Getting Scared and Excited All Over Again

colonial statue in san jose, costa ricaAfter four and a half years of travel, most people assume I have this travel thing down pat. I can just be plopped down anywhere, and I’ll be alright. “You’ve done this before,” people say to me. While it’s true that I’m an “old hand” at this, there are moments when I still get as nervous, anxious, scared, and excited as a traveler heading out on the first day of their round-the-world trip.

My trip to Central America on Thursday is one of those times. Last time I was there, I was in a tour group. This time I’m backpacking alone through Costa Rica, Panama, and Nicaragua. I’ve never backpacked Central America before. I’m nervous and scared, and I don’t know why.

I’ve traversed mountains, roamed Southeast Asia, and made friends with strangers all over the world, but for some reason, I’m scared about going to Central America. I know it’s all in my mind, and there’s really nothing to be worried about. Tons of people have backpacked this part of the world and turned out fine. I’m following a trail worn down by many people before me.

But there’s this gnawing part of me saying, what if? Central America is often viewed as a dangerous place in the US and hasn’t received great press in the American media. All you hear about the region is negativity.

I keep worrying that I’m going to be kidnapped, robbed, taken somewhere sketchy in a taxi, and left in the jungle if I don’t hand over my stuff. I keep thinking the Sandinistas are going to jump out of the next corner. Will I be mugged? I don’t know! Probably not, but what if it does happen?

arenal volcano, costa rica
I know these are all silly fears. Central America is fine. Costa Rica has so many old Americans living there we might as well call it “New Florida.” Panama is an “in” destination now. My friends Jamie and Geno traveled around Panama, and they won’t go anywhere without a Hilton! If they can do it, I know I can too.

Before I first started traveling the world, I had all these fears. I was nervous and scared. What if something happened? Would I be able to make friends? Is it OK to travel alone? Will my stuff get stolen? Will I get ripped off? Traveling the world was totally different from what I was used to. It’s only human to be scared of the unknown, and lots of travelers get a little anxious before their big trip. (I know—I get their emails asking for advice.)

I know there’s really nothing to be scared of. I know I’m overreacting just like I did on my first trip abroad. It’s like I tell people all the time, “There’s nothing to be worried about. It’s all in your head. Thousands of people travel the world each year. Just take the leap! You’ll be fine.”

the split at caye caulker belize
But I’m happy to be scared. It’s been a long time since I’ve been this excited to go somewhere. I feel like I’m stepping out again for the first time. I think some of this has to do with the area. I know a lot about Europe, Australia, and East Asia, but I don’t know much about Central America. I know what to expect elsewhere—not here.

It’s been so long since I’ve been in this situation; I’ve forgotten what it’s like, and maybe that’s contributing to it too. I should be good about this, right? But it’s exciting to feel this way. Travel has become work for me, and I miss that sense of sheer, unadulterated excitement I see in new travelers. Now I’m so excited, I could jump up and down on Oprah’s couch.

san jose, costa ricaIt feels liberating to feel this way. It goes to show that no matter how long you’ve been traveling, no matter how long you’ve been backpacking, there’s always a part of you that can be filled with that nervous scared excitement you had on day one.

I know I’m about to have a great time meeting great people, eating great food, lounging on beaches, and heading into the unknown. Departure day is close, and though I’m still thinking about the “what ifs,” I’m simply too excited to care about them anymore.

If you need help taking the plunge, check out my guide to getting started planning your trip.

  1. New Florida–good one. Have a fantastic time. You will be fine. Safer in Central America than in many North American cities–with all the road rage and all.

    Chris Guillebeau’s post today about Dangerous Places may strike a chord.

  2. Franny

    Matty – Panama was one of the easiest places I’ve ever traveled, even easier than Costa Rica. Because of the canal and American “occupation” (as they call it) for 100 years, the roads, sanitation, water systems, etc are practically up to developed country standards. There are *tons* of Americans and Canadians (i mean: TONS) retiring in Boquete and around, so maybe avoid those areas (we left after a night), but you’ll love it there.

    • patricia

      Hello Matt, just discovered your site, I saw you while reading my aol mail. I’m from Panama and you will enjoy it there. I love traveling too and i do get anxious but I love it. I’ll be visiting you often, just call me gypsy patsy, lol!!!

