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...

Ironically, we found a plethora of toilet plungers in the next city after San Pedro

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!).

Disinfectant spray, alcohol, hydrogen peroxide...none of these will rid your shoes of the smell after traveling!

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.

We never would have known to go to Bacalar, Mexico without word of mouth from fellow travellers!

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!!

  • rose

Food is such an important factor in our experience of a country. I wouldn’t say we are “foodies” per se, but we admittedly have high standards. A good or bad meal can make or break an experience for us. Food can also tell so much about a country’s culture. We both agree that we have had some of the best, and some of the worst meals of our life, on this trip.

We made tamales in San Pedro, Guatemala

We started off the trip in Guatemala. Our first few weeks, we stayed with a host family in the small lake town, San Pedro. We ate a lifetime’s worth of tortillas during those weeks! Breakfasts were usually Western food: toast, pancakes, yogurt, granola, fruit, coffee, tea etc. Although Guatemala grows coffee, most of the coffee beans are exported. Instead of using the fresh local beans, the people of Guatemala drink instant coffee. Devon got to experience first-hand the instant coffee every morning. Poor guy didn’t get his preference of tea, instead, because he wasn’t able to string together the Spanish to ask for it, at the time! Lunches were the biggest meal of the day and most of the time we had soup or pasta, with either fish or chicken or beef. For dinner, it was common to have eggs, beans, and cheese. The meals were basic, but healthy. Tortillas were served with every meal (and we couldn’t help ourselves!). When we were not eating at home, we checked out the local cafes and restaurants. Surprisingly, there is a huge Israeli influence in San Pedro. We found ourselves eating delicious shawarma and falafel, which was definitely unexpected. Sometimes though, it is best to stick with local cuisine; we had “nachos” at one cafe once which consisted of tortilla chips with cold pasta sauce….muy interesante!

Next up was Belize. We ate well in Belize, that’s for sure. One of our favourite meals was at a restaurant called “Maggie’s” on Caye Caulker. The flavours were incredible! Devon basically died and went to heaven over a bakery on the island. We were totally spoiled on a boat trip we took around the islands: we had fresh ceviche served to us daily, with fish and conch that was caught right off the boat!

From Belize, we travelled to Mexico. We both love Mexican food and tacos, and we certainly ate our fair share. Ever since our road trip to Baja California, we have learned to love the street food - wherever the most locals are sitting and eating, is where we gravitate towards (no matter if we understand the menu or not!). Certain parts of Mexico are obviously quite touristy though, and we had a funny experience that we still laugh about: we were at a touristy beach in Cozumel and one of the waiters brought us to a restaurant to show us the menu. Along the way he excitedly told us we could come see a lady who was making “traditional hand made tortillas” - a truly authentic experience! We both laughed and politely declined, as we had seen hundreds of women making tortillas by hand all day long in Guatemala. An “authentic” experience in a tourist hot spot seems like a bit of an oxymoron.

After Mexico, we flew to Costa Rica. In Costa Rica, we could not get enough of the fresh fruit. We drank fresh coconut water from coconuts on the beach (harvested by hand by Devon), and got our daily fruit fix from the local fruit truck parked on the side of the road. Watermelon, pineapple, mango…and many interestingly shaped fruits that we had never seen or heard of before - the fruit truck had them all! And they were all so fresh and juicy and delicious. We also found a good Thai restaurant in a small town called Dominical, and ate there a few times during our short stay - a nice change from the traditional "plato del dia" that you get everywhere.

From Costa Rica we travelled to Panama. Here the food was fairly Western, for the most part. Although, we did have some traditional Panamanian food in Boquette. One highlight in Panama was eating amazing ceviche at a restaurant next to the fish market, and cost only a few dollars per cup! We tried a few different types and they were all delicious. In Panama we also were introduced to a fruit called guanábana. It is green on the outside, and white and fleshy on the inside, with black seeds. It has a really interesting texture...it's quite hard to explain...but after that, we were hooked!

From Panama to Columbia, we took another boat cruise, and this time we were really lucky. Our tour guide was from Costa Rica and just happened to be extremely passionate about cooking. Every meal was thought out and prepared to perfection. We had a lobster feast the first night, and neither of us have ever seen lobster that huge before! You might think that cooking for a group of 20 people on an island with no electricity, minimal fresh water, and only the supplies you can bring on a small boat would make it challenging…but our guide succeeded and it was extremely impressive.

Once we hit Columbia, the deep fried food and queso-in-everything train began. We had our first (and definitely not the last) exposure to empanadas. It was hard to escape the street vendors selling deep fried food. Thankfully, there were also many street vendors selling fresh fruit too, which we enjoyed. By this time, we were about 3 months into our trip. We had not cooked much for ourselves, and started to miss the independence and autonomy. We sought out accommodation with a kitchen, and fuelled up on veggie-filled stir fries and pastas.

In Ecuador we had more of the same - across Central and South America we tried to stick to the "plato del dia" (plate of the day) for lunch. Basically this consists of a soup starter, rice, chicken or fish, and "salad" (iceberg lettuce with a few tomatoes if you're lucky). Lunch usually comes with a fruit drink as well. We found this to be the best, most economical, and most consistent meal across our travels. One highlight was in the town of Santa Cruz of the Galapagos Islands: a huge bowl consisting of a corn/maize dumpling, meat, vegetables, who knows what else...all we know is that we wanted more!

So far, the food in Chile has not "wowed" us. Devon did have one delicious seafood soup in Chiloe though!

