Having travelled independently as a couple throughout 2016 we’ve recently completed our first group tour through a section of Central America so thought it would be helpful to share our views and compare our experiences of both independent and group travelling.
We spent 17 days travelling from Antigua, Guatemala to San Jose, Costa Rica with Intrepid Travel on the ‘Central American Journey‘ tour. We booked this about 8 weeks in advance of the start of the trip via Intrepid’s website. Intrepid were fast and responsive with one or two questions we had in advance of the trip.
Intrepid have a wide range of worldwide trips of varying lengths and categories. Ours was:
Theme: ‘Explorer‘ which are designed to enable you to ‘step out of your comfort zone with a mix of adventure, culture, history and tasting local food’
Style: ‘Basix’ for budget travellers.
Physical rating: 2/5 which means that the activities are relatively easy and no physical preparation is necessary.
Cultural rating: 3/5 meaning we may be exposed to poverty, different food and non-English speakers.
The minimum age is 15 and there is no maximum age limit. There is a maximum number of 16 guests per trip. The number of fellow travellers and mix of ages is entirely random and literally depends on who has booked onto your trip. As a global company you could be travelling with guests from any country from around the world.
Chris’s daughter Annabelle joined us for this part of our overall 2016 adventures and the three of us were curious about who our fellow Intrepid explorers would be. Would they be a bunch of teenage party animals ready to hit the town just as we were ready to creep into bed with our cocoa or maybe a dozen whinging donut heads who would criticise and complain every 30 seconds, “the local shop doesn’t sell custard creams” or “the beach is too sandy” or “there was no air-conditioning when we had to line up outside…” (ha ha… this bit was pinched from a hilarious article from Huffington Post…)
Anyway we met them all for the first time at the 6 pm welcome meeting in Antigua. Fortunately there was a good mix of people: 2 x newly wed couples from Australia; 1 couple from Switzerland; 3 ladies travelling solo each from Australia and the 3 of us from England. The age range was 26 to 67. And thankfully everyone seemed to be genuinely decent people all looking forward to their Central American adventure.
Throughout the course of the trip the group bonded well and we made some lovely friends. We stayed in budget hotels which were probably 2* and similar to the type of accommodation we have often stayed in throughout the course of this year. So no hair dryers, fluffy bathrobes in the closet or luxury toiletries!
Below are some photos of the room we shared in La Tortuga Verde (the green turtle) complete with a hammock each in the little porch area.
For us we probably didn’t step too far out of our comfort zone. These budget hotels were a luxury compared with the barn we slept in during our Thailand Trek or washing from a bucket in the Philippine Rice Terraces! We’ve been so fortunate to have experienced many different cultures throughout this year and had the pleasure of sampling delicious local food across the globe.
Throughout this Intrepid trip we enjoyed visiting some of the more off-the-beaten track destinations. In Suchitoto for example there were few tourists and many of the locals didn’t speak English which gave it a more authentic feel. This was one of our favourite places and somewhere we possibly wouldn’t have considered visiting had it not been part of the Intrepid itinerary.
There were several optional activities or excursions available at each location and these were offered to us when we arrived. There was no pressure to participate and our guide also helped us to make our own arrangements if we wanted to do something that wasn’t part of the tour programme for example, visiting the Asis animal rescue centre in La Fortuna.
Pros and cons
Independent travel is definitely cheaper! Unfortunately for us Brits and the current poor value of the GB pound against the US dollar this turned into a more expensive trip than it was when we booked (prior to Brexit… no we are not annoyed or bitter…). We booked through the US offices of Intrepid Travel which meant paying in US dollars…
The current poor exchange rate has had a big impact on the second half of our year of travels regardless of the Intrepid trip. Many Central American countries have currencies which are closely linked to the dollar; often accept dollars as payment and even dispense dollars from many ATM’s. So our independently booked accommodations and transport have also been more expensive than planned.
When travelling independently you can be more flexible throughout the day. For example, if you are enjoying a leisurely lunch you can stay a bit longer and not have to rush back to be on the bus at 2 pm! You can also change your plans if you change your mind.
We were lucky to have great fellow travellers but you could end up travelling with a group of people you dislike. We would suggest this may be unlikely as this kind of trip would probably appeal to open minded people with similar travel interests.
Group travel is a great way to meet people and make good friends with which to share experiences. We enjoyed having our meals with the group where we could all chat about the day.
Organising an extensive travel adventure independently is time consuming and when you are moving around every few days for a significant length of time is something which needs to be done on a continual basis. We enjoyed a rest from this! 16 nights where someone else took care of booking the accommodation and working out the travel arrangements was great!
Travelling on such an intense tour kept our pace up! We had no option but to get up at 4 am when necessary; check in and out as required and make sure we were on that bus! It’s easy to say “lets not do xxx” when we are on our own! We would probably still be in El Salvador…
Transitioning through 5 or 6 borders was far easier with Intrepid! Our experienced group leader told us what we needed to do, where to go and we were informed in advance how much each border fee would cost and in what currency we needed to pay it.
When doing this ourselves, i.e. when crossing the border from Belize to Guatemala we Googled this but found 8 different responses which meant we still didnt know how much local currency or dollars we actually needed. We learned as we progressed through several Central American land border crossings that there are always people offering currency exchange between multiple currencies at each border so it doesn’t matter if you have any left over.
Even small amounts are changed. We had a good experience of changing Honduran currency to $US when we received a few $ more than anticipated. And the cash was real!
Each of the many day tour guides we experienced were excellent… our main Intrepid tour leader knew from running the trip several times before which were the best local tour companies to use. This is something else we would need to research ourselves, usually on TripAdvisor and before booking any day tours.
We felt safer to be travelling with a group… Granada in Nicaragua felt the least safe place we visited but our guide was able to tell us which were safe streets to walk along at night and which were not safe due to no street lighting and being in a poor neighbourhood. We also found that going out at night with others in the group felt safer too.
Our Intrepid guide travelled with us for the whole journey. She was Guatemalan and had good local knowledge of each country. She was able to answer all of our questions and queries which enhanced our enjoyment of the tour.
We had a fantastic trip with Intrepid and particularly valued the company of 10 other travellers, sharing knowledge, travel stories and experiences. We would definitely like to participate in future group travel tours. Ideally this would be to places a little off-the-beaten track or tours with lots of border crossings! We would still prefer to explore a country such as New Zealand or Canada by ourselves and with our own transport so that we can be more flexible and plan our own itinerary.