  3. Buen viaje!!!!!!!!! I LOVE this part of the world! Being scared is a normal part of traveling. Embrace it! I can’t promise you won’t get kidnapped, but I’ve never had any issues with safety there. I wish you the most amazing mis/adventures EVER!

  4. Matt: as a panamanian I am traveling Central America is freakingly easy. The south (Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua are more easier than the rest of the countries). I did that trip last year and I met lots of americans having fun.

    Give me a reply if you crash into Panama.


  5. Sean


    Are you trying to make up for your article “The World is Boring” which you removed from your website. Are you feeling the pressure from your advertisers? Shame on a person who pretends to be a liberal and open minded!!

    • NomadicMatt

      A) I’m not making up for anything. If you don’t like my blog, don’t read it.

      B) My advertisers don’t have any say in what I write and probably don’t even follow.

      • Sean

        No need to be defensive Matt. I do love your website and I will keep reading it. Indeed what annoyed me is that you have such as good site, suddenly you write something and then remove it without any reason which makes me (and other followers I guess) wonder!!We have the right to ask this question. Anyway, have a good trip to Central America.

        • NomadicMatt

          Sorry for getting defensive. I’m sort of tired of talking about it. It got removed because people got nasty.

          Thanks for the well wishes.

  6. Abdul-Hashmi

    Matt – out of curiosity – how many countries have your traveled to in your life? I tried finding a route map on your site, but didn’t see one. If I were to guess, I’d say you’ve been to places like Australia, New Zealand, SE Asia, and Europe. Have you been to Brazil, Russia, India, Japan, or Africa?

  7. I know what you mean, man. Headed to Dubai after a couple years in Asia and Europe, and had that twinge of excitement and nervousness that used to be so regular. Even knowing that it was a developed and pretty easy place to travel, just something about how different it was brought that feeling back.

  8. It’s good to be scared – it keeps you on your toes. Most of Central America is relatively safe – but watch out for those capitals. When I was in Nicaragua recently I felt entirely safe in the whole country apart from Managua – and for good reason: I met some Swiss girls who took a dodgy taxi and were driven way out of town, and relieved of all of their posessions including passports, and then dumped by the side of the road. So if you end up there be very careful about taxis (or even better – avoid Managua altogether, there is very little to see and it is easy enough to get between the major tourist attractions using shuttle buses that don’t go via Managua. Even if you fly in by plane the lovely city of Granada is less than an hour away from Managua airport by shuttle or taxi.

  9. Have a great trip! I haven’t been to those places yet, but we went to Colombia a few years ago to visit my husband’s side of the family (and do some exploring on our own), and we loved it! It’s definitely in the top 5 for me. South America is still so beautiful and untouched in many places, so you can really enjoy the natural beauty there.

  10. It’s great to see your enthusiasm about Latin America. I’ve not had the chance yet, though I love Mexico with a passion.

    Don’t understand why you removed the “The World is Boring” post, it was good, though I’m sure many misunderstood it.

  11. Know what u talkin about! Before every trip I hear from others I must be fine, but I’m still always nervous! Even yesterday was just on the way home, which took me 25 hours!!
    Enjoy Central America and already lookin 4ward to some great stories of urs!

  12. Great to know that such a well travelled person still gets the ‘travel jitters’ too. I usually just get nervous about meeting new people, even though I’m quite a social person.

  13. A guy I meant in Chile came through central america and couple of buddies from there, even though the american media does give a lot of places a bad name its not that safe their either so in this scenario i would be on your side with the travel jitters.. lol be safe my man!

  14. This fear of unknown is one of the most exciting parts of travelling. Not knowing everything can be a bit stresful but it’s also very refreshing. Every time I go to some place new my head is usually full of questions, but most often than not I quickly discover my fears are completely unnecessary. It’s because world is much safer than we are made to believe.

  15. I agree with the above advice on avoiding Managua and seeing Ometepe. Granada is beautiful and a good base to take day trips to nearby pueblos. Easy to do via local buses near the municipal market. Also taking a boat ride through Las Isletas, an Archipelago of islands near Granada on Lake Nicaragua is a nice way to spend a morning or afternoon. Nicaragua is wonderful.

    Can’t say I loved Panama City but don’t regret going and would like to travel to other parts of the country.

