I am terrible at it. I am poorly organized, so I always end up forgetting something. And I often end up carrying much more than I actually need – in proper unsuccessful backpacker style.
To find out why I think of myself as an unsuccessful backpacker, read my post “How to be an unsuccessful backpacker.”
I still remain an unsuccessful backpacker
Picking the best travel bag
One thing I have learned, though. And that is that, regardless of the length of my trip, having the best travel bag – one that perfectly suits the kind of trip I am going on – is a key factor when packing. I mean quality stuff here – and I do invest my money when it comes to good quality travel gear, because I know I need something reliable.
With all the travel bags I have, I pretty much carry a suitcase if I know I am traveling comfortably and someone else is going to carry it for me. This hasn’t happened very often in the last few years – actually, last time I did carry a suitcase was during my press trip to Indonesia.
I generally prefer backpacks, and I have a few of them actually. Backpacks don’t fit nearly as much stuff as suitcases, so I am forced to travel more lightly. But they match my kind of trip much better. Imagine me walking the tiny alleys of the Old City Varanasi, in India, trying to dodge the crowds, dogs, cows, cow poo, people on bikes and scooters, and garbage with a suitcase. It would have been impossible. I was glad I could move swiftly.
I also have a good selection of carry-ons. If I am traveling for a weekend or even for a week, I travel carry-on only and pack something that fits in the overhead compartment on the plane. I just can’t stand waiting endlessly for my bags to arrive and this way I can just get out of the plane and make my way to town. I have a fantastic travel bag that I can wear as a backpack, so that if I have to run through the terminals for connecting flights I can do that easily – much much better than having a trolley. I realized this when my sister and I were coming back from Mexico and we almost missed one of our connecting flights, and I could run much faster than she could, as I had a backpack!
A nice carry on bag is the perfect item for a short trip
My packing routine
So, picking the right kind of travel bag is pretty much the only thing I do right when it comes to packing. I have tried to overcome my hatred for packing in many ways, some of which have been working well so far. In an attempt to learn to pack more lightly, my packing routine now involves making an incredibly detailed list of what I may need – I even have it written down on a blog post, actually. Who knows that someone else may learn from my (err, let’s call it) experience.
To read more of my packing tips, check my posts “All The Useful Backpacking Essentials For Long Term Travel” and “My Ultimate Packing List.”
Except, at times I am so busy with work that I don’t even have time to write that list. So for example I am traveling to go to Israel and Jordan in 3 days and I have noted down nothing, and needless to say I haven’t even started thinking about what I should carry, or looked at what the weather may be like in the region. In fact, I am in a slight panic. Perhaps I should stop writing this post and actually write my packing list.
Anyways, back to my packing routine now. So… once I have my list down, I take every item I need and put everything in my living room. The table, chairs, coffee table and couch all get covered with every single item I think I may need.
Not exactly a pro at packing
That’s when I start panicking a bit more – because woaaa that is a lot of stuff, do I really need all of that? So I call my mom begging her to please come by and take a look at all my stuff and help me pick. Yes, I said that: I do call my mom for stuff like this. But don’t worry. My mom curbs my “italianity” by telling me off and saying she has better stuff to do – i.e. reading a book, filing her nails, petting the cats. You know, that sort of urgent stuff.
If my sister comes by my place, I beg her to please take a look. She’s usually a bit more willing – perhaps because she shares my passion for travel; and she even takes the initiative to tell me to drop a thing or two.
I then proceed to color match the outfit: I find that if I have stuff that can be easily matched, I end up carrying less. And this way, I start eliminating a good amount of items that go back in my closet. Then I start selecting shoes – I always wear the heaviest ones on my flight (usually my hiking shoes); the toiletries – which are the heaviest item on the backpack; and the pharmacy – which I always carry because I worry I may get sick (and I have asthma, and I may meet someone who needs assistance, and you never really know do you?).
I am becoming better at packing, I promise!
