Backpacking the Hispanosphere: NOLA to Bogotá

When I left Holland this October, my intention was to travel a bit through the Balkans and London, go spend a month or so with family in Florida, and then by the end of December fly south to Colombia where I would teach English in Bogotá. I wanted to go to improve my Spanish and to experience living in a developing country, as well as to make my first foray into ESL teaching. Now, a couple months later, a mixture of Peter Pan Syndrome and wanderlust has turned that plan on its head, shaken it up, and boiled it down, leaving only the basic core for me to build back up into the trip I’m starting today.

This week I’m starting the kind of overland journey that I’ve always wanted to do but never worked out the time and life constraints to do. Tomorrow I’ll leave Florida for New Orleans, and from there I’ll be going by bus, thumb, car, train, boat, or anything else that doesn’t go through the sky to travel through Mexico and Central America and eventually reach Colombia.

New Orleans Canal Street

Canal Street in New Orleans, facing the French Quarter and the Mississippi River

The agenda

True to the nature of Globalect, language is right at the center of this trip: my biggest reason for going and top priority throughout this endeavor will be reaching a muy bueno level of Spanish. There’s no way to know for certain how long that’ll take, but based on my language learning strategy and how it kicked ass the last time I put it to work, I’m guessing that after a month or two I’ll be pretty comfortable making friends in Spanish.

Most of my language practice should come organically with locals, as I’ll be doing my best to delve into the countries and regions and towns I’m passing through in true low-budget backpacker fashion. No hotels or resorts or shopping sprees for me. Instead I’ll be staying with Couchsurfers and meeting and chatting with locals.

I’m of course not so opposed to playing tourist that I’d hipsterishly skip the better-known sights and activities along the Pan-American Highway just because they’re ‘too touristy’. UNESCO World Heritage sites, national and international festivals, and famous beaches and museums will all figure into the itinerary. The difference is that I’d rather visit Chichen Itza with a local Mayan descendent after helping with a home-cooked meal at their house, instead of going with a group of tourists from my hotel as part of our package vacation.

Desert,_Sierra_Gorda_de_Querètaro,_Mexico

The Sierra Gorda mountains are high on my list of potential outdoor adventures in Mexico.
(Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

My funds are less than abundant, so I imagine I’ll stop more than once for formal or informal work along the way. By the time I get into Mexico, I’ll be regularly checking Workaway.info and WWOOF for chances to cool down and spend a month or so getting a deeper look into one particular region or community. Working or volunteering with education-related non-profits and NGOs is something I’ll actively seek out, maybe as a teacher or a fundraiser or whatever else.

In short, I’m setting out with lots of ideas of what I (might) want to do on this trip, but I’m not committing to anything. The idea is to make it an open-ended journey whose only constraint is keeping enough money trickling in to keep me afloat and leave the door open to whatever comes along to grab my attention.

The budget

As I leave Florida today I have about $600 in my pocket, which I expect to last me 4-6 weeks and take me to at least Mexico City or as maybe as far as Western Guatemala depending on how many places I stop and how long I spend in those places. My normal spending goal is about $15 a day in the US; around $12 in Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica, and Panamá; and $10 in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua.

india house

The India House Hostel, where I’ll stay tonight in New Orleans. I’ll try not to stay in too many hostels when I can avoid it, but this fairytale adventurehouse is an exception.
(Photo from India House)

These figures are all somewhat arbitrary, and will probably vary a lot. In New Orleans I’m staying in a hostel for $17 a night, which is a lot on my budget, but I make an exception because the India House Hostel is one of the most magical places I’ve ever been and is worth it. Add that to the fact that I’ll definitely indulge in some delicious Creole food and go on a booze cruise or two, and that city will run something more like $35-$40 a day. On the other hand, in Port Arthur, TX, I’ll camp for free on the beach, eat food from the grocery store, and mostly do low-key walking around and sightseeing, coming in closer to $5-6 a day.

hand grenade

The biggest hemorrhaging leak in my budget while in New Orleans: the Hand Grenade.

This budget may sound repressive, and some people may wonder why you’d even go on a trip if you have to live that tightly. I’ll admit that if this were more of a ‘vacation’, I’d want to be able to loosen my belt and let my financial gut out a bit more as well. But for long-term travel, this isn’t as tight or unreasonable as it probably seems. For perspective, in the US, I can normally eat all day (and be full), as well as having a couple beers or coffees somewhere in the day, for anywhere from $10-$15 depending on the city. In Guatemala, you can find a room in a hostel with breakfast included for $8 a night. I did London on about $10 a day, so this kind of budgeting in Central America will hardly be a challenge.

