Luke Armstrong | Feb 15, 2023
First let's define what is meant by "Backpacker."
Back in my youthful frog jarring days, I would go "backpacking" with my boy scout troop. We'd pack a sleeping bag, a tent, some pocket knives—firecrackers if we were rule breakers—enough food for a couple days, and then we'd hike 8 hours into a state park, set up camp for the night, and the next morning hike back from whence we came. In this article, this is not what is meant by “backpacker.”
In the travel circuit, a backpacker is a typically young, often recently graduated, intrepid soul hauling a backpack on an extended trip across a certain part of the world. Some have three months to travel, others a year or two, and some are on open ended trips they'll stretch as far as their budget permits.
If you ever have the opportunity to travel as a backpacker, take that enchanted chance! Such an adventure filled peregrination across the globe is a life changing, perspective pumping trip that teaches a traveler how to be a citizen of the world—navigating land and language, culture and coastlines, nations and nuances of our shared humanity. As it is with selling corn on the cob from a rusty curbside grill, so it is with starting a backpacking trip—location matters.The ten cities listed here are ideal for a first time backpacker—and great ground zeros for any extended trip through the region.
I have selected these based on ease of getting by in English, offerings of intrepid activities, ease in securing lodging, and as natural crossroads for making friends and charting a travel trajectory through the region. These ten starting points are spread around the world to accommodate whatever stretch of globe you're thinking of backpacking around. Book your trip into one of these locations and your backpacking trip should seamlessly unfold from there.
Short of a shoreline, Antigua, Guatemala has everything a first time backpacker could hope to experience right off the plane.
The biggest danger a backpacker faces here is she might end up staying instead of traveling onwards (the story of how many an Antigua expat ended up here). What makes Antigua one of best places to begin a backpacking trip through the Americas? Aesthetically the city is a dazzlingly preserved colonial city cradled by three volcanoes looming large in the highland's green backdrop. It's one of those places where horses still trot next to Toyotas in the Central Park. English gets you by. There are more bars and restaurants to choose from than annual Friday and Saturdays. It's an artful, cobblestone city of preserved colonial architecture bursting with an array of hostels, hotels, and home stays.
In Antigua there are more travel agencies than seats on a 747. Local families are itching to hook you up with a room and three home cooked meals for ten bucks a day! With over 50 Spanish schools offering private one-on-one lessons, why not stay a couple weeks, make some expat friends, pick up the local language enough to bail yourself out of jail, and embark on the rest of your trip with Antigua as your reliable hub?
Does the anticipation of upcoming trip ring with the reverberations of a fairytale? Do you want to immerse yourself in culture, philosophies, art, and history? Do you know who the hell Don Giovanni is? Well, Mozart premiered that masterpiece here in Prague. That's right, Mozart used to hipster around Prague because it's Bohemian to the bone.
Located in highlands region of the state of Chiapas, this is the peaceable side of Mexico that rarely reaches the mainstream media focused on the parts of the country in turmoil.
San Cristobal is a haven of living Nahuatl Aztec culture. Unlike many minority ethnic groups, The Nahuatl Aztec culture is still strong. Nahuatl is spoken by some 1.5 million. Their elemental (earth, water, fire, air) spirituality and alternative medicine is sought out by many Westerners. With Temazcal, or ceremonial sweat lodges being a cornerstone of spiritual experience, this renewing ritual is open here to outsiders and is a great way to cleanse the old as you embark on the new.
Does the book or movie "The Beach" mean anything to do? Is paradise to you a beach by day and moonlit waves by night? The monthly full-moon party in Haad Rin Beach may be Koh Phangan's claim to fame, but there's much more happening here on the Island.
Unlike adjacent islands like Phuket and Samui, which have transitioned to attract resort trippers, Koh Phangan still has stretches of rustic beaches with affordable bungalows that are the perfect base camps to begin a backpacking trip through Southeast Asia.
When the Panama Canal finally got up and running, this port city lost some of its international imPORTance. But just because the world doesn't hear so much about Valparaiso anymore, its allure is unwavering in the whispers of wanderers. South American Backpacker describes Valparaiso (Valpo to locals) as, "A city for dreamers, artists, wanderers, and any traveler with a hankering for an offbeat tune or a mesmerizing story."It is a city where magic happens, just the sort that those embarking on extended international journeys hope to find. In his ode to the city, Chilean Poet Pablo Neruda called Valpo "most tempting."
For backpackers looking to take on South America, Valparaiso is a solid starting point. By bus there's a pass through the mountains to get to Mendoza, Argentina. Or you can follow the Motorcycle Diaries route north. Before you cross the Chilean border, spend some nights under infinite stars in desert dusted San Pedro de Atacama, a town that's a doorway for onward travel to Bolivia, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia.
You don't get a so much of a big city vibe in a city based across several tropical islands. The various local nicknames for Bali tells you everything you need to know about these connected island:, “Island of Gods—Island of Peace—Morning of The World— Island of Love.”
Bathing on the eastern Indian Ocean shores, Bali is a peaceful converging point of languages, ethnicities, religions, cuisines, and cultures. Yoga and an abounding reverence and dedication to spirituality are what travelers find here. It's a place where seekers start spirit quests. And have you ever met a backpacker who wasn't a seeker, questing through the human realm, learning from faces and landscapes, experiencing different ways of being humans have adopted to have a happy life?
If your steps around the globe are seeking something, Bali welcomes you with answers to humankind's chronic questions.
These days just about every European city whose name is known is a melting pot of different cultures. But Amsterdam was one of the first modern international cities and it has retained its character of European crossroads. Eat your heart out here history lovers. Chew your tongue out foodies. Bike your bones out cyclists. Burn your eyes out art lovers. Smoke your brains out dudes from Colorado. Dance your shoes off nightlifers. You name it, Amsterdam has it—including every transportation option to get you in and around Europe.
Mombasa may be Kenya's second largest city, but it's a world away from the chronic hustle and bustle of Nairobi. Its strategic location on the Indian Ocean's Western shore has brought it a constant flow of culture and a perpetually shifting sovereignty. The old town is an easy historical center of winding cobblestone leading to Fort Jesus, a former Portuguese stronghold. Dotting the white sand beaches are plenty of hostels and inexpensive hotels catering to East Africa's backpacker crowd. It's a good place to settle, make some friends, ride a camel, go sailing on a handmade boat for $10, and book a safari. When it's time to move on, you're set, Mombasa is a crossroads of onward air, land, and sea travel options. "Where should I go next?" you'll ask. "Tanzania," everyone will say.
Looking for a good place to start your trip across Australia, mate? Byron Bay is an eccentric beach town that welcomes the weird like a the foreign backpacker. Travel Writer Bruce Northam recommends that anyone up for it should try to experience Australia by hitch-hiking. There's no better place to thumb up the courage for such a classic journey than Byron Bay, Australia. Here you'll find friends and rides as easy as a kookaburra raids a neighboring nest.
Back in the ol’ days of Spanish rule, Antigua, Guatemala and Granada, Nicaragua were sister cities. While nowadays they belong to different nations, they still share that sisterly character. Consider making Antigua-Granada a start-end point for a 1-3 month backpacking trip across Central America. There are plenty of wonderful stops in between. While Antigua is near volcanos, Granada is on the coast of Lake Nicaragua. It's a bit cheaper than Antigua and a lot hotter. But both abound in nightlife, Spanish schools, travel agencies, and accommodations to fit every budget and taste. Insurance considerations for a backpacking trip: The longer you go, the cheaper travel insurance rates gets.
If you're unsure, talk to an insurance agent about your proposed itinerary and find a plan that best matches your trip.
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