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USA Flag[i] Some things you might want to know in the way of backpacking, budget travel country advice, tips, info and summaries for: North America - Canada, México and USA / The United States of America

» It is worth looking, if you have not already, at the example layout to see the guidelines each section of information is based on - or for other travel advice and site home head for http://travelindependent.info

Editorial

Mexico is shown here, but is often classed by travellers as part of Central America. Both the United States summary (which was authored by Peter John), Canada (which was authored by Zamil Ansu) and the Mexico write up cover huge areas and for this reason the USA summary has been split up into various regions. Mexico and certainly the USA and Canada need a little more money to travel in that other options, but are fantastic destinations, highly varied and very rewarding. Too many closed-minded independent travellers object to American foreign policy or American mass culture, and don't bother with the US. Their loss.

 





>   North America

 * Get your bearings... show/hide map of the region

» Canada

  • Intro: Canada might be stereotyped as the land of beer-drinking hockey players who pass the time producing maple syrup or partaking of lumberjack activities. Some will probably think of it as adrift politically and culturally to the USA and as a second thought to its much publicised, big-city, neighbour to the South. While some of the stereotypes are true, there is much more to Canada. The Great White North is an outdoors paradise both in the winter and the summer and rivals the likes of New Zealand, South Africa and Brazil for spectacular natural beauty. It is a popular skiing and winter sports destination with loads of possibilities and winter festivals. In the summer, there are endless hiking, mountain biking, rafting, canoeing, and camping sites. With a rich history and multi-ethnic population, any traveller will feel right at home when travelling within the country.

Maple LeafCanada can be considered liberal, tolerant and, without doubt, very tourist-friendly. Several aspects of Canada will appeal to the independent traveller. From coast to coast, there is an extensive range of hostels and budget accommodation. There are also campsites all around that are popular among Canadians and tourists. It is also safe, especially in comparison to the US and affordable compared to parts of Western Europe/USA. Canada is sparsely populated outside the big cities and getting off the beaten track is not difficult at all.

Nevertheless, don't get too enthusiastic and think you can tour tour the entire length of the country at one go (unless you have about 6-8 weeks & healthy budget). Whether you visit during the summer or winter, it is guaranteed your long flight will be worth it as you meet fun Canadians who will be proud to show you what the country has to offer.

Highlights

Vancouver Island, Whistler, Canadian Rockies (Banff, Lake Louise, Jasper), Okanagan Valley, West Edmonton Mall, Churchill (polar bear capital of the world), Quebec’s Old City, Rideau Canal, Cape Breton Island (& other coastal areas in the Atlantic), whale watching, outdoor activities. Extensive hosteling network, transportation (hop-on/off buses in most provinces). More adventurous travellers should head north to watch the finest Aurora Borealis or to Athabasca for sand duning (yes there is a desert in Canada). Once the snow clears, patios come alive during the day and Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver offer some of the best nightlife.

Highlights

It gets VERY cold during winters. Unless you are American, getting in is expensive and getting around is long and strenuous. While Canada is certainly rich in culture, Native history is showcased only in limited areas.


Add Note: Many thanks to Zamil Ansu for supplying this summary on Canada of a period of travel. The information here is from this author and not the site author. The views and facts expressed here are well researched and good quality, but just bear in mind they should perhaps not be compared directly to other country summaries by other authors.

  • Typical tourist trail: No specific trail to follow, but there are two distinct regions. East: Halifax - Cape Breton Island- Quebec City/ Montreal- Kingston, Ottawa- Toronto & West: Vancouver- Vancouver Island, Whistler- Okanagan Valley, Kooteneys- Banff/Jasper- Calgary/Edmonton

  • Getting around: Very similar to New Zealand/Australia with many backpacker buses and cheap train tickets for students. While the tourist buses are great value, they can (as is the case with networks all over the world), be full of snobby, pretentious "backpackers”, which is a shame as moosenetwork (www.moosenetwork.ca) and saltybear (www.saltybear.ca) tours are very insightful and creative. Rent a car and share fuel costs, etc. to design your own fun. Hitchhiking to ski/hiking resorts is very common (just be sensible). Greyhound offers bus and VIA Rail offers rail travel. Travel times are long so be prepared. Air Canada Jazz and West Jet are best bets for getting around by air.

