How to pack for backpacking Central America

From T-shirts to travel towels, torches to trousers, read on to find out how to pack for backpacking Central America and other tropical destinations.  We’ve got it covered …

Tips on how to pack for backpacking

  • Save space – and the hassle of trying to find an iron – by rolling your clothes instead of folding them
  • Remember you can launder. For a two-week trip you don’t need to take 14 T-shirts. Take a small travel hand wash or send clothes to the laundry for (the equivalent of) only a few dollars
  • Skip the white / best clothes if you’re going to a developing country – you can’t guarantee hot water will be on-tap to get your whites sparkly
  • A lightweight sarong can be used as a pretty scarf, a beach cover-up, or an improvised towel. Take one!
  • In some countries it’s best to save shorts for the beach; knee-length skirts or trousers work well elsewhere. Check your guidebook on clothing etiquette.

My trip backpacking in Nicaragua, Central America

Two months backpacking in Nicaragua, including two weeks in language school. Overall, this was a reasonably active trip.

I needed clothing suitable for hiking volcanoes and other outdoor activities, experiencing the rainforest in the south-east of the country, exploring the scorching hot cities, visiting the cooler highlands, and relaxing by the beach.

How to pack for backpacking Central America

lightweight clothing works well for those jungle endeavours!

My flights

Luggage limits are a consideration when considering how to pack for backpacking.

My flights were with Virgin Atlantic from London to Miami; then onward from Fort Lauderdale with budget airline Spirit to Nicaragua. I returned from Nicaragua to Miami with American Airlines.

Spirit is the strictest on luggage limits both in the cabin and in the hold (15kg is the cheapest hold luggage option and the one I opted for, you pay more if you want more). Details of the exact dimensions and weights of permitted luggage can be found on the airlines’ websites.

My packing list for backpacking Central America

How to pack for backpacking Central America

packing Armageddon!

After packing Armageddon had hit my bedroom floor, here’s what I packed for my trip to the tropics.

Clothes  bottoms

  • 1 pair jeans
  • 1 pair light long casual trousers for hiking that could be rolled up to 3/4 length
  • 1 pair cotton/linen light three-quarter length trousers – ideal for cities or hiking
  • 1 pair shorts (for the beach only)

Clothes – tops

  • 1 kagool – good for those tropical showers!
  • 2 light sweaters (serious error, 1 would’ve been enough)
  • 1 x long-sleeved T-shirt (ideal for the highlands, or for avoiding sunburn or mosquitoes)
  • 5 x short-sleeved T-shirts (1 of which got so engrained with dust I had to banish it)
How to pack for backpacking Central America

Lightweight trousers – check. Super versatile handbag – check. Top that hides the dirt – onto a winner!

Clothes – underwear

  • 3 bras
  • 8 pairs quick-dry underwear
  • 3 pairs hiking socks

Shoes and accessories

  • 1 pair hiking boots (closed-toed footwear is pretty much essential for hiking in countries that have tropical wildlife as well as tropical temperatures)
  • 1 pair flat sandals
  • 1 lightweight scarf
  • 1 sarong – you can also use sarongs as a cover-up/substitute beach towel
  • 1 woolly hat and 1 pair gloves – handy for the top of a blustery volcano!
  • 1 bikini
  • Microfibre travel towel

Books / guides

Electronics

  • 2 x UK/World adaptors
  • Apple Mac laptop and sleeve – for my writing, hopefully most readers won’t need to take a laptop!
  • Mobile phone
  • E-reader
  • Chargers for laptop, phone, E-reader
  • Camera with small tripod and spare battery

Toiletries and other girlie essentials

  • Toiletries – all in small bottles apart from the following:
    • Sun screen (available in Nicaragua, but it’s fairly expensive)
    • Contact lens solution (only available from opticians in Nicaragua, not pharmacies; and at a price)
    • Shower gel (not readily available in Nicaragua, though the choice of available soap will astound you when you run out!)
  • Tampons (not readily available in Nicaragua)
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Razor
  • First aid kit which included: antihistamines, plasters, antiseptic wipes, imodium, rehydration sachets, ibuprofen, tweezers, insect repellant with DEET
  • Make-up (SPF foundation, lipstick, eye liner, blush)
  • 2 beaded necklaces – a girl’s gotta accessorise!

