Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Backpacking Central America

In winter 2012, I had a fairly good idea what I wanted out of my next trip: archaeological parks, moderate weather, and a low price-tag. 

On most of my trips, fully 2/3 of the budget goes toward transit, so somewhere with affordable ground transport and airfare was my best solution to keep prices down.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but I needed to stay in my own hemisphere, probably north of the equator.  I also wasn’t looking for another jaunt in the Caribbean so soon after visiting the Bahamas, and island hopping doesn’t really appeal to me.  I am not a beach person. 

So anyway, no islands.  And not Mexico again.  I love Mexico, but I spent a lot of time there as a child, and I wanted to try something new. Realistically, that left Central America.  But where in Central America?  I spent Kinky Thanksgiving (exactly what it says on the label) listening to a friend regale me with details about the cloud rainforests of Costa Rica…. It sounded good! 

With a vague idea that I intended to leave in autumn 2014, I started researching some options.  As always, time away from the office was the primary obstacle.  No big deal – just yuppie problems.  So nowhere that I couldn’t get in under a half day of flying.  Costa Rica was still in the running… then I spent 5 minutes on Google.  Costa Ricans have every right to charge prime money from tourists – their country is amazing – but it would have blown a hole a mile wide into my carefully cultivated savings.

Frustrated, I dug deeper.  Was Costa Rica worth it? They touted some of the world’s best zip-lining, mountain climbing, horseback riding, white water rafting, bungee jumping… but those aren’t really my scene.  Besides, they kind of seem like a waste of money.  Yeah, great, you have a killer story about the time that you jumped down a canyon attached to a safety line…. Personally, I’m much more interested in finding out what formed the canyon in the first place than spending $50 to look at it very quickly, upside-down, screaming.

I’d still like to spend some time in the Cloud Rainforests, because the ecology looks amazing, but I’m thinking that’s something I can do if I ever scrape together the balls to live out my dream and drive the Pan-American Highway.  Instead, I started looking at the other Central American countries.

Guatemala stood out immediately.  Maybe it’s selfish of me to say, but I really loved the idea of visiting places where the Mayan and Colonial cultures had blended so thoroughly.  Guatemala promised an intoxicating blend of Euro Trash, local tradition, massive ruins, and global commerce.  They had everything I wanted, which – after giving it some thought – wasn’t all that much: an excellent bus network and pyramids.  My God, the pyramids.

I started planning like a fiend. You can’t really get the full measure of a city – never mind a whole country – in just 2 weeks, but I that was all the vacation time I had.  Needs must, it would seem.  In retrospect, I felt a bit like Cassandra though my planning phase.  I kept telling people – “come to Guatemala with me, it will be amazing!” and nobody ever believed me.  The most common reaction was “Why would you ever want to go to Guatemala?” with “Is this a volunteering thing?” in short succession.

Why the hell would anyone NOT want to go to Guatemala? What terrible thing has gone so wrong in their lives that they’ve given up on curiosity? The whole trip cost less than $1,000.  That’s less than most people spend on their annual cell phone plan! 

I’m sick to death of people telling me that they’d travel with me if it was a trip to someplace interesting, like Europe.  Not even a specific country, just Europe.  I’ll go back some day, when I have the luxury of cash or time (you need one of the two, but ideally both, to do it right), and I’ll drive from Munich to Prague; I’ll visit the acropolis; I’ll dance in Budapest; I’ll eat my weight in carbs in the north of Italy; I’ll see Austria and Switzerland and the fjords in Norway; I’ll return to Paris and London and Rome and Prague and I’ll do all the tourist spots without the slightest hint of irony. 

But in 2014, I wanted Central America, and Guatemala turned out to be the best decision I could possibly have made.