Next Steps: Planning, or Lack Thereof, and Why I Got a Guidebook

So I’ve decided to go to Central America… Now what?

The planning process this time is much more low-key than it was for my RTW trip last year. In fact, it’s near non-existent. With the aim to travel totally flexibly and recommendation-based, I don’t want to do much research into specifics. I know some places I want to see in every country – obvious ones like Chichen Itza, Caye Caulker, Antigua, the Panama Canal – and that’s enough of a start for me. If I look into it too much then I’ll come up with all of these places that I’ll try to make it to like I did last time and feel rushed to keep moving. I’m going with a more “ignorance is bliss” approach this time; I can’t miss what I don’t know about.

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I still did buy a guidebook: Lonely Planet’s Central America on a Shoestring (if it’s not broke don’t fix it). In my last trip I thought the Shoestring guides were good resources to have with me even if they weren’t my first mode of planning. At the end of each country chapter there’s a history section that I would read on my way into the country to get a little background on where I was going and what I would be experiencing. If I found myself without a clue of where to stay when I arrived somewhere I would go to the accommodation page and target the neighborhood pointed out as a hostel-centric area. Plenty of times I tore out the maps and used them to get myself around a city or neighborhood, especially at night in search of a bar. And of course if I had a lack of advice on where to go next I could read through the locations for inspiration.

Most helpful though was the transportation information. Each country has a “getting to” and “getting away” section that not only helps with flight versus bus evaluations but also finding your way into town from the typically far away airport or bus station. Then there’s the call-out boxes of bus matrices that are good guidelines for frequency, length of time, and cost to get between between places of interest. But if I were to give a “most helpful section” award it would go to the border crossing information. These guidebooks highlight the best places to cross borders and explanations of how it all works. This information is hard to find elsewhere; many travelers referenced my books to see what we were up against.

As helpful as the internet is, there’s no way to beat having a physical reference in your hand when you have to make a snap decision in Bangkok traffic about whether you can ditch the southern bus station idea and instead go to the train station with your new travel companion to catch an overnight train to Surat Thani to make it to Khao Lak by tomorrow. With no cell phone service and no understanding of Thai where else are you going to get the answers you need?

Notice though that all of these reasons for getting the guidebook are not talking about planning, they’re focused on use on the road. I’ve barely opened it since I bought it and don’t plan on reading it much until I’m on my way into the next country. And of course I will again rip out the countries as I leave them, decreasing the heft of the book as I go.

I got one more reference book: Lonely Planet’s Latin American Spanish Phrasebook & Dictionary. Now that I have this, I wonder how I could have possibly gone to South America without it. The layout is so helpful, broken down into sections like transport, meeting people, and menu decoder, plus a small two-directional dictionary in the back, that I am already anxious to put it to use. I am also trying to keep up on my Duolingo app to refresh what Spanish I knew and learn more before I go. This time I really do want to learn Spanish, especially when I think about how easily I picked it up last time. I’ve even thought about taking a language class in Guatemala for a week or two.

My last written guide, for now, is BootnAll’s How to Plan an Extended Trip in Central America. I read this back when I was still debating what to do; I wanted to have some sort of idea what I would be getting myself into, and as I read about the different places and type of travel I would be doing I found myself only growing more and more excited. It’s part of the reason I ended up seriously looking into flights. As always, BootsnAll provided helpful inspiration. I marked the places the guide highlighted in a Google Map to get a general idea of a route, and I will again be using this website to outline my budget.

Otherwise I’ve already gotten extremely helpful tips from friends on where to go in Mexico and Nicaragua, and am hoping for more soon. So please, if you know anywhere I absolutely can’t miss, let me know!

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