Miscellaneous

  • Swiss army knife with essentials such as a corkscrew and miniature scissors
  • Head torch – developing countries don’t always have reliable electricity supplies. Plus there are caves to explore!
  • Small umbrella
  • Glasses
  • Sunglasses
  • Watch (my 8-year-old £50/$75 watch was VERY up-market by local standards and I wish I’d taken a $10 market cheapie)
  • Earplugs – essential for developing countries to avoid being woken up by chickens/pomping horns at 5am (or earlier!)
  • Paperwork – US ESTA, copy of travel insurance, spare copy of passport photo page and flight details

and not forgetting …

Postcards to show people where I live

How to pack for backpacking – luggage

How to pack for backpacking Central America

My rucksack just before returning home – there was room for a hammock 🙂

One 65l rucksack backpack, packed two-thirds full. If you’re anything like me you’ll need space to bring back a hammock 🙂

Day pack rucksack

Waterproof versatile handbag big enough to fit in my camera, guidebook, sun screen and money

Small purse/wallet with dollars in small bills (or relevant exchangeable currency), credit card, passport, travel insurance details and phone number, drivers licence

Dirty laundry bag

What else do I wish I’d packed in my backpack?

A zoom lens for my camera, and binoculars. I’d have loved to have viewed and captured Nicaragua’s prolific wildlife in more depth and scale. Next time … next time …

What are your best tips on how to pack for backpacking Central America? What do you wish you’d taken, or left behind?

How to visit volcanoes in Nicaragua without breaking (much of) a sweat

If you’re after large dose of volcano without an overdose of activity, here’s how to visit volcanoes in Nicaragua without breaking (too much of) a sweat.

If volcanoes are your world then Nicaragua is your oyster. Situated where the Caribbean and Cocos tectonic plates collide, the country is home to some 19 volcanoes, at least three of which have erupted since 2007!1

As a visitor, your volcano-ventures can come as with as much or as little adrenaline as you want, all with a side-order of stupendous photo opportunities.

Volcano-lite: Admire the volcanoes of Nicaragua from a distance

Grab a view point and admire those smoking summits from a distance. Top locations for spotting volcanoes in Nicaragua from a distance include:

The roof of León cathedral (entrance fee $3)

visit volcanoes in Nicaragua - view from Leon cathedral

It’s a volcano-tastic view from Leon cathedral

The ferry from San Jorge to the twin-volcanoed Volcán Concepción and Volcán Maderas island of Ometepe (ferry cost $2-3), or cycling / kayaking around Ometepe (kayak rental around $5 p/hr or $15 p/day)

The flight from Managua to San Carlos with La Costeña (around $75 one-way)

Stretch your legs at Volcán Masaya

You can drive right up to the crater of smoky Volcán Masaya; and hike a further 20 minutes or so in a couple of different directions (one of which is steep) to see the crater from above. Time it for sunset for some monster vistas.

visit volcanoes in Nicaragua - Volcan Masaya at sunset

Volcan Masaya at sunset. Oh yes.

Sunset’s also the time for checking out the lava-tube caves, home to thousands of bats.

visit volcanoes in Nicaragua - Volcan Masaya lava tubes

lava tubes at Volcan Masaya. Pretty cool.

Tours (around $15) combine sunset and caves for a spooky and smoky adventure.

Workout in the dark at Volcán Telica

The Telica sunset tour (around $25-40, depending on number of participants) features some hiking, a spectacular sunset and red-hot lava. It’s a popular choice from León.

Telica’s road access could be generously described as a 4WD dirt road. Expect bumps. Large bumps.

After the spine-shattering journey, you’ll be ready for an uphill jaunt. 45 minutes of up on the exposed (read: hot) trail brings you to the smoking crater, with views out to other volcanoes in Nicaragua that make up the Ring of Fire.

A further 20 minutes hike and you’re at a stupendous sunset view point, with the orange and red light of the setting sun filling the valley floor below to the brim.

Then it’s back up to the crater (another 20 minutes or so) to see the distant glowing lava in the crater below, before completing a torch procession back down the path in the dark.