  16. Looking forward to following your travels down there. If things go according to plan, I’ll be starting my RTW at this time next year and in the places you’ll be heading. have fun!

  17. This is making me excited as well, great man! Have a great trip, and am sure its gonna be safe as well.

    However, if you do get kidnapped and survive etc, it might make for some really interesting stories later on 😉

    Happy traveling!

    • Sean

      Well done Matt and thanks. You should note the strong response you got about this issue is because of your website popularity and SUCCESS. And part of this success is to be able to accept others opinions and crtisicm however they are strong or different from you. Mark it down, there will be another time when you are going to get into the same issue and I am sure you now have experience how to handle it. Cheers

  18. Jill

    We’re skipping Central America and heading south to SA for our RTW… saving CA for future trips. Can’t wait to learn more about the area from your travels. Have fun!

  19. The butterflies and nervousness, that’s why we do it – right? It’s like a mild adrenaline rush, venturing into the unknown. Hubby and I just did a year around South America, took a brief break back in Canada, and then once we booked our flight down to Central America, we got nervous all over again. If it’s no longer a little scary, it’s no longer fun. Enjoy! =)

  20. I know how you feel! I’ve been playing the what if game quite a bit now that I’m out on the road. My overzealous, scaredy cat family is reading about every possible thing that could go wrong and sending me links about it. I’m hanging in there though. Two weeks in and all is well =)

    Hopefully will see you on the road at some point!

  21. Phil

    This really takes the cake, you have been “traveling” for 4 years and your Scared???

    This is the main reason why you avoid certain countries and mostly travel western easy countries.

    It shows that some people can travel all they want but never learn the depths of life.

    So what happened to the posting on the boring world?

    • NomadicMatt

      This post is about pre-trip jitters and how even after many years of travel, you can still get that nervous excitement of a new traveler.

  22. Chris

    I’m studying in Costa Rica this semester and took trips to Panama and Nicaragua. I LOVED Granada. Probably one of my favorite cities. I was there just after Ortega was re-elected so I was a little worried but there were no problems at all. Bocas was beautiful as well. I think it’s just the US media representation, especially of Nicaragua for political reasons, that worry people. Gorgeous countries, wonderful people, and so many things to do! Glad you went. =)

  23. Alex

    I realize this is an old post but I just wanted to say that Central America is actually a very dangerous region. In El Salvador alone (the smallest country in Central America) there are 13 murders a day, on average (this number is from a few years ago too.) Quite a bit more dangerous than Europe/SE Asia.

  24. Franny

    Chuck – I don’t think Matt is claiming to be an expert on every country in the world.. I think his point was people’s routines are fundamentally similar and putting other cultures on a pedestal is setting unrealistic expectations for yourself as a traveler. Having lived and worked in ‘only’ two countries other than your own is plenty to offer that as an observation, IMHO.

  25. The problem wasn’t about his right to opinions, it’s that a topic became heated (and many had a different point of view) then the entire piece was removed.

    I would like to see the post back up, and simply close comments. Let those who contributed something thoughtful (agreeing or disagree) remain. If moderating unsavory personal comments (as opposed to an inteligent counter-opinion) is too much work, just close the comments for that post with a final note why. Many other blogs practice this. It’s not a good precedent to remove content just because of an overall unfavorable trend. (You can’t do it in print, so it shouldn’t happen with a blog.) Not every hit is a home run, so take the criticism in stride.

    Since the topic continues to be discussed on two subsequent posts, I certainly think it deserves to be reinstated.

    I read the entire post and comments on Google cache, and agree with the fundamental idea – i.e. life routes are fairly similar throughout the world. But conversely when I travel, especially to a poorer country, I’m always reminded how hard many work in life for a day’s wages, and how fortunate I am, that even as a part time traveler I have the resources (with some planning) to drop myself in almost any part of the world I’d like to see.

    That’s something a large percentage of the world will never be able to do, and many only watch planes land and depart from their towns and cities, and by random life circumstance will never have the opportunity to ever be in one. While my travels are limited to a few weeks here and a few weeks there, I never take it for granted. Perhaps where the anomosity came from, but I enjoyed the post – and the respectful parts of the discussion.

    Matt all the best in Central America.

Leave a Comment