Five Destinations for First-Time Backpackers

Sunset in Cinque Terre, Italy
Sunset in Cinque Terre, Italy

The other day a friend of mine wrote to me and said he has been reading the site but was curious as to where I would recommend he and his wife go for their first adventure.

That question inspired me to write this post. Here are five destinations that I would highly recommend to first-time travelers:

Italy

Probably the first thing that comes to mind when people think of visiting Italy is the food. And it should be, because eating out in Italy is a treat and worth the trip even if it’s all you manage to do.

Of course Italy has a lot more to offer. You can spend weeks enjoying the wonderful ocean villages of Cinque Terre, the canals and neighboring islands of Venice, the great art in Florence, or the amazing history of Rome. Italy has so much going on that you’ll quickly realize there is not enough time to enjoy it all.

Italy is certainly well visited by tourists and Italians are very welcoming. When I went in 2004 I was prepared to use my poor Italian that I had learned but everybody I met was happy to speak English and would chat me up for hours on end if time allowed. The train system goes everywhere you’ll need to go and is easy to use. And best of all, the major cities are all wonderful walking towns. Rome has a metro system, but you’re better off walking to where you need to go and seeing the great sights around town.

You’ll also be able to find hostels and budget hotels everywhere you go. I rarely recommend booking in advance, but Italy has a lot of visitors and it’s not cheap either. It’s best to book things in advance if possible.

France

Who hasn’t dreamt of the city of lights? Whether you’re a hopeless romantic, wine connoisseur, or art buff, Paris is a place that everybody can enjoy.

Spend a day (a week is easily doable) in the Louvre and see the Mona Lisa. Check out the Van Gogh paintings in Musee D’Orsay. Walk around the Latin Quarter and practice your French by chatting up a Parisian student. Head up the steep cobblestone walkways of Montmartre and enjoy the views of the city from the Sacre Coeur. Buy some bread, cheese, and a cheap bottle of wine and enjoy a picnic lunch on the banks of the Seine. Don’t forget the obligatory trip up the Eiffel tower!

If you are there for a few days, take the train to Versailles. Enjoying dinner there is expensive, but viewing a castle like that is certainly an awe-inspiring sight.

Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a little more challenging for first time travelers but there is a lot of upside. Many hardcore travelers would consider Costa Rica “touristy” but it is far less visited than any of the other countries listed so far.

On the negative side, Costa Rica’s capital city of San Jose can be dangerous and offers very little other than a large airport. If you do some research though, you’ll find you only need to go into the city for specific buses and staying in neighboring Alajuela is a much better option for overnight stops. Stay away from the Coca-Cola bus terminal at night and you’ll be safe.

On the positive side, Costa Rica offers some of the most beautiful nature in the world. While the bus system may not be the smoothest in the world, it does exist and can take you around the entire country. It’s also very cheap!

The influx of tourism to Costa Rica over the past few years has increased prices, but it still will only cost a fraction of what a trip to nearly any city in Europe will cost. Hostel beds for less than $10 are common and eating a good meal at the local sodas (cafes) can cost as little as $2-3.

Whether you want to enjoy surfing on the Pacific or Caribbean, explore a rain forest with monkeys swinging overhead, go white water rafting, kayak mangroves, or peer into a Volcano, you can can do it all in Costa Rica. Spend as little as a week or as long as a year, and you can still manage to not go to the same place twice. This tiny country is a real gem in Central America.

Peru

Many people dream of visiting ancient Inca and Mayan ruins in Central America and Peru offers one of the most amazing opportunities to do so.

Machu Picchu is one of the most impressive sights in the world to visit ancient ruins despite it being 8,000 ft above sea level. While this elevation might make it a little more difficult to get to than other places, it still manages to be an extremely popular destination for travelers.

The common practice is to stay in nearby Cuzco for a couple of days to acclimate to the elevation. From there, you can book a multi-day hike and camping trek and enjoy the Inca Trail.

There are many providers for this tour and most provide the supplies you need. You should be aware that the number of visitors to the trail is limited so you should book in advance. I’ve heard as few as three weeks is required, and as long as nine months. Your experience may vary, but definitely plan ahead of time!

Canada

Canada is one of my favorite countries in the world. I have been all over the country and enjoy every little bit of it. It may not be as cheap for Americans as it once was, but there are still budget places to stay.

