Traveling the Lonely Planet Trail

Highland Road

It’s not something widely mentioned. However, get a few travelers gathered around a fire or in a circle at the hostel bar, and you’ll start to hear it talked about: the surprising regularity at which travelers run into each other. Often these reunions happen several times over the course of a trip, sometimes hundreds (thousands?) of miles and countries apart. It’s always a surprise, though it shouldn’t be, and is usually a welcome occurrence. It happens in internet cafes, hostel common rooms, and even at random on the city streets. It seems to defy common sense – after all, the world is a big place, isn’t it?

The truth is, we make the world we explore significantly smaller by following pre-established paths. The most significant of which is what I’ve come to call the Lonely Planet Trail (LPT).  If you’re like most20-30 somethings planning a backpacking/hosteling style trip you probably opted for a Lonely Planet guide book.  Why? Because frankly Fodor’s, Rick Steves‘ etc. have done an excellent job servicing their own niches but lack real value for the average backpacker. Meanwhile Lonely Planet has targeted backpackers and done a great job developing a useful resource.  A resource which has become the go-to guide for backpackers the world over and holds a special spot in most backpacker’s packs, right next to their socks and underwear.

It makes sense when you think about it – no matter how random or willing we are to go off the beaten path, we’ll still take all the help we can get. That help (hostel information, things to see/do, even a map) typically comes in the form of a blue book with big white text on it. Which, comically enough, adds a certain level of standardization to our travel route. The most entertaining part is, that it’s almost inescapable. I can be a bit of an Ox at times and it’s not unusual for me to take off on a trip without doing a lot of research, having an itinerary or taking a guide book and yet, I’ll still find myself on the Lonely Planet Trail. Why? Because the recommendations I receive, tips and must sees are all driven, in large part, by Lonely Planet.

Marketplace in San Ignacio, Belize

Going to Guatemala? What should you see? What should you do? Where should you stay? It’s all there, just a few well worn pages away. Ask ten backpackers and you’ll probably find that 80% of their responses are similar/nearly identical and not without good reason. Lonely Planet does make very legitimate recommendations. But, those recommendations are also something to be very mindful of when charting your trip.  There’s a lot of stuff out there that didn’t make it into LP or that the author’s might not have liked/missed.  Don’t assume that if it’s not in the book, it’s not worth seeing.

Personally, I enjoy traveling along the LPT – in no small part because it ensures a more social experience.  It’s not, however, ideal for those who are really looking to break free and engage with the local population.  People often complain about how little time they spent away from other travelers.  I’d suggest that it’s often because they mistake hostel travel for truly immersive travel – which isn’t always the same.

Coastal Village

My biggest suggestion for people who find themselves traveling the LPT is to take a critical look at the suggestions before making decisions.  Is LP great for finding accommodation?  Yes.   Is it good for finding local “must see” attractions?  Usually. Is it good for budget/authentic food recommendations?  Definitely not.  Tour companies?  Hit or miss.

At the end of the day, I think the thing to keep in mind is that once a company/venue is featured by Lonely Planet, they’ve become the default go-to source for that service.  Which often results in a decrease in quality, increase in prices, and a decrease in availability.

As you chart the course for your next trip, make sure to take these factors into consideration.  Remember, your ultimate goal is to get what YOU want out of the trip and the best way to do that, is to examine even our most trusty travel tools with a skeptical eye.

Until next time, I’ll be keeping an eye out for YOU on the Lonely Planet Trail.  No doubt, we’ll share a pint soon!

Christmas in Placencia

Placencia at Sunset

Of all the cities I spent time in during my stay in Belize the city of Placencia was the least captivating. Despite being located on a long peninsula with a beautiful crescent white sand beach.  I’ll admit, that my experience was no doubt colored by what had proceeded it.  It’s hard not to be overshadowed by 3 days and 2 nights exploring pristine white sand beaches and crystal clear waters along the barrier reef.  In comparison Placencia’s mangrove groves, sand beach, small cement boardwalk, and smattering of small restaurant-bars and Chinese markets had a lot to compete with.

Boat docked in Placencia

We arrived in port around 3 or 4PM in the afternoon, said our temporary goodbyes and set off to find accommodation.  It was Christmas eve which made us all a little nervous, but eventually ended up being anything but a problem.  The town and peninsula is divided into two main thoroughfares.  The first is the main road which runs along the inside of the peninsula.  The second is a small 4 foot wide winding cement “boardwalk” that runs about a block back from the beach.  The two are connected by a series of small sand walking paths that cut across the block or so between them.

Hostel room in Placencia

Sweating in the humid afternoon sun, I quickly made my way down along the boardwalk inquiring at several hotels along the way.  There were two main budget hotels, one of which – Omar’s – had a decidedly ramshackle appearance. After a quick look inside I opted to continue looking, eventually finding a room for $40 BZD a night or about $20 USD.  To my surprise the private room I had paid for came with 2 single beds and a double.  A fan in the middle of the room and a bathroom with toilet and shower.  The shower, like most I’d encountered in Belize lacked hot water.  The shower head was a PVC pipe that hung about a foot out of the wall with a nozzle near the tip. The water was a bit bisque but refreshing and a welcome opportunity to wash the saltwater off.  I washed up, and struck out for food – ending up at a local restaurant on the main street.  The food was sub par, bland and expensive.  Unfortunate.

