Bucket List: Vagabonding in Central and South America
Fearless couple sells everything they own to surf, sail and trek through South and Central America
Quitting your job, selling all your possessions and buying a one-way ticket to a country you’ve never visited before. Sounds like every millennial’s dream, right? During a transitional period in your life, vagabonding can actually be a sustainable lifestyle and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to live without regrets. It won’t be easy (you have to pinch every single penny), and it takes a hell of a lot of courage. But, as we learn in this interview: “On your deathbed, you’ll never be sorry you took this trip.” Read on to learn how Rebekah and Jason Lovering left behind the rat race for eight months of surfing, sailing, Spanish lessons, ceviche, yoga, working for trade and trekking through South and Central America.
What inspired you to take such a risk and what were the steps you took in order to live the vagabond lifestyle?
Rebekah: I was ready to move away from Venice, Calif., and was considering a move to Portland, or a long-ish trip to Costa Rica, when Jason and I started dating. He said I wasn’t leaving without him, so we dreamt up a vagabonding trip one day—one that would include Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Mexico—and decided to make it happen. We needed to save money for a few months before we would be ready to go, and this is where working as a travel nurse came in handy. Due to the nature of the business, we were able to live rent-free for four months before we left. We budgeted for three months of vagabonding but ended up traveling for a full eight months.
Jason: I had taken a vagabonding trip about five years prior (to New Zealand), and I was waiting for my next chance to take another extended trip. Rebekah mentioned an open-ended trip to South and Central America, and I pounced on the opportunity. We immediately started planning for a long-term trip. There wasn’t much to do except make as much money as possible in a short amount of time and sell all our stuff.
What were the stand-out highlights of your trip? What kind of unusual adventures did you have along the way?
Rebekah: We took a boat up the Amazon River to Iquitos, Peru, where we slept in hammocks for four nights. We went with a group we had met at a hostel in Chachapoyas, Peru and had a grand time.
Jason: We also took a seven-day sail from Cartagena, Colombia, to the San Blas Islands in Panama. We caught fresh tuna and dorado from the boat, and bathed in saltwater for the week. The water is so clear in the San Blas, and the snorkeling is amazing.
Rebekah: We hiked with a group and a local guide from a little town outside of Cusco, Peru, through scattered Inca ruins to Machu Picchu. It was about 15 miles or so over the span of two days. Machu Picchu is stunning, and I would recommend hiking to the site in order to really appreciate the area. There are ruins EVERYWHERE, you really feel like you are traveling back in time.
Jason: There was bioluminescence in the ocean in Ayampe, Ecuador, after a pachamama ceremony (a traditional ceremony that honors Mother Earth). And we did this great farm stay outside of Canoa, Ecuador—a cute little surf town. We met some really good friends there, and had a lot of adventures. The ceviche in Ecuador was absolutely delicious. It’s served with plantain chips.
Rebekah: Someone gave us a hand-drawn map (like a treasure map) of how to hike into Semuc Champey in Guatemala. It was a hilarious adventure, and such a beautiful spot to picnic by the water with wine and friends. I also did a sunrise hike up a volcano at Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, which was one of the more stunning vistas I’ve ever seen.
Jason: We hiked up a dormant volcano on the island of Ometepe in Nicaragua. It was absolutely stunning and gave us a perfect view of the active volcano that makes up the other half of the island. We slept in hammocks at an eco-lodge on the island.
How did you decide where to go once you got to South America?
Rebekah: We started this trip with a roundtrip ticket to Lima, Peru, with no intention of using the return leg three months later. Once we landed and got settled in Lima, we chose the next places based on recommendations from other travelers we met along the way. At that point, our only plan was to continue north. Once in a town, we’d spend a few hours checking out different areas of town and looking for hostels. We learned this method the hard way—by staying in places we didn’t like, such as commercial hostels, or finding out that we paid way too much money. Our favorite places were the ones we found by either walking around or asking a local.
