Mailbag: how I get around, meet people, decide where to go

Buenos días!

If you’re reading this, you probably already know that my name is Amelia, that I am a solo nomad and that I have been exploring Central America for more than a year.

What you might *not* know are some of the specifics — the behind-the-scenes details that make this whole thing go. I started a mailbag series precisely to answer those questions.

In my last mailbag, I touched on the basics: my background, what I do now, why I’m doing it and how I make money.

For this mailbag, I asked you to send questions about logistics: getting from a to b and functioning in every place, almost as soon as I hit the ground.

If you have a question for a future mailbag, you can leave it in the comments or reach out to me through my website email or on my social channels.

Here’s what I’ve heard you all ask the most:

What do you carry with you? I carry this 40-liter Osprey backback, plus a smaller computer bag. I’ve done a bunch of packing videos — here is the latest — but my strategy continues to evolve and get more condensed. Generally, I carry around very little clothes (about eight shirts, two pairs of jeans, two pairs of shorts, a rain jacket, a corduroy jacket, a sweatshirt, sneakers and sandals), minimal toiletries (I buy more as I go), camera equipment and microphones, some books, my MacBook Air and a handful of other items. I stopped bringing first-aid stuff (I’m always staying in place where I can get that quickly) as well as the yoga towel (I just use a regular towel now) and my tripod (it’s just too big). Four things I can’t travel without: my silk pillowcase (for consistency no matter how many different beds I’m in), my bluetooth speaker/white noisemaker for playing music and lulling me to sleep (I’m notoriously bad at that), my external hard drive (the Cloud can get messy on weak WiFi) and my onetwo punch for keeping my laptop nice and clean in every environment.

How do you decide where to go? Since becoming independent, I’ve more or less gone through Central America in geographic order (very, very slowly). I’m really interested in this part of the world in part because it’s so present in the U.S. media right now (but for one-dimensional reasons I want to challenge) and in part because of the U.S. deep history of influence in Latin America as a whole. I have studied Central American history on my own, and tales of the 12-year civil war in El Salvador played a significant role in why I wanted to come to here. When I leave El Salvador, I plan to go to Nicaragua — but I don’t plan to keep moving in geographical order forever. After Nicaragua, I might switch it up and spring for a flight to South America. As tragic as the current economic crisis in Argentina is, the drastically dropped prices (and need for tourism $) makes it a great time to visit.

How to do decide where to go in each country? I do VERY LITTLE research on where to go in a particular country before I arrive. In the past, when I hopped around a little more, I would determine the first one or two stops and book those hostels and Airbnbs but wait to make further plans until I landed in the country. Now my move is to find a ‘home base’ to root in and plan trips from there. That’s because the recommendations of locals/information on the ground about safety and logistics are so much better than I could get casually browsing the internet — and now that travel is my entire life, the idea of extensive itineraries and hours of research has gone out the window entirely. I’m more motivated by history (is there a historical story I want to tell and which places are important for that?) and beyond that, I’ve gotten very accustomed to just showing up and seeing what happens.

What determines how long you stay? I used to say that I wouldn’t stay in any town less than a week or more than a month and a half. I’ve totally changed that mentally now because I found moving even about once every two weeks (which was my typical pace for about a year) was exhausting. Now, I do the aforementioned ‘home base’ thing, which allows me to hypothetically save on rent prices while also taking lots of day/weekend trips. What determines how long I stay in each country? A few different things – visa limitations play a role because getting extensions can be complicated (but I’ll make the effort if I really want to stay). As well as safety concerns (If I’m uncomfortable all the time, as I was to some extent in Honduras, I’m less likely to extend my journeys there). But mostly it’s just comfort level, interest and storytelling capacity. Here in El Salvador, I found it was easy to get around, easy to meet people and easy to find whatever I needed (whether it was a guitar to borrow or video equipment or help with searching for apartments), and I quickly fell in love with the place so I decided to dig into some big projects and stay five months. More or less when I’m done with those projects, I’ll leave.

What’s the best way to research what visas or other forms required for travel are necessary in various countries? The U.S. State Department’s travel page has visa requirements for every country (plus anything else you’ll need). Most visas can be purchased for a small fee once you actually arrive in the country (or in the case of Cuba, at your departing gage in the U.S.). In general, it’s good to stay up-to-date on important vaccinations such as yellow fever, tetanus and Hepatitis A and B and carry around certification of those because some countries ask for them upon entry (I’ve never experienced that, though). If you’re interested in extending your visa, you’re going to have to find that on the ground (though there is some information online about most countries).

How do you know before you get somewhere that your lodgings are safe? Once I’ve decided which city or town I’m going to first, I do lots of research and reading about various neighborhoods to try and understand where I want to stay. If it’s possible to ask someone local, I always do that. Instagram can be a really good tool for that, actually. If you search a country or city under ‘places,’ you’re likely to come across some interesting artistic types early on in the search. I have absolutely reached out to strangers on Instagram to ask some specific questions about their country and traveling there. It might sound strange, but most people are really happy to talk about where they’re from. I also look at photos of a particular neighborhood using Google maps to further get my bearings.