Vancouver is a wonderful city surrounded by the beautiful nature that is British Columbia. Enjoy the city for a couple of days, be sure to check out Stanley Park (Think Central Park but better!), then head up route 99, the Sea to Sky Highway, and stop in Squamish. The self described “Outdoor Recreation Capital of Canada,” Squamish offers a great place for backpackers to call home for a while. Enjoy the outdoor activities like kayaking, mountain biking and hiking, or use it as an affordable base for Whistler. Located about one hour up the highway, Whistler is one of the best ski resorts in the world and its village provides great shopping and eating choices year round. Hitchiking is safe and popular from Squamish and you won’t be waiting for long before a fellow snowboarder or mountain biker picks you up and gives you a free ride to the mountain. Canadians are so darn friendly!

If you fancy the eastern side of Canada, Quebec is a wonderful place to visit as well. Although a bit pricier, there are several hostels in the Montreal area and English is spoke everywhere. In fact, I dare you to use your high school French and see what happens. They’ll automatically respond in English and you’ll feel a little stupid, but hey, that’s Montreal!

Hop on the train for a lovely three-hour ride to Quebec city and enjoy the more traditional French-Canadian culture. Quebec is a lovely city to simply walk around and go sightseeing. From statues to architecture, Quebec city will easily fill a couple of days and put a few miles on your feet.

There you have it. In no particular order, five great destinations of varying costs and level of adventure.

Do you have a recommendation for a good place beginner travelers should check out? Please share them, or your experiences in the comments below!

How to Get Into the Independent Travel Mindset

Have you traveled independently/solo before?

If not, it probably sounds a little scary doesn’t it?

It doesn’t have to be.  In fact, now that I have been traveling independently for the better part of my adult life, I’ve really come to love it.  When I’m not traveling, I’m thinking about traveling.  All but one of my backpacking trips have been completely solo.

So what does it take to get into the mindset?

All it took for me was a little push.  My first trip to Europe was to be with one of my good friends.  Two days before, he canceled for reasons I still don’t know.  There I was, about to leave for Europe.  No accommodations booked, no real schedule or plan.  Top it all off, there was a bomb found underneath one of the French railways and terrorist threats of more that had not been found.

Yeah, I was a little nervous.  I stayed up all night before my early morning flight stressing over whether or not to go.

Obviously, I’m glad I went.  I had the time of my life, met some great people, and visited places I didn’t even plan on going to (or had even heard about).

You will not be alone

Costa Rica Dinner Party
17 of us from the hostel in La Fortuna, Costa Rica enjoying dinner together

Stay at almost any hostel and you are almost guaranteed to meet other travelers.  You may not the best at meeting and talking to random strangers, but when you travel all that will change.  Regardless of what language you speak or where you are from, you share at least one common thing with everybody else there.  You are travelers in a strange place and you’d probably enjoy some company.

I truly can’t think of a time when I had nobody to hang out with, share a meal, or just talk to in a hostel.  They are unbelievably social places and by staying in one, you will meet others and before you know it, be going out sightseeing, grabbing a bite to eat, or partying it up at a club or bar (ask the person in charge of the hostel for that information!).

Your guidebook is your friend

Unless you venturing off into uncharted territory, somebody has probably been there already and written an entire book about it.  Pack your guidebook and read as much of it as you can.  Need a hostel recommendation?  What about a good place to eat? How about information on safety and tips to avoid trouble.

Your guidebook has all of that already!  Read it and follow it–but don’t be afraid to stray a little.

Be willing to explore

Some of the best days you will have are when you simply venture out on your own (or with others).  Many cities are great to simply walk around all day and explore.  See the sights, but walk down those streets that look interesting.  Visit shops, eat some food from street vendors, look at the architecture, talk to people! There are many things you can do without an itinerary.

Please feel free to share your experiences of traveling alone (or with a small group) and the encounters you’ve had! Tips are always welcome as well.

How to Easily Learn a Language and Enjoy your Trip

Would you like to know a little secret?

Language is important.

Pretty obvious, right?

Being American (technically Canadian-American but who’s counting?) I am always surprised by how few of us speak a foreign language. Sure, in California many people speak Spanish, but not nearly as many as you would expect.