When I eventually begin to actually stuff my backpack, I look like a nut. I play loud music – preferably some Gogol Bordello. I go back and forth placing items on my backpack, moon walking around. For each couple of items I get in the backpack, I take a break (this is hard job, you know) and go back to my MacBook to check my email or get on Facebook. I could lie and say it’s for work or urgent matters but the truth is that I simply need a distraction and a diversion from packing.
Eventually, I go back to packing, and everything comes together almost nicely. And once packing is over, I can finally relax with a much needed glass of red wine.
What’s your secret to packing efficiently?
Hiking in Tibet is a fantastic experience – all adventure lovers should plan to do it at least once in their life!
Meet Agness and Cez – travel duo of eTramping.com who have been traveling the world and blogging about it since 2011. They managed to visit Tibet back in 2013 and today they are sharing their top 10 tips and advice for getting the most out of a Tibetan adventure. I am keen to visit Tibet, as it’s meant to be one of the most beautiful and remote places on earth, so I’ll need to be armed with some top tips for trekking in Tibet – so here they are!
Meet Agness and Cez: aren’t they gorgeous?
Top 10 Tips For Hiking In Tibet
Tibet. Just saying the name aloud conjures up images and feelings of remote beauty, spectacular vistas, snowcapped mountains, friendly, smiling faces, and cold temperatures! It’s a plateau of mystic spiritualism and dramatic landscapes, and a visit here will live long in the memory.
Dreaming of these amazing views – need to go hiking in Tibet!
For us, it is simply the most beautiful place we have ever seen, but it took careful preparation and planning to get there. However, leaving aside for a moment the visa logistics, we put together a bite-sized tip list for hiking in Tibet, an incredible part of the world. Don’t forget your mittens!
Cardio, cardio, cardio
Now don’t get us wrong, we’re sure that even a two-packs-a-day smoker can still have an awesome time, but it’s just that we wouldn’t advise it. If one struggles to climb a set of stairs, this is off limits! Our number one piece of advice for hiking in Tibet is to ensure to be physically able to, so as not to risk life and limb in the roof of the world!
Get a guide
Having a good guide book is a great idea, but having an actual guide (or going on a guided tour) is even better! You really don’t want to hike this alone (in fact, I never recommend hiking alone and you can ready why here). Utilize local knowledge and get all the vital information such as when to go, where to go, how to go and even what to wear! Tibet Vista is a good tour operator specialized on adventure tours of Tibet and can help making hiking in Tibet an unforgettable experience.
Hiking in Tibet: More breathtaking views – who wants to go?
They’ll be able to show the best sights to see and what routes to take while keeping safe at the same time. We highly recommend it, especially when going on a more challenging hike.
Having the right equipment is essential when hiking in Tibet. We don’t advise to be even thinking about climbing that mountain wearing only flip-flops and board shorts – just because one has just flown in from India doesn’t mean that s/he can keep the same clothes! Invest in some decent trekking gear, including solid, waterproof boots, pants, and jacket, and walking poles are an extremely good idea.
It’s impossible to boast the world’s highest mountain unless one is pretty high up! One of the biggest dangers in hiking in Tibet is the altitude, and altitude sickness is a very real and life-threatening danger. Whenever trekking at any height (which will happen in Tibet) it is necessary to ascend gradually and acclimatize to the pressure, and watch out for any kind of nausea or feeling unwell.
Hiking in Tibet at high altitudes requires acclimatizing
Take things easy, rest often and don’t push yourself too hard. It’s far too risky, so stay at a comfortable pace!
Pack the right kind of food
Going with a tour guide (which we highly recommended) means having all the necessary food arrangements taken care of. However it doesn’t hurt to have some prior knowledge of what should be packed when hiking in Tibet. Although one might not get what they are used to, dried fruits, chocolate and noodles can be perfect for snacking. And don’t forget the water, which will be needed to ensure it is safe to drink.
Sunblock and sunglasses
It’s incredible how often this one gets overlooked! Sunlight at these high altitudes can be devastating to the skin, so make sure to put sunblock on exposed areas when hiking in Tibet. And don’t forget the sunglasses – the glare of bright sunlight off the white snow is painfully blinding!
