So, I’m a few days back from a three month trip around Central America and I’m already thinking about where to go next year. I’m lucky enough to travel every year for a few months, mainly because I choose to take seasonal work contracts as I hate working for a living! Although there are lots of countries I’d love to return to and explore more, I tend to go somewhere new each time partly due to the fear of missing out, but also because I do love ticking countries off my list (77 to date, not that I’m bragging of course).
I’m 38 but I still enjoy backpacking through countries on a teeny tiny budget – who doesn’t love spending six hours wedged into a broken bus seat being poked in the head every five minutes by stacks of rice crammed in the aisle beside you?
People always ask me which my favourite country to date is. It’s such a hard question as I love travelling (i.e. not working!) and my most memorable experiences are often to due to a lot of factors, not just the country itself. There’s definitely some adventures that stand out though. Here’s five of them…
Backpacking the length of Cuba, 2007
I flew into Havana where I spent a couple of days exploring the city and taking a trip to the tobacco country of Viñales in the west, before hitting the road to travel the length of the island.
Having done a politics degree and being quite interested in different forms of government plus speaking basic Spanish, I’d always wanted to go to Cuba. And preferably while Castro was in government.
In 2007, there was little tourist infrastructure on the island outside of Havana and the hotel strip in Varadero. I stayed in Casas Particulares, private houses with government permission to rent one or two rooms. Most towns had few if any restaurants or cafes, so the Casa would offer all meals as well. These were also the days before wifi and smartphones and so the way to choose your Casa for the night was to arrive by bus in a new town and hope someone was standing there with a handwritten sign advertising their Casa. Then I’d simply go home with them!
One of my favourite Cuba experiences was the neighbour of one my Casa’s offering me a ride to the beach. Halfway there we got flagged down another motorist – the police were on the road ahead so we’d have to turn back as it was actually illegal for me to be in a private car. Who knew?!
Motorbike trip to Croatia, 2010
One day I got it into my head I fancied a European motorbike trip and randomly chose Croatia as my destination, passing through as many countries as possible on the way of course! I was quite excited to camp at the only campsite in Liechtenstein (and even more excited that I could buy a beer from the campsite vending machine).
The whole trip was fantastic, even when I woke up at 5am one rainy morning in Dubrovnik to catch an early ferry, only to discover my bike had fallen over in the night narrowly missing my tent. Cue lots of swearing and slipping in the boggy ground as I tried to pick it up.
Croatia is an amazing country with stunning scenery and great transport connections between islands. I rode all the way to Dubrovnik, then island hopped back to Slovenia. People were really keen to talk to me, seeing my English plates (and probably being a solo girl on a bike).
Trekking in Nepal, 2015
My friend Paula deserted me in 2012 and took herself off to be a citizen of New Zealand (good for her). Since then we’ve had this vague agreement to meet up in random countries every couple of years (Mongolia in February 2020 is now confirmed!). One of our best trips was to Nepal, a country I’d been thinking about visiting for years. We wanted to see as much of the country as possible in our short three week trip (grumble, grumble, Paula and her ‘real’ job) so we decided against doing a multi-day trek such as the Annapurna Circuit. Instead we flew into Kathmandu, went east for a few days, returned to Kathmandu and then went west for a few days.
We managed some fun self-guided day hikes – who needs a map when you’ve got GPS and Google Maps? Our best adventure was walking from Nagarkhot to Dhulikhel, supposedly super easy to navigate even without a guide. Really? We started out following the three lines of the ‘walk description’ in good old Lonely Planet along with a dodgy online trek blog I’d found. Very soon the instructions started making no sense (‘after the crossroads go down the steep slope’, er, what steep slope?) so we just followed whatever tracks we found that were moving our little blue GPS dot closer to Dhulikhel. Eventually, an hour or so after dusk fell, we made it back singing Bon Jovi at the tops of our voices to keep our spirits up, somehow having managed to turn a six hour hike into about nine!
