Central America is a popular route for foreign backpackers because it is beautiful, cheap, and, since it is about 34 times smaller than South America (I did math!!!!), you can cover way more countries in a short period of time. Why do you think I’ve spent so much time there myself? It allows me to feel like I’ve visited a lot of countries, numerically speaking, and am thus very well-traveled–well, at least until I plot the places I’ve been on an actual map of the world, and I’m reminded of relative tininess of the area, as well as the overall insignificance of my life in the greater context of the universe and mankind.
If backpackers are really determined, you’ll find them coming all the way from Mexico or Guatemala with the goal of reaching Panama. You’ll find other ones who prefer to stay around the gringo focal point of Costa Rica, with some occasional exploration into Panama or Nicaragua. Regardless of route or destination though, there are a few characters that you’re nearly guaranteed to see.
1. Bumbling Group of 10+ Study Abroad Students.
Identifying characteristics: Loud laughter covering up for deep insecurities and poor language skills. Reminiscent of obnoxious teenagers being loud on a train or bus in an American metropolis. There is a 50/50 chance that they may be drunk. They appear to be having more fun than you but in reality have no idea what’s going on. At least one of them will get robbed at some point. Probably soon. Distance yourself ASAP.
Where you’ll find them: Costa Rica, mostly.
If you check out their Facebook: You’ll find an album entitled “PuRa ViDa 2014” that is composed of: 12% pictures of them holding their baby host brother; 14% pictures of program-sponsored Cultural Excursions to Monteverde; 6% pictures of gallo pinto; and 68% pictures of them drinking on a beach or in a jungle eco-lodge. 43% of comments and likes are from their mothers.
Full disclosure: I wholly admit that I studied abroad in Costa Rica and was party [see what I did there] to 100% of these things. Why do you think I know them so well?
2. The Intense Hikers Who Thought They Were Going To Machu Picchu Or Something??
Okay, Costa Rica does boast Mount Chirripó, which is the 38th highest peak in the world and requires a semi-intense three-day trek to scale. All the countries in the region (except for Honduras) have a few volcanoes that are simply lovely. In reality, you could quite feasibly explore most of those in sneakers (I have), but the Intense Hiker’s got something to prove.
Identifying characteristic: Before leaving, they spent minimally $500 on high altitude rain gear from Patagonia, presumably under the mistaken assumption that they were actually going to the Patagonia. Their waterproof mid-calf hiking boots are guaranteed up to negative 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and they splurged on the $40 heavy duty wool socks from REI because, well, you simply can’t disrespect those kind of boots with cotton socks.
Where you’ll find them: Mostly Costa Rica as well, which can only be excused if they are actually climbing Chirripó, but you will still find a few poor souls trekking around Guatemala like this and suffering from moderate to extreme heat exhaustion. My favorite is the rare spotting of Intense Hikers on the tropical island/scuba diving hotspot of Roatán in Honduras.
If you email them: You’ll get an “out of office” message with a poorly veiled humblebrag about how they are “currently out of the country in a remote jungle area where the Internet has not yet reached this barren corner of civilization. I’ll respond to your email as soon as I finish bartering for dried fish with the natives and applying tree sap to my own wounds.” Intentionally implied message: “I am a fearless badass”. Unintentionally implied message: “I crave recognition of my accomplishments because I can never be good enough for my father.”
What they’re missing: Geographically speaking, Central America is just not that intense compared with the rest of the world. Sure, 70 percent of Honduras is actually considered mountainous, but they are the kind of green, gently rolling mountains that inspire feelings of peaceful calm and the sudden intense desire for a hammock. They don’t make you wish you had brought your crampons and belay rope. If mountains were people, the mountains of Central America would be grandparents taking in the breeze in their rocking chair on the porch.
Also. Dude. It’s hot as HELL here. Put on some flip flops and a cotton t-shirt and have a damn beer. It’s not that serious.
3. The Eat-Pray-Lover
Identifying characteristics: Long maxi skirts with “tribal” patterns combined with Birkenstocks and a nose ring. Almost always has at least one tattoo of the following: a dreamcatcher, a five-fingered Hamsa symbol, or a vaguely inspirational phrase in a different language (usually one with non-Roman characters, they’re more profound). No, the Eat-Pray-Lover doesn’t belong to any of the ethnic or religious groups that utilize these symbols; they saw the design on an Urban Outfitters shirt and it just, like, really spoke to them. The Eat-Pray-Lover is often emitting a moderate to strong scent of body odor, on account of getting back in touch with nature or whatever (actual reason: drunkenly left deodorant in the last hostel and is prioritizing beer money over personal hygiene products. Mom refuses to send more money). Bonus points if they’re a white person with dreadlocks.
Where you’ll find them: Antigua, Guatemala; Roatán, Honduras; San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua; Montezuma, Costa Rica (aka MonteFuma); Bocas del Toro, Panamá.