One of the things I always tell people is that they should learn at least a few conversational basics when traveling to a foreign country.

I did a lot to cram in some French and Italian before traveling to Europe for my first backpacking trip. I was in no way fluent, or even comfortable speaking either language, but what little I did know helped tremendously.

Many Americans expect that since they are paying tourists, they should be catered to. If you use Paris for an example, you’ll realize that Paris does not live off of tourism! It’s the cultural center of France and if no Americans visited, they would hardly miss us.

I saw this first hand when ordering lunch at a small cafe. I managed to ask for a particular sandwich and a glass of tea but I could not understand the price. I politely asked, “parlez-vous Anglais?”

“Yes, a little,” she responded and told me the price in English. I paid, thanked her in French, received a kind smile and enjoyed my food.

Shortly after another young backpacker came in and asked for something using only English and didn’t even bother to try French. The same lady who was so friendly to me responded, “je suis désolé monsieur. Je ne comprende pas Anglais.” He made a couple more requests in English but eventually left frustrated and hungry. The lady looked at me, shrugged her shoulders and smiled.

To her, a few Euros were less important than the cultural pride. This attitude is very common not only in Paris, but anywhere that does not rely solely on tourism.

But surely you don’t have the time to enroll in a class and practice for several months before traveling.

So here is the real secret I promised:

Dr. Pimsleur

Never heard the name before? Well Dr. Pimsleur created a wonderful technique for learning language and has produced fantastic audio programs.

While the full versions with nearly 50 hours of training are quite expensive, there is a great alternative if you wish to get started and learn the basics, whether it be for fun or in preparation for a trip.

The insert Pimsleur Learn to Speak & Understand programs contain 16 lessons (each unit of the full program has 30, so you are getting about half of the free unit). The best part, they’re pretty cheap on Amazon.

Of course, they hope you enjoy them and decide to move on to the full course. If you do, I believe there is an upgrade program for purchasers of the intro versions.

Let me tell you first hand that these work very well and will prepare you for many common situations such as asking (and understanding) directions, ordering food, or exchanging money. Of course you’ll learn how to politely interact with people in that language and how to ask for help if you are unable to understand.

I tried several different French audio training tools before coming across the Pimsleur program. The other were ALL a waste of money.

Here’s the list of all the ones I have used and enjoyed success with:

Again, I am far from fluent in any of these (except French which I went on to study for a couple of years) but learning these basics will be very rewarding.

Sure. You can usually get by with English and hand gestures, but being able to speak a language can help in ways you’ve never imagined.

Have you tried learning a language before your trip? Post a comment and let us know how it went. Have a funny language story? Please share!

How to stay healthy while traveling

first aid
photo credit: TheTruthAbout...

Whether you are traveling for a week or for a year, your health is always a concern you should have.

Traveling in a foreign country usually is an experience to remember, unless you get sick. If you’ve been under the weather while traveling you know first hand what I am talking about.

I’m going to go over a few of the ways I combat sickness and attempt to stay healthy while traveling.

1. Water

You must remember to stay hydrated. Keep in mind that even if you’re just walking around the city with your pack back at your hostel, you’re probably still doing more physical activity than you are used to back home.

Make sure you know if the water in your area is safe to drink though. If not, buy bottled water or if you’re hiking and using stream water, you’ll want.to be sure you can purify your water. There are iodine tablets, filters, and probably the most impressive, the SteriPEN which you can use if you bottle your own water and want to be sure it is safe for drinking.  Be sure any reusable bottles you purchase are BPA-free.

2. Vitamins

A good multi-vitamin can go a long way in keeping your immune system up and fighting the multitudes of germs and bacteria.  Some people use fancy multi-vitamin packs with a handful of various pills and others prefer a simple one-a-day vitamin.

3. Hand Sanitizer

Be sure to wash your hands but if you can’t, a small bottle of hand sanitizer can come in handy. No pun intended.

4. Anti-Diarrheal medicines

I’ve saved the best for last. There is absolutely nothing worse than being so sick that you can’t leave your room. Loperamide (Imodium) works very well if you’ve eaten something bad and are having diarrhea.  Make sure you drink plenty of fluids as you can easily become dehydrated.

