I had no idea what to expect from a two-week backpacking trip to Guatemala. But with college coming to an all-too-abrupt end, a few friends and I decided to put off the real world just a little bit longer. It would be the post-grad trip of a lifetime, filled with wild adventures and endless guacamole. We purchased our first backpacks, crammed two weeks of clothing into the tiny space provided and took off.
We went in blind, expecting everything and prepared for nothing. Two weeks later we emerged dirtier, thinner and slightly wiser.
So, my fellow backpackers, here are some dos and don’ts for your first trip. Take them as you will, and most all of all, enjoy.
Do Your Research
Before leaving, I was determined not to spend hours pouring over Guatemalan guidebooks and planning detailed itineraries. No, we were going to go with the flow. Drop everything and hit the road. This strategy can be effective. Sometimes. But when we ended up in Rio Dulce, a small town on Guatemala’s Caribbean coast, at 2 a.m, I began to rethink my lack of foresight. Luckily the friendly Australian owner of Kangaroo Hostel, a beautiful hostel only accessible by boat, picked us up in his speed boat despite our indecent arrival time.
So, yes, do some research. Look up what the best hostel in Antigua is. Both Hostelworld and TripAdvisor are valuable resources for the best accommodations in Guatemala. TripAdvisor forums especially can point you in the direction of the best shuttle services between popular travel destinations, as well as provide you with realistic expectations for how long trips will take. Early in the trip, a shuttle driver told us that our trip from Antigua to San Pedro de Lago would take 3 hours; it took 7.
This isn’t to say you should plot out every detail of the trip. The fun of backpacking is doing the unexpected. It’s dropping your plan to visit an ancient Mayan temple because some new friends insist they’ve found the best waterfall in Guatemala (Finca el Paradiso in Rio Dulce, the world’s only hot water waterfall. Natural springs combine with river water to create the perfect water temperature where you can idle away your afternoon floating around or exploring the nearby caves).
Be flexible, be open-minded, but also, be prepared. Look up the bus times.
Everyone will tell you this. Don’t overpack, you’ll regret it. I rolled my eyes at them. I know better than to pack more than the essentials. Hiking clothes, a few nicer items for the city, a bathing suit (or two), sandals, sneakers, flip-flops. Toiletries, underwear, socks. The essentials.
What I didn’t realize was that I’d be carrying these essentials everywhere we went. When we got off our bus in Atitlan it was raining and our hostel was 20 minutes away, uphill, I had to carry my essentials. When I put a damp towel in my backpack and everything reeked of mildew for the rest of the trip, I had to carry those essentials too.
While backpacking, essentials mean just a few items you can re-wear and a few traveling essentials. Leave behind your second pair of sandals, and bring a quick-dry towel instead. It will be one of the most useful items you bring and can easily be found in any outdoor supplies store. Bring one pair of jeans, one dress, a few versatile shirts because really, your friends are the only ones who will see you everyday. The people you meet will have no idea you wore the same shirt for the past four days, including on a two-hour donkey ride up a mountain.
Do Talk to Strangers
Forget everything your mother ever told you. Well, maybe not everything. But go ahead and talk to other travelers. Whether you go backpacking with friends or alone, the best part is meeting new people. Every backpacker we met was a treasure trove of useful information and exciting ideas for our next stop.
Take advantage and talk to them. When an intimidating group of travelers ask you to join them for dinner, do it. One of my favorite nights in Guatemala was spent drinking Gallos, a Guatemalan beer, while swapping traveling stories with a group of Australian backpackers staying with us at the El Fe Hostel in San Pedro La Laguana. We spent the next three days exploring the beautiful Lake Atitlan and kayaking to the surrounding towns together.
The world is a big place and it’s easy to lose sight of how much you have in common with others. Travelers are among the most enthusiastic and welcoming people around. Adopt the spirit, and ask the next solo traveler you see to join you on tomorrow’s adventure.
Don’t Keep to Yourself
Yes, this is essentially the same as meeting new people. But traveling isn’t just about bonding with other backpackers. You chose Guatemala for a reason. Meet some Guatemalans. Find out what life there is like. On a bumpy bus ride on one of Guatemala’s chicken buses from Lanquin to Antigua, I spent three hours talking to a woman that couldn’t have been taller than 5’0, and yet was bursting with energy. She told me how she met her husband (they grew up next door to each other) and about her many grandchildren. Despite my broken Spanish, I managed to tell her about my own family and life in New York City. When the bus stopped inexplicably for 2 hours at a gas station, she pulled two ears of grilled corn out of her bag and insisted I eat one.
These are the people who will give you insight into Guatemalan culture and how it both resembles and differs from your own. They probably live drastically different lives than you do. But you’ll be astonished at how easy it is to share a laugh through a language barrier. If you’re lucky, someone just might invite you over for pepian de pollo, a delicious Guatemalan stew.
Don’t take pictures the whole time
Pictures are great. Take them, post them, and share them with your friends. But taking a few pictures is different than letting pictures define your trip. Hike the mountain to get to the top, not for the Instagram at the end.
This is not as easy as it sounds. Our digitized world has done a good job of embedding a need to capture moments and share them instantly. Find your way to an ancient burial site and you will find more people looking through their pictures than at the temple in front of them.
So try to put down the camera. Better yet, leave it at the hostel. You flew pretty far to see Guatemala, so don’t just capture it through a screen. Soak up that sunset for yourself. Sit for a few minutes longer than you usually would. Be there now, because soon, when you’re back home, back at work, or back in school, you’ll wish you were still there, sitting on a mountaintop in the Guatemala countryside next to your best friends, without a care in the world.