Central America Trip Planning Update #1 (Or how I plan extended family travel)
Of all the questions I get about travel, one of the most common is “Where do I even begin? How do you plan a Big Trip?”
Well, fear not, friends. This is the start of a series where I’ll pull back the virtual curtain on my planning process, in all its messy and anticipatory glory.
Confession time: I am a research geek by nature. I cannot tell a lie. This stuff makes me giddy and keeps me up at night in a (mostly) good way. I truly find trip planning almost as exciting as the trip itself. And I understand that for others, the process may be more akin to poking a fork in your eye. I’m here to help.
Let me begin by saying that if you’re either:
a) somewhere in the planning stages of your own Big Trip
b) considering one in the future, but freaked out about what the preparation entails
…then I’ve created something just for you…
It’s a free PDF that I’ll send you when you join our weekly newsletter list. (I promise… I am not a frequent emailer. No fear of being spammed.)
Basically, it walks you through the entire process of getting ready for a big trip. The stuff you do when you first make the decision. The important details in the middle. The last minute things you don’t want to forget. All put together in a timeline/checklist fashion to help make the process a bit more linear and sensible.
But I digress… on to how I’m actually planning this Big Trip of ours!
For those who are wondering “What trip?” The answer is: Our family is leaving on March 6th for 3 months in Central America. Guatemala, Mexico (Yucatan Peninsula), Belize, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua. To say we are pumped would be an understatement.
As we prepare to head into the land of the Mayans, of coffee plantations, and towering volcanoes, and coral reef snorkeling, and nesting turtles, and cloud forests, and polishing up our rusty Spanish, here’s how we’re getting ready to go.
Step 1 – Learn all the things.
A slight exaggeration, I’ll admit. But as a researcher at heart, I feel like I can’t actually plan anything until I have a lay of the land.
By this I mean, yes, a literal lay of the land. I want to know the geography of the region and the countries. How far the major cities are from one another by plane and by land. Which areas are more remote and which are firmly entrenched on the tourist trail. Where the major sites we want to see are located, what type of topography we’ll find in different locations, and what types of weather we might encounter there.
But I also want to have a deeper understanding of the cultures we’re about to encounter. How do they function day to day. What other travelers have enjoyed doing there. What is the approximate cost of living and travel. Which areas are more or less safe. Which spots are overwhelmingly touristy or filled with party-loving, 20-something backpackers of questionable cleanliness.
How do I do it? Well, mostly I read. A lot.
The first stage of preparing for any trip for me begins with information gathering. I spend a lot of evenings googling things like “Best things to do in Nicaragua” or “best places to snorkel in Central America” or “Which Mayan ruins are worth visiting”.
This helps me start figuring out some of the well-known sites, and also hear a bit about the lesser known places where people left a piece of their heart. It also gives me an at-a-glance idea of what might be possible or interesting somewhere.
While I’m doing this, I’ll keep a running list of links to articles that were helpful (I categorize them by country) so I can return to them later. I’ll also jot down notes like Guatemala – Mayan ruins at Tikal. Belize – amazing snorkeling on the reef. That reminds me of things that looked good in a particular place when I get down to the nitty-gritty planning details.
I read travel blogs. I check out indie travel sites like Bootsnall. I will usually buy at least one guidebook of the area or countries we’ll be visiting. I go back to travel memoirs I’ve read before, to remind myself of where they went and what they did in a particular region.
When it comes to guidebooks, I initially start with ones that cover a broad region, then as I narrow it down I’ll buy books for individual countries where we’ll stay the longest, or smaller guides for certain cities or regions. For this particular trip, I’ve only purchased the fat Central America on a Shoestring guide from Lonely Planet so far. I opt for Kindle version so I can bring them with me without the extra weight.
Now that we know for sure that we’ll spend our longest periods of time in Guatemala and Nicaragua, I may buy individual guidebooks just for those countries, but the more general book should be fine for everywhere else
Reading these guides helps to further cement in my mind what we might encounter, the vibe of different cities or regions, what transportation options will be available to us, etc.
Though I may not make any truly specific plans at this point, the information-gathering stage allows me to make informed decisions the rest of the way through planning, and for me personally, it’s crucial to feeling confident once we begin to firm things up (buy flights, book rentals, etc.).
Step 2 – We decide what matters to us as a family.
Although family life does sometimes have to function as a benevolent dictatorship (“Because we said so, and when you’re an adult, you can bring as many stuffed animals as you like when you travel…”), we try as much as possible to approach our trips as a democratic republic. Sure, sometimes a autocratic ruling still slips through, but overall? We like to make our decisions together.
As we make preparations for an upcoming trip, we have a whole lot of conversations. About where we’re going, and what it’s like, and what we might do there. We involve our kids and ask what sounds intriguing to them and try to make a plan to hit up at least some of their must-dos.
