1. Be prepared for the bathroom situation. In public places, usually they will charge to use the bathroom. Sometimes there is toilet paper, but usually not. As a rule of thumb, it’s a good idea to always have some TP on you! BUT DO NOT THROW THE TOILET PAPER DOWN THE TOILET! Or else you may run into a situation we had in Guatemala…there are no toilet plungers in San Pedro for anyone who was wondering. Also, bring hand sanitizer or soap - it was very rare that we found a bathroom with soap. Not a great thing to think about when you are eating at a restaurant…but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger? I guess? This leads to the next point quite well...
2. Your standards will completely change, with regards to almost everything. Cleanliness, appearance, cost of food and shelter, quality of food/shelter…to give you some examples:
• We were stuck taking cold showers almost our whole time in Central America. Since then, it has been hit or miss whether a place will have hot water, let alone adequate water pressure. I clearly remember being in a hostel in Panama, and thinking the shared bathroom situation was absolute luxury because the showers were finally hot.
• Back home, most people probably wear a t-shirt once and throw it in the laundry. When travelling, you can maybe get 2-3 days (or more!), depending on the climate. You’ll get used to the idea that a “clean” shirt is basically anything that passes the smell test, and if we are being honest, the smell test is getting easier by the week. We have used a combination of going to the laundromat as well as hand washing our clothes, this trip. While backpacking it’s basically unavoidable, you simply won’t have the means to wash your clothing like you have at home.
• A “good sleep” while travelling is equivalent to a very mediocre sleep at home. You learn to drown out the background distractions of light, barking dogs, music, roosters, and other travellers pretty quickly once it becomes a necessity. Feeling “pretty good” after taking a night bus really puts things into perspective.
• If a place has no bed bugs, no odours, it’s considered a real win!
• With an extremely limited wardrobe, you start to get used to (and even enjoy!) having only a few options to choose from. “Dressing up” consists of putting on your cleanest shirt and pants or dress, that are nice and wrinkly from sitting at the bottom of your bag for months.
3. Your hair will never look so bad…or so good! Obviously while travelling it’s hard to keep up your usual hair routine. I brought a travel size curling iron which I have travelled with in the past, and I LOVE it. It’s a bit of a luxury item that I’ve only used a few times, but it’s perfect to travel with. Having said that, because I’ve barely exposed my hair to any heat, it is looking the healthiest it has ever been. It really makes me realize how much damage is done by using a blow dryer and curling iron on a regular basis. Devon on the other hand, claims he has only had “3 good hair days” since the beginning of our trip. This has lead to lots of hat days. With differing climates and barber shops being hard to come by, it’s been a challenge!
4. Your friends and family will expect you to be fluent in Spanish, after a few months. This is highly unrealistic…or at least it was for us. We took 3 weeks of Spanish lessons in Guatemala, and we can certainly get by, but we are by no means fluent. Not even close. Throughout Chile, specifically, it feels like we have gone back to square one, because the Spanish here involves a lot of slang, spoken very quickly!
5. Baby oil is an amazing substitute for moisturizer, and a little goes a long way! This is a great hack if you like to travel with only a carry-on size bag, and are prone to dry skin. Just make sure you get odourless.
6. Cheap “Dollar Stores” are your friends. Most cities and towns will have an Asian “Dollar Store” which can be a good place to pick up cheap toiletry items or random items you may need. It is a great place to buy cheap socks (and you will want to buy new socks along the way, trust us!).
7. Your sense of time will become completely warped. For example:
• Hearing that we have to take a 10 hour bus ride doesn’t sound so bad anymore. Once you learn to sleep on a bus (a skill that you will master!), the time goes by quite quickly.
• Time can go by extremely slowly or quickly depending on the situation. We can’t believe we’ve been traveling for 5 months already - it feels like we just left! On the other hand, there are days that feel like they go by really slowly. A few times we have felt “stuck” getting out of a city, and even though it was only a few days, we felt like those days dragged on forever.
