7 Items that All Backpackers Should Always Pack

7 Items that All Backpackers Should Always Pack

Hostel life can be easy and comfortable if you remember to pack beyond the basics. Although I try to keep my backpack as light and compact as possible, there are a few “extras” I always bring with me. 

Here’s my list of seven things that you shouldn’t leave home without, whether you’re backpacking for a week or a year.

Locks: This is essential for staying in dorm rooms.  Most provide lockers, but you are normally expected to bring your own lock.  I prefer using a combination lock so I don’t have to carry around a key, but sometimes the lockers won’t fit a regular combination lock, so my small padlock that I use to lock my suitcase comes in handy.  If you have room for the extra weight, a cable lock is a good tool for the solo traveler in case you need to momentarily leave your baggage unattended.  (Which I don’t recommend, but sometimes you may leave your bag in a bus agency office or something while waiting for a bus.  If you do this, always make sure all of the zippers are locked.

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Don’t Forget Me!: Important Tips to Prepare for an Extended Trip

Don’t Forget Me!: Important Tips to Prepare for an Extended Trip

Planning a long-term trip?  Amid all of the chaos of packing, finishing up at work, and saying goodbye to family and friends, there’s a lot to keep track of.  Outside of making reservations and printing off ticket confirmations, I have a few other less-obvious steps that you might easily forget.  Here are a few of the important things that I always do before any long-term trip.

1) Purchase Travel Insurance: We’re so busy focusing on all of the exciting aspects of our trip that we forget to prepare for the worst.  Nobody wants to think of a trip gone wrong, but our health is not always predictable.  The last thing you want is to be caught without insurance.  How many times have you read an article about someone who ended up getting injured abroad (likely in the States), and went into debt trying to pay for the medical bills?  I personally know a family who has been in that situation.  When I traveled to South America, I bought insurance through Travel Cuts, which had the best deal I could find.  It cost me around $700 (cancellation and baggage were included), but I used it several times.  It didn’t make up for the cost of the premiums, but I at least got a few hundred dollars back. Read more

“The Hills Are Alive”: Photos from Valparaiso and Viña del Mar, Chile

“The Hills Are Alive”: Photos from Valparaiso and Viña del Mar, Chile

Two twin cities on the coast of Chile, Valparaíso (affectionately known as “Valpo”) and Viña del Mar, make up one of the country’s star tourist attractions.  With a fantastic art and bohemian scene, Valpo is a hub for expats and backpackers, while palm-tree lined Viña del Mar exudes more of a high-rolling Miami vibe.  Both are walk-able cities that are worth at least a day of your time.

The best way to take in Valpo is to go for a long stroll through its many hilltop neighbourhoods.  You’ll find pockets of eye-catching street art hidden between the already-colourful buildings, and may end up spending an entire afternoon just wandering.  Make sure you finish the day off with an ice cream from my favourite place, Emporio Rosa! Read more

Money Matters for Travelers: Tips for Keeping your Funds Safe Abroad

One of the most important factors in any trip is the budget and finances. How you carry, organize, and spend your money will affect the length and outcome of your trip.  Here are twelve tips that should help keep you and your money safe and secure for the duration of your travels:

1.  Familiarize Yourself with the Currency in Advance: I crossed the border from Ecuador to Colombia late one evening, and immediately was faced with the problem of taking a taxi to a nearby town.  I wasn’t completely certain of the exchange rate from Colombian pesos to Canadian dollars, and the taxi driver had anticipated that, since I was just coming from Ecuador.  He tried to charge me ten times the amount that the ride should have been, arguing that the exchange rate was around 18 000 to 1, instead of 1800 to 1.  Luckily, I caught the trick before handing over the cash.  So make sure that you are confident in new exchange rates before you have to use them. Read more

“So Why Don’t You Have a Boyfriend?” — Reflections on Being a Single Traveler

“So Why Don’t You Have a Boyfriend?” — Reflections on Being a Single Traveler

“¿Por qúe no tienes novio?” 

It was always the most pressing question on the minds of the Mexican women I met.  Why don’t you have a boyfriend?

I had come to Guadalajara to visit my best friend, who in turn was there to visit her long-distance Mexican boyfriend.  Over the course of the month we spent there, we got to know the women at the bootcamp gym that we went to.  These ladies just couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me.

“You’re pretty and you speak Spanish.  So why are you alone?  Why can’t you find a Latin boyfriend too?”

Up until this point, my status as a solo/single traveler hadn’t bothered me.  I felt safe, confident, and adventurous on my own.  I was meeting new people, taking risks, and knocking items off my bucket list like they were bowling pins.

But as I practiced squats in front of the Real Housewives of Guadalajara, I couldn’t help but stop to wonder, why was I alone?

I compiled a list of possible reasons:

Being a single traveler, great or depressing?
Being a single traveler, great or depressing?

