Backpacking Isn’t About Being The Most ‘Hardcore’

A story about two spoiled travellers and an awesome grandad—from my visit to the Salt Flats of Uyuni in Bolivia.

In Bolivia I recently spent three days on a mini-expedition to the salt flats of Uyuni and the Chiguana desert, a desolate Moon-like place like something from a dream.

To visit these remote and isolated places we had to ride jeeps through rough terrain. The landscape around us seemed to stretch out forever, and we were often many hours of driving away from the nearest human settlement. Our backpacks and food supplies were stored on the roofs along with refuelling tanks, as there were no gas stations anywhere along our route.

Along the way we saw the infinite whiteness of the Uyuni salt lake, explored surreal islands with petrified coral and giant cacti that were up to 700 years old, rested alongside lagoons full of pink flamingos, and visited a semi-active volcano where boiling mud and sulphur fumes violently burst out of the ground.

It was, in a word, phenomenal.

But not exactly everyone enjoyed it. Specifically, there were two women in my group who were seemingly having the worst times of their lives.

Why?

Well, because it was quite cold at times, which is not surprising at an altitude of up to 5000m…

And… because our lunch had been prepared in the morning and stored in a picnic box, instead of having been prepared fresh at lunchtime.

And because in the middle of the desert, miles and miles away from civilization, we had to use a biological toilet. The horror!

It’s really puzzling why they were here. They kept complaining about the basic food, or that there was only instant coffee and not coffee from an espresso machine (in the middle of a freaking desert!), or that driving a jeep through rough terrain was ‘too bumpy’. What did they expect?

It’s sadly not the first time I have met travelers like them. It always bums me out.

I feel like to make an omelette you have to break some eggs. When it comes to adventure travel, sometimes the most unique, interesting, need-to-write-home-about sights can take a little effort to get to. You might not be enjoying 5-star comfort all the time, but that’s not what it’s about.

Above: stunning lagoons, entirely ruined by the nightmare of instant coffee.

Maybe you have to make due for a while in a desolate place, like this desert I went to. Or maybe you just have to ride a bus for many hours that’s crammed with people, luggage and possibly live chickens. You might have to arrive somewhere at 6 a.m. and find your accommodation in the dark, or have to eat a more basic meals in authentic local places instead of your typical Western gringo fare. If you are travelling on a tight budget, maybe you need to settle for a basic guesthouse or sleep in a dorm.

All this may not be for everyone, which is understandable. But if it isn’t for you, then there is absolutely no shame in having a regular holiday.

Just getting back to the two women on my tour, it seemed they would have been much happier just renting a villa on the coast of Italy or sipping cocktails on a beach in Thailand. If you want comfort, then maybe Bolivia—one of the poorest countries in the world—should not be your first choice.

The point is not that backpackers are hardcore and those wanting comfort are being silly. It’s fine to want luxury, and I have been on more comfortable holidays myself. The point is that if you are going some place a little more adventurous, you should know what to expect.

Atacama desert, near the border with Chile

I feel like backpacking is for anyone willing to go just a little bit back to basics. We are clearly not in the pioneering days of adventure travel anymore and you can backpack with relative ease even in relatively undeveloped countries. While some would like to pretend they are Marco Polo discovering the world for the first time, that’s often really just the image they project onto Facebook and Instagram. They are probably enjoying conveniently pre-arranged backpacker tours and check into WiFi every day (I know I do!). Backpacking doesn’t have to be that strenuous or challenging, as long as you can make due a little bit sometimes.

But conversely, if comfort and luxury are important to you, I also think you shouldn’t pretend otherwise. Why do something that you are not going to enjoy?

Hundreds of years old cacti in the Uyuni salt flats. The black dots in the distance are our jeeps.

I think you have to ask yourself some questions. For instance, are you okay carrying your own luggage? (I genuinely heard complaints about this with regards to a hostel!) Can you deal with the unexpected sometimes? And could you survive on bad Nescafe instant coffee? (Though I won’t lie, that stuff is horrific…)

On my trip in the Bolivian desert there was another notable person in my group. He was a little over 60 years old and had joined his daughter (who had been travelling for a year) for several weeks in Bolivia and Chile. Despite his older age and despite (as he told us) being used to flying business class, he didn’t mind the basic accommodation or food whatsoever. In fact, he was one of the most chipper travellers around, and was constantly excited about the amazing landscapes and unusual wildlife around us. He adapted instantly and had a great time.

Needless to say he quickly became my favourite person on our mini-expedition. It was easy for me to admire him as in a quiet way he embodied the true backpacker spirit: it’s not about being the youngest or the most ‘hardcore’, but in the end it’s simply about having a positive attitude and an open mind.

So to that I would say: just have a comfortable holiday. OR… suck it up, drink that ghastly instant coffee, and see where adventure takes you….

Who knows what amazing experiences you will find?

On one of our breaks I sighted this Andean fox. About as awful as the dorm beds we had to sleep in.

The crater of a semi-active volcano which we were free to explore. NASA does research nearby as rare microbes found here are similar to ones on Mars (!!). Sadly my travel companions were mostly occupied with complaining about the cold, and promptly returned to our vehicle. I wish they’d had a better trip.

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4 comments

  1. Comment by Toby

    Toby Reply January 21, 2016 at 11:02 pm

    My girlfriend and I are currently in Bolivia. I plan to head to Uyuni, she’s not so sure. I really like adventure and will leave disappointed if I don’t cross the salt flats to Chile. She’s likes comfort, hates the cold and has a bad back. Not sure I want to leave her alone in Bolivia either. Is there any suggestions (I know it’s a big ask)

  2. Comment by Jess

    Jess Reply January 5, 2016 at 6:01 pm

    This article made me smile! I am just about to go on a salt flats tour myself and can not wait. I have my fingers crossed for other travellers like the 60+ dad you met.

    • Comment by Marek

      Marek Reply January 5, 2016 at 7:39 pm

      Hah glad to hear! Enjoy the salt flats Jess 🙂 Amazing place…

  3. Comment by Charlie

    Charlie Reply December 7, 2014 at 3:51 pm

    Looks very ruggedly beautiful out there! I think you raise a good point when you ask the question as to why travellers go on these kind of trips when in reality they’re not all that keen.

    There’s definitely a lot of people who want to show off that they’ve done something, will hate it the whole way through and go back home telling everyone what an awesome time they’ve had. I’ve met loads of people who do this, travel bloggers too. It’s such a shame when there are so many different travel options and activities that people feel they have to choose to do things that aren’t really up their street.

    Thanks for sharing your story!

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