5 Important Lessons Learned While Backpacking in Latin America

February 17, 2015
5 Lessons I've Learned While Backpacking in Latin America

On November 8, 2014, I flew from Seattle, Washington to Cancun, Mexico, where I began a six month solo backpacking trip through Central and South America. I spent the first three months in the Yucatan of Southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. Two weeks ago, I flew from Panama City to Colombia. Last winter I lived in San Jose, Costa Rica for three months for an internship and traveled around Costa Rica and visited one or two places in Nicaragua and Panama. When I flew home after that trip, I was sure of two things: 1) I love traveling alone, and 2) three months is not long enough. After graduating from university and working all summer, I set off for another, longer trip.

I knew this solo travel adventure would be an amazing experience, even though I tried not to have many expectations. How could backpacking through new places for six months not be at least a little bit life-changing? Halfway through this trip, I have learned a lot about myself, about other people, and about the world. Some of the things I knew already, conceptually, but have been able to witness firsthand while traveling. Other things I have learned and adapted to, which has made backpacking a lot easier.

Most of the time I feel like this trip is also going to be too short. Other times, I look back on everywhere I’ve been and can’t believe I’m only halfway there. One thing I know is that I’m grateful for everything I’ve learned, and I can’t wait to see what else is in store. Here are five things I’ve learned from backpacking in Latin America:

5 Lessons Learned While Backpacking in Latin America

1. Material goods don’t bring happiness

Maybe you once thought money might make you happy, or maybe you never did. If the former is true, be ready to have your world turned upside down. If the latter is true, traveling will time and again verify this in many different ways. For one, traveling in third world countries will show you how little some people have, and how little impact it often has on their happiness. Secondly, if you’re backpacking for any extended period of time, you will almost certainly lose things, whether big or small. I found that, after a short period of initial dismay the evening my phone disappeared forever, I moved on, and am no less happy without it. Everyone knows that traveling is a drain on money, but I don’t believe it has ever been said that it’s a drain on happiness.

2. Learn to let go

Letting go is one of the hardest and most important parts of traveling. You will have to let go of things, places, expectations, fears and, friends. It can be difficult to leave a place behind that you have come to love, not knowing if you’ll ever be there again. You will have to let go of your expectations and accept things for what they are. Similarly, it will make life a lot easier and more fun if you let go of your fears and worries.

The only time it is worth worrying about something is if there is a way to change it. But wondering over and over again, what if the bus is late, what if I get robbed, what if I get sick, etc, will get you nowhere. The same goes for complaining. Everyone needs to vent sometimes, but having a constant stream of negativity coming out of one’s mouth is not pleasant for anyone to be around. One good rule is to allow yourself no more than two complaints per day.

Saying goodbye to people is very difficult for me. While traveling, you will meet so many wonderful people from all over the world. You will form strong bonds and friendships very quickly, and before you know it, you will be parting ways. It often occurs to me that I will probably never see most of these people again, and that is a heavy thought. Yet, all you can do when it comes to difficult goodbyes is appreciate the times that were had and the amazing humans you were lucky enough to meet. Who knows, you may even meet again some day.

3. Become confident in your own capabilities

Traveling, especially alone, will make you realize just how much you can be capable of, once you make the decision to do it. Whether it’s climbing a mountain or living in a foreign city, you will learn that if you put in the effort, you will make it happen. Often it will turn out to be much easier than you imagined. The realization has come to me again and again since the first time I traveled alone: you can go anywhere and do anything. It’s the most liberating feeling I have ever had, and something everyone should feel.

4. Appreciate the little things

A comfortable bed. A hot shower. The right kitchen utensils. A few more inches of legroom. Good conversation. Real towels. Freshly washed clothes. A smooth road. Count your small blessings, because they can make all the difference. When it comes to traveling on the cheap, including hostel living and public transportation, you never know what you might find. It’s important to keep in mind that it is, after all, budget accommodation. I try to be grateful for every little thing that goes beyond the bare minimum.

5 Lessons Learned While Backpacking in Latin America

Also, be sure to pay attention to your surroundings. Listen. Look up and look around. Breathe in the air, and notice the quality of the light. If someone invites you to do something as seemingly insignificant as sharing a meal with them, say yes. You never know what small, vibrant moments, or discoveries could be waiting for you.

5. Make up your own mind about places

I recently read the following Aldous Huxley quote: “To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” I could not have found this to be more true. The word “dangerous” is far too frequently applied to places by those who have never visited.

I’m writing from Medellin, Colombia, which has quickly become one of my favorite cities in the world. I feel safer here than I have in any major city of Central America. It is beautiful, the metro system is incredible, there is no shortage of things to do, and the people are friendly and proud of their city. It is true that this city, and Colombia as a whole, was once one of the most dangerous in the world, and this seems to be what people who have not been here remember about it. People remember what the media has blasted into their minds about kidnappings, murders, and corruption. What the mainstream media doesn’t show is how much safer it has become over the last decade, and the fact that the vast majority of people who traveled here have no trouble whatsoever.

This is why it’s so important not to listen to what “they” say, especially if “they” are people who have not seen these places for themselves. Follow your own instincts, because if you don’t go, you’ll never know. There is an entire world to be explored, and life is too short to be afraid based on the fears of others.

Photo credits for 5 Important Lessons Learned While Backpacking in Latin America by Unsplash. 

About Celia Duncan

Celia Duncan is a Western Washington University graduate from Montana living in Bellingham, WA. She is a lover of people, places, nature, food and the spontaneity of traveling.

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