How did you keep costs down while traveling from city to city?
Jason: We mostly took buses, at times hitchhiked and took a couple of epic multi-day boat trips.
Rebekah: We also did two different work-trades—using WWOOF.net and Helpx.net. We traded a little hard work for room and board by selecting our target country and browsing available options. This was a great way to meet other travelers, post up for a while and learn something new.
Jason: We also stayed in all kinds of places along the way: hostels, little hotels, guesthouses, cabanas, hammocks and farms. Once we got to Panama, we bought a tent and did a fair amount of beach camping too.
What are some things you’d do differently if you could do it all over again?
Rebekah: I’d save some extra money and take nicer buses on the longer trips. I’d also leave Peru a little sooner. I feel like we stayed a couple of weeks too long. South Peru is stunning but quite touristy—we should have done that region first. I probably would have exercised more prior to leaving if I knew we were going to do so many treks, which are hikes that last a minimum of eight hours!
What are some other budgeting tips you learned along the way?
Rebekah: I had a few thousand dollars to pay off on a credit card before I could even start saving, so I stopped buying things I didn’t need and worked some extra shifts. I was amazed at how quickly my finances turned around. We started discussing this trip in January and had saved enough money by the beginning of October.
Jason: Well saving up wasn’t really an issue for me, I’d be lying if I told you that I’m not the cheapest guy you’ll ever met. I’d been saving money for a bit before our trip and had a small nest egg saved up. South America is pretty cheap by U.S. standards, and we took full advantage of that. Not to mention that we were traveling by backpack with two surfboards for a large chunk of the trip, so anything that we were considering buying really had to be worth it if we were going to lug it around on our backs. That coupled with work exchange sites that Rebekah mentioned, we were able stretch a dime into a dollar.
Rebekah: Since we only budgeted for three months, we had to really stretch to make our money last. We cooked for ourselves in pricier places, stayed on farms when we found a place we liked and took buses instead of flying. We spent three and a half months in Peru, which is a very inexpensive place to travel. The food is delicious and cheap, and we usually ate at the markets. The whole trip lasted eight months, and we did a good mix of eating locally and cooking for ourselves.
What advice do you have for people who want to leave their old lives behind and try out the vagabonding lifestyle?
Rebekah: If you’re considering it, do it! It taught us so much about how to live local in different places, and we saw SO MANY beautiful sights. I will say, at this point in our lives, it would have to be a bit different. We have dogs now, and we are living in an area we love—at the moment, it wouldn’t make sense for us to sell everything we own and uproot ourselves in order to finance a trip like this. It was a transitional period for us, and once we hatched the beginning of an idea, it became the only option. When we did the trip, we knew we’d be starting over from scratch—by choice. We met many different people who took a leave of absence from work, or were self-employed, or had chunks of time off for one reason or another. So get a renter if you own a house, take a travel assignment if that’s an option for you, sell your stuff (but keep your car if you’re coming back) and buy a ticket. Don’t forget to take Spanish lessons, either before you go or once you arrive. We did this in an awesome surf town called Huanchaco, Peru. We spent a couple of weeks there eating ceviche, learning Spanish and surfing a beautiful left break.
Jason: I’ve always told friends that the hardest part of an experience like this is buying the initial flight. Once you land, things have a way of falling into place, kind of like they do in Paulo Coelho's “The Alchemist.” On your deathbed, you’ll never be sorry you took this trip. Your work will be there for you when you get back.
Jason and Rebekah spent two months in Ecuador, two weeks in Colombia, three and a half months learning spanish in Peru, two weeks in Panama, two weeks sailing and wandering around El Salvador, two weeks surfing in Nicaragua, two weeks exploring Guatemala and a month in Mexico. Somehow, they landed on California's Central Coast, which they now call home. You can read about their vagabonding trip on The Wanderful Days, a blog they wrote while traveling through all eight countries.