More active adventures

For more active escapades involving volcanoes in Nicaragua, you can summit the 1,700 metre+ Volcán Concepción on the island of Ometepe, volcano board down the black ash of Cerro Negro, or trek the 1,300 metre+ peak of Volcán Mombacho.

Whether your desire is to conquer or to photograph, between Nicaragua’s 19 volcanoes, there’s sure to be one for you!

1. Source: Wikipedia.

Have you visited an active volcano? Where was it, and what made the experience memorable? Share your story below.

My top 9 travel tips for Nicaragua

Grab a cuppa coffee – or a fine batido (smoothie) – and read my top 9 travel tips for Nicaragua, an often-overlooked slice of Central America …

Nicaragua has a spirit you can feel. World-class wildlife and a growing eco-tourism movement combine with a cacophony of noise, and locals who aren’t afraid to talk politics. It makes for a destination with more fire and passion than the country’s plethora of volcanoes.

The environment – travel tips for Nicaragua

1. Wildlife: embrace the wild side

There’s a whole lot of wildlife going on in Nicaragua, making it a paradise for nature lovers and photographers. Monkeys, colourful parakeets and magpies with long blue tail feathers, bats, random trees with spikes, cacti, something that looks like a giant guinea pig whose name I haven’t learnt yet …

Stop and listen for a while when you’re out walking. The forest is a magical place, full of life. I saw a skunk in the wild there. Or at least I think it was a skunk – I wasn’t getting too close to check 🙂

And let’s not forget the landscape for all that wildlife. Volcanoes abound!

my 9 top travel tips for Nicaragua - Volcan Telica crater - volcano Nicaragua

Yup, that is the smoking crater of a volcano – this one’s Volcan Telica, near León.

Who knew Nicaragua was such a wildlife and nature haven? Which brings me onto number two …

2. Show the eco-tourism movement some love

With a growing eco-tourism movement comes a choice of eco-friendly places to stay. Think solar panels, composting toilets, recycling practices, and filtered water refills; all coupled with blissful vista’d locations.

my top 9 travel tips for Nicaragua - Esteli

Eco-friendly fincas boast views like this!

In many respects, Nicaragua seems to be going through an upsurge in environmental awareness (aside from an annoying habit of lazily-tossing rubbish from bus windows). Whether this is the result of improved education, opposition against the environmental and social impacts of the Nicaraguan Canal project, or something else entirely, who knows?

As visitors we can lead by example, and stay in some truly unique places at the same time.

3. Pack earplugs

Nicaragua is a country that gets up early. After a month, the best lie-in I’ve managed is 7.45am. It messes with my “not a morning person” sensibilities, but I’ve learnt to embrace it. Cockerels (roosters), buses pomping their horns, parrots, dogs … all will do their best to wake you up before 7am. I can’t emphasise this Nicaragua travel tip enough – take earplugs 🙂

9 travel tips for Nicaragua - mind the chickens

Chickens. They may well wake you up.

Getting around – Nicaragua travel tips

4. Buses – catch ‘em from where they originate

Many inter-city journeys in Nicaragua are only a couple of hours long, so don’t discount the good old chicken bus. They’re also very handy for days out.

The attendant will collect your fare, and – if you’re travelling from the buses’ originating point to its final destination – will fix your luggage to the roof rack.

My top tip – catch a bus at its origin point if you can – doubly true if you have luggage. That way you’ll get a seat.

Popular inter-city destinations are also served by minibuses, which will cost a little bit more (we’re talking about $0.50).

The pros: you’ll definitely get a seat, and they don’t stop at every lamppost.
The con: they don’t all have luggage racks so your rucksack may end up on your knees.

5. Get ready to share your taxi

Taxis in Nicaragua are collective, and will pick up and drop off passengers heading in (vaguely) the same direction en-route. Don’t let the prospect of getting into/sharing a cab with complete strangers freak you out, although local advice would suggest avoiding it in Managua. Journeys are very cheap (10-20 cordobas, or around $0.40-$0.80 per city journey).