5. First-aid kit

Finally, a small first aid kit with basics such as bandages (useful for blisters, not just cuts and scrapes!), antibiotic ointment, and even burn cream if you might be around campfires. There are a plethora of small first-aid kits available everywhere that will take up hardly any room in your backpack.

Have any other suggestions or tips that you use when traveling? Please share them in comments below.

Costa Rica on 24 Hours Notice – Trip report

When I noticed that I had a rare five days off of work I immediately began looking for cheap flight deals. I’d never been to Hawaii and last time I looked, I found round trip deals for about $400. No luck for that particular week, but I did find a $375 flight to Costa Rica leaving around 11pm on the 4th of July! I booked it without hesitation.

True, I had never been to Costa Rica, really didn’t know that much about it, nor can I speak Spanish well. Sometimes you just have to jump though. I quickly went out and picked up the Lonely Planet Costa Rica Guide and began studying it as much as I could. When I left for the airport less than 24 hours later, I had no idea where I would be going, staying, or doing.

In fact, that continued all the way up until I landed in San Jose. I had narrowed it down to three places, Puerto Viejo, Quepos, or La Fortuna. I took a quick poll from the people sitting near me on the plane and the winner was La Fortuna. So I got off the plane and hopped into a cab heading to the appropriate bus station (I later found out that the bus now stops by the airport but my guidebook was outdated – don’t worry, it has since been updated).

Arriving in Costa Rica
Arriving in Costa Rica

The cab driver warned me to be careful because the area was not very safe. Luckily it was the day time but it was pretty obvious that it was a bad place.

I stood in the long line before I noticed a fellow gringo a few spots in front of me. Somehow we began talking and I found out that Garrett grew up about 20 minutes from me but has since relocated to Utah. Lucky for me, he spoke Spanish well and was able to talk to the ticket seller at the terminal. Turns out that the last bus for La Fortuna had already left but we could board a bus to Ciudad Quesada (about halfway) and then transfer to another La Fortuna bus.

The bus there wasn’t bad but there was no window in Ciudad Quesada so we had to speak to every bus driver at the station. Finally we found the right one thanks to a boy who dragged us and insisted we get on the bus. Honestly, we didn’t know if we would end up in the right place or not but we had faith.

Unfortunately that bus was over packed and we had to stand for over two hours. When we finally arrived in La Fortuna it had begun to rain pretty hard. I whipped out the Lonely Planet and navigated us to Gringo Pete’s hostel. Despite telling me they would have room when I called earlier, they were full. We walked to a couple more places but by 7pm at night they had all filled up too.

It was on the other side of the town (not that it’s a very large town) but I suggested we try Arenal Backpackers Resort which despite being more expensive than any other hostel, was the Lonely Planet’s recommended place to stay.

We were greeted by Diego, a friendly English-speaking Tico who luckily had two beds left. At $14 a night this is probably the priciest hostel in all of Costa Rica but it was a great place to stay. They have a nice pool, covered patio bar and restaurant (with the best and most affordable food I was able to find in all of La Fortuna), and very clean tiled bathrooms and showers. From the street it almost looked like a bar or a club since the patio was so busy.

Shortly after putting my bag away and grabbing a tasty meal at the on-site restaurant, I was invited to go out with a group that was heading to the local discoteca.

The place was booming with an odd mix of Spanish language dance music, American classic rock set to house beats and reggaeton. Nobody minded the $1 Imperial beers either.

Dancing at a La Fortuna Discoteca
Dancing at a La Fortuna Discoteca

After a long night of loud music and dancing we all called it a night.

The next morning I ran into a few people I met at the club the night before and was invited to do a hike to Cerro Chato laguna, a huge lake that has developed inside of a dormant volcano crater.

The hike up the volcano was amazing but difficult. The other three guys who came along didn’t stay back for myself and Anna, a nice girl from Louisiana who had been studying in Costa Rica for the summer. Her and I were slowpokes and took many stops for snacks and water. It didn’t help that I skipped breakfast.

45 minutes behind our c0-hikers, we finally arrived at the lake.  It’s a massive body of water filling the entire crater of the volcano.  After the long hike it felt great to remove our shoes and take a dip.  What is most interesting about Cerro Chato is the fact that there is no inlet nor outlet, yet there are fish living in the water.  Later we were told that the fish likely were dropped by birds flying overhead or that their droppings may have contained eggs.  However they got there, it was certainly an interesting experience.