I show them maps, books and photos of where we’ll be going. We search things on Google and look through the images to get a feel for the things we could see and do. Sometimes the kids surprise me with caring a whole lot more about something that I anticipated they would.
*On our first Big Trip four years ago, Abbie and I snorkeling in Australia*
For example, I remembered how magical it was to snorkel at the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, but we’ve never been much of a beach family, and I didn’t think our kids would really care about doing a lot of beach stuff on this trip. Yet when I asked them about it and casually mentioned snorkeling at a reef as a possible option, their eyes all lit up like Christmas trees and they got super excited, and so we’ve planned some snorkel and beach time in three of the five countries we’ll be visiting.
As a couple, we spend a lot of time talking about the details, like how long we want to stay put in any one place. We make a wishlist of potential places to go, which ones are non-negotiable and which are up for discussion.
We talk about the speed of our travel, how much we want to actually sight see vs. simply living in a different place. We discuss our goals and values going into this trip and what activities would best match up with those. We discuss the needs of our kids, of us as a couple, and of each of us individually and try to take it all into account.
In other words, we hash through a lot of important conversations.
The more you can do this on the front-end, the less frustrated you’ll be in the midst of your trip when you suddenly realize how different your expectations are and you have to reconcile them once you’re already tired and jet-lagged and culture shocked (ask us how we know).
Step 3 – I craft potential itineraries.
It starts to get fun (and real!) when you begin putting down dates and places on a piece of paper. (Cue planning geekiness coming out in full force.)
As I plan out itineraries, I play around by changing things like:
- the order of countries
- traveling overland vs. by plane
- including an extra place (or skipping something else)
I love using Google Maps to do this, but I also just write it out in my Notes app on my computer. Sometimes I sketch it out with paper and pen. Usually a combination of all of the above.
I compare the prices of one way flights with return flights, and I definitely look at different dates to see where the deals are to be found. I talk over the itinerary with Ryan as many times as he’ll allow me before his eyes begin to glaze over.
These are a few key things that really determine our itinerary decisions:
- How long we can/want to travel for – this time 3 months felt just right.
- The approximate dates/months/season we’d like to be gone for – we decided to leave in early March, just after a major project ends in late February and we didn’t want to be gone much more than 3 months, so we’ll come home the first week of June.
- Which business events and deadlines will occur during that time – for us, we might look at which bundles we’ll be running and plan to be somewhere stationary during those times.
- If there are any fixed-date events we’ll be attending on the road – this time we’re attending a worldschooling summit April 3-8 and then meeting up with friends from April 24-May 5, so those dates were cornerstones as we planned our itinerary.
- We look at maps to see what might make sense as far as proximity, ease of travel, etc.
In my next update, I’ll share more about how I plan the dates and order of our trip as it pertains to flights and costs, and how I find the best deals for plane tickets. We try to hold as much flexibility as we can to allow for choosing the options that are cheapest.
Moving into decision-making mode
Based on all of the above, we got to a place in December where we felt ready to start making firm decisions – buying plane tickets, getting our gear, lining up just a couple initial accomodations, etc. Which means that Operation Gather-All-the-Information was a success!
Here’s what we knew for sure as we moved forward into our next step of trip planning:
When: Depart first week of March (whichever day was cheapest) and come home around the beginning of June (again, looking for the cheapest flight around that time).
How long: A total of 3 months, give or take.
Where: Guatemala (including Flores/Tikal, Antigua, and Lake Atitlan, and other places to be decided later), Mexico (Merida for worldschooling summit, then a few days snorkeling on the coast maybe near Majahual), Belize (a week on Caye Caulker), Costa Rica (fly into San Jose, 2 weeks with friends in Guanacaste, then 4-7 days traveling by land from Manuel Antonio up to the Nicaragua border, sight seeing along the way), and finally Nicaragua (San Juan del Sur, Isla Ometeppe, Granada, Leon, etc.).
What: We highly value staying put, renting a home in just one place, rather than always being on the go. So we’ve agreed to include three longer stays during our travels:
- 3 weeks in a small village on Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
- 2 weeks in a house with friends in Guanacaste, Costa Rica
- 3 weeks in a to-be-determined town or city in Nicaragua (got suggestions for me?).
The rest of the time will still include a lot of 4-7 day stays in one place, with just a little bit of faster travel in between.
Activities we know we’d like to do: Spanish lessons in Guatemala and possibly Nicaragua, snorkeling, visit at least two Mayan ruin sites, several volcano day hikes, explore the rainforest and cloud forest, go to a famous market in the Guatemalan highlands, look for at least one volunteering opportunity, connect with other worldschooling families. And also? Run our businesses and homeschool our kids. That’s critical for us. This isn’t vacation. It’s “regular” life in a new and interesting place.
Phew! I apparently have a lot to say about how I plan extended family travel! Next time I’ll share what early decision-making mode looked like, what we settled on, how I researched it, etc.
Photo credits: Lake Atitlan, creepy green snake, rainforest bridge, Chitzen Itza ruins.
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