Touchdown, through sleepy eyes I looked out the window as we landed in Guatemala City. My first thoughts were, “I hope they have wifi. Please tell me they have wifi,” since finding an Uber asap was top of mind. I had heard about Guatemala City being unsafe and was paranoid that this was my first place of arrival as a solo female traveler. I collected my oversized backpack, walked outside in a fog from the lack of sleep and anxiety meds, and hopped into the first cab I could find to head to Antigua, Guatemala. As I sat down, it settled in that this was happening. I was here, and there was no turning back.
An expected one-month backpacking trip transformed into three months of unforgettable, life-changing adventure through Central America and Colombia. I entered a timid, SF Marina girl who could barely navigate her way a few hours outside of her own city and left a strong, courageous solo female traveler who felt she could take on almost anything. If you want to gain perspective and grow, throw yourself into the unknown and get really uncomfortable. The beauty lies in the transformation from the challenges that you overcome. So let’s take a journey down the bumpy, winding, jerky (often held up by roadblocks) but sometimes smooth, memory lane of my backpacking adventure.
The Beginning (Guatemala):
The adventure began in the beautiful Spanish colonial looking city of Antigua, Guatemala. A small town in Southern Guatemala full of colorful buildings and cobblestone streets surrounded by volcanoes.
My trip started with a bang when I booked an excursion for an overnight hike of Volcano Acatenango on Day 2. Acatenango is a volcano towering 13,041 ft over Antigua, Guatemala. This urban hiker had no idea what she was getting herself into signing up for this hike. Following the directions of the hostel, I packed for the overnight trek and ended up loading ⅓ of my body weight onto my back. I had heard it was challenging but oh my, was I in for a surprise as I walked up in my Nike Frees and saw the other hikers tie up their hiking boots.
I made two mistakes on this hike that I would advise anyone under 5’2 and of petite stature not to repeat:
1.) I chose to carry all of my things rather than pay someone to help. (They have seasoned local hikers who offer to haul your things at a cost.)
2.) I didn’t buy a walking stick at the hike entry. (I guess I was overly confident in my abilities, or I just didn’t do my research.)
Thankfully, the amazing local guide broke off a tree branch for me to use as a hiking stick mid-way through the hike. Unfortunately, I had to carry my things the entire time.
Four hours into the hike, I was close to tears as I climbed the volcano taking one step up and sinking two steps back. My Nikes filled with dirt as my backpack weighed me down and dragged me backward along with the force of gravity. I contemplated turning around to head back multiple times, but I couldn’t imagine failing the first challenge I set out for myself. So I pushed on through the hours of sweat and aching calves to finally reach our campground. The struggle was all worth it as our group bonded sipping hot chocolate around the campfire that night. Our guide awakened us from our slumber to watch the spontaneous eruptions of the neighboring peak of Volcan del Fuego. I watched in awe as the red and orange active lava spouted from the earth and flowed down the sides of the peak.
The next morning we hiked the final steep 45-minute climb with the sunrise, watching as the sky transformed from a watercolor painting of pink to orange. At the top, I stood on the edge of the volcano looking down at a surreal view of clouds and neighboring volcanoes peaks. This hike challenged both my physical and emotional limits beyond what I imagined I would experience on Day 2 of solo traveling. I finished feeling stronger, extremely sore and with some great new friends from all over the world.
Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
After Antigua, the next stop was Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. A beautiful crater lake surrounded by villages that each have their own unique flair. Throughout my time here I was able to visit local markets, practice yoga, hike Volcano San Pedro, meet like-minded travelers and relax on the docks overlooking the beauty of Lake Atitlan.
The highlight of my time on the lake was a homestay with a local Guatemalan family in the village of San Pedro and daily Spanish classes at Orbita Spanish School. I was living with a family of four: a mother, father, son and young daughter. While living with them, I attended 4 hours of daily 1:1 Spanish class and had afternoons free to study and explore. In those 4 hour sessions, I didn’t just improve my Spanish grammar and conversation skills. My tutor taught me about Guatemalan cultural values, the challenges he faced growing up in the country, and the struggle to maintain the culture in modern society. These conversations expanded my mindset and gave me a greater sense of self-awareness. Certain things I would say to a friend back home may not come across the same to someone with a different cultural upbringing or native language. One of my favorite things throughout my travels was hearing stories like his that introduced me to new perspectives and transformed my way of thinking.
Two weeks flew by, and I gained perspective on the simplistic happiness of family life on the lake. The mother prepared all of the meals and played the traditional role of homemaker. The father worked as a teacher during the day and played on a local fútbol team some evenings. Dinner was a meal that the entire family attended and we would go around the table sharing the day’s learnings (all in Spanish, of course). I admired how the family dinner conversations were free of the distractions of cell phones or TV noise blaring in the background. Everyone was engaged, and it was a time to connect, support each other, and share stories. It taught me the value of being fully present.
