Nov 15

The Gringo Trail

Beer Revolution at Playa Tunco, El Salvador

Three days after leaving Antigua, Tony and I found ourselves rolling into Playa Tunco, a El Salvadorean surfer hot-spot, and yet another town that has made a name for itself on the Gringo Trail of Central America.  This was alright with us.  The place was tiny, but there was still a beach, a guaranteed party for the weekend, El Salvador’s first and only microbrewery, and plenty of cute girls floating about to keep us happy from a couple of days of relaxation and beach salsa dancing before continuing our ride to Nicaragua.

In many, many, of my blog posts you will notice that I often refer to the infamous “Gringo Trail” – usually with a healthy amount of disdain and travel snobbery attached – so I thought I’d devote a post to discussing what it actually is, and why it is loved and hated by so many.

The Gringo Trail is the basic travel itinerary followed by 90% of backpackers, 90% of the time in Latin America.  It starts in Mexico – either Mexico City or Cancun – and stretches all the way down to either Buenos Aires, Argentina or Santiago, Chile.   It has existed for as long as there have been backpackers, but it has evolved and developed with the times.  Beyond the physical trail though, the Gringo Trail also has connotations in regards to the travel-style.  It refers to all aspects of the trip such as the hostels you stay at, the tours you do, the bars you go out in,  and the restaurants you eat in.

Oreo Milkshakes in Luang Prabang, Laos. (2008)

It is essentially the beaten path of the budget traveler.

The Gringo Trail is not unique in the world.  There is also for example, the Hippie Trail in India, The Yellow Bible Trail in SE Asia, or the East Coast Trail of Australia.  Everywhere there are a lot of backpackers and not a whole lot of route options, there is a backpacker trail.  In the last 20 years, with the rise in number of budget travelers, a tourism industry that has quickly adapted to cater to them, and the enshrinement of Lonely Planet On-a-Shoestring Guides, the backpacker trails of the world have become for more entrenched, far more crowded, and far more developed than ever before.  They are the reason that you can get an oreo milkshake in Luang Prabang, Laos; fish and chips in Antigua, Guatemala; or a burger and fries in Playa Tunco, El Salvador.

The Gringo “Trail” actually fans out a fair amount in Mexico and in South america, but going through Central America the narrow geography of the region forces it to funnel down into a very congested hop-and-go tourist train, making it impossible to avoid.  Even for me traveling on a bicycle, as soon as I hit Yucatan, I was on the Central Gringo Trail and from there on out I’ve found myself more and more in tourist hot-spots.  Even when I was still in Northern Guatemala I had already learned enough about the Trail from consistent travelers’ accounts that I could predict someone’s exact itinerary.  Let me show you:

Let’s assume you have 3 months to “do Central” and are starting in Cancun: Cancun to Isla Mujeres/Isla Holbox to Playa del Carmen to Tulum, to ferry to Caye Caulker in Belize.  Make lots of travel buddies in Caye Caulker then go to Tikal in Guatemala, to Semuc Champey, to Antigua, to Lago de Atitlan, then either do some volunteering or take some Spanish lessons in Antigua or Xela, then on to Rio Dulce.  After Rio Dulce it’s on to Honduras.  Maybe you will stop at the Copan Ruins and Lago Yoyoa, but definitely you will go diving from the bay islands, then El Salvador and the Ruta de Flores, big waterfalls, learn to surf in Playa Tunco, then on to Nicaragua.  Do Volcano climbing and Leon, then move on to Granada and Isla Ometepe, maybe hit the Corn Islands before crossing the border into Costa Rica.  Don’t spend too much time in Costa Rica, it’s expensive, move onto Panama.  In Panama start with island hopping in Bocas del Toro and then hit up the canal, Panama city, and Portobelo.  Congrats.  You just “did” Central.  Now, if going home, fly back to Cancun and maybe squeeze in a week in Cuba before leaving the region.  If you are moving on to South america, pay $500 to sail on a boat through the San Blas Islands before arriving in Cartagena, Colombia…

With these trails comes both the good and the bad.

First the good.  These trails have developed for a reason, there is a lot of cool stuff to see and brilliant places to visit on them.  If you did the trip I described above, you would have an amazing time and see some incredible things.  These trails also make it easy. A steady stream of tourists has meant that the tourism industry has had a chance to develop and get competitive which in turn means that there is now a wealth of good quality budget accommodation, cheap tours and easily arranged transportation options.  For the solo travelers this is a godsend as even traveling alone you are guaranteed to meet loads of other travelers, find travel buddies, and find tail.  Other benefits can include: more locals that speak english and are more comfortable hanging out with foreigners, some kind of nightlife any night of the week, a larger police presence, the ability to watch the footie match you didn’t want to miss, more ATMs, and more internet access.

The bad of these trails goes hand-in-glove with the good.  Your trip becomes very predictable and you see the exact same things as everyone else.  You risk missing out on what snobby travelers refer to as the “real” of each of these countries and instead find yourself traveling in a sort of foreign-themed booze-fueled sugar-coated holiday vacuum of sorts.  In part, this is because you be seeing all the “extraordinary” and missing all the “ordinary”.  Everywhere you go you will be “just another tourist” to the locals as the try to make money off of you by selling tours, handicrafts, or begging.  (Watch out for prostitutes.)  Prices for food, crafts, beer and certain types of tours will be completely out-of-sync with the rest of the country and with what locals pay.  When you go out at night you won’t be hanging out with locals, you will be hanging out with other travelers, most likely people from you own country and talking your politics or reminiscing about your home city.  There will be more police, but that will be because there is more tourist oriented crime.  (Watch out for pickpockets and scam-artists.)  Sometimes finding authentic local food will be harder than just settling for a cheap pizza, or a burger.

So there is good, and there is bad, but love them or hate them backpacker trails are here to stay.  In short, they make traveling incredibly easy, fun, and infinitely more accessible, but they also dilute the destinations, making them less authentic and more generic, and making it much harder to find those unique experiences and wonderful travel anecdotes that we all adore.  Above all, you risk missing out on the “real”.

And the “real” is what it is all about.



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