Getting older definitely has its perks: it adds experience, confidence, and maybe even a bit of wisdom. When it comes to backpacking in my 40s this time around – across Mexico – I find that age has also added a little insecurity. 

“But how can you be both confident and insecure,” I hear you wonder. 

It’s been about five years since I last went backpacking. In those five short years (or were they long; I haven’t decided yet) a lot has changed. I’m five years older for a start. I’m nearing *cough, cough* and while I have no trouble lugging my backpack and daypack around, I do feel a little slower. Unfit? Perhaps. 

But that’s okay, because I also appreciate the sights, smells, and sounds around me more. I’m not in as much of a rush to get anywhere. Nor do I feel I must see everything now as much. Or am I kidding myself? Time will tell.

The highs

I’ve always loved staying in hostels. They’re a wonderful melange of people, cultures, languages, and age groups. Where else can you chat to an octogenarian former radio DJ and a twenty-something gap-year student and find the conversation funny, stimulating, and interesting? 

I enjoy criss-crossing a country by bus. It gives such a real perspective and feel for places to watch them amble by through a coach window. (I love trains for the same reason.) Getting around this way offers a glimpse into a country’s culture. It’s the slow way to travel, allowing time for it to all soak in. 

It always takes me a few days to find my travelling feet again, no matter how many times I’ve done it. Arriving in a new country with a different culture and language and finding my way around – not to mention figuring out where everything is in my backpack and remembering to take my toothbrush and toothpaste to the bathroom with me – takes a bit of getting re-used to. It’s like the warm-up before a run. But pretty soon, muscle memory kicks in and it’s like I never stopped travelling. 

On my last stint in Southeast Asia five years ago, I felt like Mama Christina with many of the younger travellers I came across. It was a good feeling. I was accepted as the cool, slightly hippy aunt who could hang out with the group but who could also offer advice when needed. 

But those lows…

This time feels different. There’s no warm, fuzzy feeling. At least not yet. Younger travellers are polite but bypass me. There are far fewer people backpacking in their 40s and beyond. Those who are around aren’t in hostels as much anymore and tend to travel in couples or with groups of friends. I feel less like the cool aunt and more like the grandma of how things used to be. 

Lately I’ve been waking up naturally before dawn. It’s annoying, but I realised that I get the city all to myself if I’m out early. No more waiting for people to get out of the way so I can get a clear shot of a place. And watching a city wake up is one of my all-time favourite things to do. 

But with that comes going to sleep earlier. Less pub crawling, more curling up with a book. And that’s a missed opportunity for mingling and feeling “in” with the younger crowd. 

Starting the day at dawn to get to Chichen Itza before the heat and crowds. Worth it!

How backpacking has changed

Yet the more I think about it, the more I question whether it is just me. 

The way people travel has changed too. The volume of Instagram poses I’ve seen lately vastly outnumbers what I remember from those five long years ago (yes, I decided they’re long). The number of people who slap on a set of don’t-talk-to-me headphones the size of dinner plates has multiplied exponentially, and everyone has their eyes glued to their phone (myself included a lot of the time, to be fair). The amount of superficial pleasantries among travellers has grown immeasurably. And Uber is the city travel mode of choice for most over the metro. 

Or is it just me? Maybe I no longer give off the cool-aunt vibe. Maybe I’m stuck in my ways and through sheer stubbornness like to struggle on the metro in a language I don’t speak rather than jump into a taxi.

Is any of this going to stop me? Hell, no!

But you know what? I kind of like my way. It’s served me well so far. All that experience and confidence don’t come from a podcast or a cab driver. They come from getting stuck at the border crossing because there’s a strike, or from wondering through a city’s back streets and finding that obscure little cafe with the delicious cake that no guidebook has listed yet. It grows from those conversations with the octogenarians and twenty-somethings. 

Just putting this into words has made me realise that it’s actually all right. And just like that, the insecurity lessens and the confidence is back. I don’t care if I’m the cool aunt or not. Not too much anyway.

Now I really must get off my dorm bed and go for that sundowner. If no one wants to chat to me, I’m perfectly happy with my own company. And, all going well, I fully expect to be backpacking beyond my 40s and well into my 50s and beyond too!

Got any tips on backpacking in your 40s? I would love to hear them!

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