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Advice on taking a trip like this

December 31, 2012

We traveled in Peru, Guatemala, and Belize for six months with our daughters, ages 9 and 11, and had an absolutely wonderful time. If you have the opportunity to do something similar I recommend that you do whatever you need to make it happen. Here are a few words of advice based on our experience.

  • Give yourself enough time to get to know a few places at a deeper level than the casual visitor. We were able to spend extended periods in a number of different destinations, which slowed the pace of the trip to something more manageable, allowed us to explore more fully, and made it easier to connect with local people. We were able to reduce our costs considerably too by taking advantage of long-term accommodation rates and cooking for ourselves more often than you can when you're continually on the move.
  • That said, there were times when it made sense to keep moving, when traveling overland across large distances, for example. We generally interspersed long travel days with rest days so that we would stay in some locations just one or two nights. On a trip like this, traveling becomes an integral part of the whole experience and in some cases the cliche is true, it is often more about the journey than the destination.
  • To keep our travel costs down and to get closer to the authentic heart of South and Central America, we often took local transportation but not exclusively. It can be pretty grueling traveling long distances in local buses, so as a treat or when feeling a little under the weather we sometimes went for the costlier tourist transportation option (the main advantage being the guarantee of a seat). We ended up striking a pretty good balance overall, so I suppose I would advise mixing it up like we did and using both local and tourist transportation options as needed.
  • A major part of our trip was taken up with food, not just the eating part but also finding places to eat or food to buy to cook ourselves. And when we weren't doing this we spent a lot of time thinking about food. As with transportation we mixed it up a little and ate at both local and tourist restaurants (although more of the former) and cooked for ourselves using both local ingredients and more familiar global ingredients. We also ate food prepared in local markets, which in hindsight was perhaps not the best decision we made. On a trip this long it was perhaps inevitable that we would have stomach problems, but we may have been able to avoid them by being even more careful about what we ate. To minimize your chance of getting sick, eat only at restaurants where you're certain that basic food safety practices are being followed and make sure that any food you prepare yourself is safe (e.g., use a biocide solution on fresh fruits and vegetables). We didn't always follow these suggestions at the beginning of the trip, but by the end we certainly were.
  • We were much better about consuming only purified water, however. Including for brushing our teeth. To avoid buying and lugging around an endless supply of bottled water, we invested in a high quality water purifier before we left. In places where we had access to a kitchen we also used water that we'd boiled and then cooled.
  • Make sure you have adequate medical insurance and be prepared to deal with medical problems as they arise. We were fortunate to find good English-speaking doctors even in remote parts of Guatemala. We were also able to make changes to our travel schedule when one of our daughters got sick.
  • Consider doing some voluntary work while on your trip. There are organizations crying out for help everywhere and it is easy to make a large, positive change in many places with just a little effort.
  • Try to connect with local people wherever you travel. It can be easier on one level to experience a place as a tourist - taking the organized tours, staying in the tourist hotels, eating at the tourist restaurants, talking with the other tourists - but you'll get a whole other experience of a country by breaking out of the tourist bubble and engaging more intimately with local people. It isn't hard to do this either, whether through eating at local restaurants, visiting local markets (not the big tourist ones but the smaller ones the locals go to), taking tours with locally-owned operators, volunteering with local organizations, and interacting with local people (three brief examples from our experience - the girls often played with the children of the managers of a hostel we stayed at; Tanya traded English and Spanish lessons with a local market stall owner; I played pickup futbol with some local taxi drivers).
  • Don't assume that you'd never be able to do something like this. Many employers can probably handle you taking a leave-of-absence. Most schools can probably handle your children taking a long break and most children would be fine with this too (if not, do as we did and find a school for them to attend in the country you're visiting). A trip like this needn't be that expensive - we spent about the same as we would have spent staying at home (and that includes the cost of the flights). To make it more affordable consider renting out your home, as we did. And if you give them this opportunity, your children may surprise you - they can handle new foods, long journeys, unfamiliar surroundings, and challenging situations far better than you might think.