I turned 28 two weeks ago. Another year wiser, right? Maybe, but to be completely honest, I might have slightly regressed in my adulthood this year. I think it’s a good sign. I’m much happier with myself and my life now than when I was twiddling my thumbs behind a desk in New York two years ago. I’m actually much happier with myself now than the me from 8 months ago, before I started this trip in Latin America. I don’t take myself too seriously and I’ve had one of the most memorable years of my life, especially since I started traveling through Latin America almost 8 months ago. I’ve learned a lot of lessons this year, some the hard way, some with memorable stories behind them.
1. It’s never too late to learn a language.
I moved to Spain almost two years ago with a very basic handle over the Spanish language from what I’d learned in middle school, high school, and college. My Spanish still wasn’t great after living in Madrid for a year, but it really kicked into gear when I started traveling through Latin America and had to speak Spanish to traverse the continent. 8 months later, I can happily say that I speak Spanish, though not fluent – yet! It really is never too late to learn a language. As long as people still speak it, you can learn it. Being able to converse with a local in their native tongue is such a great feeling.
2. No matter how much time you have, you can’t do it all.
There’s always going to be something that you’ll miss out on. No amount of time feels like enough time, and more often than not you’ll be left feeling like you should have gone somewhere that you didn’t. I missed out on a few places that I wish I went to in Colombia, but if I had, it would have taken me longer to travel through Ecuador and I might have missed the opportunity to fly to southern Peru to reunite with and travel with one of my favorite humans whom I met on this trip. Now that’s a trade-off I’m willing to live with.
3. Saying goodbye never gets easier.
After awhile, saying goodbye can start to feel routine…until it’s not. I’ve had days when I was downright fed up with saying goodbye. I still feel that the “hellos” are worth the “goodbyes”, but the “goodbyes” still hurt nonetheless, no matter how long you’ve been traveling.
4. Life is too short to travel with people who don’t make you happy.
Maybe this is an obvious one, but it’s still a mistake I’ve made. I probably should have known when to branch off when the dynamic wasn’t working with travel partners. I’m still grateful for the memories I have with past travel partners, but I also see how we both probably could have enjoyed those parts of our trip much more if we were on our own. Hindsight is 20/20, but I won’t be putting myself through this unnecessary hassle again.
5. Life is also too short not to tell people that you care about them.
Time is of the essence when you’re traveling. Make the most of the limited time you have with the people who turn your world upside down and make you the happiest. When it does come time to part ways, why waste another moment not letting that person know exactly how lovely they are? You may never get another chance to do it face-to-face again.
6. Get up early for the sunrise, watch the sunset, and wish upon shooting stars.
The first moment the sun shows its face and the last moment before it goes to sleep are the most beautiful parts of the day for me. I’ve seen some incredible sunrises and sunsets in Central America and never regret waking up early or rushing to find the perfect spot to enjoy the last sun of the day. I saw my first shooting stars EVER on this trip in Nicaragua and still get as excited as I did the first time when I see one. Shooting stars might really be meteoroids hitting the Earth’s atmosphere, but to me, they’re magic. I wish upon them every time.
7. The most difficult obstacles give way to the most beautiful rewards.
I just recently went on my first solo trek for five days in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile. I thought hiking Volcán Acatenango was tough, but I was really put to the test on this trek as I carried everything I needed to trek and camp on my back and completely took care of myself. Fending for myself turned out better than I thought it would. (Story to come soon, but trust me, it was worth it!)
8. Sometimes long-term travel sucks, but wait it out.
I experienced a few bumps and bruises during the first two months in Central America, which I wasn’t afraid to rant about. It probably was exacerbated by the awkwardness of traveling with someone who probably wasn’t the right travel partner for me, but things got significantly better as I continued on solo and met some amazing people in beautiful places.
9. But if it’s starting to feel like a hassle, it’s time to go home.
On more than one occasion I felt a bit too frustrated with travel. It mostly had to do with saying goodbye when I didn’t want to not wanting to start over anew again with new people – though I really do love meeting new people. I realized then that I had to regroup and seriously think about what I wanted to achieve during this trip. Not everyone is lucky enough to have 3, 6, or 9 months to just travel. If it was going to become a chore for me, I knew I’d be doing a disservice to anyone who was wishing they had any amount of time to go on a trip. Once I had this reality check, I really started to feel grateful for every single “tomorrow” that I have on this trip.