– Long Distance is on the out:  “Is there someone back home?”  That was always the next question.  The truth is, maybe there was.  Not back home, because I didn’t really have a home, and in the year leading up to my trip, I refused to get into anything.  I’d done long-distance enough in the past.  There was no way I’d tie myself into that during a 10-month trip.  But for the first four or five months of my trip, there was always that tiny part of me that considered what would happen if I left South America and flew elsewhere.  To a certain someone.  I never did.  Because if there’s one thing that life has taught me, it’s not to plan your life around something (or someone) that is uncertain.  Things can change in an instant, and you don’t want to sacrifice your goals only to face disappointment.

– Still Hung up on Him: “Are you suffering from a broken heart?” Along the complicated path of adolescence, I made a mistake.  I let someone go.  It’s not like he didn’t fight, but I pushed away with both hands.  By the time I realized my mistake, things were not the same.  I tried to make them be, but then it was my turn to feel hurt.  “It will take you until your trip to get over him,” my friends said.  They were right.  But, get over him, I did.  Finally.

– I Have a 2-Second Interest Rate and Too-high Standards: “Haven’t you met any nice Latin boys?”  Of course I had.  The thing about backpacking is that you meet at least ten new people every day.  When you’re a salsa-dancing backpacker, you meet a single, potentially good-looking Latino every single song you dance.  Multiple these together, and you’ll really understand the saying “There’s plenty of fish in the sea.”  Yet the problem was, rarely did I meet someone who could hold my attention for more than a day or two.  Maybe my standards are too high.  Or perhaps this was a sign that I wasn’t ready for anyone.

Maybe my heart was elsewhere?   (Photo credit: unknown?)
Maybe my heart was elsewhere?
(Photo credit: unknown?)

 The Trip Must go on: “But surely you’ve met someone.” I couldn’t pretend that, among all of those hundreds of guys I had met, there wasn’t anyone who meant something.  Yes, there were a couple of people with whom I really connected.  One or two instances in which I felt something.  That purported “spark.”  Yet the timing wasn’t right, or the person wasn’t right enough.  There was nobody who could make me take root and settle.

– I’m Having one of Those Eat, Pray, Love Years: I was the girl who was always dating someone.  I could never be alone.  After a few months of solo travel, I noticed that I had changed.  I was independent.  Too independent, perhaps.  Gentlemanly gestures that I had previously called sweet and thoughtful (guiding your elbow across the street, opening car doors, helping you do things) were getting on my nerves.  My new attitude was: don’t you think I can take care of myself?.  I truly had the sense that I was a new person after my cliché journey of self-discovery.

Or maybe I was single because I let myself go out dressed like this? ;)  (I'm not that fat.  I have seven layers of clothing on, I swear).
Or maybe I was single because I let myself go out looking like this? 😉 (I have seven layers of clothing on and an SLR camera shoved under this coat, I swear).

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was a combination of all of these factors that made me single.  Still, I couldn’t see why my workout companions in Guadalajara were so determined to set me up with a nice Mexican boy.  I was fine being alone, wasn’t I?

It took me months to understand that there were some cultural associations underlying these women’s worries.  I adore Mexico, and love (almost) all of the women I’ve met there.  They’re fantastic cooks, caring mothers, and model wives.  But that’s just it.  Much as the country is progressing, Mexico still hasn’t reached its peak of feminine liberalization.  You do see  a handful of powerful Mexican businesswomen and leaders, but most Mexican women are defined first and foremost by their roles as wives and mothers.  In their eyes, a relationship is not a side thought — it’s essential.  It helps them forge a life and a family for themselves.

Having grown up in Canadian culture, I feel that my primary responsibility is to myself.  Marriage and kids will come when the time is right, when I’ve formed my own identity and started a career.  Or maybe these things won’t come at all.

People always tell you that you can’t go looking for love.  Maybe you can, maybe you can’t.  I think when you start doing what you love, love will find you.

 

— On a final note, maybe I’m single because I spend all my time writing about my personal life and embarrassing myself with horrible photos online! 😉

Alone Abroad?  Don’t Stress!  — Seven Tips for Making Friends as a Solo Traveler

Alone Abroad? Don’t Stress! — Seven Tips for Making Friends as a Solo Traveler

In one of my recent posts, “Solo Female Travel — Safe or Just Plain Crazy?,” I addressed some of the common questions I get asked about female solo travel.  I wanted to set the record straight:  as long as you have some street smarts, you will have a wonderful time on your own, and will meet a lot of people eager to be your friend.

As a followup to that piece, I want to provide some basic tips on making friends for anyone who is planning to venture off on his or her own.  This post is not gender-specific, although I may later write something to discuss female safety while interacting with people abroad.

