I’ve been going back and forth about writing this post for some time now because I know that backpacking isn’t all bad. It’s a huge part of the travel world and can be a great way to meet new people.
Do I have anything against backpacking? Absolutely not. I’ve done it and I think it’s something everyone should experience at least once in their life. My problem is with backpacking culture.
Does that mean you should have a problem with backpacking culture? Not even a little. Everyone has a different travel style and likes to experience new places in different ways.
But throughout the years, I’ve come to realize that being a part of the typical gap year, partying, backpacking culture isn’t for me. And here’s why:
1. I want to be uncomfortable
I travel to get to know myself better. I travel to challenge my ideas and preconceptions. And I travel to meet people and see cultures completely different from what I know.
I’ve found that when I fall into the backpacker crowd it’s too easy for me to be comfortable. I hang out with people just like me and I speak English all the time. Sure, maybe there are people from different countries in the group, but if we all decided to go backpacking and all ended up at the same hostel, then more or less we probably have a similar way of thinking, right?
I’ll give you one horrible example of a time I decided to reject comfort and how my trip changed because of it.
Instead of going to Cancún for spring break in college, I decided to take a solo trip. I found a cheap ticket to Nicaragua and had always wanted to learn how to surf so I figured why not?
San Juan del Sur is an incredibly touristy part of Nicaragua and overflowing with backpackers. In fact, I think I saw more foreigners than locals there. I purposely chose a hostel that seemed cool but wasn’t a party hostel and it ended up being one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed in. There were groups backpackers of course but the majority of guests were solo travelers and just really cool people doing their own thing.
I love a good party as much as the next person, but I’m not a fan of party hostels at all.
The real difference came when I went out one night with some locals I had met surfing. We were drinking beer but nothing too crazy. It was the first time I was actually embarrassed to be foreign. The backpackers and tourists were completely disrespectful. To be fair, it was around the time of spring break and it was maybe only half of the people I saw, but they were completely failing to see everything around them.
I’ll never forget this image: imagine an eight-year-old boy sleeping on the sidewalk. Hungry, without blankets, without family. Then imagine ten tourists leaving a bar that had a happy hour special blackout drunk stepping over him as they make their way to the next bar.
Nicaragua is a really poor country, but none of the tourists talk about it. Young children leave home and travel to the coast alone just to try and make money for their families. They end up selling drugs to survive and many tourists even support this by buying drugs from them.
It broke my heart. How can so many people visit this beautiful beach town and not see the real culture or what’s really going on around them? It’s because we don’t want to be uncomfortable. But being uncomfortable is what changes us.
2. I want to see more than touristy places
I’m not one of those bloggers who’s going to tell you that tourist attractions are overrated or a waste of your time. They’re tourist attractions for a reason, right? They probably have something to offer.
But it’s not the only thing I want to see. I could go to any given country and hit all the major tourist attractions, but I still wouldn’t really know the country.
One example is when I went to Brazil. I spent most of my time with friends in their hometowns. Even though I was only there for a short time, I really felt like I got a feel for the towns. I hardly even visited any tourist attractions.
During the same trip, I went to Rio de Janeiro for one day and hit nearly every single tourist attraction. I feel like I can’t even say I’ve been to Rio. While I saw all the tourist attractions, I know nothing about the culture and didn’t really get a feel for the city.
When we fall into the backpacking culture, we tend to go where everybody else goes. Which are going to be the places where all the foreigners go. When you branch out and meet locals, you discover hidden places that a lot of other people don’t know about. In Colombia, I never would have heard of San Cipriano or Charco Escondido if I didn’t have local friends who knew of these places. And they ended up being some of my favorite spots.
3. I want to learn the local language
My Spanish wasn’t so hot at the time, which made this decision even more difficult. With my study abroad friends, I could have deeper conversations, make jokes, and easily communicate. It was easier to have a real connection.
Most of my Chilean friends didn’t speak English and even if they did I insisted that we speak in Spanish. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I had trouble saying simple things, I couldn’t make jokes, I could follow group conversations but I couldn’t participate.
But it was also one of the best things I’ve ever done. After six months in Chile and over a year in Colombia, I can say that my Spanish has drastically improved. I can understand without having to put in much effort if any at all, and I can always find a way to say what I need to say. I can even make jokes, although I’m not going to say that they’re good ones.
When we fall into the comfort of speaking our own language, it hurts our efforts to learn a second language. And learning a second language can have so many benefits.
It keeps your brain healthy and can even help you think in a different way. Plus, it makes it so much easier to travel. I’ve met so many more people traveling because I can speak both English and Spanish. I’ve also noticed that locals really appreciate when I put in the effort to speak Spanish and they’re more likely to have a conversation with me and get to know me.
4. I want to get to know myself better
For me, travel is something very personal. I actually love traveling alone and spending time by myself when I’m on the road. It’s a sort of meditation for me.
When I get caught up in the backpacking culture, I spend a lot of time with other people. I also tend to go out drinking a lot. It makes it less of a personal experience and I don’t like that at all.
Some of the biggest changes I’ve made in my life have come after a solo trip. When I’m alone in a new place, I can really take a step back from my life and think. What do I like? What needs to change? What do I want out of life?
Traveling is something I do for myself to improve as a person. I personally believe in reincarnation. I believe that every life is meant to teach us lessons and that we’re presented with obstacles to help us grow. We have the choice to learn from them or not, but if we choose not to then life keeps presenting us with the same obstacles.
Traveling is my way of learning lessons. It’s my way of overcoming obstacles.
5. I like to do what I want
Plain and simple: I like to do what I want. Whether it’s walking on the beach at 5 A.M, enjoying the sunset with a beer, or checking out a local café.
I don’t like the group pressure of feeling like I have to do something. This has to do more with me than it does with the backpacking culture. People can do what they want and backpacking culture doesn’t force you to do what the group does.
But personally, if I’m traveling with a group or spending a lot of time with a group, I feel obligated to go out with the group. I like to have the freedom to do what I want and also to feel free to do what I want.
For this reason, I tend to fluctuate between different groups when I travel—between talking with large groups, to hanging out with solo travelers, to meeting locals.
Not only does this give me more personal freedom, but it gives me a lot of different options if I do have the urge to do something in a group.
In general, I think that backpacking can be a great option for some people. But after years of traveling, I know that it’s not for me.
What are your thoughts on backpacking culture?