Beach from hell
By any conventional measure, San Andrés is paradise. The seahorse shaped island lies off the coast of Nicaragua. Lush, palm covered slopes dip into electric blue water. Yet by my fourth day on the island, I’d somehow stumbled into a dark corner of hell. It was called El Acuario.
El Acuario is a tiny sand bar off the main island. It’s a popular snorkeling spot, and, much like a real aquarium, it’s more amusement park than nature preserve. Every 60 seconds, a lancha arrives, carrying a fresh boatload of drunk tourists. Diesel fumes linger in the humid air.
Hundreds of people crowd onto the key, the size of a large city bus. The fish here swim slower, burdened by their all-you-can-eat diet at the Acuario buffet.
Vendors hawk beach shoes and plastic snorkels. One woman holds a bullhorn in the air. It blares a recorded message listing tropical fruits for sale. Somehow it’s audible above the four booming Reggaeton songs. Near the edge of the zoo, mothers snap pictures of bikini-clad daughters. I am tourist, and El Acuario is the trap.
For local entrepreneurs, El Acuario is an excellent racket. Drive people a mile off the coast and strand them. Eventually, even the most rational will begin to drown their boredom in overpriced coco locos and piña coladas. When the return boat finally arrives, no toll is too high to get off the island.
Boredom while traveling
My visit to El Acuario was a particularly wrong turn, but it offers an interesting lesson. In the absence of real satisfaction while traveling, we often end up in a free fall, spending money on drinks, meals, and souvenirs just to do something. This happens just as easily while wandering aimlessly through a culturally rich historic city as lying on a tropical beach. Without a goal, travel becomes a chore. Sadly, the things we think will make us happy often disappoint.
Find meaning through outdoor adventure
Interestingly, outdoor oriented trips avoid many of these pitfalls. Adventure travel, whether hiking, bikepacking or kayaking, provides a concrete goal. From the moment you wake up, you have an objective to accomplish. Although many people think of travel as an escape from work or routine, removing every difficulty from your life is sure to lead to drudgery. Just as learning a language gives travelers a task beyond sightseeing and unites people with their destination, using outdoor adventure as a way to travel can change your relationship to the landscape. Hemingway famously remarked that, “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.” Incorporating human-powered exploration into a trip not only provides a sense of purpose, it also changes your perspective.
At the same time, it is a mistake to think that adventure travel, whether thru-hiking or bike touring, is as peaceful, idyllic or enjoyable as many would lead you to believe. These activities are physically and mentally exhausting. Yet it is precisely the challenge they provide which leads to increased satisfaction. At the end of a backpacking trip, I often encounter extreme awe, relief and accomplishment — feelings rarely felt at the baggage claim. Bonds forge during taxing expeditions.
It feels strange and entitled to criticize such a unique luxury as travel. At the same time, many people travel in remarkably narrow and unsustainable ways. Outdoor recreation is not cheap, but many of these activities are more affordable than the lavish vacations Americans take. Camping and traveling by foot, bike or paddle radically reduces transportation and accommodation costs. Embracing adventure travel may also illuminate possibilities for exploration close to home. Rarely does an outdoor trip exclude opportunities for interacting with people, cultures and cities. Outside of the U.S., the outdoors and culture mingle even more freely.
At its heart, travel is about finding joy and satisfaction in new places. This is certainly a worthy goal, but the way we go about achieving it is misguided. Instead of pursuing happiness itself, we should seek meaning from travel. Outdoor adventure can prevent boredom while traveling by giving people a mission.