One of my favorite memories was watching the father listen to his daughter as she sang along to Disney songs for hours after dinner. I can still remember some of the Spanish Disney lyrics, but even more clearly, I remember how the father listened attentively and valued the quality time he spent with her those evenings. I admired seeing their bond as quality family time seems to be fading in our American culture with the rising distractions of modern technology.
Another vivid memory I have from the lake, was when I was relieved to finally be in my own room after the multiple shared hostel spaces. I facetimed with a friend back home who was on a business trip at the time. She gave me a tour of her extravagant hotel room with gifts from the hotel laid out on the counters. I scanned my tiny room of concrete walls, a desk, bookshelf, bed with a few colorful linens and small shower and toilet in the corner. I remember her saying “ah, looks nice” and me laughing at the irony of the situation. Here I was in this tiny room that would look uncomfortable, bare and lacking to most. Yet then, it was all I needed.
The time spent on the lake with a daily routine and limited possessions taught me the value of minimalism. I realized how little I need to feel fulfilled and the many materialistic items I used back home that added no value. Even with the limited contents of my backpack and a bare room, I was perfectly content.
Those two weeks also taught me the value of a genuine family bond and how to embrace the simple life. I learned about the struggles of growing up in Guatemalan culture where opportunity can be limited, but happiness prevails, despite the circumstances. I ate delicious meals, had fulfilling conversations, improved my Spanish, played board games and bonded with the children. In just two weeks, I felt like I had made a family away from home. A family I would never forget.
Guatemala was just the first month, and only the beginning, but it had welcomed me on my adventure with open arms. A culture of vibrant, colorful clothing, kind people, beautiful towns and unforgettable activities. However, it was time to move along on my travels and off to the next destination.
The Unexpected Hidden Gem (El Salvador)
El Tunco, El Salvador was an unexpected stop on my journey but a hidden gem with beautiful beaches and delicious pupusas. I had planned to take an overnight bus from Guatemala through Honduras and into Nicaragua. However, other backpackers warned me of a recent incident where a bus was stopped in Honduras, and the travelers were raped and abused. It was an awful story and a reminder of the possible unexpected travel dangers. Thankfully, all of the travelers were released and survived. As a solo female traveler, this was terrifying news, and I knew I’d have to figure out an alternative plan. I’ve always been the type to rely on others for directions, planning, etc. but traveling alone, I had to learn to figure it out for myself. I had to be resourceful using other backpackers’ advice and research to find an alternate route. Thankfully this resourcefulness led me to a safer journey, and I divided my bus trip to make a pit stop in the cute El Salvador beach town of El Tunco.
I sipped on fresh coconuts, sat in the sun watching the local surfers and ate $1 pupusas for every meal. I also was lucky enough to meet a new Australian friend who turned into a close travel companion for the month to follow. The detour was a good reminder to always be cautious on my solo travels and served its purpose for a safe journey to Nicaragua.
The Almost Breaking Point (Nicaragua)
Nicaragua was the country of almost breaking points. A country of constant sweating, street food, sightseeing, beaches, new friends, adventures and reaching personal limits. There were high highs, like the rush of volcano boarding down Cerro Negro (sledding down a volcano) and low lows, like the discomfort of extreme heat and lack of sleep. Overall, Nicaragua was the peak of both fear and discomfort, and there were two particular experiences that these were at an all-time high.
I hopped on the back of the jeep with a guide and new group of friends headed to a sunset hike of Volcano Telica. It was a sunny day with some storm clouds in the distance, but we thought we had a chance at a great sunset. We bounced along bumpy, unpaved roads until we finally reached the foot of the volcano. I looked up at the large hill of volcanic rock assuming it would be an easy hike after the challenge of Volcano Acatenango. We climbed the rocky volcano for about an hour and a half until we reached the top where there was a bit of cloud coverage but luckily full visibility. The guide took us along the edge of the steep drop into the pit of the volcano where sulfur oozed, and a speck of active orange lava was visible. After taking in the view and a few photos, we settled at a spot to relax and catch the sunset. Unfortunately, there was no sunset on our evening’s forecast.
As the night approached, storm clouds unexpectedly blew in, and it started to pour down rain with thunder and lightning in the distance. The guide advised we get down the volcano asap since it was dangerous to be there when lightning strikes. Then my fear kicked in full force. Visibility was low with the dense clouds, and we had just one flashlight and two phone lights to guide us. As we scaled the side of the volcano to descend, sulfur blew into our faces, and it was difficult to breathe. I was panicking as the storm was picking up, and we couldn’t see the steep drop into the center of the volcano. The only option was to keep moving and I trusted our guide as he cautiously took us down the mountain using the beam of his flashlight. I watched the lightning strike ahead as we climbed down in the pouring rain, praying that we would make it before it got too close. Words cannot describe the relief I felt getting into the jeep that night. What I thought would be a leisurely sunset hike ended up being one of the scariest moments of my trip.
