If there was anything that spoiled my Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu, was a heated discussion with my guide, Edgar, because of some little extras we had to pay on the hike that the agency had not mentioned at the time of booking. Peanuts, you might think, which translate though into a lot of money in a backpacker’s language.
The argument became quite unpleasant when he told me something that (pardon my French) pissed me off really bad, which is Quien puede puede, y quien no puede aplaude. The meaning, for the non-Spanish speakers, is the following: if you don’t have money, don’t travel.
Deciding to quit my job and travel was not a decision I had really thought through. I had three months left before my two-year contract would end, I had just been offered a new position with a higher salary, and I definitely did not have a lot of savings.
Still, I decided to leave my life in Bratislava and buy a one-way ticket to Lima. Of course, I could have done this in a much different, smarter way.
Pablo, my Couchsurfing host in Iquique (Chile) has a long-term plan he is carefully following before he takes a year off to travel. He is working hard to save money, he bought an apartment he will rent while he will be off traveling, and he is now looking to invest in a second one. He is taking shorter trips, starting with Couchsurfing, doing some hitchhiking, and reading a lot of travel blogs.
Well, I have done nothing like this. I had just came back from a month backpacking in Costa Rica, where I had spent most of my savings. I had used all my holidays, which I had to pay back once I prematurely ended my contract with IBM. I had a few thousand euros in my bank account; I sold my old PC and bought a lighter one, sold my heavy Nikon and bought a mirror-less Olympus, and after buying my travel insurance I was left with 2,500 euros.
Not much money, you might say. In the hotel where I was working in San Pedro de Atacama (Chile), people were spending that amount of money in a week, just for accommodation.
I spent it in a six month of traveling throughout Peru.
The original plan (if there was ever one) was to travel as long as I had money. I would leave around 500 euros to buy a flight back, and see what to do next from there.
But then, once I started traveling, I realized that there were hundreds of other backpackers just like me, who were traveling with little money or no money at all, just for the sake of traveling. Then, I started to think: If they do it, why can’t I? And my plan changed.
I decided I would travel not as long as I had money, but as long as I wanted to. I have skills, I thought, I’ll find a way.
Of course, traveling on a shoestring means giving up a lot of things. I don’t have money to afford what most tourists who come for a couple of weeks holidays do, but I have something way more precious: time.
Because I had time, I could spend a whole month in Huaraz (Peru), volunteering in a hostel. In exchange, not only did I get accommodation, but a lot of hiking tours I wouldn’t have been able to afford otherwise.
Because I had time, I could spend a month in Cajamarca (Peru), volunteering as a photographer. In exchange, not only did I get accommodation and food, but the unique chance to get to know many projects my NGO was involved in: I visitedwo kindergartens for less fortunate children, homes for kids with special needs, and homes for old people left without a family.
Traveling on a small budget is way more interesting than traveling with a lot of money. You will be forced to eat where locals eat, and sleep where locals sleep. You will need to take public transportation or even hitchhike.
Think about the hundreds of encounters you will make on the way. Would they still happen if you were sleeping in a four-star hotel, taking private tours or taxi rides?
You can make money while traveling. Volunteer and do some online work, or look for a job onsite. Remember that you have the most important thing: time. You have time to stop somewhere for a few weeks or months, make some money and keep traveling.
You can sell something you make, from food to jewelry, from photographs to small objects. You can play, sing, paint, make tattoos. Use what you’re good at, and earn money with it.
You’ll be forced to develop your skills. Whether that’s to find a way to earn money on the road, or to find the cheapest way to do something. Nothing will be given, nothing will be easy.
Don’t let people dissuade you from traveling because you don’t have enough money, but most of all, don’t let yourself do it.
You are the one you can always count on when you are on the road. People will help, but they can’t help you if you are not willing to help yourself.
Go out there. Go see the world. You have the means, you just need to take that first step.
NOTE: Despite our small disagreement, I would like to point out that Edgar was by far the best guide I ever had. He is extremely smart and funny, and he was definitely one of the reasons why my hike was so memorable.