  • Guidebooks: Many, check out hostel lobbies (even if you don’t intend on staying at one). Lonely Planet useful, but don’t expect to find something that isn’t there at your hostel lobby.

  • Costs & Money: Hostels range from US$18 for dorm rooms to US$45+ for privates. Entry to campsites around US$10-15 (US$20-30 in national parks + entry fee). Food is no different from other western countries. Overall, value for money is fair. E.g. Montreal is far cheaper than Paris, so is Vancouver to L.A, and Banff in comparison to Aspen or Vail.

  • Money: ATMs, Credit and Debit cards.

  • Weather & Dangers: Very cold in the winters, but can be tolerable with the right gear. It only gets extreme in the far north - still Calgary or Saskatoon are pretty nippy in February. Rains frequently in western Canada. Few dangers, just use common sense when in the wild or out in the mountains.

  • Working: Common, many working holidays on offer, look for packages like "Ski n’ stay”. Commonwealth members can get insurance, work permits, accommodation very easily. Not uncommon to find travellers from Oz or UK who work from winter-spring and spend the earnings during the summer.

C Comment: At first I really enjoyed this site. It's easy to read and appears to be really engaging when looking for travel info. Bu​t as a Canadian traveller I was really disappointed to see Canada being omitted almost entirely from this site or being ​grouped with the US. Its a really great site for information ​on countries, places to see and travel advice. Unfortunately​, I was disappointed to see that Canada was not included nor​was it even mentioned as a place to visit. I understand that​ Canada as a country may not be as old or have many ancient ​sights to visit or seem uninteresting compared to a lot of o​thers places around the world. But I think that neglecting i​t altogether is just wrong. It's an absolutely beautiful cou​ntry that welcomes many travellers every year but doesn't ge​t the recognition it deserves. I don't think including it on​ly in the country summaries section is fair and really disap​points me as a traveller who has travelled to many places al​l around the world and in Canada. I just hope you take thi​s into consideration as this seems to be a pattern I have se​en on a number of travel sights. - Okay we added Canada now!

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» México

Highly RecommendedWarning: long distances

* Miss at your peril: (stay away from the crowds) - 'Highlight of Independent Travel'

  • Intro: Viva México! It's huge and has tons to offer! Right across the spectrum, from the nadir of Cancún to the zeniths of Palenque, Oaxaca (Wa-ha-ka) and Porto Escondido to mention a few. México's size has two major effects on travellers. One good, one not so. Firstly [the good] the sheer size of the country and its variety means that with some effort you can find many gems and have them completely to yourself, in addition to the fact that there are many great things to see and do without even venturing off the beaten track.

MexicoThe downside from the country's size (and terrain which is far from flat) is the necessity to spend many hours on buses of which the cost of can seriously mount up - even more so if you take advantage of the better services. For example the six hour journey from México City (N.B. referred to as México City here, but really just México or México DF) to Oaxaca on a premier bus will blow the daily budget of any budget traveller and then some. It is common to hear backpackers throughout the Americas moan at just how expensive México is and wonder how locals can afford to live. It is not that México is expensive, I mean far from it when compared to the super power to the north, but in relation to the rest of Central America it is more pricey in the same way as Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina used to be to South America, and just like these countries it is transport and tourist hot spots that get you. Let's take the Yucatan for example: Cancún is nearer to Miami than México City and has many daily direct charter flights from Europe.

