What We Learned Backpacking for 2 Months

Caye Caulker Belize

40 liter packs are (almost) all you need

Imagine living out of a suitcase no bigger than a 1.5 square foot box. That’s basically what Shannon and I did for two months backpacking around Central America. We’re proud to report that not only did we have the smallest bags of anyone we met but that our 40 liter packs were perfectly adequate for this specific trip.

While “perfectly adequate” is a true enough description of what we experienced, “barely adequate” fits too. We’d have been in trouble if we needed to plan for colder weather or multiple seasons. Traveling through Central America we had the luxury of packing lightweight clothing, although the highlands of Guatemala got surprisingly chilly. I was happy to have a heavy fleece I didn’t originally intend to pack but brought along because Houston was so damn cold when we left.

Even in colder climates, we probably could have made the 40 liter backpacks work if not for all of the electronics we hauled: two laptops, a digital camera, a video camera, an iPhone, a surge protector, a universal power adapter, battery charger, and the cables needed to power all this junk. Leaving the electronics at home would have freed up almost an entire bag – but we’d never do that.

Skype is too unreliable for business calls

Our experiment using Skype as our only telephone service was only partially successful. On the plus side, Skype is an incredibly cost effective way to call the U.S. from abroad. For keeping in touch with family and friends it is probably the only phone service you need. But for business calls, we couldn’t ever guarantee a strong enough internet connection to make Skype reliable.

Almost everywhere we stayed advertised free wifi. Sometimes it worked great, other times, not so great. We couldn’t know until we arrived what we’d encounter, so we never knew whether we’d have phone service or not; hardly ideal when you need to schedule calls or telephone interviews.

We also learned that some local phone monopolies block Skype calls. It took us awhile to figure out that was the case in Belize, and was why even with strong internet connections we couldn’t get Skype to work. We also discovered that if we encrypted our internet connection through a “virtual private network” it prevents the phone company from distinguishing between regular internet traffic and Skype traffic, so they just let everything pass. We used the Hotspot Shield app on our iPhone to thwart Big Brother in Belize. This turned out to be a pretty useful hack that allowed us to make calls over Skype even though it was supposed to be blocked.

Get off the main strip for the best eats

Papusas, San Pedro Belize

Hand made papusas in San Pedro for $1.25 US each

It isn’t exactly breaking news that the best, and cheapest, food is found away from the places tourists frequent. We were still surprised by the extent to which this was true, especially in Belize. The beach in San Pedro, for example, is lined with expensive, generally bad, international cuisine. A mere two blocks inland, we found terrific local fare at local prices.

Travel is all the same

One of the things that surprised me is how familiar backpacking through Central America felt. The modes and methods of travel were different from RVing, for sure. Language and cultural differences added something to the experience that you don’t get from traveling around your home country. But for the most part, travel is about seeing and experiencing new things. That feels exactly the same whether you’re in San Ignacio or San Francisco.

People frequently romanticize international travel and ignore great destinations in their own backyard. That is a mistake. The things we saw and experienced in Central America weren’t necessarily better than those in the U.S. The best were just different. And that is reason enough to go.

Patience

Having lived in and around New York City for the better part of two decades, we’ve grown to expect a certain amount of speed and efficiency. Not surprisingly, we are often frustrated by the slower pace at which most of the rest of the world operates.

We knew things would be slower still in Central America. We arrived expecting everything to take longer than it should and to proceed on its own schedule or on no schedule at all. We weren’t disappointed, things were sloooow; but neither were we frustrated. When you expect things to happen slowly and things to start late, it doesn’t bother you when lo-and-behold, they happen slowly and start late. Call it the soft benefit of low expectations. The trick for us will be to maintain our newly found Zen-like mastery now that we’re heading back home.