 On Meeting Other Travelers

1. Don’t Isolate Yourself: I’m a naturally shy person, and I’ve never been good at group situations.  I’m the one who sits in silence and takes everything in.  When I arrive at a new hostel, the group atmosphere often overwhelms me, and sometimes I want to just retreat to my room.  However, to make friends while traveling alone, it’s vital to muss up some courage and be a bit more extroverted.  I know that I can normally carry on a one-on-one conversation just fine, so I like to find the other solo travelers (usually identifiable by backs hunched over Iphones or laptops), and strike up a conversation.  If you’re a bit more daring, find a group of people and ask to sit down and join them.  You won’t regret it, and will likely even end up making some plans for the next day.

2. Downtime: Even though I just said that it’s important to be social, equally important is to give yourself time on your own.  In our daily lives at home, we’re accustomed to having some time each day to unwind and recharge.  This can be hard when you are staying in a crowded dorm room, and are constantly surrounded by people, but make sure you make a point each day of spending some time on your own, even if it’s just for half an hour.  Go for a walk, read a book, journal, or take a nap.

A lovely day in the park with Juan, a salsero I met in Montevideo, Uruguay

On Meeting Locals

3. Couchsurf: Perhaps the easiest way to meet locals while traveling.  Join couchsurfing.org, a social network that offers travelers free accommodation (normally a couch or spare bed) with locals worldwide.   However, don’t look at it as just a break for your budget — the fabulous thing about Couchsurfing is that it gives you an opportunity to meet people and immerse yourself in their cultures, foods, and lifestyles.  If you’re not comfortable spending the night with a stranger, you are also welcome to meet hosts for a coffee or a day out.  You can also search for people with similar interests as you, or look for events going on in your area.  I’ve had great experiences so far with this site!

4.  WWOOF: WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, and it is a website that connects organic farmers with travelers who are looking to offer their two hands and spare time in exchange for food and a place to stay.  This is one option that I haven’t tested out personally, but I have close friends who have, and who say that it was one of the best parts of their trips.  Whether you end up shearing sheep in Australia, picking apples in Spain, or stomping on grapes in Chile, WOOFing is sure to leave you with some great friends and memorable stories.

5. Find People With Similar Interests: One of the quickest ways to make a new friend is to bond over something you are both passionate about.  For me, that’s salsa dancing.  Every time I arrive in a new city, I use Facebook, Twitter, and Google to scope out the local salsa scene.  These link me to current salsa events, bars, and dance schools.  When I attend salsa events, I meet tons of new people, many of whom are eager to introduce me not only to their salsa life, but also their city and culture.  Be it photography, karate, yoga, or live music that tickles your fancy, you’re sure to create a network of new friends when you pursue your hobbies abroad.

6. Bring an Unlocked Phone: If you’re meeting locals while traveling, they are sure to ask for your contact information.  While you can try making plans over Facebook, it’s far easier if you have a local cellphone.  I travel with an unlocked cellphone (a basic one), which allows me to buy a new SIM card in every country where I plan to stay for a while.  You can normally unlock your phone in cellphone shops for around $20 USD.  SIM cards and pay-as-you-go credit vary in price from country to country, and I’ve paid anywhere from $4 USD, to $25 USD (Colombia and the Netherlands, respectively) for the card.  It’s a worthwhile investment if you plan on befriending locals, although a cellphone doesn’t have a lot of value if you are just socializing with other tourists.

With Carla, a Peruvian Couchsurfer who showed me around her hometown, Arequipa.

And… Most Importantly

7. Know Yourself: This is by far the most valuable advice I can give.  When you are traveling alone, you may find yourself eager for company, and you may end up hanging out with people with different interests that you may not normally be friends with.  While it is always good to push your boundaries and meet new and different people, don’t let this turn your vacation into one that you aren’t 100% happy with.  Know what kind of traveler you are, and honour that.  Are you a partier?  A sightseer?  A museum-goer?  An early-riser?  A night owl?  Make sure that you are meeting your travel needs before those of others.  As for me, I know that I am into history and dancing, so I make it a priority to include those types of activities into my day.  I may spend a few hours hanging out in a bar or sightseeing with new friends, but I will still go out salsa dancing at night as opposed to getting wasted at a club, even if it means that I go on my own.  By keeping your own interests in mind, you will be able to find a balance between being social, and traveling “your way.”

Argentina and Chile: More than Just Beaches and Palm Trees

Argentina and Chile: More than Just Beaches and Palm Trees

If any country has tested my five-shirt backpacking wardrobe, it’s been Argentina.  Over the past six weeks, Lauren (one of my best friends) and I spent a total of 117.5 hours in buses crossing Argentina and Chile.  Shivering in the pouring rain on top of a glacier near Antarctica, I had no choice but to shed my naive preconception that South America was a “tropical” continent and that it had been a good idea to leave my sweaters at home.

Although this trip-within-a-trip forced me to bulk up my wardrobe (I even bought a hat, and I’m anything but a hat person), the drastic changes in climate were accompanied by a myriad of scenery which brought us from cities, to mountains, to beach, to deserts, to waterfalls, and everything in between.

Over the next week, I will be posting photos and short reflections on the different stops on our trip, beginning with Buenos Aires, the city of tango, sophistication, and for us, salsa.