Such an influx of tourists, many who have considerable (by Mexican and backpacker standards), money to spread about is bound to push prices up. In addition the rapid development in México fuelled by the NAFTA agreement has brought in standards of services (such as buses of which many are excellent) that you just don't find in most other Latin American countries. With increased quality comes increased prices. Let's go back to that seemingly expensive bus journey from México City to Oaxaca. The bus will have AC, movies and the road is excellent. Much cheaper alternatives exist, of course you don't get AC and a movie, but you don't even get the same road since the good one is a toll road that the cost of using is the main contributor to the cost of your ticket. So take the cheaper bus if you want it to take twice as long. Let's be fair: in the big scale of things the extra money is probably worth it. The analogy works with most things such as seemingly expensive food and accommodation.

Enjoy México for the right reasons (take touristy attractions especially the Yucatan, like the tequila - with a pinch of salt), learn some Spanish, get off the beaten track and enjoy for along with Guatemala it is a real highlight of this region and one of the world's most underrated countries.

Highlights & Lowlights:

SombreroHighlights

A traditional route from the Capital South towards Central America will take in the following highlights: México City (inc. surrounding areas such as Teotihuacán), Palenque, Oaxaca* and Porto Escondido - but that's only the tip of the ice-berg. As a general rule of thumb, the main tourist focus of the country is the Yucatán (where there's plenty to explore) and with direct flights from Europe and North America this is an obvious entry point for package tourists seeking sun/sea and backpackers heading for central America.

Those who enter the country at Mexico DF* the greatest temptation is to head South towards the well-known aforementioned highlights and to Central America. Distances and/or limited time often put those heading this way off routes to the North and West of the capital. Discount or write off these routes at your expensive... among the less crowded highlights are: Guanajuato, a phenomenal colonial city, more Spain than Spain, great tunnels, architecture, mazes of alleys, college culture and street actors; Zacatecas, the beauty of this city at sunset can't easily be described, the food and museums are cheap and world class. The architecture is a great mix of Mexican and Moorish. Accommodation is great and seemingly hardly anyone on the circuit in Mexico gets here.

San Miguel de Allende, despite the hype that it's full of Americans, it rarely is. A great cathedral, wonderful cheap authentic food, perhaps the best nature preserve in all Mexico (the botanical gardens - over hundreds of acres - above town), one of the best hostel owners/hostel in Mexico, mellow street life, calm mornings, great art scene and Spanish schools await those who visit. Morelia, a colonial gem with amazing local artisans and street life, cathedrals are world class, food (try the sopa tarasca) is to die of.

Another gem, abet albeit more well-known, is Real de Catorce, a little tiny town in the mountains of North Mexico. Very popular with the backpacker crowd due to its otherworldly landscape (The Mexican with Brad Pitt was filmed here) and Peyote usage by local Indians (and of course travellers), this little town has horseback riding (3$ US an hour) into the local mountains and deserts, a hippie market, and the place looks like a Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood film. The journey itself is a highlight, with a bus along on the world's longest cobblestone road, into a one way tunnel through a mountain.

Diving - On a world scale, there is some truly superb diving in Mexico. You can dive the cenotes in the Yucatan through caverns with stalagmites, stalactites and haloclines - it really is an incredible experience and pretty unique. There is also excellent reef diving on Cozumel, in Baja California, and you can snorkel with whale sharks in Holbox and Isla Mujeres.

Edit Many thanks to Eric Beecroft and Jason for sharing their expert knowledge here.

Lowlights

If you are 21 or under have limited taste, you will love Cancún. For most it's one of those loathsome places with only novelty value and nothing (unless you have a big budget to keep you there). Playa de Carmen and Cozumel Island are not far behind. The rate of change in these places on the Caribbean coast of the Yucatan is unbelievable. See them to believe them. Large parts of the Yucatan are not so bad as to be avoided.