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25 Comments on “What We Learned Backpacking for 2 Months”

  1. Orel Di Angelo April 23, 2012 at 10:08 am #

    Very interesting article. Thanks. I think 40l is the appropriate size. I backpacked for 1 month in North America with a 27l day pack. I also did 8 days in Europe with this bag and I was happy (managed to take warm clothes for Norway when i was then going to Spain). When you leave you feel crazy to leave with nothing but it’s much more convenient.

    • Brian April 23, 2012 at 3:31 pm #

      We certainly appreciated our small packs, although everyone we saw carried far more than we did.

  2. customtripplanning April 23, 2012 at 10:14 am #

    I appreciate your comment about seeing things here in the US….so many people aim their travel sights on overseas and forget that we have such a diverse and exotic country here!

    • Brian April 23, 2012 at 3:32 pm #

      The US is wonderfull. The only reason to leave these shores is that not everything is here.

  3. nadinefeldman April 23, 2012 at 11:21 am #

    Super post! Love these suggestions.

    When hubby and I first started traveling, we hadn’t yet grasped the concept of packing light. These days, our suitcases are much smaller and we take less with us…though I have found that I have to pack well in advance so I can start UNPACKING nonessentials that keep creeping into my suitcase!

    • Brian April 23, 2012 at 3:33 pm #

      The trick to packing light is getting a small bag. If you have a large bag, you’ll fill it with stuff you don’t need. But when space is limited, you really need to think about what you’re bringing.

  4. jmeyersforeman April 23, 2012 at 1:45 pm #

    nice to know your 40L pack worked, especially with the electronics that you took. I am planning a 3 wk hiking trip in spain and have been told that this should be my max size, but like you I travel with laptop and camera, (canon 5d and lenses) so I was happy to hear you managed just fine!.

    • Brian April 23, 2012 at 3:39 pm #

      I don’t know of 40L is the “max size.” Most folks we saw were carrying bigger backpacks. Many also had a bag in front. I wouldn’t have wanted to carry all that gear everywhere I went, but they seemed to make out fine.

      The nice thing about the 40L packs we have is that they fit in most overhead bins on planes and fit in our seats on buses and boats. With all the electronic gear we were carrying we liked to keep control of our bags.

  5. IshitaUnblogged April 23, 2012 at 1:49 pm #

    Had missed your posts as I changed my email Id – am so glad to have sorted it out… loved your post and always slightly envious of backpackers – can never never never be a light traveller as hard as I try! Looking forward…

    • Brian April 23, 2012 at 3:45 pm #

      Welcome back!

  6. cravesadventure April 23, 2012 at 9:05 pm #

    Great post – great advice – thanks for sharing!

    • Brian April 23, 2012 at 9:40 pm #

      Muchas gracias.

  7. In Search of Perfect April 24, 2012 at 12:22 am #

    Hi Brian! Great insights, I especially liked the one about your own backyard… That is very true – we should learn to see new and interesting things everywhere we go, not just at some famous destinations. Thank you!

  8. baidanbi April 24, 2012 at 3:39 am #

    I don’t deny that there are great sights and cultural eccentricities worth exploring in the US. However, depending on why you travel, and for me it is often much more about the cultural differences and negotiating a place that feels truly foreign than seeing the sights, there is no substitute for traveling out of the country.
    Great tips on using skype!

    • Brian April 24, 2012 at 9:16 am #

      It’s absolutely true that you have to leave the country for things that aren’t here. And with the US accounting for less than 10% of the world’s total land mass, there is plenty of stuff that just isn’t here. But what I discovered was that the feeling of exploration wasn’t any different whether here or there.

      • baidanbi April 24, 2012 at 10:34 am #

        That’s very interesting. To me the intensity of the experience is directly related to the foreigness of the evironment. That is not to say that experiences are better or worse, just that everything from buying breakfast to taking the bus is intensified. That feeling is what first attracked me to travel and has turned me into a travel junkie so to speak.