10. Do “the thing you’re supposed to do in the place you’re supposed to do it”.
Kristin Newman knows what she’s talking about. In her book, What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding: A Memoir, Kristin writes about her travels which consist of a bunch of hilarious love stories and her experiences doing “the thing you’re supposed to do in the place you’re supposed to do it”. She’s right: go surfing in San Juan del Sur. Don’t just tour Pablo Escobar’s mansion, play paintball in Pablo Escobar’s mansion! Go on a five-day trek in Torres del Paine even though you’re not a great hiker and think you might complain the entire time (but end up not complaining at all!). Go mountain biking down the “World’s Most Dangerous Road” in Bolivia. Go on the “Swing at the End of the World” in Baños. Drink the wine and eat the steak in Argentina. All of it. Do. It. All.
I was having a frustrating and somewhat rough day in Mendoza, Argentina a few weeks ago. I forced a smile when I approached the cashier and although I spoke to him in Spanish, he was really excited to have an opportunity to speak English. We chatted for a few minutes, and the entire time he smiled brightly. His smile was contagious and his friendliness really warmed me up on a day when I was not at my best. He really made my day. Now if I can do that for another person, I will. So I try to smile as often as possible.
12. Being self conscious is pointless.
I can’t remember the last time I wore makeup and I wear the same clothes all the time. The thing I love most about traveling is that I am completely myself; what you see is what you get. The most beautiful love stories I have to tell come from chance first encounters in which I am makeup-less with my hair in a braid so that it looks less frizzy and/or dirty. Back in New York, maybe I’d say that this is me at my worst. Now, I think it’s kind of special that these people saw me for who I really am. And regardless, we are traveling! Who really cares if the humidity has made your hair insanely curly and you’re wearing the same cutoff t-shirt and jean shorts for the past two days? Answer: no one.
13. Don’t overpack!
I’ve learned this one the hard way. It is so not worth it to pack too much and carry around a heavy backpack for a long trip. This goes with #12: it doesn’t really matter if you cycle through the same clothes all the time, no one cares!
14. Push yourself to do something you’ve never done before.
Volcano boarding in León, Nicaragua, sand boarding in Huacachina, Peru – any type of “boarding” is new for me, really. But seriously, it’s likely that there are some amazing things out there in the world that you’ve never experienced before. There’s no better time to experience a “first” than when you’re traveling. I’ve had more “firsts” in Latin America than I ever imagined.
15. Be open to meeting new people.
Broadening your horizons is what traveling is really all about. It’s fun to meet other Americans, but I certainly don’t seek them out. I love when weeks go by and I’m constantly surrounded by people from other cultures and countries. I especially love when I can connect with locals, which can be hard to come by when bouncing around in hostels. There’s nothing better than having a bunch of new friends you can visit all over the globe.
16. Enjoy a meal alone, at least once.
I love dining alone, and it doesn’t even happen that often. I usually have to go out of my way to dine alone. Maybe it’s “pack mentality” or something, but if one person wants to eat, there’s usually at least one or two others wanting to join. I really enjoy eating by myself in restaurants with a good book and glass of wine or even just people watching as I eat. I often find it makes the wait staff more uncomfortable than it makes me that I’m eating by myself and often I’m asked if I’m okay or not. Honestly, there’s nothing embarrassing about dining alone. We all have to eat. It’s completely OK if there’s no one sitting in the chair across from you.
17. Learn the art of selective attention/ignoring.
Sure, I enjoy talking to locals and getting to know new people, but I do not enjoy the negative attention that sometimes comes with traveling as a female. I’ve honed the art of ignoring and looking completely past the awkward catcalling and advances from men. Luckily, this really only happened to me and Stephanie when we were in northern Argentina, but we learned to look past the locals who whistled, started walking next to us, and actually got in our faces and stopped us in our tracks. As annoying as the whistling and unwanted advances are, I’ve figured out it’s just better to completely ignore than to react and let the other person know they’re getting a rise out of you.
18. Those bites are bed bug bites. There’s no point in self-denial.
Speaking from experience – in fact, experience that’s happening right now – if you think it’s a bed bug bite, it probably is a bed bug bite. In Latin America I’ve had bed bugs issues in San Marcos (Guatemala), Cartagena (Colombia), Lima (Peru), and now Punta Arenas (Chile). I’m almost certain I’m forgetting some location in that list. It’s unfortunately a given that if someone is going to get bed bugs in a dorm, it’s going to be me. I think I have sweet blood. If you feel the bites, notify the hostel and either change rooms or change hostels entirely. Don’t deny it; it will only cause more bites.