[box type=”info”]I used the Lonely Planet Guide to Nicaragua for my two-month journey through this beautiful country. Help the site by buying the guide through this link, at no extra cost to you.[/box]

Food and drink – travel tips for Nicaragua

6. Eat the local food

OK, so you’re probably not visiting Nicaragua for the cuisine. But there’s some hearty local food to be enjoyed.

A “Nica” breakfast of gallo pinto (rice and beans mixed together), scrambled eggs, plantain and cheese is a top Nicaragua travel tip recommendation of mine, and makes a fine way to start the day.

You’ll find plenty of other typical local foods on offer, at a fraction of the price of more western cuisine: Roast chicken – goooooood. Fried plaintain crisps (chips) – gooooooood! Random sweet breads sold by ladies at bus stations – goooooood. Bags of unidentifiable fruit pieces served with a dash of chili, lime and salt – delish! Give the local food a go!

7. Get your smoothie on and/or relax in coffee heaven

You can always find a freshly squeezed fruit smoothie, known as a batido in Nicaragua.

You can get ‘em made with juice (jugo)/water, milk (leche), and sometimes with ice-cream (helado) too. In markets, street stands, juice bars, and on café and restaurant menus, fruity goodness is never too far away.

I now have a serious batido addiction.

Nicaragua is also home to some damn fine coffee. My best cup so far? At the Coffee Museum in Matagalpa, the northern highlands.

my top 9 travel tips for Nicaragua - drink the coffee

Selva Negra near Matagalpa is a working finca, complete with coffee plantations

Local people – Nicaragua travel tips

8. Learn some Spanish

Here’s a plea from the heart: For the love of God, learn some Spanish (the country has plenty of Spanish language schools such as La Mariposa, where I spent two weeks). English isn’t widely spoken, although some guides / accommodations will speak it.

Be warned though, slang is prevalent. Even the newspaper had words that confounded my dictionary. “Chele/chela” is used a lot to describe pale skin, of anyone or anything. I met a guy with a gorgeous white horse called La Chela.

In a nutshell, knowing at least some “tourist Spanish”, particularly if you’re travelling independently, is pretty much essential.

9. Say “hola”, have a chat and maybe even meet some former revolutionaries!

Being friendly costs nothing, and a quick “hola” can go a long way. For the most part, people are friendly, although solo female travellers may be on the receiving end of random declarations of love from men they haven’t even had a conversation with (I just ignored these).

my top 9 travel tips for Nicaragua - meet some revolutionaries!

These guys, in the Museum of the Revolution in Leon, are more than happy to talk politics!

A good natter isn’t hard to come by. People here are good conversationalists – they have opinions about politics, the Nicaraguan Canal project, different countries, and aren’t afraid to discuss them. You might even meet some former revolutionaries! This all helps to get under the skin of Nicaragua a little more, and to confound a few perceptions.

From the coffee-picker who had studied English via a correspondence course with the University of Birmingham in the UK, to the retired biologist expressing his views on Margaret Thatcher before picking me some fresh mandarins, just two more examples of how the spirit of Nicaragua is very much alive and kicking.

What would you add to these 9 travel tips for Nicaragua? Have you travelled there, or considered it?

Is Spanish language school worth it?

To try and communicate better with local people when travelling, I enrolled in two weeks of Spanish language school in Nicaragua. Was it worth the effort?

Seven years after first mastering enough Spanish to be able to order food, work out which bus I needed to be on, and make small talk about how cold it was in my country, I felt the time had come to step it up a gear.

Why? Because I wanted to be able to communicate better with local people when I travel.

Like in November 2013, when I’d wanted to explain Bonfire Night to my Guatemalan taxi driver. My best shot in Spanish: “we have large fires in every town!” Cue: confused look.

I’ve tried to practice. A bit. Meetup groups have been a boon, as have my trusted teach-myself Michel Thomas CDs. In all honesty though, I’ve previously shied away from classroom learning – the prospect reminded me of my school days, where I had:

  • a very competent but incredibly narcissistic French teacher (I quit French);
  • an extremely good and personable German teacher who was unfortunately bound by the not-updated-since-the-1960s Cold War-era National Curriculum of late 1980s Britain. Consequently we learnt a lot of vocab about moon landings. And the German for “three stage rocket.” Not helpful.

