Backpacking Geeks in Central America

I’ve seen a lot of articles telling you what to do and take when travelling, but I thought it might be worthwhile writing one about our experiences with what we did take and how well it worked out for us.

Kim and I recently did our big trip around Central America (Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama) and southern Mexico (Yucatan Peninsula, Oaxaca, Mexico City). Most of the time we were backpacking so were deliberately travelling quite light – I allowed myself one medium size backpack and one shoulder satchel.

Before We Left

We backed up all the data from our home server to a USB external hard disk that we stored with Kim’s parents, and then sent the original hard disks to stay with my sister.

Kim and I both moved our hosted email to Google’s Gmail for Domains. This meant we got to keep our existing domain names and email addresses but Google would get to handle the server maintenance and anti-spam filtering.

We scanned important documents (passports, civil union certificate, etc) and emailed them to our Gmail accounts. I also assembled a password/account file containing all my account information, usernames, passwords, etc.

We set up a shared Flickr account for uploading our travel photos to.

We signed up for Skype so that we could make cheap phone calls while overseas. Using Skype to another person with Skype is free, calling out to a phone does cost money but it’s far cheaper than international toll calls.

We switched banks to HSBC because they require you to have a hardware key as well as your username and password to access your account over the internet. This means that anyone stealing your username/password by using a keyboard logger or password sniffer in an Internet café won’t be able to access your bank account because they don’t have the hardware key.


I agonised a bit over (a) what style/size of camera to get, and (b) which model to get. In the end I decided that being light and pocketable were very important attributes – and so was a good zoom range for getting the shots we wanted.

We took a Ricoh Caplio R4 digital camera (Ricoh now have the updated R6). We both really appreciated the lens going from wide angle to 7x optical zoom (equiv 28mm to 200mm) as it meant we could get a lot of shots that camera with less range couldn’t manage. Wide angle particularly helps with interior shots and 7x zoom is handy for wildlife photos and candid shots of the locals.

Camera accessories included a battery charger, spare battery, USB cable and two 2GB memory cards. Some people recommend travelling with cameras that take easily replaceable AA batteries but having two batteries meant we didn’t run out and we never had problems finding a plug to recharge from. Make sure your charger can run on 110volt/60Hz as well as New Zealand’s 230volt/50Hz power supply.

Tip When you write your photos to a CD or DVD, make two copies. Label them both, then post one home and keep one with you. This means you’ve got a better chance of keeping the photos if it gets lost in the mail, and you may want to show people your earlier photos while still travelling.

Personal Data

We also bought a 2GB USB flash drive each. We used these to store copies of our scanned documents, a bunch of useful files and our files with all our usernames/passwords in them. And then we filled the remaining 1.9GB with some local music and a copy of Peter Jackson’s Braindead just in case anyone needed educating.

To make sure that no one else could access the files if we lost one of the drives, we encrypted them using a program called Truecrypt (it’s both free and open source). You run the Truecrypt software from the USB drive, enter the password, and then you can access the encrypted data just as if it was another disk drive.
We didn’t use the flash drives a lot although there were a couple of times when the username/password list came in very handy.


Internet cafes aren’t just in the tourist areas – they’re very popular with the locals too and thus very easy to find. The cost is normally pretty cheap (US$1/hour or less) except in some more remote areas where the cost of satellite internet or the lack of local competition puts prices up a bit higher.

Most internet cafes have at least a few CD writers and normally have a supply of blank CDs available too. We found very few DVD writers which is a bit annoying if you take a lot of photos. In the end I think we spent more time looking for internet cafes with DVD writers then we would have taken just writing them to multiple CDs.

Free wireless internet access is commonly available in tourist areas and places like airports. Seeing other people using it were the only times I wished I had a laptop.

Phone Home

Skype and other similar services are very popular and internet cafes typically have headsets and cams. Making calls home at a couple of cents a minute from the comfort of an internet café was far better than using phone services.

Cellular phones are very popular but we didn’t take one or attempt to use one of the local ones.


Protecting your gadgets from theft is always a bit trickier when you’re travelling. We didn’t have any problems and neither did anyone we spoke to (well, except for the woman who had her car and gear stolen by the police in Mexico City a couple of years ago).

Judging by the posters and flyers we saw stuck up in various places, the most common problems that people did have are:

  • Having your camera stolen (particularly while swimming).
  • Losing your USB flash drive, particularly by leaving it in an internet café.


Neither Kim or I are particularly into portable music players so we didn’t take one. We thought this meant we’d get to listen to interesting local music but for most of Central America it meant we ended up listening to a lot of 80s soft-rock. Most tourists we met had the normal iPod or other music player. I note that the couple we met who also had a small amp and speakers were very popular when it was time for drinks in the hotel room.


The most important thing we learnt was how unimportant the internet and gadgets were while we were travelling. We didn’t take a lot with us and we hardly missed the things we didn’t have – we were too busy experiencing being in a different country.

There is one gadget I would have liked to have, however, and that was an electronic book reader of some sort. Both Kim and I read a lot and at times we were carrying up to 15 books between us! I wonder if you can get guide books in ebook format?