Seafood soup in Chiloe, Chile

Mostly throughout Chile there is lots of fried food, high-sugar breakfasts with undercooked eggs, and to top it all off, it’s really expensive. We are tired of empanadas, and missing some variety at the moment. In Calgary, we will have our pick of Vietnamese, Indian, Italian, and Japanese all within arms reach! We have also been camping a lot lately and we decided to forgo a camping stove to save on space and weight, so it’s been a lot of salami sandwiches and peanut butter. One thing that has been amazing though, is all the fresh fruit. We have been eating a ton of juicy plums and peaches, because it is summer time here. And wouldn’t you know, we seem to find more delicious falafel in each place we visit - who would’ve guessed!

Drink wise, unfortunately the beer has been pretty bad throughout Latin America. We’ve tried a few breweries…but they just haven’t been up to the craft beer standards we have in Canada. Sad to say, but we haven’t tried any Chilean wine so far. Nor pisco, nor the infamous “earthquake” drink. We are excited to have a delicious steak dinner and pair it with some fine wine in Argentina!

We are mostly tea drinkers, and a good cup of tea has been hard to come by. We have enjoyed the coffee though, probably a little too much. The best coffee we had was across Belize, Costa Rica, Panama, and Columbia. The coffee scene in Chile is interesting…it costs $3-6 CAD for hot water and Nescafe. What a luxury!? We have been drinking about a cup a day, so we will see how our dependence fairs when we get back to a Canada.

Another interesting beverage experience is drinking stream water while hiking throughout Chile. Sure, in Canada you might consider it at the top of a glacier...but usually we bring water purification tablets to be on the safe side. Those don’t exist here. So we have done as the locals have done, and have drank the stream water...and so far so good! We haven’t been sick yet. Hopefully we won't be coming back to Canada with a nasty parasite or two...

We tried hot chocolate with cheese as it is a "specialty" in Colombia...let's just say we wouldn't go back for more

Our favourite drinks so far have been:

1) freshly squeezed orange juice from a stand in San Pedro, Guatemala (for $0.50!), and 2) mint lemonade with ginger which seems to be quite popular across Latin America.

Usually we are too hungry to take any photos, so we apologize for the lack of photo evidence. Hope you enjoyed this brief journey into the food and drinks that we have loved and loathed so far!

We leave you with some travel hacks for eating and drinking well, while abroad:

  1. Seek out the vegetarian or vegan restaurants. In our experience, the quality of food is much better.

  2. Eat what the locals eat.

  3. Eat where the locals eat.

  4. Splurge at lunch. Lunch is the biggest meal of the day in Latin America, and usually very inexpensive for a lot of food!

  5. You can't go wrong with "plato del dia" (plate of the day).

  6. Shop at the local markets for fresh fruits and vegetables, and don't be scared to barter!

  • rose

Be warned!! People will tell you lies. Not big ugly unforgiving go-straight-to-jail-and-do-not-pass-go lies...but little white lies that stretch the truth. For example, “This bus comes with…”

  • AC: Either the bus will be overly air-conditioned and freezing, or not working at all no matter how many times you ask the driver.

  • Wifi: Hit or miss whether there is wifi and/or whether you are able to connect properly.

  • Reclining Seats: Well let’s just say it’s no lazy boy situation...the seats do recline, which mostly means less space for you since the person in front also has their chair in the fully reclined position.

  • Washroom: The only bus we have been on with a washroom was an overnight bus from Colombia to Ecuador, and believe us, trying to go pee on a bumpy bus ride is quite a task...! I wouldn’t say it’s an advantage per se. Especially when you are stuck sitting at the back of the bus and the fragrance of the washroom keeps wafting in your direction - ew!!

  • Media: Yes, this is all too true. Most busses will have a pixely screen playing some sort of obnoxious action movie or drama [in Spanish, no subtitles], and the volume is turned WAY UP just so everyoneeeeeee can hear!

  • Direct service: Okay this one is probably the biggest lie. The busses seem to stop an outrageous number of times, for varying reasons:

  1. Picking up people and dropping people off at random locations on the side of the road.

  2. All bus drivers seem to make a special stop to either say hello or pick up their wife, who brings them clean clothes and food and drinks.

  3. Every bus will make a number of stops for various vendors who come on the bus and ride along for 5-10 minutes, each giving a speech and selling anything from fruit to tamales.

  4. During the day, there are multiple stops every 1-2 hours for food and bathroom breaks. The one advantage of taking an overnight bus is that there are far fewer scheduled stops.

In general, my advice would be to mentally and physically prepare before taking a bus in South America. Avoiding the bus system all together would be great, but is not practical. The thing is, flying can be really expensive, and often is not an option for the places you want to see. So, sometimes you are stuck between a rock and a hard place. The best advice we can give is:

  • Try and take an overnight bus if possible. There are rumors that these are more "unsafe", but personally we did not have any issues. Take a Gravol, pop on your eye mask, and hope to wake up 10 hours later where you want to be.

  • Bring water and snacks. But be strategic with your fluid intake as bathroom breaks are not always when you need them!

  • Try to sit at the front of the bus (away from the washroom!) and hopefully where it will be less bumpy.

  • Bring ear plugs and download music prior, to damper the background noise of crying children, loud action movies, whatever music the driver feels like blaring, and the diesel engine.

Hope these tips enlighten you on our experiences so far, and help future travellers make the most of what is truly a rite-of-passage when backpacking Latin America.