And so to Spanish language school in Nicaragua …

And so it was with some trepidation I booked two weeks of Spanish language school in Nicaragua, at the La Mariposa school. My mission:

  • Firstly, to learn more words. “Fireworks” would be a good start.
  • Second, to be able to use a better version of the past tense. After all, “I visited” sounds soooooo much more natural than, “I have visited”. Verdad?
La Mariposa Spanish language school in Nicaragua

Mariposa = butterfly 🙂

My first Spanish language school class

It was grammar. Eek.

The thought of reciting verbs, parrot fashion, filled me with dread.

However, as I was seated in a garden full of actual parrots, I was in good company. Maybe they could help me?

parrots in the garden of La Mariposa Spanish language school Nicaragua

Could this guy help me with my Spanish verbs?

In the first lesson, we whizzed through a present tense recap, and I learnt some more irregular verbs. Who knew there were so many?

Next up, it was conversation.

In my first conversation class, we went for a walk. Learning the words for what we saw along the way. Trees, runners, birds. Nicaragua has a lot of birds. All good.

Types of Spanish language school lessons

Lessons didn’t follow a set script. My tuition was one-on-one (which was the norm in my Nicaraguan Spanish language school), so the teachers could adapt best to the students’ needs and learning styles. As a “learn by doing” type, that suited me down to the ground.

And so, over the course of the next two weeks, I:

  • played Scrabble in Spanish (I think I was cheated by a complete lack of vowels);

    library at La Mariposa Spanish language school Nicaragua

    For all my children’s books needs – the library at my Spanish language school

  • read children’s books, which were surprisingly brilliant for learning new – and sometimes surreal – vocabulary. “Bruja” is “witch.” Just in case you need it …
  • learnt commonly used phrases. I enjoyed reciprocating here; my teacher now knows how to say, “it’s raining cats and dogs”;
  • discovered I have the potential to be witty in another language. Either that or my teachers were just being polite when they laughed.

It was also surprisingly helpful to have teachers who didn’t speak English. I HAD to learn, one way or another!

The learning environment

I didn’t feel cooped up in a classroom.

is Spanish language school worth it?

Classes outdoors suited me down to the ground.

In the gardens that were the school’s classrooms I finally got to grips with the past tense in a non-scary way, and was able to say I’d “seen the bird”, “visited the volcano”, “bought something at the market”. Yay!

That’s not to say my head wasn’t fried at the end of each morning’s lessons, though. Four hours of learning a day was quite enough. Plus homework. Which I actually quite enjoyed doing – I could FEEL the progress.

Was Spanish language school worth it?

Yes, absolutely. For an investment of a few hundred dollars for one-on-one tuition, attending Spanish language school in Nicaragua was definitely “vale la pena” (worth the effort).

My newly improved language skills are now being unleashed on the good people of Nicaragua, as I travel around this beguiling country.

My vocab is slowly improving, and – after a week of confusing my past tense grammar types, I finally had a lightbulb moment and it all made sense. Now, if only I knew the word for lightbulb

[box type=”info”]I went to Spanish language school in Nicaragua, a country I’d highly recommend. I used the Lonely Planet Guide to Nicaragua for my trip. Help the site by buying the guide through this link, at no extra cost to you.[/box]

What have you found to be the best / most achievable ways of improving your language skills? Would you consider going to a language school?

Hopes and fears for long-term travel: Miami, Nicaragua and Colombia

[quote]“I must be more nervous about this trip than I thought.”[/quote]

That’s what’s going through my mind at 3am this morning. I’m wide awake, random thoughts churning through my head. I only do this when I’m worried about something. Normally me and sleep are very happy bedtime buddies.

Tomorrow I travel to Miami, the start of a two-month journey that will also see me take in the Florida Keys (albeit briefly, as I’m on a budget), Nicaragua, and Colombia.

Hopes and fears for long-term travel: Miami, Nicaragua and Colombia

Why wouldn’t this be anything other than exciting? Seriously?

I should be super-excited.

I am.

But I’m also a little bit freaked out. I must be. I resorted to checking my phone for text messages. At 3am. Cos obviously someone’s gonna be texting me at that time!