Sunglasses are of the utmost importance when hiking in Tibet!
Get a decent tent
It is necessary to have somewhere to bed down for the night when hiking in Tibet, so it is better to get a good tent and sleeping bag, and make sure the tent is fit for extreme conditions, so that one used to go to Glastonbury isn’t going to cut it. Sleeping bags should be all-weather too. Remember it gets cold up there!
Yaks are cool. These gentle beasts will help transport gear through rocky mountain passes like nobody’s business. When planning a lengthy trek, consider investing in a friendly, hairy companion – it definitely helps when hiking in Tibet!
Be prepared for anything
It’s virtually impossible to predict what’s going to happen when setting foot outside the front door, and this is certainly the case when one is hiking in Tibet, much of an alien land! It is better to make sure to be packing a good first aid kit and a flashlight. Consider purchasing a GPS locator too, in case of getting into real difficulty – as emergency services can find you easily.
Read my guide on what to pack for long distance hikes.
Don’t forget that camera because it’s simply unthinkable not to take some amazing pictures to remember that trip of a lifetime: we surely made some friends for life when we went hiking in Tibet – so open up to an amazing experience and soak it all in!
Hiking in Tibet will be an incredible adventure
With a little bit of careful preparation and planning, hiking in Tibet is one of the most memorable travel experiences one could ever hope to have, but remember to stay safe and comfortable at all times. Believe us – it’s an unforgettable journey to this wild land, an essential destination one shouldn’t miss. Once one has trekked Tibet – he’ll never be the same again!
Make sure to read these other posts:
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I have travelled so much since I was a child that even before going on my long term trips across Central and South America I thought of myself as an expert and independent traveller and as someone who knows how the world works. I’d back up my opinion of myself using my academic background in international human rights law and my many travels, throughout Europe and beyond, whether of a few days or a few weeks, as examples to prove what I said and thought. I really felt I had a good idea of how most people live outside the Western world. I was surely convinced that as a backpacker, it would be a good practice to have a strict schedule with carefully planned days so that I could see more places and do more things. I enjoyed spending my time before a trip making minute preparations that included checking the bus schedules and the opening times of a museum, whether I intended to visit Valencia or to go to Peru.
Do I not look like an experienced traveller?
When I gave up my academic career and started my first long term backpacking trip through Latin America, I actually realised that I knew very little and had an eye opening experience. The things I have learned in those months of travel through that incredible continent I would have never learned even if I kept reading, studying and watching as many documentaries as possible. I had to come to terms with some aspects of my personality that I wasn’t aware of; I changed my perspective on what travelling really means and I finally started understanding much more of the world.
So, here are the eleven things I have learned in my wanderings across Latin America.
1. I won’t carry a backpack that is heavier than 12 kilograms ever again – or at least, I will try
I always start thinking about what to pack well before I actually have to leave. I make a list of things I must carry, and then pick my clothes. Each time, I carry less. I have even resumed to buying only black socks, so that if one breaks while I am travelling, I only have to throw away that one and not the pair. I have actually understood that I don’t need to carry that many clothes, because I am not going to attend gala events or fashion shows. I have managed to come to terms with the fact that one pair of shoes is enough, and that nobody will think less of me if I don’t wear something different every day, as long as my clothes are (sort of) clean. The problem is that I like shopping at markets. I love ethnic stuff. And I like buying presents for my family and friends. So, on my last trip I ended up carrying up to 18 kg on my back, when I filled my backpack with a bottle of Mezcal I had bought in Mexico (by the way, who drank that?) and two bottles of Malbec I bought in Argentina. Way too much to carry around. I promised myself not to ever buy so much alcohol again. Or to drink it so that I don’t have to carry it around.
I could hardly walk with such a heavy backpack on my back. Have I learned my lesson?
2. When I gotta go, I gotta go.
One big fact I have learned in my travels is that I can pee anywhere. It actually is a skill I am quite proud of. It’s more than just going to the loo when it is not so clean, or in sharing a bathroom in a hostel. It even goes beyond the peeing in the nature concept. I have peed behind bushes, in coconut shells (yup), on a hole in the ground covered by some wooden boards, in the (dark) toilet of a moving bus, in the hole of the helm on a sailboat in the high seas. I challenge anybody at saying they can do the same.
