I was sitting down in an outdoor café overlooking the Caribbean Sea in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica eating banana pancakes and drinking a glass of fresh squeezed starfruit juice when the people at a table next to me interrupted to ask where I was traveling. I looked over and saw a mom and dad in their early 50s accompanied by their daughter who looked no older than 20.
I told them I had been backpacking throughout Central America and Panama, specifically Bocas del Toro, was next on my list.
“And you’re….alone?” the mom asked me.
Her daughter smiled and looked down at the backpack next to me. “You only travel with that?”
“Yeah. I try to travel ultra light.”
She started to ask me another question but her mom interjected.
“But won’t you have to cross the border to get to Bocas del Toro?”
“But…isn’t that really dangerous?”
I had variations of this conversation many times on this trip and other backpacking trips.
As a female solo traveler I constantly hear reasons not only why women shouldn’t travel alone but also why U.S. citizens in general shouldn’t travel outside of the U.S… unless it’s Cancun or the Bahamas, of course. Or Europe, apparently most of that region is considered safe. Well, unless you’ve watched the movie Taken, then it definitely isn’t. And whatever you do don’t stay in hostels because obviously, according to the one horror movie, you’ll be tortured and killed in one.
The myths I hear about traveling are: it’s too expensive, no one will speak English, it’s dirty, you’ll be kidnapped, you’ll be murdered, you’ll be robbed, they don’t like Americans…the list could continue for days.
Most of this is simply untrue. In my experience, as long as you stay aware of your surroundings and trust your gut instinct you’ll be fine. Do extensive research on the place you’re traveling to. Learn about the culture and customs before you travel so you’re not surprised when you arrive and the country in question fails to adhere to your Western ideologies. Visit forums for travelers (BootsnAll is an amazing resource) and talk to other people who have been where you’re going. Ask questions, read about their experiences, and talk to locals if you can.
Use the same precautions you would use traveling around any big city in the U.S. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. But also understand shit happens and sometimes, yes, an unfortunate situation will happen while on the road. Always be realistic but at the same time, don’t let fear stop you from going somewhere you want. Travel in the direction of your fear and you’ll often be surprised at the positive outcome.
Fear of the unknown makes people nervous. Our lack of international news and the media’s focus on terrorism on Americans in other countries teaches us to be afraid of exploring other cultures and to be weary of traveling to unknown destinations. We’re often taught what’s different or unusual is something to stay away from instead of being embraced.
Advertisements for enjoying a beach vacation at a five-star resort in Mexico or Florida regularly pop up on television but when do we ever see commercials to go trekking to observe wild orangutans in the wild in Borneo or ads for climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa?
In 2009 it was reported that 50% of international travel outside of the U.S. was in Mexico or Canada. Why aren’t we going any farther than that?
A conversation I often have when I’m backpacking is why there aren’t more American travelers or backpackers. There is a huge stereotype that Americans do not travel.
I usually explain the limitations U.S. citizens have on travel – we often only get 7-10 days of vacation time a year from our jobs (something foreigners are always shocked to hear); our country is huge, making it harder for us to get out of; and it’s expensive to fly to other parts of the world compared to other countries that are in close proximity.
Also, most of us are burdened with student debt and are forced to immediately jump into the workforce. It’s not like we’re encouraged to take a gap year like many Australians and Europeans do after high school or college.
With this in mind, it’s easy to understand why Americans are limited and why many don’t travel more; however, international travel should not be feared because of cultural ignorance. Look at a map once in awhile, explore different travel blogs to see where others are going; realize there is a whole world out there waiting to be seen. It’s not as intimidating as you may think.