Their M.O.: “I really just, like, wanted to go there because, like, it’s like, third world people are like, super poor or whatever, but I, like, really think that they are happier, I mean, like, sometimes I feel sad because I like, want to go shopping or whatever but, like, I know that would be, like, super irresponsible of me because I spent like soooo much money at the bar this weekend lol, but yeah like I feel like I can totally identify with like, poor people, so I just wanted to go, like, be part of their culture, you know?”
In reality: “Locals”, just like basically ANYONE EVER, are not really interested in being friends with self-absorbed children with poor language skills, so the Eat-Pray-Lovers mostly just stick to all-inclusive boat tours and party in hostels with blonde German dudes. “Your pecs are, like, crazyyyy! So can we, like, smoke weed here?”
If you check their Instagram: #lovingthisjourney #findingmyself #gettinginspired #shwastedlol #latergram #hostelparty #newfriends #jennatotallymadeoutwiththatguy #tequilaniiiiiggghtssssss #lovemygirls #nevercominghome #yoga #meditation #findinginnerpeace #drankssssss #shotsshotsshotssss #lmao
4. That Guy Who Has Been at the Hostel for, Like, Ever and No One Really Knows How or Why
Not much information is available about this guy, because no one really knows his story. He is unexceptional in most ways–not quite good looking but certainly not bad looking–and could definitely be described as “nice”. When you hear him speak, his Spanish is mediocre, but it’s enough to buy weed and be friendly. He has the best bunk in the dorm, so you know he claimed that a while ago. But he doesn’t seem to DO anything! How does he afford to stay here so long?? Does he sell weed? Is he a secret millionaire? A trust fund kid who could not think of a better way to fritter away his grandparents’ hard-earned post-war savings than to get high for months on end in a low-range hostel in Nicaragua with questionable sanitation?? He is a complete enigma! …Except no one’s all that interested in decoding him.
Internet presence: None. He’s far too apathetic to stay connected. He might have a Kindle, though. He finished all the books at the hostel months ago.
Where you’ll find him: Any fairly established hostel with at least one shared dorm.
5. Beautiful Scandinavians (and other multilingual Europeans).
I also don’t have as much to say here besides that Swedish girls are unfairly pretty and Europeans are way better at languages than Americans. It is fascinating to hear Spanish spoken with a German accent, and even though it’s probably their third or fourth language (or fifth or sixth), they still speak it better than most Americans struggling with 1.5 languages. Hell, some days I can’t even speak English good. Europeans, you inspire me.
If you look at their Facebook: I won’t understand anything because I’m from
America ‘Mur’ca and we don’t prioritize language education here 😦
6. The “Shoulda Gone to Cancun” Spring Breaker
Identifying characteristics: The Spring Breaker can be male or female, and they typically come in small groups. They were feeling only slightly more adventurous than their peers who opted to go to Cancun for their 8-day break, but in reality this just means they wanted to pay less for hostels. They are still looking to drink the same amount of shitty tequila and are still going to be disappointed that they can’t find a Señor Frog’s. The bros are wearing brightly patterned swim trunks and the chicks are wearing bikinis 84 percent of the time, even in circumstances where this is completely inappropriate. As compared to the study abroad students, who respectably only get drunk after 3pm, these Spring Breakers start drinking at 9am and don’t stop until the entire hostel is wondering what asshole puked on the dorm floor and the hostel employees are silently damning everyone there.
If you check out their Twitter: Surprisingly few gaps in their timeline because they only venture to the kinds of places that have wifi, so the tweets will be pretty constant and fully descriptive of their experience. They will mostly be filled with inside jokes with their Spring Breaker peers (you’ll find them tweeting at each other while sitting next to each other). 42 percent of their Tweets will utilize the word “cray cray”. The Tweets will stop abruptly when they get their iPhone stolen out of the back pocket of their plaid American Eagle shorts.
7. The Worldly South American
Identifying Characteristics: May be traveling by motorcycle, like a sexy, less radical Che Guevara. Most likely has a deliciously scruffy beard, somewhere between “GQ model” and “homeless man”. Nearly always carrying his guitar on his back, except for when he is sitting on the beach playing it softly into the sunset. The guitar’s name is Lola. The Worldly South American has given up a noble career in medicine, law, or business, bravely defying his family’s plans for him, because he knows that el mundo es como un libro abierto, quien no viaja sólo lee una página. He can flirt effectively in Spanish, English, and French.
Where you’ll find him: You’ll find him in considerably more unique places than other foreigners, since his easygoing smile, friendly disposition, and cultural skills allow him to make friends just about anywhere. From helping pick coffee in the damp highlands of northwestern Nicaragua, to landing a short gig on a fishing boat off the north coast of Honduras, to stints as a tour guide of a Guatemalan volcano, you can nearly guarantee the Worldly South American is having a more interesting trip than you.
If you hit him up on WhatsApp: He has an international cell plan so he will definitely respond eventually, but he may take a few days to get back to you since he just left to head up a sailing expedition from San Blas to Cartagena.