How do you find living quarters? I typically use Airbnb, at least as a starting point. I figure out which neighborhood I want to live in first and then do a long search, filtering for certain things I know I want like kitchen access and air conditioning if it’s a very hot climate. There’s really no shortcut — I just look at a lot of places, read the reviews for places I like (this helps me further assess the safety and what’s nearby). If there are no Airbnbs, I start looking for local hostels via Google searches or sometimes If I’m staying somewhere at least two weeks, I *always* ask for a discount and sometimes ask several places, to compare.

How much do things cost in Central America? While the general rule is that Latin America is much cheaper than the U.S., it doesn’t apply to everything. Typically “cheap” Airbnbs (with kitchen access) are between $25-$40/night — great, if you’re looking at it as a vacation hotel but not so great if it’s replacing your rent. For example here, I pay $600/month, after paying $750/month for the first two months of rental. There are definitely places in the U.S. where you could find a studio for something similar. Typical ‘rent’ here in El Salvador for a 1-bedroom apartment is more like $300/month but that’s taking into account a lease. So while staying, even for five months as I am here in San Salvador, it’s difficult to get those kinds of prices while also finding a place with everything I want/need. The other thing is I didn’t even think I would stay this long when I arrived. Of course, every country is different. Guatemala had cheaper housing, Belize more expensive, Honduras about the same. Food is generally much cheaper as long as you’re eating in casual, typical establishments, as is beer — as long as you’re drinking in restaurants and not at home. Since beer costs the same price in the restaurants as the stores (here it’s between $1.25-$3/beer), you’re actually sometimes paying more for a 6-pack to take home here, depending on what you get. But if want to buy wine, it’s going to be more expensive than in the States and if you want to buy any other imported products, or for example, tech equipment, that will sometimes be drastically more than in the States.

How do you get around? I never rent a car — renting a car, wherever in the world you are, is usually a terrible deal. In a Central American country, I typically use the public busses to get from town to town. Most places, they are extremely cheap (you can go nearly across the country for about $2 or $3 dollars here) and pretty comfortable. Check with locals about the relatively safety of the busses. I also often bus (or ferry) from one country to another. Many towns in Central America have a “House of Culture” that generally is a one-stop shop for historical context, tourist information and logistical tips. In San Salvador, to get around the city, I use Uber. Uber has infiltrated some Central American cities by this point, but not all of them. And Uber prices in various countries vary wildly – in Tegucigalpa, it might cost me $15 or more to get across town where here it’s about $2; very economical. Many towns that don’t have Uber have tuk tuks, that globally universal word for little motorcycle carts, or traditional taxis. I also make good use of the best free form of transport: walking.

How do you go about making friends and meeting people to give you inside tips? I wish I had some killer insider secrets for this. I meet people easily when I travel and I don’t have a great explanation for it. Most people don’t believe me, but I’m actually kind of introverted — I hate groups, tours and classes (where a lot of people would tell you to meet new friends) and I’m very unlikely to approach a stranger in public without a reason. (The major exception to all of this is bartenders; I’ve always been very outgoing with bartenders, maybe that’s because I was one!) I think the two best tips I have for meeting people while traveling are

  1. Be out in the world and be alone. You are SO much more likely to strike up spontaneous conversations, seem approachable, or need to ask for help if you are ALONE. I have met so many people this way, by simply sitting next to a stranger on a bus or at a bar, or asking for advice or directions. I met my friends Patrick, Anto, Chey and Cheyo here by joining their table at a bar, and quickly hitting it off.
  2. Use Instagram! Honestly, Instagram has so many more uses than people talk about. When I’m in another country, posting targeted content and using effective hashtags, it’s really easy to find a local community that is also posting creative content in the area. I’ve met a bunch of friends from striking up conversations on Instagram (bonus: great for introverts!) and later meeting for a beer. That’s how I met my friends Luis and Cristina here. And another of my good friends here, Alejandro, I met through a friend-of-a-friend who did Peace Corps here like eight years ago, and connected us — through Instagram!

How’s your Spanish? What level of fluency is needed to live like you do? It would be difficult to visit El Salvador without some level of working Spanish, but most other countries in Central America have decent English infrastructure in the touristy places such as restaurants, tour companies and hostels. However, I recommend to everyone attempting to at least learn Spanish basics out of respect for the local culture, which really shouldn’t have to cater to English-speaking Westerners. After studying on my own for some time, I’ve been taking formal classes twice a week with my teacher (who is based in Guatemala) for over a year now, and she’s had a great impact on my Spanish improvement. Of course, being very immersed in Spanish-speaking place helps, as well. 

4 thoughts on “Mailbag: how I get around, meet people, decide where to go

  1. Love this overview! Great travel info too! Are you working on a coffee table book with all of your beautiful photos?

  2. Wow that was interesting 🤔 I figured rent would be cheaper ! Traveling by bus sounds the safest to me at least your with lots of people ! Love the stories and pics ! Good luck 🍀

    1. I know — the bummer about moving around all the time is you’re always kind of spending a lot of money on rent.

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