5 Things I Learned While Backpacking Through Central America
Cormac Noonan travelled through Central America and had the experience of a lifetime. Exploring so many beautiful places he has shared with us the 5 most notable things that he learned in his time travelling.
1 – Much Safer than People Think
Before setting off my trip to Mexico back in October, I was aware that the media plays a big role in injecting fear into people around countries such as Mexico. Our view as outsiders is that Mexico is full of drug gangs and people being kidnapped because that’s all we see on the news. Nicaragua has been painted with a similar negative brush in the past few years due to political unrest in the country. This led to a significant drop in tourism a few years ago and only now is it slowly beginning to rise again as people begin to realise their fears are unjustified. Having travelled across over 3000km of Mexico and having lived and volunteered in Nicaragua for a month, I can safely say that the reality of life there is much different than what is portrayed in the media. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the Mexican and Nicaraguan people were the most genuine and welcoming people I’ve met on the entire trip.
Obviously, there are certain areas of Mexico that are recommended to be avoided just as you should avoid the Tenderloin area in San Francisco and certain streets in Dublin at night. There is a crime in every country and if you go looking for it, you’re sure to find it. It’s still important to be wary of where you are going as you travel but if you listen to the advice of the locals and other tourists, you can’t go far wrong.
Basecamp of Acatenango Volcano in Guatemala with our local guide Moses
2 – The Importance of Community and Gratitude
The most important part of travelling for me has always been the people I meet rather than the places I see. On my trip I was lucky enough to not only experience some amazing places but also meet some beautiful and interesting people.
Along the popular traveller’s route (The Gringo Trail as it’s referred to), I met lots of fellow travellers from the likes of Europe, Canada, USA, Australia and New Zealand. It’s easy to hang out with people from these countries – we speak the same language and we tend to come from similar backgrounds. I was aware of this and I wanted to make a conscious effort to also get to know some of the local people in the places I visited.
I was intrigued to understand what was important in the lives of the Mexican people and how that differed to the beliefs of the Guatemalans and Nicaraguans.
While I saw differences in the cultures of each country I visited, I saw some common threads among them all. They all seemed to hold great value in family and community ties and they all seemed genuinely happier than people in Western countries despite having much less material wealth.
Phrases such as “Mi casa es tu casa” meaning “My house is your house” in Mexico and “Pura Vida” in Costa Rica, translating to mean “The good life” or “The simple life” show how people’s values of sharing what they have and being grateful for it too are at the forefront of their views on what makes a good life.
Many people run businesses out of their homes such as small shops or restaurants. I had the opportunity to visit some local houses in Nicaragua which were nothing more than tin sheds with one big room and a hanging blanket separating the chickens from the rest of the house.
People usually spend their days surrounded by family and friends, eating food, relaxing, chatting and listening to music. The kids run around playing and laughing and they also help out with the work. During my entire three-month trip, I don’t remember seeing one child crying or complaining.
3 – I Realised How Privileged I am
Seeing the poverty that exists in Mexico and Central America has given me a much greater sense of lucky I am to be born in Ireland. I was always aware that I was financially much better off than many of the world’s countries. However, it was only after coming to visit these places and seeing them with my own eyes, that I could truly understand my privileged position.
We all come to impoverished countries such as Guatemala and Nicaragua looking for unique experiences. While many travellers here are quite young and trying to stick to budgets, compared to the locals we had cash to burn. While a local Nicaraguan family can only dream of a chance to move to a neighbouring country like Costa Rica to earn more wages, most of us backpackers have the opportunity to return home and earn a comfortable living in our own countries.
Los Cuatros Amigos – Cormac, Ruairí, Teean and Martin at Chichen Itza, Mexico
4 – I Learned to Fully Embrace Myself
Travelling has always been revered as a great way to get to know yourself or “find yourself” as it’s commonly referred to. While many may wince at the use of this phrase (including myself), there is no doubt that travelling can be a great tool to help you discover who you are and what kind of person you wish to be.
It helps strengthen your character by regularly putting you in situations where you are challenged and outside of your comfort zone. How you react in these unfamiliar situations can help to reveal your strengths and expose any weaknesses in your character. Once you begin to understand yourself better, you can decide what parts of your character you wish to strengthen further and which parts you wish to let go of.
Travelling also opens you up to meeting lots of new people from different backgrounds and with different perspectives. This gives you the opportunity to learn more about the world and it helps you become less judgmental of people based on their background or where they come from.
Walking through Cahuita National Park, Costa Rica
5 – I Discovered how much I Love my Home
I was lucky enough to realise my dream of travelling through Mexico and Central America with three of my best mates. Having not got the opportunity to do this, I never would have experienced the deep appreciation I have for my friends and family back home. I wouldn’t have gained a new yearning to go home to Ireland and learn the Irish language (properly this time).
They say you don’t appreciate what you have until it’s gone and being away from family and friends, especially around Christmas time, made me realise how much they mean to me. Travelling to many different countries also gave me a renewed love for Ireland.
I spent Christmas in the Treehouse Hostel in Nicaragua where I was volunteering for a month. I was asked by a girl whether I thought travelling helps you to find what you want to do with your life. My answer was “yes, but only if you’re actively looking to find it”.
Travelling has helped me gain a much clearer picture of the people and experiences I want to have in my life. It has also helped me to clarify the type of impact I want to have by the work that I do when I return home.
Sunset on Fuego Volcano, Guatemala
Thinking about exploring Central America like Cormac? Start your journey here.
Also, if you want to find your passion through travel, check out Cormac’s book on Amazon here.