Book Review: Backpacked: A Reluctant Trip Across Central America by Catherine Ryan Howard

As somebody who spends around 75% of his time daydreaming about being somewhere else travel books is a mixed blessing in that they give me new places to add to my destination wishlist but at the same time there’s something a little masochistic in reading about fantastic places and crazy experiences, it’s like watching Nigella Lawson on TV when you’re on a diet.

Most travel writers seem to have a similar outlook to me, only a bit more bravery, in that they want to see the world, meet new people and try new things to expand their experience and understanding of the world.

But, as the title of this book suggests CRH isn’t like this.


She makes it clear early on that she is not the traditional backpacker. She is somebody who loves shopping, pampering and lounging by the pool. Neither does she buy into the traditional traveler ethos that globalization is bad and chain stores are the work of the devil, in fact she states quite clearly early on in the book that she loves Starbucks, Subway etc.

This makes the book oddly refreshing in a way, a story of roughing it by somebody who likes the easy life, exotic locations visited by someone who doesn’t really want to be there.

That’s not to say that the entire book is one long whinge about not enjoying herself, along the way she does embrace new experiences, thanks mainly to her traveling partner Sheelagh, an old friend who’s more enthusiastic and adventurous. Her friend keeps her going, both through encouragement and also due to CRH’s desire not to spoil the trip for her mate.

This is one of the things that makes CRH a likable narrator, she’s a genuinely nice person and extremely easy to relate to. In my own limited traveling experience I know that there are moments when you just want to be left alone, when you want to retreat into the familiar. I get that.

She’s also a writer who’s got a great knack for observation and describing people, as well as writing in this engaging, funny style. There are times when she’s incredibly frustrating, and she reminds me of the Helen Fielding character Bridget Jones, in that she has the same mix of likable goofiness and sweetness couples with at times frustrating shallowness, including the moment where her anti-malaria pills result in a loss of appetite and she views this as a positive as it’ll help her shift some weight.

Oh, and she slags off Steven Seagal, which is a yellow card in my book.


But this makes her an extremely naturalistic writer, aware and acknowledging her own flaws as easily as she highlights those in others. Her foibles make her stand out as an interesting voice in the world of travel writing and there’s something admirable in the way she keeps going even when she’s out of her depth and the way she pushes herself to continue.

Verdict: A very entertaining light read, Howard writes with honesty and wit. She’s not always 100% likable, but who is. Funny, engaging and makes me want to do some more traveling. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Backpacked: A Reluctant Trip Across Central America by Catherine Ryan Howard

  1. Cool, maybe I’ll check it out when I get back to AK. I recommend adding “Baghdad without a map” to your list. Published in the mid 90’s. Great book. And a little Alaskana..”Ordinary Wolves”. A great perspective on modern bush life in Alaska. Saludos de Colombia!

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