There’s a naturally occurring phenomenon in the backpacking community and it’s known as “the trail”. Whether you’re in South America or Southeast Asia, there’s always a series of cities, sights, and experiences that all backpackers must visit. That’s where the term ‘off the beaten path’ comes from; the trail is the beaten path. For better or for worse, it exists and always will. While some people believe this trail leads to nothing but booze guzzling, fanny packs, and overpriced touts, there is something to be said of visiting a place viewed as a ‘must-see’.
Truly the trail does exist for good reason: word of mouth. This is the best resource on the planet- personal experience, as it combines traveler camaraderie with trusted source. I have personally found my favorite restaurants and hostels this way because it’s usually the most accurate, up to date information available to backpackers in the area currently.
Instead of blindly following your outdated Lonely Planet guidebook, for which certain places have given up effort for lack of necessity, you can get the inside scoop on the newest places hungry for business.
From ancient ruins to scuba diving, the trail can be any number of places or activities. The trail is an interesting one, for even without intentionally following it you’re guaranteed to run into the same travelers over and over again. Sometimes with the aid of Facebook, but more often by chance, the trail lends itself nicely to creating a community feeling all over the world.
One of my favorite examples of this is the Gringo Trail, which exists in both Central and South America. You’re inevitably bound to run into the same travelers from Guatemala to Nicaragua, but don’t be surprised if in 6 months from now you see each other again in Argentina. There are just certain Mayan ruins and party beach towns a backpacker shouldn’t miss.
The trail became very pronounced during my time in Nicaragua. When first arriving in Leon alone I walked around to several hostels to find the best one. All were pretty much empty except for Bigfoot, where I promptly found a friend I had met in both Guatemala and Honduras. “You must stay here! It’s so fun!” she insisted and it wasn’t hard to persuade me as I noticed the people in the pool, playing a bean bag game, and hanging near the bar in the early afternoon.
Bigfoot is the kind of place you always overstay as inevitably people from throughout your journey show up. Nicaragua is conveniently located smack in the middle of Central America and is a favorite amongst the backpacker crowd for its variety of activities and nature, as well as its low prices. There’s lots of talk before you even arrive of where to stay and what to do and itineraries inevitably create themselves.
When I arrived at Bigfoot I had no specific plans for the month or two I intended to spend in Nicaragua. But soon I was volcano boarding, visiting the beach, and planning my route. When I left Bigfoot it was with five other girls, with more to follow in a day or two, and we all landed safely at Oasis Hostel in Granada. Not quite the same party scene as Bigfoot, yet still the same crowd which made the conversation interesting and the communal dinners fun. It’s easy to travel alone when you are constantly in a group.
A few of us were already planning on going to Isla Ometepe next, but it was our new friends from Oasis who insisted we stay at Little Morgan’s. Knowing nothing more than it being a chill party hostel and we must stay there, only three of us set out originally but inevitably five more people we knew from the trail showed up, not to mention someone I had met in Honduras as well. I was skeptical of this place at first, feeling I was just following the crowd and not blazing my own path (as I feel I need to do). But soon enough I was in love with the staff, vibe, view and was happy enough to stay much longer than anticipated.
If I had come to Ometepe on my own, as originally anticipated for some quiet, reflective time, I never would have discovered Little Morgan’s. My sheep mentality had taken the better of me but I have no regrets, only new friendships and wonderful experiences to share.
The final spot on the Gringo Trail in Nicaragua is San Juan Del Sur: the super party beach town close to the Costa Rican border. While it took me quite some time to make it there (got lost in Ometepe), I still chose to stay at the hostel I had seen on so many t-shirts and heard so many great things about: Pacha Mama. Intact with a true surfer vibe, the paintings and laid back staff make everyone stay much longer than anticipated. And while I knew no one there upon arrival, I had created a new family before I left (and of course inevitably run into a few familiar faces).
It’s truly the community vibe that exists in these places that evoke passionate urgings for others to go there. “If you like Bigfoot, you’re going to love Pacha Mama!” was insisted to me on several occasions. And of course they were right. And it’s this trusted camaraderie and easy connections to other travelers that I and plenty of others, particularly solo adventurers, are seeking on the road.
The Gringo Trail exists for this reason: it guides fun-loving, easy going backpackers to their next destination by word of mouth. Personal recommendations from similar travelers you already trust will always guide you to another similar happy place. If you’re out to assimilate into new cultures, discover hidden dirt roads, or eat home cooked authentic local meals, avoid the trail. But if you’re enjoying the company you’re with and want to continue with guaranteed good times, listen to other backpackers and go with the flow. The trail is more of a river and it flows constantly towards adventure.