19. Take the plunge.
Buy a plane ticket to see that person you really miss, even if it throws your original travel plans out of order. Regardless of the financial cost, it will always be worth it. Just trust me.
20. Travel friends are some of the best friends to have.
I’m well aware of how lucky I am that I have a best friend with whom conversations are like this:
Stephanie in Mexico City: “Hey, where are you going to be next week?”
Me: “La Paz! Why, what’s up?”
Stephanie: “Awesome, see ya Wednesday then!”
Say what? Some of my closest friends and the sweethearts I hold closest to my heart are those I met traveling. You will always have those memories of the things you did in the place you’re supposed to do it (see #10), and that’s a beautiful thing. More often than not, you’ll end your trip with friends for life.
21. Everywhere and nowhere can feel like home.
I’m definitely a believer in the concept of “home” being more of a feeling than a place. When you’re in a new place every few days, it can be difficult to feel completely comfortable or at home. Conversely, if you’re adaptable and easily fall in love with new places, everywhere can feel like home. I’ve experienced both of these feelings at various times on my trip. Sometimes “home” for me can be nowhere, in a specific place I fall in love with, or absolutely anywhere with someone I care about.
22. Learning how to fall asleep just about anywhere is a skill you must acquire.
I can conk out on freezing cold bumpy buses, hostel sofas while waiting to check in, scary minibus rides that are swerving back and forth hugging the curves of mountains, airplanes, you name it. I’m especially proud of this skill because I used to have a hard time sleeping, especially while on long bus rides. Maybe it’s because long-term travel is tiring, but it’s so great to be able to fall asleep almost instantly whenever I want to.
23. Unplugging at least once on a trip is necessary.
Trekking for five days in Torres del Paine National Park wasn’t just a physical challenge, it was also an opportunity escape from the outside world. Unplugging and not having access to the external influences that occupy all of our time was such an amazing break for my mind. I had a lot of time to think and reflect on my trip and my life without constantly checking my phone for text messages, worrying about posting on my blog, or thinking about the million other things that distract us every day. Sure, I didn’t have a choice because there was no cell service in Torres del Paine, but five days of blissful peace and quiet made me realize that unplugging is necessary once in awhile. I am definitely going to make it a priority to take a time out from my phone and the Internet more often now.
24. Do your research when it comes to visa requirements and border crossings.
This sounds obvious, but things can get pretty confusing when making land border crossings. I’ve had a few hiccups with getting my visa at the border in Bolivia and with convincing the bus company in Chile that I didn’t need a visa for Argentina. Save yourself the hassle and make sure you’ve got all of your paperwork ready ahead of time if you need it, including proof of onward travel when entering countries like Costa Rica and Panama.
25. The concept of personal space: throw that out the window.
I’ve had to share seats on local buses (North American school buses) with 4-5 locals in Guatemala, slept in cramped dorm rooms, allowed perfect strangers to rest their head on my shoulder when they accidentally fell asleep on me, and had to stand in a small colectivo with my head pressed up against the roof carrying most passengers than what is probably legal in Mexico. It’s one of those facts of life: personal space just doesn’t really exist when backpacking, but throwing yourself outside of your comfort zone is also one of the most fun (and funny) things about travel.
26. When traveling, you’ll learn more about your body than you ever wished to know.
This sounds weird and gross, but it’s true and inevitable. For example, I have never been more acutely aware of my scent or how much I really can sweat in the heat and humidity of Central America. I had to get a new daypack because my first one smelled from sweating while wearing it! TMI? Maybe. Truth? Yes. My body has definitely changed over the course of the past 8 months. My hair much curlier and not as soft because I decided not to bother with buying hair conditioner for the past few months (I regret this) and I have some aches and pains that didn’t used to exist, but at least I have some funny stories to tell about them!
27. Make the most of every single day.
This probably aligns with a lot of these pieces of advice, but it’s important. It’s really easy to take travel for granted on a long-term trip. There are definitely days to relax, blog, or do something mind numbing like catch up on Netflix, but don’t forget where you are. This is why I haven’t written as many blog posts on this trip as I would have liked. It’s more worth it to me to take a step outside and remind myself that I am not going to be traveling this beautiful world forever and I should be seizing the day, not missing out on it.
28. Get swept off your feet. Let something (or someone) take your breath away.
There is no better feeling than butterflies in your belly and a racing heart when you realize there is precisely nowhere else you’d rather be at that exact moment, maybe with that exact person. You smile so wide that your cheeks hurt and you’re squinting hard in order to keep the tears away, even if they’re happy tears. Get swept away. It’s the best kind of “lost” to be.