Cerro Chato
Cerro Chato

After making our way back, we decided that it was still early and took another trail from the bottom to a waterfall.  The walk was very steep but the steps had been formed so that it was easier hike without slipping and sliding your way to the bottom.  A nice outlook provided this wonderful photo opportunity:

Arenal Falls
Arenal Falls

After making our way all the way down, we decided to jump the water at the bottom of the falls.  While it wasn’t the largest waterfall I had ever seen, it certainly was powerful and the force could definitely injure or kill you if you got too close.  We played it safe but it was exhilarating to feel the water throwing you all over the place.

The following day I met up with three college students from Ohio.  They were going back to the waterfall I visited the day before and I decided to tag along.  We did some more swimming at the falls and got a little closer this time.  It was still scary!

I was thirsty!
I was thirsty!

We decided to cross the river and follow the path to wherever it may lead us.  There was another great lookout, a suspension bridge, and even a snake.

Snakes are scary no matter how small they are
Snakes are scary no matter how small they are

Later that afternoon we took a guided tour to see the flowing lava of Volcan Arenal.  It began with a guided, hour long hike where we found howler and spider monkeys, along with learning a lot about the local floral and fauna.  We even came across a large hanging vine and I insisted on swinging from it like Tarzan.

Believe it or not, there are monkeys in the trees
Believe it or not, there are monkeys in the trees
Danger: Volcano
Danger: Volcano

By the time dusk rolled around it was cloudy, as it almost always is there, but we were able to see a bit of lava flowing down the side of the volcano.  The tour was then followed by a few hours at the Baldi Hot Springs.

While Baldi is considerably cheaper than the competing hot springs, Tabacon, it was quite nice.  It resembled a fancy water park with beautifully tiled pools all filled with flowing spring water heated by the lava rocks below the surface.  There were pools of varying temperature, including one as hot as 65 degrees Celsius (149 degrees Fahrenheit).  A few drunk guys we were trying to dare each other to get in.  I managed to stay in for about 5 minutes before I realized I was likely becoming sterile.

There is also a very scary water slide which people were shooting out of at dangerous speeds.  I love to have fun and do stupid things, but I couldn’t get myself to go down that thing!  Especially since the water they were torpedoing into was only about three feet deep.

We returned to the hostel after the hot springs and hung around the patio bar for the rest of the night.  I spent most of the attempting to flirt in french with some girls from Quebec.  They had one male friend with them who told me, “Your French fucking sucks, but it is cool that you are trying.”  I’m still not sure if that was a compliment or an insult but I knew it wasn’t very good so I didn’t mind.

The next day would be my last day before heading back to San Jose to grab a hotel before my early morning flight.  It was rather clear in the morning and I was rewarded for waking up early with this lovely view of the volcano:

Volcán Arenal
Volcán Arenal

I spent the day lounging at the pool with the Quebec girls and got a pretty nice sunburn.  In the late afternoon I had to run to catch my bus back to San Jose.   I was planning on meeting up with Anna, who was doing the same thing as me.  We were going to meet up and share a hotel or find a hostel but I was never able to find her.  Her bus (from a different part of the country) was rescheduled and she ended up heading somewhere else.  No problem, except she had no way to contact me.

I was hanging around the extremely dodgy part of San Jose, the Coca Cola bus terminal for a few hours too long.  What a scary place.  I’ve been to some sketchy neighborhoods in my day but this was the worst.  There were people shooting heroin in the small alleys next to prostitutes going to town on lonely homeless guys.  Plus, an elderly guy grabbed attempted to mug me by grabbing my backpack shoulder strap and pulling me into an alley.  I pushed him away and headed for a small dodgy hotel whose name I recognized from the Lonely Planet.  It wasn’t very clean, but I was able to lock my door and stay safe for the night.  Plus, it was only a few dollars.  It would do for a few hours of rest before grabbing a taxi back to the airport at 5am.

While this final experience in Costa Rica may sound pretty bad, it hardly put a damper on my trip.  The rest of it was so beautiful that this didn’t even matter.   Next time I know where NOT to spend my night though!