Amateurs! Despite the strange position, this actually is a proper toilet – photo courtesy of Bjarki Reyr (flickr)
3. There is no way I will ever be able to stand cockroaches.
Or spiders. Or rats. I can adapt to weird toilets, uncomfortable beds and I can sleep almost anywhere. The almost means I have to strike out places that are infested with cockroaches, spiders and rats. I just can’t take them – try as I might, if I know there is a cockroach in the room, I have to leave. It is a matter of survival. It’s either me or the cockroach. I respect its space and would like it to respect mine, but since I know for a fact that cockroaches have a reputation of invading other people’s vital space, I pack my stuff and go, exclaiming in defeat: “Ok, you win!”.
I hope my effort in placing this picture on this post is appreciated. I will shriek any time I see it – photo courtesy of Jean and Fred (flickr)
4. I don’t really have to be obsessive with planning.
On my first trip to Cuba, I was so obsessed with the idea of “making the most of it” that I thought the only way I could have a full experience was by following my plans minutely. Then, I was crushed with the Cuban system. No wi-fi, no booking system, no computers, no facebook: I had to improvise or leave. I decided to stay, do as the Cubans and stop having arguments with the locals who had apparently joined forces to boycott my plan to visit their country. When I eventually started going with the flow and relaxed, I felt liberated and I enjoyed Cuba so much more.
It’s when I start relaxing that the trip gets better
5. Life changes depending on how we look at it.
I never get on a crowded train or bus in Europe. If the London Tube approaches and I see that the train is packed, I resolve to wait for the next one, I get annoyed and I make a mental note to write a complaint to the company. In Nicaragua, packed chicken buses are part of the fun and I find the whole thing a good way to get in touch with the locals – quite literally so. I end up taking pictures, having a laugh at the lady that gets on with a basket of live chickens, and eventually even write a post about it. Same thing with the timings. The train is late in London? I want my money back! The bus I need to take to get back to Lima is not running that day, for whatever inexplicable reason, is not running at all? I shrug it off, spend an extra night in the village and go meet some locals.
Chickens ride the chicken bus to Estelì, Nicaragua
6. What is hell to me, may be paradise to you.
I have travelled to certain places because anybody I met told me they were amazing and I should visit – only to find out that I could not see what they saw in them. My friend had a fantastic time in Bocas del Toro, Panama. I was completely disappointed when I saw it with my own eyes. Then I have been to places that are not even on tourist maps and fell in love with them. People’s opinion should only matter so much when picking a place to visit, because what moves one person’s emotions won’t necessarily cause the same reaction in me.
Bocas del Toro main attraction?
7. It is actually ok to trust people I don’t know.
Whenever I travel to some exotic country, my family and friends warn me to be careful, watch out and don’t trust strangers. I get back, and people ask me if I have experiences any danger, if I ever was afraid, if Ecuador/Honduras/Guatemala are as dangerous as people say. I was either very lucky or very oblivious to my surroundings, because not for a minute I felt in danger during my travels. Quite the opposite indeed. I have met some truly kind people in Central and South America, that have gone above and beyond what was reasonable to help me out. For example, a stranger in Costa Rica saw that I needed a toilet and could not find one, and showed me to her home so that I could use hers. Or another woman at a local market in Peru crossed the city to look for some herbs to prepare a tea that would help my sore throat – and she would not want a penny in exchange of her efforts.
The lovely lady who helped me cure my throat
8. We should never hide our identity and we should preserve our traditions.
People all around Latin America – from Mexico to Peru, from Guatemala to Bolivia – proudly wear the symbols of their identity. Whether it is a traditional hat, a beautifully embroidered skirt, golden teeth, tresses or other particular hair-dos, they do all they can to protect their culture and pass it on to future generations. It is a notable effort at preserving and protecting identities. I used to be a human rights lawyer and I have spent years researching on how to protect cultural identity. I also am a member of a minority in Italy: I can’t stand racial discrimination and don’t appreciate the subtle attempts of governments’ to wipe out entire cultures for the sake of so-called progress. Integration can’t and won’t ever mean assimilation.