Another common complaint along with the crowds and modernisation in tourist hot-spots is the simple fact that México is not a shoestring budget country when compared to Central America and long distances on buses kill a budget. On a more critical side not everyone is smitten by the highly and definitely over rated San Cristóbal de las Casas, where due to the history of uprisings and the military presence in the area many of the 'cooler' travellers head to hang out and do little. San Cristóbal de las Casas is to backpackers what Cancún is to package tourists - a Mecca in México. For that reason if you don't have time to 'hang-out' or wind your way there on the bus you could happily give it a miss and spend your time elsewhere such as some of the great places listed above in the highlight section.

Last, but not least, the border towns of Tijuana and Cuidad Juarez (across from El Paso, Texas) are definite lowlights where trouble is extremely easy to find.

  • MyanTypical tourist trail: The majority of tourists disregard the north of the country (above México City) which is mainly dry and harsh and not particularly rich in highlights. Unless they are making trips from America into the spectacular scenery of Baja California or to the Copper Canyon (which are both highlights). The vast majority of tourists fly into the Yucatan and spend their time there. Those with a bit more time may start in México City which is brimming with things to see and do. From there a typical path may head either directly to Oaxaca or to the coast at Acapulco (or further north) and then down along the coast to Porto Escondido and then up to Oaxaca. From Oaxaca the trail heads to Palenque, either via Villahermosa or Cristóbal de las Casas. For here on either Guatemala or the many amazing temple sites of the Yucatan will call you.

  • Costs: Costs vary hugely for México depending on where you are and what you are doing. On the two ends of scale let's use Cristóbal de las Casas and Cancún for example, the latter and around US$35 won't get you too far especially if you want a drink or two. In the former lazing around in a hammock you would be hard pressed to spend half the Yucatan amount living pretty well. There is a definite tourist economy, with high prices and, sometimes, unhelpful service. To avoid this as much as possible and find places used by locals a good understanding of Spanish really makes a difference. Another certain key to budget travel in Mexico is planning a good circular route so as to backtrack as little as possible and keep those fund killing bus trips to a minimum.

  • Visa strategy: Tourist cards are issued free for 90 days at entry points for most nationalities.

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»  United Stated of America

Highly Recommended

i Due to the size and diversity of the United States, it has been divided up in this section into seven subsections:



» Introduction

Visa Strategy

 3 months, available on arrival for Europeans, Australians, South Koreans and New Zealanders under the "visa waiver program” (VWP) scheme. Eligible nationals of countries on the "visa waiver” list get the 90 day visa on arrival, but must possess an e-passport and an approved authorisation through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). The ESTA is a free (with a $14 admin fee, which of course is bullshit), automated system used to determine the eligibility of visitors United States under the VWP. It collects the same information as the paper I-94W form that VWP travellers currently fill out en route to the United States. ESTA applications may be completed online at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/ and submitted at any time prior to travel. They are valid for up to two years and for multiple entries. Extensions available. Working in the US is very difficult for non-Americans without special skills. The 'Immigration and Naturalisation Service' (now merged with teh Department of Homeland Security) is inflexible and rules-bound.

Citizens whose countries are involved with the US in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) will need a machine-readable passport and depending on where and when the passport was issued you might need one with a chip in (biometric passport) or US visa to enter the country. Further details and information on the changes to the visa system can be found at the US government visa website. Fingerprinting is now in effect at most airports.

* Miss at your peril: (okay it's well worth missing some parts) - 'Highlight of Independent Travel'



Add Note: Many thanks to Peter John for supplying this summary on mainland states and Michael Cain for information on Hawaii. The information here is from this author and not the site author. The views and facts expressed here are well researched and good quality, but just bear in mind they should perhaps not be compared directly to other country summaries by other authors.

» The North-East

USAMaine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Washington D.C.

Warning: can be expensive

  • Intro: the cradle of Yankee civilisation, the most densely populated part of the country, with some of its greatest cities, and most beautiful countryside.

    • Highlights: nightlife and restaurants in New York City*, the Staten Island ferry in New York, museums in Washington D.C., New England clam chowder, fall colours in New England, Philadelphia and train travel.