Soon I’ll make a post on how I travel so crazy cheap and still have a blogworthy time.

The route

Variability is the theme of this trip, if you haven’t noticed yet. I’m calling it ‘NOLA to Bogotá’ because today, the third day of January in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Fifteen, at 21:28 as I write this, this is the direction my toes are pointing.* But if I fall in love with Oaxaca or León and stay and live out my days there, great. If I run out of money and decide to go teach English in Asia somewhere, also cool. If I see a shiny light from a boat and think “ooh that’s cool” and lose all track of what I’m doing and follow it into the Carribean Sea and drown, well, few will be surprised.

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I plan to enter Mexico at Laredo, Texas, after which I’ll head to Monterrey. From there it’s south in the direction of Mexico City, and then exploring the south of Mexico with an eye towards Belize. Then Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras… the picture is murkier the further in the future we look, but whatever serendipities and coincidences twist my path around as I go, I think I’ll still end up in Bogotá. Probably.

The first leg

This part of the trip is some kind of ‘clear’ I guess. Today, January 6th, I’ll arrive in my favorite city in the US (in the whole world maybe?): the Big Easy, the Crescent City, NOLA, New Orleans. Any time I pass through here there’s roughly a 50% chance that I’ll put down roots and never leave, but in the end I usually end up deciding to keep the magic alive and move on.

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After that I plan to spend around a week in Southern Louisiana exploring Acadiana, Cajun Country, and the Louisiana French Creole spoken in the area. If I’m extra lucky, I might get a peek at some Louisiana Isleño communities, Spanish-speaking descendants of immigrants from the Canary Islands in the 18th century.

From Lafayette, Louisiana, the next stop should be Nederland, Texas. Anyone who’s ever once glanced at this blog before can probably guess why. I’ll visit Nederland and neighboring Port Arthur to explore the hangovers of the Dutch colonizers and their blurry boundary with the western edge of Cajun country.

Alamo

The Alamo, in San Antonio.
(Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

After Louisiana and the blast from my recent past in Nederland, I’ll skip Houston (been there, done that, it was okay) and head straight for San Antonio, Texas, which by all accounts should be pretty promising. From San Antonio it’s Laredo, where I’ll spend a night or two on the border steeling my nerves for Mexico, and then I’ll plunge through the drug-trafficky, murdery fronteir region straight to Monterrrey, where I’ll visit an old friend I met in Holland who has promised to feed me muchos tacos.

After Monterrey, it’s south. Where, I’m not sure. San Luis Potosi looks interesting, as do many of the World Heritage sites in Central Mexico. I’ll wander in the direction of Mexico City, by which time somewhere around 3-4 weeks should have passed, and there I’ll reevaluate my financial situation and nomadic life decisions. Maybe I’ll find some (legal/illegal) work or sell one of my kidneys, or meet a rag-tag band of Mexican teenage petty criminals with hearts of gold who I tag along with to help keep them out of trouble and offer rousing impromptu speeches about education and second chances. We’ll find out then.

Traveling the world through language

This whole leave Holland and go to South America thing started primarily as a way to further broaden my linguistic horizons, and that’s still the main goal. I imagine learning a language on the road will be a bit different than doing it living and working in one place, since I won’t have many opportunities to build up long-lasting Spanish language relationships until I settle in Colombia.

The ideal scenario would be meeting a Spanish-speaking traveler along the way and joining up with them for a bit as we go. As I’m starting the trip, I’m actually setting out with a Dutch Couchsurfer I met in Florida (he’s got a travel blog too!), which will be great for keeping my language skills sharp as Spanish tries to encroach on some of the Dutch territory in my brain, and hopefully minimizing some of the struggles of learning a third language.

Anything could happen on this trip. I could fall in love with Mexico City or rural Nicaragua, or maybe instead of falling in love I fall financially flat on my face and decide to fly off to the next far-flung turf where I can earn some more money. Until then, I’ll work on sticking to my budget backpacking principles, getting great at Spanish, and keeping you posted on how I’m doing both.

Florida sunset

Sunset in my front yard on my last night with family in Florida before starting this trip

*Update: Upon editing on 5 January at 18:38, it still so far seems like a good idea. But ‘solid details’ that I wrote about the first leg of the trip have already changed.