I had to show my Sardinian pride even when I was in Chile!
9. Culture and traditions are actually profitable.
One thing I saw in my travels in Latin America is that indigenous groups hold on to their traditional sources of income. Women in Guatemala have created cooperatives to keep their traditional occupations: they weave, they sell their works and they even organise workshops and demonstrations for visitors. Their businesses are successful. A sign that a possible solution out of the major financial crisis that Sardinia and Italy are facing may be in returning to their ancestral traditions?
Fully dressed in traditional clothes in San Antonio Palopo – the women have turned their traditional occupations into a profitable business
10. In 2015, not everybody in the world has access to potable water.
Tap water is safe to drink all over Europe and North America. Yet, we have an incredible offer of bottled water; tv advertising that shows the benefit of one specific brand for having low sodium, for being bottled in recycled plastic bottles, for coming from the highest mountain source in Europe and what not. In most of Central and South America, it is not safe to drink tap water. Most people can’t afford to buy bottled water and have to vigorously boil tap water to be able to drink it safely. Malnutrition is hardly due to lack of food or to poor quality food, but is generally caused by contaminated water used for cooking and drinking, whose bacteria cause bad infections and diarrhea. We take right to water for granted in Europe and North America, but for most of the world it is still a dream.
11. There are poor people who are way happier than wealthy ones.
I came across shanty towns. I met people who, despite the fact that they lived in what to me was no more than a shack, gave all signs of being happy: they laughed, they smiled, and they enjoyed life. For example, I never really enjoyed Christmas – all the frenzy to buy presents, to sit around during endless meals, to meet those relatives that ask the same, annoying questions every time. Then I ended up in Ometepe, Nicaragua, and on Christmas day I was caught up by a thunderstorm. It was raining so hard that walking back for 45 minutes to get back to the hostel was not an option. The first shelter I found was in what I soon realised was someone’s home. A group of people were sitting in the patio, enjoying the day singing and playing the guitar. I ran into their place, said “Merry Christmas everyone” and after a blank stare that lasted no more than one second, they just offered me a chair and went back to their singalong. They seemed poor to me and I am pretty sure they had not been exchanging presents that day. Their only wealth were probably the chickens roaming about in the patio. Yet, they seemed way happier than most of the families I know that live a comfortable life.
Pin it For Later
We’ve all spent at least one nightmare night in a hostel during our backpacking years, haven’t we? Well, I can count at least 3 that have been less than memorable in terms of getting proper rest, but which somehow managed to stick to my memory for the hilarity and absurdity of what happened.
Fighting the drunk hordes in The Terrace, Antigua (Guatemala)
I had only been in Guatemala for four days. This was meant to be the beginning of my 6 months adventure across Latin America. I was sure I had everything under control and I would be able to face any bad experience that may occur along the way. After the first three nights in Antigua, I decided to spend an extra night before making my way to Lake Atitlan. Unfortunately, the lovely hostel where I had been sleeping was all booked up, so I decided to make online reservations for another one. As a backpacker on a tight budget, I was looking for something cheap. The Terrace, at $ 8 per night, breakfast included, in a 4 beds dorm, looked good on the pictures and it had good reviews on hostelworld. One of the most popular hostels in Antigua, indeed: there must be a reason for this, I thought!
Another church in Antigua – as many others, it has been destroyed by an earthquake
I made my way there in the morning, wanting to drop my backpack and have time to browse around town more. I missed the front door a couple of times before actually finding the place – it was hardly visible. When I finally found the place, I walked in to be welcomed by a 20-something American receptionist (and her lovely dog). She seemed nice enough. The hostel seemed a bit old and in need of refurbishment but I did not think too much of it. I would only be staying here for one night after all. When I was shown to my dorm, I realised it would be worse than what I had expected. A dressed guy was sleeping in his bunk – considering it was around 12 pm, it was a bit odd to me. The dorm was tiny, to say the least. The only window faced an internal covered patio and hardly any natural light or fresh air would come in. You can imagine the stench. The toilet and bathroom in front of the dorm had the mouldiest rug and shower curtain I have ever seen. The wooden door was so rotten that I thought it would fall apart if I pulled it too hard. The electric shower had wires coming out – I thought I might get electrocuted if I did not pay attention (or even if I did).
