6 Steps to Backpacking in Central America

editor's note: Nadine and a friend are currently raising money for a charitable backpacking trip through Central America. This six week trip will be include them working with several organizations across multiple countries to help families break the cycle of poverty. They are collecting all donations, from clothing and toys to money to buy needed supplies for schools and hospitals. Please click on the link below to be taken to their fundraising page and share this story with others. As they point out on their page, every child deserves the chance for a brighter future.

*2 Girls & Hope for Central America's Children*

by Nadine Hild

You really want to explore some new places out there but are sick of run-of-the-mill resort holidays? Spending two weeks in a hotel by the pool and the occasional day trips in big groups to the most touristy attractions bore you? Yes, you'd much rather go out there and explore the country, meet amazing people along the way and see to which incredible location the next day will take you. 

But, OMG, you have no idea how to get started - it used to be as easy as going to any travel search engine and booking the next best trip that popped up - flights and hotel and, why not, food included. Nice, and easy, and so predictable. So if you're looking for your very own adventure, then here are some tips on how to get it all started. 

Step 1: Set your budget and do some reading

You might have already set your mind on a country, or a list of countries, you absolutely want to visit. Or not. Anyway, do some preliminary research - my go-to are always the Lonely Planet guides but I also extensively scrutinize the Internet, for example:

  • Lonely Planet let's you explore the planet online: Explore right here
  • Fellow travelers give you tips in Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree Forum: Check out the country forums here
  • Open Google Maps, search the country and on the bottom you can click on explore which will show you pictures of different places on the map. Pictures can often give you a good feeling of a place.
  • Use Google Search and read through several blogs with posts about your desired destination(s)
  • Ask around - you might have friends, or friends of friends, that will provide you with tips and answer your specific questions

With your budget in mind, only countries with low costs of living might be of interest to you. Or you might have to restrict the time you're traveling. Maybe you'll have to do some work along the way - e.g. help out in a café/hostel a few hours each day for free accommodation and/or food. 

Then, note down some cities, (natural) sights, beaches, activities, etc. you definitely want to do and those that would be cool but are not a must. 

Step 2: Find your route

Nadine's Central America route

a) Open Google Maps again: Where are all your hot spots located? You can color them  in a map or simply write them down in order of proximity. Research how to get from one place to another and how much each journey will cost you approximately. I know, this is often hard to find out. If there is no information out there, what I usually do is calculate the route by car and add a couple of hours (note that buses generally take longer (picking up people on the way, making longer breaks, etc) and that you might sometimes have to change buses). Concerning prices, public transport fares are usually not available online but are considerably lower than shuttles/tourist buses, often costing only $1 or $2. Now you know how many hours/days need to travel from one place to another and how much money you need to set aside for that, so:

b) Think about how much time you'd like (!) to spend in any of your hot spots. Most of the time you'll have a fixed amount of days before you have to return home for work or studies - distribute those days and also take into account how much time you'll have to spend on the road. This gives you an idea of how much time you can (!) spend in any of those places and whether you need to cut down your list or can add a few spots. If you're on a tight budget, you may have to limit the expensive activities to a couple or skip a few places. 

I'd always leave a few spare days so that once you're there and have fallen in love with a place, you can extend your stay there. I'm also trying not to fix too much so I can always alternate my route a little - you might meet some cool people on the way and want to stay longer; or a local has told you about this incredible place no travel guide has written about and you want to spend a few days there. Nevertheless, if you have a fixed return flight home, it is nice to have a rough itinerary so you don't have to freak out about making it to the airport on time.

Step 3: Book your flights

Now that you have your preliminary route within the country, you still need to figure out where to start and where to end.

a) Skyscanner! Search for flights to all major cities on your itinerary: Round-trip flights, one-way flights, multi-stop flights... Sometimes it is more convenient and cost-efficient if you fly to one city, travel all the way up North and then fly back from your last destination instead of having to make your way back to the starting point (overland travel can take ages in developing countries, most of them don't have our German high-speed trains and the condition of their highways (if they have any at all) cannot be compared to those in Europe. Short-haul flights can be rather expensive (Central America) or rather cheap (South-East Asia) and so you have to calculate what's best for you.

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b) Once you know which airlines fly to which destination on your preferred dates, go to the airline's website directly and book there. It's often cheaper.

Step 4: Book accommodation for your first nights

You might wanna book the accommodation for your first one or two nights beforehand. There's nothing worse than arriving some place unfamiliar after a 35 hour journey to the other end of the world and having to stroll the streets for hours to find a decent hostel.

Especially if you arrive at night, it is also much safer. Plus, you can show the taxi driver your confirmation and the address of the hostel and very soon, he'll usually stop trying to convince you to take you to this "really cheap, beautiful hostel" where he'll get a commission (he'll probably still try once: "Hostel is closed. Renovation.").

Nadine's roon in Lima, Peru

For the rest of the trip, I'd just find a hostel as you arrive. This gives you more flexibility on when to move from one spot to the next. But again, if you arrive during the night, you might want to have something prearranged.

Step 5: Vaccinations, Visa and Packing List

Have you had all recommended vaccinations? What are the Visa regulations? What's the weather like at the time of year you'll be going? Planning on doing sports or going hiking? Consider the following:

a) In tropical countries, it's often advisable to get at least some important shots like Tetanus, Hepatitis,... I'm also vaccinated against rabies - if you like feeding wild monkeys or playing with stray dogs, you might wanna get it, too. You can ask your doctor or medical insurance company whether you need any shots.

b) Visa, for me as a German, the tourist visa issue has never really been a problem. In most countries, you'll get a tourist visa upon arrival for a fee and for stays less than 90 days. But check with the Foreign Office (in German Auswärtiges Amt) if you do need to prearrange something. In India, for example, you need to apply for a tourist visa. In Oman, you can stay for up to 30 days before either leaving the country and re-entering or extending it once by 30 additional days.

c) Pack according to what you're going to do and what the weather is going to be like. During rainy season a rain jacket might come in handy. In higher altitudes, a sweater or jacket is neat especially in the morning and at night but during the day you might wanna get out those shorts. Some decent shoes are always good if you wanna explore the city or countryside. Pack some medicine, too. Always handy: Something against a cold and sore throat (even in hot countries, going into cold, air-conditioned buildings can get you a cold), for stomach problems and disinfection spray and band-aids. Don't forget mosquito repellent. And most important: Your camera!!! Shoot as much as possible - ten, twenty years from now, you'll be more than grateful you did.

Step 6: Pack your bags, leave and make memories for life

I hope with this post I've helped you overcome the first hurdle to stepping out of your comfort zone and spending an amazing time in an unknown country, away from all-inclusive hotel resorts. It does involve a bit more planning and is more time-consuming than booking a prearranged package. But I can promise you, in the end, it's all worth the trouble.

Therefore I urge you: Go out and explore. Make lifelong friends. And memories for a lifetime.


Please visit and share Nadine's fundraising site here.

Nadine is a 25 year-old CEMS/International Management student from Germany whose heart beats for traveling. An experienced backpacker and volunteer, a solid background in business and economics and the passion to do Good, she is ready to embark on yet another meaningful journey - making this world a better place, step by step.

You can read more about Nadine's adventures on her blog The Sweetness of Traveling where she shares her passion for traveling in an attempt to inspire people to go out and explore the world.