However, there was nothing quite like the rush after making it down from the storm on the volcano. It was the most terrifying and uncomfortable moments like this and climbing to the top of Volcano Acatenango, that left me feeling stronger, more courageous and ready for what I could tackle next. The growth was in the lessons from overcoming my fears and the challenges that came my way.
Isla Ometepe, Nicaragua
I was exhausted from the stay in San Juan Del Sur, covered in mosquito bites with endless itching and sweating from the heat of the journey, looking forward to relaxing in our next destination on Isla Ometepe. However, touring the hostel grounds, I realized this wasn’t the ideal place for the R&R I needed. It was more of a hostel camping grounds with two rooms (one dorm and one private), an outdoor sink and two small sheds, one with a toilet and the other, a shower. While it had a beautiful lakeside view, it was by no means a luxurious place.
My Australian friend and I had splurged on a private room prior to arriving, expecting a relief from a month of the lack of privacy, noise, and exhaustion involved with sharing a room with a group of strangers. After the bus, ferry, cab and walk to the hostel, I could barely stand much less keep my eyes open. As I entered our room, my eyes were drawn to a trail of large brown pellets crossing the white towels that sat on the shelf. Were these pellets from a rat? A bat? Horrified, I searched the room for the culprit but instead found a brown bug the size of my hand crawling towards me. I had spent over a month adjusting to having bugs invade my sleeping area, but I’d reached my limit. Tears from laughter of disbelief streamed down my face and turned to tears of overwhelm as I realized there was no way I was sleeping in this room. For the first time on my trip, I wondered can I do this anymore?
Everyone has their own personal limits. For me, running on little sleep, itching from mosquito bites, constantly sweating and having the expectation to finally get some rest crushed by rat pellets (bat pellets?!) and a giant bug put me over the edge. I thought of the comfort the crisp San Francisco air, my warm, cloud-like bed and a nice, relaxing hot shower, imagining how nice it would be to go home and sleep comfortably, free of mosquito attacks.
Nicaragua proved to be a country of almost breaking points and challenges for me. Another time, I chose to have all of my laundry done and hung on a clothesline on the lake where we were doing daily muddy excursions. I maybe should have considered it was the rainy season because I ended up wearing the same outfit for 3 days while I waited for the rain to stop. When you’re regularly dripping in sweat and getting dirty, this was in no way ideal. I eventually gave up on them drying and decided to rewash them all by hand.
The country also showed me the dangers of being a solo female traveler in a large city. Lost in the streets of Granada late at night, my friend and I tried to find our way back through dark, empty streets. As we passed a group of local men, we sped by harassing whistles, shouts, and stares, sighing a breath of relief as we rounded the corner onto a busy, lit street. Even having each other, this was a scary reminder as female solo travelers to always be cautious, as we were no longer in the comfort of our safe city streets.
However, these near breaking points were more like breakthroughs. The realizations of the many luxuries we have in our day-to-day life that we too often take for granted. Many things we’d consider basic (running water, hot shower, laundry, safety) that are luxuries elsewhere. These moments forever changed my perspective on some of the most mundane, routine tasks and gave me a greater appreciation for everyday things. The cold showers, hard mattresses, laundry soaked in rain for days, constant sweating, mosquito attacks, etc. helped me appreciate the small comforts from home more than ever. Despite the difficulties, Nicaragua was another country of great memories, excursions, new friends and beautiful sights. Little did I know, a sense of relief was on the way.
The Recovery (Costa Rica)
I’ll never forget the reverse culture shock I felt after crossing the border into Costa Rica from Nicaragua. We hopped on the local bus to head to our hostel in Tamarindo, Costa Rica, and it was like we were driving into another world. We sat on the clean, air-conditioned bus with wifi and drove through paved highways past large department stores and restaurant chains. As we entered Tamarindo, I saw pizzerias, sushi spots, surf shops, and a tourist lined beachfront. This town looked like the almost too perfect recovery.
As Tamarindo was a popular tourist destination, it felt like more of a resort town than a backpacking destination. Days were filled with lying on the beach, reading, watching the sunset and cooking meals in the hostel. This downtime allowed for a lot of self-reflection and alone time. Solo travels 100% could get lonely, especially after separating from friends I met and traveled with for an extended period. However, working through the loneliness taught me more about myself and how to be alone. During the time for introspection, I was able to reflect on the journey and plan for the big life decisions to come. Like the scary question of what next when this was all over.