8. Do not overpack. Any bag less than 60L will have more than enough room. We recommend packing your bag only 2/3 full, so 1/3 is left free. This will allow you easier access, and then you’re not struggling to fit everything in all the time. Also, the lighter the better. You will have your bag on your back a lot of the time. Be selective with what you carry, and don’t be scared to get rid of items that no longer serve you. We brought snorkel gear for our time in Central America, and then sent it home with friends. We had books that we would read and trade for times when we were on a long boat ride or in one place for some time, and then donate before we went backpacking and wanted our bags to be as light as possible.
9. Do not bother bringing a paper copy of a travel guidebook. We brought TWO Lonely Planet books which were huge, heavy, and expensive! We ended up ditching them along the way, and haven’t looked back. With online maps, travel blogs, and google…there really isn’t much need for a hardcopy of anything anymore.
10. Invest in a good pair of non-fabric, non-foam flip flops (get rubber) with good traction, before you go. Devon has gone through 3 sets of flip flops this trip, and wishes he had just invested the money up front. I bought some Croc flip flops (even though I swore I never would!!) and they have been incredibly good quality.
11. "Han-ger” (hunger + anger) is real. Always have snacks on board!
12. Feel comfortable saying "I'm sorry". Your travel buddy will see you at your very best, and very worst moments. Refer to item 11.
13. Being friendly goes a long way. Smile, be polite, and you will be rewarded!
14. Don’t worry excessively, and don’t believe everything you read online. Central and South America are not dangerous. Okay, maybe they are, but probably no more dangerous than North America. Yes, we have been lucky this trip, and certainly we have met some fellow travellers who have had negative experiences, but overall, if you use common sense you should be just fine. Be aware, but not paranoid. Don’t let fear stop you from experiencing anything while travelling!
15. You will feel conflicted about coming home. You will seriously consider never going back to "normal life”. You will find yourself asking “why wouldn’t I continue traveling?”. Sure, there are lots of creature comforts we are missing at the moment, but the thought of going back to work and having a regular "routine" is slightly terrifying. We both fear that we will wake up in Calgary the morning after we are back, and feel like this trip never happened.
16. You may, or may not, have a life changing, world-shattering experience. Sure, we've had some amazing experiences: living with a local Guatemalan family, paragliding in Medellin, hiking up an active volcano - but will we come back changed people? I think so, but I’m not totally sure. But this also leads to another point...
17. You will become jaded, so try to live in the moment as much as possible. We are totally spoiled living in Canada - one of the most beautiful places in the world. We have been underwhelmed by a number of very hyped-up places, and now, when we hear something is considered a UNESCO World Heritage site, it doesn’t hold any weight for us. Do we feel guilty that we didn’t find the ruins at Tikal particularly impressive? Well, yeah, but retrospectively we are really happy we saw them. In hindsight, we realize there is always something new or different to take away from any experience.
18. Take travel advice with a HUGE grain of salt. A person’s subjective experience can be influenced by so many factors - we know this first hand. We personally even feel reluctant to give any travel advice to others, because we have no idea how it might be experienced by someone else. At the beginning of our trip we relied on Trip Advisor, Yelp, Lonely Planet, etc. We learned that for the most part, online reviews are not at all reliable. Once we started talking to other travellers, we relied more on word of mouth. This was helpful, and lead us to visiting some amazing places we would have never known about otherwise! Sometimes we received conflicting advice, and found it hard to know who’s opinion to trust. Five months in, we just kind of go with our gut. Overall, going in with an open mind really helps.
19. The pace that you travel will change. You will realize that trying to cover Central and South America in 6 months is foolish. There is no way to see everything, so you must pick and choose what appeals to you the most. Having a set plan or goal can be helpful, but more often than not, we had to adjust our travel plans for a number of reasons (bus schedules, cost, weather, health reasons). We learned that although it sounds scary and unorganized to arrive in a place with nothing booked, this can actually work to your advantage. In Latin America, lots of accommodations are not listed online. It takes some walking around and patience, but we’ve been able to find some great places which we never would have found if we had stuck with booking online.
20. You are making the right choice in traveling. You will never look back and regret taking this time to grow and explore as a person. There will always be time to make money, work, and "settle down". YOLO!!