After a day of walking around and a lovely dinner, still a bit jet legged, I wanted to have an early night and went back to the hotel. I then realised I had accidentally booked at a party hostel, were all the other backpackers except me were in their early twenties. Noise travelled easily in the badly organised place: young boys and girls were all getting ready to spend a night out and party. I thought that, as soon as they would leave, I could finally fall asleep. Wanting to be extra safe I even put my earplugs on. I jumped on the bed to find out that I could feel the wires – this was by far one of the least comfortable beds I had ever slept on. I thought of sleeping on the floor, but there was not enough room to do that. The synthetic sheets on my bed were so old that they would come off the matress, revealing stains. I kept my clothes on, in an attempt not to catch bed bugs (luckly, it worked).
Worried but exhausted I fell asleep but my rest only lasted two hours: that’s when the other guests started making their way back to the hostel. Completely drunk, they kept laughing loudly, screaming, opening doors (which I kept on closing). To top this off, despite my earplugs I could hear them gagging and vomiting (and then laughing about it). The entire affair must have lasted about one hour, without anybody from the reception intervening to stop the noise. When the drunken crew finally collapsed, I sighted and thought I could finally rest a bit more. Or not. One hour later, somebody entered the room, pointing a flashlight at my face, calling for a girl named Myra. I told him off, and said there was no Myra in that room: I was the only girl there and I definitely wasn’t Myra. He then asked if I knew where she was, as he had to wake her up for her bus. I told him to go away, I did not know who this Myra was and I had no idea where she may be.
That was the end of my attempts to rest – I decided to get up, shower, and wait for my ride to Lake Atitlan – where I found a super cool hostel and finally rested my sore bones. However, the cherry on the cake was finding out that The Terrace was actually meant to be the hostel where I was supposed to volunteer in Antigua – I had talked to the owner several times over skype, but I had forgotten the name and despite being offered the position I decided I did not want to work on my first week of travelling.
The lesson I have learned? Always always always check Tripadvisor for reviews, and also check the age of the reviewer. Always read the bad comments – they are usually honest comments. Try not to book online, as you may end up having to pay for a terrible room and thus get stuck. It is better to walk around a bit, check the rooms, the bathrooms, and the overall vibe of the place. And, more than anything else, stay away from The Terrace, in Antigua.
Dancing the night away in Cartagena (Colombia)
I was happy to find Mama Waldy when checking for places to stay in Cartagena, Colombia. Conveniently located in the heart of Getsemani, a cool area undergoing constant restoration, popular among backpackers and with a lovely relaxed feel to it. I soon discovered that the location was just about the only positive thing about this hostel.
Tiny streets of Getsemani
Upon checking in, I knew I had made a mistake. This is possibly one of the worst hostels I found in my entire life. It used to be an old colonial house. By the look of it, this had never been restored nor properly cleaned. I arrived there at night, after a day of travelling, to find there was a party going on. My dorm was just on the main lobby, and since there were no keys to the dorms, people could walk in and out as they liked – and by people I mean people, not just guests. In fact, while I was there, somebody who was at the party just did. All the guests belongings were left around for people to grab them if they liked. The room was so dirty (paper, food, clothes, shoes and what not on the floor, under the bed, etc; no bins to place garbage), the bathroom so cramped, small and filthy, that I did not even consider using the toilet. I just locked my stuff away and ran out to eat and breathe.