        • Brian April 24, 2012 at 5:06 pm #

          That is absolutely true, and something we also commented on: http://everywhereonce.com/2012/02/13/why-we-travel/

          But what is interesting is the longer we were in a “foreign” environment, the less foreign it felt. Within a couple of weeks, the thrill of being someplace really new kind of wore off and from then on, our travels felt really familiar. That held true even as we moved from English speaking Belize to Spanish speaking Guatemala.

          Perhaps this is a difference between a one or two week trip and a nine week one.

          • baidanbi April 25, 2012 at 2:15 am #

            I see where you are coming from. Traveling in almost any place for an extended period of time can feel somewhat repetitive. I generally prefer trips of about 3 to 4 weeks, breaking larger destinations, say China, into sections and going back at a future date. The excitement of being someplace foreign always returns, albeit never as strong as that first exposure. I’ve been traveling for more than 20 years and the thrill of a new destination has never worn off. Just last year we were totally blown away by Tokyo, a city that looked so “normal” on the outside turned out to be a cultural delight leaving us with that same feeling of wonderment you experienced in Belize. You just never know how a new place will strike you and with so many destinations in the world I know can’t possibly experience them all in one lifetime.
            Traveling through the US for so long, how do you keep the feeling fresh? What motivates you to explore?

            • Brian April 25, 2012 at 10:12 am #

              “Repetitive” isn’t the word I’d use. “Familiar” is more like it. Familiar in the sense that travel is what we’ve done for 2 years straight. Travel is our daily routine. Backpacking through Central America kind of got us out of our normal travel routine and felt really different for a while. But then we settled in, and it felt, well, familiar – almost like we were back to our comfortable old routine, which, in a way, we were.

              With respect to “keeping it fresh”, as long as there are places we haven’t been, the attraction is evergreen. Sure we’ve visited a lot of places, but we haven’t been to the next place.

  9. baidanbi April 25, 2012 at 4:05 pm #

    Yeah, “repetitive” has more of a negative connotation than I intended, but “familiar” seemed too comfortable. There are plenty of places I’ve traveled through that have an air of having seen something similar before, but still feel more foreign that familiar. You’ve been very generous in answering my comments and questions and in no way do I intend to diminish the choice of traveling in the US. I admire anyone who has the courage to live outside the box and chose what is right for himself. We are all different and have different desires and motivations. I was simply struck by your statement, “travel is all the same” (as you probably have guessed). Anyway, I wish you all the best in your future explorations.

    • Brian April 25, 2012 at 4:54 pm #

      I’m not surprised the comment “travel is all the same” struck you, because the feeling is something that surprised me too. But I think you have to try to understand the comment from the perspective of someone who has spent the past 24 months traveling. Being someplace new, feeling a bit off balance, being lost, exploring unfamiliar towns and cities and nature is what we call normal. That’s what we do every day. Once we settled into the cultural differences, which probably took a couple of weeks, everything really did feel pretty normal. Maybe the best way to describe it is that we feel at home on the road and it just doesn’t matter where that road happens to be.

  10. Carla Saunders April 27, 2012 at 11:26 am #

    Great posts!! Thanks for dropping by mine so I could find you again. Travel while you are young . Now is the time to do it .

  11. loveantoinette May 23, 2012 at 8:06 am #

    I pretty much grew up here in NYC too and I can completely understand where you’re coming from about expecting everything to be “fast-paced”… Even going to California to visit friends and family gets me frustrated at times because of how laid back.. or should I say ssslllooowww the pace is at times. But thanks for this heads up! I’ll be going on a 6months+ jaunt through SOuth and Central America and it’ll be quite an experience to finally learn how to slow down a bit…

    • Brian May 23, 2012 at 3:32 pm #

      I got a whole new appreciation for Belizean’s slow pace once their afternoon sun hit me – zapped the desire to move quickly right out of me. :-)

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    […] also found VPNs to be useful in other ways. In Belize we learned that the local phone monopoly was blocking our Skype calls. Once we encrypted our internet connection through a VPN the phone company couldn’t distinguish […]

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