Seasoned travellers are a special breed. They can pack a backpack in 60 seconds flat, get a great night’s sleep on an airport floor and use nasty commode with all the nonchalance of a Tory politician slashing public funds. They can also devolve into interminable bores (“When I was in Kenya…” ad infinitum), rush through countries just to tick boxes and fall prey to lazy complacency. At Atlas & Boots, we share stories and advice read by over 50,000 people each month but that’s not to say we don’t make travel mistakes from time to time. Here’s what we’ve done wrong on our trip so far.
1. Being careless with our beginning budget
The most expensive meal of our entire trip was in our first week of travel. Sure, we were excited and had reason to celebrate and, yes, the gorgeous weather and utter beauty of Vanuatu had us lulled into a honeymoon headiness, but dropping £60 ($80 USD) on a distinctly mediocre meal at Breakas Beach Resort was completely unnecessary.
We always knew our budget would tighten over the course of the trip (an assumption that was indeed correct), but we shouldn’t have taken that as license to spend so freely at the start. It’s important to keep costs down from the very beginning.
2. Offering papaya in Colombia
We learnt the hard way that there are two rules to live by on the streets of Colombia. First, do not offer papaya. Second, if papaya is offered, someone has to take it. As explained in 26 dos and dont’s of Cartagena, papaya in this case is a byword for your valuables. Don’t sling a camera or strappy bag across your shoulders, don’t leave a wallet peeking out the top of your pocket, don’t leave your bags unattended. This is all standard stuff but we didn’t realise just how strongly we had to subscribe to it.
We stayed in a sketchy part of Cartagena and, as alluded to in this piece, I had my bag snatched on our third night in Colombia. It was slung across my body but the guy yanked it hard twice, ripping the strap and running off to the waiting motorcycle. Peter ran after him and managed to retrieve the bag (we’ll leave that story for another post) so there was no harm done overall.
In fact, it was a timely reminder for us to be careful for the rest of our trip. From then on, I used zipped pockets instead of a bag, took a cab after dark if the area seemed unsafe and stuck to wearing jeans and t-shirts instead of summer dresses or anything that might indicate we were more well-to-do than we actually were. The lesson here is not to get complacent even if you’ve walked dark city streets all over the world.
3. Not getting a travel credit card
Applying for a travel credit card can be hassle but it really, really is worth it. Before we left, I applied for the Halifax Clarity Card. Alas, my application was declined because I had never before had a credit card (well, excuse me for being responsible about debt). There wasn’t enough time for Peter to apply so we left with a credit card that was fee-less only on purchases as opposed to cash withdrawals. A 3% charge on the £20,000 ($31,000) we saved for a year of travel is £600 ($950), so that was a hefty price to pay. My advice would be to start researching and applying well before your departure. It would be prudent to start building up your air miles too. Find out more about travel credit cards and airline credit cards at Money Saving Expert.
4. Visiting Patagonia in the wrong season
By May this year, we were racing through Chile trying to get to Patagonia before it shut down for winter. Traditional wisdom (guidebooks, forums) told us that while it wasn’t ideal to visit the area in May, it was possible. Unfortunately, due to the ubiquitous and relentless fog, we saw nothing of Torres del Paine, Cerro Torre or Fitz Roy, some of the most dramatic mountains in Patagonia.
Perhaps this was just bad luck as other visitors in the area did manage to see some sights, but in hindsight we shouldn’t have visited out of season. Shoulder seasons have always worked well for us (lower prices, fewer tourists) but out of season was a step too far. From now on, we’ll stick to better months, especially when seeing sights that are weather dependent.
5. Not being more assertive about my vegetarianism
I haven’t eaten meat since I was 13 (after seeing cows being killed in Bangladesh… it was the de-stomaching of the cows that did it) so you can imagine my predicament when visiting some of the most carnivorous countries in the world. Maybe it’s my I-don’t-want-to-make-a-fuss Britishness or perhaps the you-don’t-get-Muslim-vegetarians!!! reaction I received from Muslim relatives throughout my youth, but I’ve always been a bit embarrassed by the fact that I don’t eat meat.
In South America, this manifested in quietly picking out veggie dishes in restaurants instead of asking for recommendations or requesting custom dishes. This meant I’d often end up with a bland, overly-cheesy pizza instead of the many delicious dishes on offer many of which could have been adapted for vegetarians.
6. Getting complacent about logistics
We knocked on the door as loudly as our British reserve would allow. A smartly dressed waitress opened the door and told us they were still preparing the tables. I glanced at the time. It was 8.05pm. I explained that we had a reservation for 8pm. She offered apologies and pointed at a table on the patio. Confused, we sat and waited, quietly grumbling at the fact that we weren’t even offered a drink.
At 8.20pm, Peter asked when the table would be ready. The waitress smiled and said, “just a few minutes”. It was then that a single thought emerged amid our utter bafflement: in the three days since we arrived in Asuncion from Montevideo in Uruguay, we hadn’t had any organised tours or meeting times. Could it be that we were on the wrong time zone?
When they finally let us into the restaurant, I glanced at their till computer. Sure enough, it was 7.25pm. We had turned up 25 minutes before their opening time and 55 minutes before our reservation! As we had travelled a relatively short distance from Montevideo, and it had been by bus, we hadn’t thought to check the timezone. We had been operating an hour ahead the entire time. In broken Spanish, we apologised profusely to the wait staff and swore never to make the same mistake again.
7. Not asking nicely
The worst thing about that night was that we had switched hostels. Our first has been perfectly fine – clean, warm showers, helpful staff – but it was a 10-minute walk into central Baños in Ecuador and we wanted to be closer. Santa Cruz hostel seemed like a well-equipped place in which to stay. We were given a room directly next to the communal firepit, but it did say it shut down “strictly and with no exceptions” at 11pm.
Cue the most obnoxiously loud American man we’ve ever encountered, three high-pitched Valley girls and a fire-pit that certainly did not shut down at 11pm, and you have a recipe for the worst night’s sleep of our lives. In the early hours, Peter’s patience broke and he stormed out to tell them to quieten down as there were other people in the hostel.
As a former teacher, Peter immediately realised his mistake. Instead of quieting, like children they started mimicking him with what I’m sure they thought were incredibly witty comments (“Hey guys, can you be quiet? I’m banging my girlfriend.”) Why they thought it would be insulting to make him sound like a stud I’ll never know…
The moral is of course to ask nicely first.