Backpacking the Maldives, 2017
Yes, backpacking the Maldives is possible! Although I will freely admit it took a lot of online research. My first tip is to combine it with a trip to Sri Lanka, as the flights are really cheap from Colombo to Hulhumale. I spent a month travelling in Sri Lanka and before leaving took a return flight to the Maldives for a few days.
Since 2010 the Maldives government has allowed private guesthouses to operate, when previously the tourist industry was dominated by high-end large resorts on private islands. Locally operated tourist businesses were originally prohibited due to a concern about the impact on the culture and religious traditions (the 200 Maldive islands are 100% Muslim).
I flew into Hulhumale, otherwise known as the airport island, where I stayed a night before taking the ferry over to Male, the capital. It’s a tiny island with the built-up city streets stretching right out to the full extent of its shoreline. I enjoyed walking across the island dodging scooters and non-stop traffic in the narrow one-ways streets, to reach the ferry terminal to Huraa Island, a 90 minute sea journey.
The best thing about the Maldives was definitely the ferry trips. The sea is just unbelievable shades of blue, the private resort islands are breathtaking and it’s a great way to observe the locals! Once on Huraa, there really wasn’t much to do apart from relax. As a locally inhabited island, it didn’t have private never-ending beaches and deluxe bungalows with private swimming pier. It did however have a two cafes, a couple of snack shops and a tiny bikini beach. Bikini beaches are for foreigners only with the approach hidden by appropriate foliage, where you can legally strip down to swimming wear. On Male, I enjoyed watching the locals having fun at the public beaches, swimming fully clothed or in burkhas.
After Huraa I headed back to Male, where I explored the market and had a great lunch, before heading off again to Maafushi Island. This was the first island to operate guesthouses and it’s quite touristy, despite half of it being the location of the national prison. I decided to have a taster diving session here and I’ve never been more scared in my life. After a quick ten minute instructional video, we headed straight out to open water, far, far away from shore, and before I knew it we were way below the surface. I did manage the full twenty minute dive, despite being convinced I was about to have a full blown panic attack any second. I spent the afternoon snorkelling close to shore and enjoyed it far more!
Freedom camping in my car, New Zealand, 2017
I’d been to NZ a few times, including living and working there for a year in 2002, but the idea of buying a car/van and mooching around, hiking, surfing and sleeping for free at beaches really appealed to me. I hadn’t driven a car for a few years and was planning to buy a van to live in on my return to the UK, so I also reckoned a bit of driving practice on the near empty Kiwi roads wouldn’t go amiss either.
The process of buying a backpacker car was pretty simple and within ten days of arriving I had a Honda Odyssey, which already had the back seats removed and a wooden platform with a double mattress installed. It also came with all camping and cooking equipment.
After waving goodbye to Paula who put me up (or put up with me?) in Auckland, I headed north towards my first Workaway placement via a few days of freedom camping in Whangarei. If you’ve never heard of the fantastic Workaway, check out my posts about volunteering with local families in Central America.
Freedom camping in NZ is great. Most councils allow it in specified areas such as beach or beauty spot car parks and usually you can stay for two nights out of every thirty.
I spent three months travelling the North Island in a meandering circle, with Paula flying or driving to meet me for the weekend a couple of times, my UK friend Tierney joining me on the road for a week and three Workaways. I felt such freedom as previously I’ve only travelled in kiwiland by Intercity bus and so much of the country is only accessible with your own vehicle. Waking up in a beach car park and brewing a cafetiere of coffee before a morning ocean dip, smug in the knowledge you haven’t paid a penny for accommodation is pretty cool.
Gosh, it was hard to choose just those five adventures. I could have mentioned my trip through Romania into Moldova and venturing into the disputed territory of Transnistria, or the epic train journeys I had during a month in China travelling from Beijing to Shanghai, or the three months I spent travelling pretty much the entire coastline of India. However, the moral of the story is that you are definitely never too old for backpacking!