Back Packing is Dead – Long Live the Backpacker
The face of backpacking is changing. During the past eight or nine years that I have been traveling, I have noticed a stark evolution in the world’s backpacking infrastructure, the local businesses who cater to backpackers, and even in the backpackers themselves. Backpacking has become yet another sad euphemism for tourism.
“We do not offer tours, we offer expeditions” once spoke a travel agent to me in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile in ’02 when I innocently went into her office to see if I could get a free map. I was not aware that I would still be sickened to this day by this twist of words and their meanings. “We don’t offer tours, we offer expeditions,” I can still hear these words clearly. Needless to say I walked right out of her presence, leaving the free map in my wake. I knew that this was a sign of things to come, it was a foreshadowing of the days when tours would be cloaked as “expeditions,” when backpackers would be taken hand in hand into the mainstream tourism industry, and when the backpackers would become tourists with backpacks.
I must say, as I write from Antigua, Guatemala, that this long foretold day is now.
Backpacker friends in Morocco
So we went in search of these bars. I am not that big of a drinker. I do not mind running into the hills with a few bottles of wine and a few friends and talking and joking the nighttime hours away. This is fun and cheap. But going to bars – even cheap ones – when traveling is an insurmountable treat that only happens (perhaps) once a month. Some nights require drastic measure, some days lead to nights of cathartic fun, and after a couple of weeks of diligent work, I needed to have some of this fun. So we went looking for a place where I could find some good conversation and some acceptably priced beer in Antigua.
Our search took us past the high end, yuppie and tourists bars and straight into the heart of the backpacker district of Antigua. We found a hostel that had a room full of jolly, beer swigging, music listening, bearded backpackers and thought that our search had come to fruition. I walked in and smiled at the assembled company of backpackers, they smiled back, and then went up to the bar and ordered a beer. It was looking like I was in for a fun night of swapping travel yarns and tales of the Open Road with this group of hiking boot wearing and be-flannelled backpackers. I was getting happy, well, until some bad news was delivered by the bar tender:
“17 Quetzales,” she said.
For one small sized, locally brewed beer $2.50 is too much for me to pay in the USA. I was in Guatemala and only wanted a Guatemalan beer for a Guatemalan price. My jaw hung in its hinges, and I was just able to pick it up in time to march right out of the bar and away from all of the backpackers who were drinking down days upon days of travel with big smiles on their faces.
These travelers, these backpackers – these valiant and empty pocketed road warriors – were spending a vagabond’s fortune on these over priced beers without an apparent sign of regard.
We went through the same routine at a few more backpacker bars in Antigua, and then, heavy hearted and disillusioned, returned home to our hotel without coming upon a single beer or a single remnant of fun.
Tourist with Backpacks in Nicaragua
I needed a cathartic night of travel talk, and all I found was biting questions:
“How could these backpackers afford to frequent these bars? How could they afford to pay a quarter of a day’s travel expenses on a single beer?” And the only answer that I could come up with is that these long haired and bearded backpackers were not backpackers at all, but just kids on vacation spending money to have a good time like their parents were doing in the posh tourist bars a few streets over. This is what backpacking is becoming: a quest to get drunk in the most expensive bars on planet earth only to go home and talk about how much fun x and x a place is. Maybe it was always like this. Maybe my early impressions travelers was skewed by multiple chance meetings with wanderers who really did not go home. It is my impression that a tourist bar, is a tourist bar, is a tourist bar, and tourism has nothing to do with the places that it happens in.
Backpacking and tourism have finally joined hands. Only the backpackers get a slightly more run-down, grungy setting, as they pay nearly the same prices as the rich tourists in the clean, fancy bars on the other side of town. I have a suspicion that these backpackers have relatively as much expendable financial resources while traveling as the business men in the slick suites.
Perhaps backpacking is dead.
The punch line of this story is that their is a really cheap bar in central Antigua that serves beer at half the price of the “backpacker” bars. But this place does not have a name, and even though it advertises its two beers for 15 quezales ($2) on a big sign on their door, the place is devoid of backpackers. Travel funds does not seem to be much of an issue with backpackers anymore.
But I do not remember it always being this way. My first voyage out of my home country was in the summer of 2000 when I went to South America for the first of three times. I can recollect being floored by the conversations that I would hear from the scores of backpackers in the hostels of Ecuador and Peru. These people were travelers: many were in the middle of multi-year trips, many never planned on going home, and they all came up with ways, any way, to keep traveling. These ragged travelers were called backpackers. I learned a lot from listening to their conversations, and an indelible impression was left upon me as to how to travel the world continuously and cheaply. I remember hearing tales of a guy who travel in Turkey for months who never spent more than 5 euro a day, and how he had to sneak into all of the sites and almost daily risk arrest so that he could keep on traveling. Many of these travelers lived on a strict $10 a day budget: they had certain parameters and rules that they followed so that they would be able to always keep traveling the world. They would pay the rock bottom price for anything and would only think of purchasing only what they truly needed. Conversation usually flowed along these lines, as they talked of how you could save a dollar here or make a dollar there or of what little towns and villages were not yet perverted by tourism. Real travel information was exchanged in these gatherings that were very common. These people had discipline, and that allowed them to keep traveling the world. I kept my ears opened and learned a lot.
I do not know where these travelers are today. Perhaps they all went home. I do not know. But I do know that I seldom hear these conversations anymore today. Maybe I was a little impressionable back then – I was only 19 – or maybe I have become too much of an old grump now to keep my ears to the floorboards, but it seems as if the common backpacking “community” is very different today. Perhaps we are just in a lull, perhaps the Europeans are riding high on the value of the Euro, perhaps the Americans are too scared or too poor to travel outside of their country anymore, but something is different. Andy notices it as well.
Gringo food being sold for the benefit of backpackers in San Pedro, Guatemala
But I really think that it is time to search elsewhere for places that backpackers and tourists do not travel to in droves. It is time to go and travel around to the other side of the hill, even if it is not as pretty as this side.
It is time to open up the new routes of travel.
Antigua no longer cuts it.
Goi no longer cuts it.
Khao San is being cleaned up and gentrified at a rapid pace.
But the world is big and I am hopeful.
Yunnan province and the west of China is just beginning to find itself in fluxed with the Southeast Asia backpacker circuit. There are tourist hotspots in this region, but they are small and there is hardly a traveler to be found outside of them. It is cheap to travel here too and the hitch-hiking is good.
The Middle East is a wide open horizon.
And Africa is still Africa.
Mongolia is the new wild west.
There is still a whole world out there outside of the “tourist with backpacks” circuit. I am not worried about the Antiguas, the Goas, or the Thailands of the world, as there is so much more of this planet that is beyond the realm of the tourist infrastructure.
We just don’t hear about these places yet.
I need to stop lazing around with the good internet and back to doing my real job.