Feeling socialized out after the close quarters I’d been sharing for the last 3 days I headed back to my room, settled in with a book and enjoyed an easy night to myself.   Laughing from time to time as small explosions echoed through the walls of the flimsy two story structure my room was in.  Fireworks, you see, are a major part of Christmas in Placencia – not only are they a major part, but a major part in celebrations that stretch through the night.

Lunch in Placencia

Christmas Day I got a lazy start to the morning.  Found internet and let the world know I was ok, and then bumped into a bunch of other members from the Raggamuffin tour.  We explored the town, hung out, ate, and generally enjoyed a relaxing day.  From what I can tell the majority of Placencia was wiped out in a major hurricane in 2006 or so.  Since then a lot of internationals (predominantly Americans and Canadians) have immigrated and purchased property.  Rebuilding, opening restaurants and hotels and generally setting the city’s price structure at a level comparable to what you’d find in the US or Canada. The end result?  In my opinion a fairly beautiful, highly over rated, expensive tourist trap.

That said, I enjoyed myself – spending time with my friends from the Sailing trip, exploring the island and generally recharging.  It was a wonderful opportunity to refresh myself a bit before what ended up being a major push to the north. I ended up splitting off from the others with Steve to grab Christmas dinner at one of the local venues – an overflowing plate with ham, turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and more – a meal that easily made up for the disappointing food I’d run into the night before.

Christmas Abroad

It’s important to note that when I told people about the dates for my trip – the most common reaction was surprise. People found it hard to believe that I was willing to spend Christmas abroad, especially as a solo trip. I have to admit that when I was gearing up for my December 08′ trip to Spain the year previous, I’d harbored a lot of the same concerns.  Even as someone who’s not religious and who doesn’t celebrate Christmas, it is a very social time in the U.S. – one where a lot of time is spent with family, friends and a time of the year most of us would prefer not to be alone.

My decision to travel over Christmas two years in a row definitely confused a few friends. I’m VERY close with my parents and brother.  To the point where I typically have a daily 20-50 minute phone conversation with my Mother and Father when stateside.  I suppose that’s part of what makes these holiday trips more viable for me. I try and live life in a way where I don’t need an excuse to spend time with loved ones, but rather integrate it into my day to day routine.  To that end, Christmas just becomes another day with a little extra pomp and hype.

And was I lonely?  Not really.  I’ll admit, this year’s Christmas paled in comparison to the amazing time I had in Cadiz Spain in 2008. The food wasn’t as good, I was in a private room instead of a fantastic hostel, and I didn’t especially care for the town I was in – but despite that, was I lonely?  Not at all. Was I happy and enjoying myself?  You better believe it!  I spent Christmas with friends, in an amazing part of the world listening to music, sharing stories, and eating good food.  It’s an experience I definitely recommend!

The Trip to San Ignacio

The following morning I woke up early, nervous that the bus and water taxi to the mainland would be running on a holiday schedule.  My goal?  Head inland. Where? Well, to be honest – I hadn’t really gotten that far.  I’d heard good things about San Ignacio and knew that I wanted to try and make for Tikal/Flores in Guatemala. I’d also heard good things about Antigua to the south in Guatemala and figured that between the three destinations, I’d be able to find a bus/route that would get me to one of them.

As I waited for the water taxi I met older Canadian couple who were making their way to San Ignacio.  We got to talking bus schedules, cities, and towns and still undecided I took a quick look at their Lonely Planet guide.  San Ignacio looked good – why not? Besides, this way I had traveling companions.

We caught the water taxi through the mangrove groves to the city of Independence on the mainland.  From there we took a quick taxi ride to the bus stop and waited some 5-10 minutes for a bus to Belize’s tiny capital: Belmopan.

The trip started out well, the bus wasn’t overly packed and I found a seat where the seat-back in front of me was broken and collapsed forward without support. This gave me a little extra knee room – a very welcome change of pace on a regional bus. Unfortunately, I underestimated their willingness to use a broken seat and over sell the bus.  Some hour or so into the bus ride the bus’s ticket man walked back – pointed at a guy, pointed at the chair, fiddled with it a bit, stood the chair up – which fell back against my knees…and considered that “good enough”.   Needless to say the remaining hour of the bus ride to Belmopan was less than enjoyable, especially on the occasions that the man in front of me leaned back, decided to doze off, or adjust in his seat. On the upside, the fabric pattern imprinted into the skin of my knees looked cool.

Glad to be done with the adventure, we disembarked in Belmopan, only to be greeted by a Bus terminal which was completely swamped.  The buses were overloaded, and after watching one fill up like a subway car during rushhour the Canadians and I teamed up with a Philippino woman who lived in San Ignacio, a Spaniard and several others to split two taxi cabs to San Ignacio.  Eventually we ended up with 8 people split between the two cabs – mostly other travelers. Between us the taxi ride, split as it was, ended up costing us some $15 BZD a piece, which was less than the overflowing bus would have.   A brief 15-20 minute ride later we arrived in San Ignacio.  Said our good byes and set off to find accommodation.

More on that in my next post – as well as one of the trips greatest adventures! Stay tuned!