It was the perfect time to read the most influential book of my trip and one of my favorites to date; You are a Badass by Jen Sincero. A close friend had gifted it to me before I left, and it gave me the motivation to continue with my adventure. There were many parallels with her writing and the transitional phase of my life from leaving San Francisco, to heading on this adventure, to the new chapter of my eventual return. It is a must-read for anyone interested in the self-development space.
As Costa Rica was a pricier destination, I took a break from excursions to leave room in my backpacking budget for the rest of my trip. It was tough as a solo traveler keep track of my spending, especially when it felt like foreign currencies were a stack of monopoly money. I made sacrifices opting out of some excursions to leave room for future adventures. The benefit was that I was on my agenda and could make the decisions on what was worth the cost.
I was a beach bum in Costa Rica for a few weeks, relaxing, journaling, self-reflecting and planning for the terrifying, inevitable return home. The beach gave me peace, clarity and a much-needed boost after the constant adventure and movement in Guatemala and Nicaragua. It was the perfect amount of rest and recovery because my last country was full of activity.
The Grand Finale (Colombia)
Last, but most definitely not least, I made my way south to Colombia for the final month of adventure. A month of new cities, coffee plantation tours, colorful graffiti art, beautiful views, and beaches. For the final month, I met a friend from San Francisco, and we traveled from Bogotá up to Cartagena, mixing time spent adventuring with relaxing into city life.
Colombia amazed me with the variety of landscapes and hospitable people. One of my favorite activities was a walking tour of Comuna 13, a neighborhood with a violent past, in the western hills of the city of Medellin. It had undergone a major overhaul from the violence of the late ’90s to the calm, clean atmosphere that exists today. We toured the graffiti art illustrating the transformation from a community of conflict, violence, and corruption to strength, resilience, and unity. Also, we were lucky to meet a famous local graffiti artist, Chota, when stopping at a coffee shop on the tour. The resilience and optimism of this community taught me the importance of perspective and that if a formerly troubled community is capable of coming back from such dark times, we all are. The positive, patriotic and hopeful disposition of Colombians was truly admirable.
Late one night, my friend and I arrived in the town of Salento, in the coffee region of Colombia. Lost, we roamed the dark streets and searched for the accommodations we had booked. Tired of lugging our backpacks, we reached the bottom of a large hill and used our iPhone flashlights to start the steep climb. Halfway up, we were lucky to hitch a ride on the back of a truck to the top. Without the truck driver’s kindness, the long dark climb in the outskirts of the city would have been near impossible.
Exhausted, we finally arrived at the hostel to discover the place was overbooked, and they had nowhere for us to stay. The owner helped us get a taxi to try a place across town and unfortunately, this second hotel was also fully booked. To our surprise, it turned out to be a Colombian holiday weekend, so the odds were not looking good for us finding a place. Luckily, the hotel concierge offered us a small room with just a mattress as a last resort. Meanwhile, he asked a friend to search for any last available rooms in town. An hour or so later, the friend ran back with the news that he had found us a room to stay for the night. After he walked us to the hostel, we graciously thanked him and offered some compensation for his help. However, he refused to accept it. It was moments like these that restored my faith in humanity. In day-to-day life, it is so rare to see people who go out of their way to help with no expectation for something in return. This generosity left me wanting to pay it forward throughout my travels and to practice giving more daily.
My friend and I traveled north, making our way to the Cartagena coast. As my trip drew closer to a close, emotions ran high. When he headed home, it felt like I had to relearn my independence and re-establish myself as a solo traveler for the week or so that was left on my trip. After spending every waking moment with someone, I was alone in a foreign place and the piece of comfort was gone. It was a mix of high anxiety and loneliness that is hard to put into words. Thankfully, I forced myself out of the funk by booking one last excursion, a full-day tour of the Rosario Islands. On the boat trip, I was lucky to meet a new friend, and we island hopped, jet skied, snorkeled and lounged drinking cervezas on the white sand beaches. On one of the islands, our guide introduced us to a group of locals that were celebrating a birthday. We sat in a circle, listening to music, and drinking piña coladas as they shared stories of life on the island. Had I not booked this last day trip, I would have missed out on an unforgettable, authentic experience. It was another example of the benefits of spontaneity on solo travels. It is your decision how to spend the day and each day can bring a pleasant surprise.
Colombia holds so many great memories and remains one of my favorite countries visited to date. Meeting locals and learning the history of the country taught me that no matter how difficult the circumstances or our past, we have the power to change our mindset and be hopeful for the future. Perspective is everything.
If you’re itching to adventure and broaden your mindset, I encourage you not to let fear get in the way of booking that one-way ticket. You’ll be amazed by the amount you learn daily and the ways you transform. It’s worth taking the leap.
Looking for more information on all these cool places Kristin visited? Download her guide to Central America below!