On the grand scheme of things my fears are pretty minor. I know this, as I couldn’t pin point any one of them in my sleep-deprived state.

My fears for long-term travel

I won’t be able to find (enough) work when I return in early March. This one’s probably at the core, no matter how many times I myself have sat opposite friends over a coffee/glass of wine and reassured them about their own job/work searches. For all the usual reasons – they’ve got the right attitude, connections, willingness to work, skills, experience. Ditto for me. I need to have a word with myself on this one. I have a plan, but that’s one for a blog post in a couple of months’ time!

It’ll be weird travelling alone for so long. The last multi-month trip I did was with my ex, back in 2007. No matter that since I’ve travelled alone to places like Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Nepal, Guatemala and had a month-long trip in South-Eastern Europe too. Something inside me is saying “eeeeeeeeeeek”. That little mouse needs to be quiet. Or to be eaten by a cat. Sometimes it would just be nice to have a familiar friendly face around, that’s all I’m saying. I’m gonna miss my friends!

That every worse case scenario detailed on the travel advisory of the UK foreign office website is going to happen to me, and I’ll get expressed kidnapped in Colombia. Maybe I shouldn’t have read the travel advisories two days before travelling? The Colombia advisory was – how can I put it – gritty. Then I took a deep breath and reminded myself to get a grip, as I have no intention of going to any of the “gritty” places mentioned. I did, however, find myself reading a story about the latest FARC peace negotiations on the BBC website at 2am. In Spanish. I was – as we say in Yorkshire – “well chuffed” I got the gist of most of it, so every cloud has a silver lining!

This reminds me of the core of who I am – an eternal optimist. The girl who sees the glass half full rather than half empty. And if it’s not half full, godamn it, I’ll go and buy myself another one so it is!

My hopes for long-term travel

Finally improving my Spanish. Yay! This has been a biiiiig objective of mine over the last 6 months or so. I’m biting the bullet and moving from practice (which I’ve been doing in recent months) to improvement. Two weeks in Spanish language school in Nicaragua are booked, and I can’t wait.

Interacting with local people. Hopefully more easily with my improved Spanish. I find this a major advantage of travelling alone; it makes for far more opportunities to interact with local people. Even if it’s only ‘cos there’s no-one else to ask about your chicken bus connection for you!

Hopes and fears for long-term travel: Miami, Nicaragua and Colombia

Which bus? If you’re on your own, you need to do the asking. This pic’s from Antigua, Guatemala.

Hopes and fears for long-term travel: Miami, Nicaragua and Colombia

postcards help me interact with local people

I like to take postcards of my home city of York with me when I travel, so I can show local people where I live. Talking with local people and their hopes and dreams makes me feel very humble. I’ve met drivers / farmers who are studying English at night school, and tuk tuk riders who are studying accountancy. People seem to seek out and grasp opportunity at every turn. It makes me sad that so many in our home (far wealthier) countries don’t have the same incredible attitude.

Good coffee. I was in java heaven in Guatemala when I visited in November 2013, and I’m sure I will be in Nicaragua and Colombia too. A trip to a coffee plantation or two will definitely be in order.

Volcanoes. I’m going to climb a volcano. Technically I climbed one in Guatemala last year, but it was so cloudy I could barely see my hand in front of my face, so quite frankly I could’ve been anywhere. Nicaragua’s volcanoes are out there, and I’ll be conquering (at least) one of ‘em.

Sun, sun, sun. As anyone who knows me knows, I am not a fan of cold weather. And the UK at the moment? It’s cold (not in an Arctic sense, in a Julie sense). I like to feel the warmth. Me and my factor 30 sunscreen say, “bring it on!”

Overcoming my long-term travel fears

Those around me may see me as confident, but we all have fears. I know that by facing some of mine, I’ll gain far more: in memories, moments, the people I meet, the things I’ll learn, the places I’ll experience, the journeys I’ll take. Knowing this helps me cast off those niggling doubts and strap on my backpack.

Miami, Nicaragua, Colombia? I’m coming at ya!

What are your hopes and fears when you travel? What helps you overcome your fears? I’d love to hear your tips!