The Problem with the Backpacker’s Circuit

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The Problem with the Backpacker’s Circuit


A view of Laguna de Apoyo from our guesthouse

“This is just as bad as an all-inclusive resort in Cancun.” I blurt out to myself while hanging from my hammock chair.

We are sitting under a thatched-roof hut on the edge of Nicaragua’s Laguna de Apoyo, listening to the surprisingly loud waves crash while the sun goes down behind the edge of this extinct volcanic crater. The forested hillsides and warm, green waters are part of the Laguna de Apoyo Natural Reserve.

This afternoon we swam to the floating dock, soaked up the sun for thirty minutes lying on our backs, and then paddled the kayak out through the choppy waters. For our evening meal we opted to stay at our cozy little cliffside guesthouse where they will cook a delicious chicken dinner with roasted vegetables for about $8, deciding not to venture down the dirt road five minutes to some other restaurant.

“Not to make you guys paranoid,” started the Canadian-born hotelier.

“Don’t worry, we’re already paranoid,” I interrupt thinking back to our recent robbery at knife-point.

“Three of my guests were robbed here last week,” she continues. “It used to be safe, but unfortunately, recently I can’t say the same.”

Her suggestions encourage us to stay inside her walled backpacker sanctuary the following day as well.


After sunset at a beach bar in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

Although we are a long way off from Cancun, many differences are only surface deep: Toñas have replaced Coronas, the fresh Laguna de Apoyo has replaced the salty blue-green Caribbean, modest independent guesthouse rooms have replaced luxury, international hotel chain high-rise rooms.

The problem is not spending a couple days of a long trip in a place like this, but if I only visit these places, hopping from one gated backpacker oasis to another, never really experiencing the country I have traveled so far to visit.

Then really, what was my point in traveling here?

So, back to the hammock and thatched-roof hut by the lakeside. Yes, this is relaxing, and yes I am enjoying myself, and yes it’s cool to swim in a green lagoon in an extinct volcanic crater surrounded by jungle-clad hillsides, and yes I must admit it’s pretty sweet to lie in a hammock all afternoon reading the New Yorker while the wind blows waves that crash onto the shoreline.

But…I’m really glad my trip hasn’t all been like this. The best experiences here have been the times we were visiting people: community members of a rural farming cooperative in Nicaragua and retired Americans living in Costa Rica.

Looking back on all the travels in my life—most were trips revolving around visiting friends in the beginning, end, or midway through a trip, some old friends and others whom I met on the road during a previous trip. And when I didn’t have a friend in a new country, I used couchsurfing to connect with someone living in that place. Point is: people living in a place, be they locals or foreigners, introduce you to life in that particular place as an insider.

While I can appreciate (especially after a few months of working) relaxing a few days in the sun near San Juan del Sur, spending evenings watching the sunset over the Pacific with a cold Victoria in my hand, this is not traveling. This could very easily be done in an all-inclusive resort in Cancun.

But then again, I’ve never been to an all-inclusive resort in Cancun, so how would I know what that’s like anyway.

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Stephen Bugno
Stephen Bugno
Stephen Bugno has been traveling the world and writing about it for the better part of 20 years. His articles and essays have appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Seattle Times, and Transitions Abroad magazine. He blogs at Bohemian Traveler and edits the independent travel magazine He most recently set up a tour company offering authentic, small group tours at Unquote Travel. Follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.


  1. jenna says:

    i agree. i felt the same way in most of the “party hostels” in peru and bolivia.

    it’s so easy to get stuck in an anglophile environment, meeting and going out with people similar to you, doing the same things you do back home.

    and like you said, it is fun to do all these things, but it’s only when you step outside of the insular backpacker bars that you really experience your surroundings, and can truly appreciate them.

    the difference between the “gringo” experience really became clear to me in mancora, when three friends and i left the hostel we were staying in for a cheaper room down the street.

    we became friends with the guys who ran the local sushi spot, and apart from the fact that it still the best sushi i have ever had, partying with those guys was definitely one of the most genuine, fun experiences of my entire 3 month trip!

  2. Emily says:

    Very good point. Sometimes travel doesn’t feel like traveling if you’re not pushing out of your comfort zone and really seeing what local living is like. While this is a bit different, I used to really dislike NYC–it felt really touristy and hoakey (granted, both times we did mostly tourist stuff). But a few of my friends moved there after college, and when I visit them, we don’t do anything touristy. We go to the local bars and shops, they take me to the hole-in-the-wall restaurants the tourists don’t know about, etc. Getting to experience the city like a local has completely changed my perspective, and I actually really enjoy going there now!

  3. Steve says:

    I was traveling through Southeast Asia in Khao San Road and I talked to several other backpackers there. From what they said, it didn’t seem like they were planning on leaving there. You’re not going to meet locals there. I think it is a great place to stay at for a night or two, but you need to get out there.

    One of my favorite memories of that trip was in Viet Nam. A storm hit and I took refuge in a nearby restaurant where no backpackers probably have ever entered before. I met everyone there including the nice couple who owned the place. It was a great experience.

  4. You are experiencing great in this but It can’t avoid the trouble that you’ve been, So next time you backpack from another place make sure the place is safe and interesting. Other backpackers are experiencing this things also. So have nice backpacking next time. 🙂

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