How to Be An Unsuccessful Backpacker (and Succeed Anyway)

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Claudia Tavani was inspired to travel Latin America after seeing The Motorcycle Diaries. She admits she doesn’t always travel by following best practices, but that doesn’t stop her from having an amazing time.

Here’s part of her story:

Travel bloggers enjoy “bragging rights” of a sort, especially when it comes to showing off their ability to travel on an extreme shoestring budget, to be hyper-local while getting off the beaten path, and to tout how many countries they’ve explored. If this is what it takes to become a good traveler, I may be on the wrong journey because I don’t think I fit into any of that.


Reasons I’m a Lousy Backpacker (and Why it Rocks)

1. I haven’t mastered the art of packing light.

During my last trip across South America, my big backpack weighed 35 pounds even when I wore my heaviest clothes — and my small backpack came in at 22 pounds. I totally got carried away in Argentina, buying three bottles of wine that I carted around for months so I could give them to friends back home in Sardinia. I even had a whole pharmacy with me because I am tremendously afraid of being sick on the road.


But traveling heavy is actually a blessing. For one, it proves that despite being small, I’m tough. More importantly, it’s a technique I carefully devised to meet the locals. Bemused stares and congratulations on “being so strong” start conversations, as does the laughter that ensues when they see I can’t pick up a pack of tissues I drop on the floor because my pack is so heavy.

2. I really haven’t mastered the art of not spending a lot.

If someone were to write an article about me, the title should read Blogger girl who quit her job to travel, actually traveled and spent all her money doing it.

Yup. Quite shameful, considering that there are millions of ways to travel for (almost) free, and to even make money while traveling. There even are ways to hitch boat rides that go through amazing places, such as the San Blas islands in Panama. All it takes to catch those rides is patience. However, I’m the most impatient person you’ll ever meet.

When I began traveling, I did all my homework. For example, I researched the best boat companies that crossed from Panama to Columbia, inquired on dates, routes, and discounts, read all the online reviews, checked the recommendations to get a decent boat, and stocked up on motion sickness pills “just in case.”

I studied so hard that then, when I had to sit the exams (AKA buy the ticket), I was so nervous that I failed: I happily boarded a boat a whopping $110 cheaper than the rest. “Wow,” you may say, “that’s great savings!”


Ha. Wait till you hear the rest of the story. The boat was cheaper, but it was also smaller and more crowded (including three backpackers who had actually managed to score a free ride—how did I miss on that?). The crowd, combined with seasickness, led me to abandon the boat after 24 hours of suffering, having to wave farewell to my $440, arrange my return to Panama City and eventually find a flight to take me to Cartagena.

Let’s review: something that normally costs around $500, and that a few good backpackers manage to do for free, cost me around $800 USD, including the one night accommodation in Isla Porvenir, the extra meals, the fast boat and 4X4 ride back to Panama City, the extra night at the hostel in Panama City and the flight.

But it yielded a lot of good stories for my blog.

3. I’m lazy and I know it.

Are you thinking, “Oh Claudia,  did you know you can get freebies in exchange for work?” Actually, I did know. I even subscribed to and paid for a program that got me in touch with farms, hostels, volunteering opportunities, and home-stays.


But I have a phobia of cockroaches and a desire to eat more than mango and papaya, so farms were out. And truth be told, as a former human rights lawyer, I cringe at the thought that people consider working all day in exchange for a bed at a farm or hostel (AKA actual businesses making profits) as “volunteering” when in legal terms it could be considered servitude. I’ve actually done a good share of toilet scrubbing, dish washing, glasses filling, plates serving, fruit picking, animal rescuing over my 40 years in exchange for money to travel — but for me it’s a yawn. I’ve been there and done that.

4. Besides, I love being a tourist.

Confession: I don’t get the big frenzy about going to off the beaten path. The Colosseum in Rome is touristy? Call me a tourist then, fine by me! I actually do enjoy touristic destinations, so much so that I even pay the entrance fees without trying to find a way to sneak in for free, and on top of that, I even go to the same place three times.


Everyone goes to Chichen Itza and Machu Picchu? I am one of those everyone. There are better sites than Tulum? Matter of opinion, I say – but, come to think of it, I really have been to pretty much all Mayan sites in Yucatan and I have yet to find one as beautiful as Tulum.

Besides, I think some locals must take a real pity on me, because even if I find myself in the middle of tourist-landia Cartagena, or right at the market in crowded Cusco, I eventually get to talk to them. And they eventually start spilling little local secrets about the city.

Why am I telling you all of this? It’s not like my opinion matters more than that of anybody else, or that I am more authoritative on the subject. Not at all. But I want you to understand that it is OK to make budgeting mistakes. We are not all accountants who walk around with built in spreadsheets to tick off expenses as we go.


I also think it is OK to be attracted to tourist destinations. Because seriously, for as crowded as it is, for as expensive at it may be, Venice is an incredible place to visit. And, more than anything else, it’s OK to travel and spend money, because money comes and goes and there will always be a chance to make some (and besides, we may as well show a little support for local economies).

The truth is that traveling is epic enough, and already brings us outside of our comfort zones for having to deal with places we don’t know, cultures we are not familiar with, and languages we may not understand. We are free to enjoy it in whichever form we want—an all inclusive luxury resort were we splurge and pamper ourselves, or a bed in the cheapest hostel in town.

That’s the beauty of traveling: there is something for anybody.


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