As I got back past midnight, it was finally quiet. But the dorm was so hot and suffocating (there were no windows in any of the room, just a door to the lobby) that I soon realised I would be unable to sleep there. I walked out and I must have looked so disheartened that one of the owners saw me and asked what was wrong, and I plainly said that my dorm was filthy, hot, and I could not sleep there. He eagerly explained that they cleaned the rooms regularly but there was little they could do against messy backpackers. Possibly, what would help would be putting less beds in a dorm and maybe a hanger and a basket to throw away stuff? Anyways, he thankfully offered to put me in a private room, which was only slightly better – yet, no shower curtain, tiny bathroom, and covered in an inch of dust.
Breakfast was supposedly included, and surely paid for, but consisted of 2 slices of toasted bread (with, I guess, cream cheese or butter), and coffee. Not even served on plates. After all, the kitchen hardly seemed equipped. There was a laundry service. That’s if you fancy your clothes being hung to dry on the roof of the hostel. By which I do not mean hanging lines in the roof, but actual tiles.
What really bothered me the most about Mama Waldy was the music and noise. It only stopped past midnight and was really so loud that, if one is up for an early night and feel tired, one won’t be able to sleep. It felt like being in a disco, really. And since noise travelled really easily and by 6 am people would start waking up, my sleep would be cut short every day.
Running water in Suchitoto (El Salvador)
I arrived in Suchitoto after a very long day of travelling from Leon, Nicaragua, during which I took a bus to the village of Potosi, where I did my immigration formalities; waited on the beach for 3 hours without having the possibility to go back to the village in search of shade, water or food (by then I was legally already out of Nicaragua!), as the Nicaraguan marina would not allow the boat to leave due to the rough sea conditions; eventually, 2 hours on the speed boat along the challenging Gulf of Fonseca during which I got completely soaked due to the bumping and the waves, and various more hours on a bus from La Union to Suchitoto.
By the time I reached my final destination, I was grateful that my hostel room at El Gringo had not been given away, since it was so late. The owner drove me to the hostel, on the other side of town from where he lives. His wife showed me to my room and explained how the keys worked. They immediately left and there was no staff on site.
The reality of the hostel was not hard to spot. My room was below a restaurant, the only window was on a living room which faced an internal living rooom (mind you, that is a big word). The bathroom, which was shared with another room, was no more than a sink in the patio, a wall to separate a toilet and the cold water only shower. And for as hot as it is in Suchitoto, I was not ready to have a cold shower that late at night, and went to bed with my hair full of salt from the Gulf. The room was so humid that it was covered in mould stains and paint was coming off the walls. The sheets so small and so acrylic that they would slide off the bed, so that despite all my efforts to arrange them, I ended up sleeping on the matress. The floor below the bed was so dirty and full of dust, hair, and garbage, that I wondered if it had ever been cleaned. I was so tired anyhow, that I could hardly be bothered with any of this.
This 97 year old lady keeps on rolling her cigars on a daily basis. What’s her youth secret?
A refreshing shower the morning after and a lovely day in Suchitoto almost made me forget about the terrible hostel. That was, until the new Canadian guest came in. Hard to avoid him since my window gave into the living room where he was relaxing on a rocking chair. So, we chatted along for a few moments, until eventually he decided it was bed time and he’d brush his teeth, and I laid on my bed to do some emailing. That’t when I heard a crushing noise, like that of porcelain plates being broken, and the poor Canadian kid screaming “what the heck!”. I ran out to check what had happened. Water was splashing all over and he was completely wet. The remains of the sink were scattered on the floor: apparently, the guy decided he’d lean on the sink with his hand while brushing his teeth, but despite being a fit guy the sink did not hold his weight and collapsed! You can imagine the hilarity of such a scene. We took pictures, we laughed and eventually we decided that if we did not want to flood the entire place, we had to close all the pipes. It worked, but it meant that we were not even able to flush the toilet.
Los Tercios waterfalls look a bit like the Giant Causeway
The morning after I was glad to have an early start and having to leave at 6:00 am, leaving the other guest alone to explain to the owner what had happened, and that perhaps restoration and refurbishing was much needed in the hostel!
What’s your worst hostel experience to date?
Click here for more of my misadventures.