    • Lowlights: industrial and suburban sprawl throughout, and disgraceful inner city poverty.

  • Typical tourist trail: Boston to Washington D.C., through Philadelphia and New York. Maybe taking in the fall colours of New England, the colonial villages of Massachusetts and Pennsylvania and Cape Cod.

  • Hot/cold, wet and dry: Long punishing winters the further north you go, and hot and humid summers the further south. But even New York can be unbearably hot and sweaty in August, and Washington D.C. often gets very cold in winter. Spring and fall are pleasant throughout.

  • Getting around: the best part of America for public transportation. Trains go most places in the cities, and buses (including the nationwide Greyhound network) everywhere else. Distances are relatively small, so there's no need to fly. You CAN rent a car, but parking in New York or Boston is an expensive nightmare, and the traffic is appalling.

  • Rating: 7/10

» The South

Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas

  • Intro: the South is the region that lost the Civil War, and still remembers it. Former slave states, with the racial divide often all too evident. But the region has more than its share of places of historical interest, and "southern hospitality” is by no means a myth. The poor communications have meant that isolated peoples such as the Cajuns in Louisiana have survived for much longer in the South than elsewhere in the US, though a car is necessary to find them. Texas and Louisiana are very distinct in their own ways.

    • Highlights: beaches of South Carolina, Florida and the Gulf Coast; the Alamo; Austin, Texas; the French Quarter of New Orleans and Cajun country.

    • Lowlights: mosquitoes, deep fried diner food, Dallas and Houston.

  • Typical tourist trail: Florida, along the Gulf Coast to New Orleans or up to South Carolina, the Civil War battlefields and Washington D.C.

  • Hot/cold, wet and dry: hot and humid summers, usually mild and pleasant winters. Coastal areas often get hurricanes in the summer, and sudden downpours can occur at any time of year.

  • Getting around: "Public transportation? What's that?” A car is all but essential – relying on buses is very time consuming and frustrating. Cities like Atlanta or Houston sprawl for hundreds of square miles, but have virtually no buses. Greyhound has its usual skeletal inter-city network. Car rental places are everywhere, and gas is much cheaper than elsewhere in the US. Flying as always saves time, and Southwest and other low-cost airlines make it very affordable.

  • Rating: 7/10


» Mid-West

Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, Michigan, Nebraska, Kansas, North/South Dakota, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio



» The West

New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, California

  • Intro: mostly deserts and mountains and the size of western Europe. Still surprisingly empty off the Pacific coast. California alone has enough to occupy the (well-off) traveller for years: beaches, cities, forests and mountains. The desert scenery in Utah and Arizona is stunning. San Francisco is the most beautiful, liberal and cosmopolitan city in America, and Seattle and Los Angeles are definitely worth seeing.

    • Highlights: the coastal drive in California, San Francisco, Seattle, the national parks of southern Utah, the Grand Canyon*, Las Vegas, camping in the Redwoods in northern California.

    • Lowlights: Reno, Salt Lake City, the California's Central Valley and inland Washington and Oregon.

  • Typical tourist trail: LA to San Francisco up the coast of California, then inland to Vegas or Reno, and maybe taking in the national parks of Utah. Also, skiing in Colorado.

  • Hot/cold, wet and dry: hot, dry summers throughout (except coastal Washington and Oregon). Winters are punishing in Montana, but warm in Arizona or New Mexico. San Francisco has its own micro-climate where you can get four seasons in one day. Southern California is famously pleasant year-round.

  • Getting around: a car is virtually essential to explore outside San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle, and the distances are so huge that flights on low-cost airlines such as Southwest are well worth considering. Greyhound buses go between cities, but are slow. The Green Tortoise goes up the coast from LA to Seattle, and is quite cheap, but isn't nearly as frequent. Car rentals are everywhere, and often cheaper if booked in advance from abroad. LA is building a mass transit, but it is designed around commuters. Southwest's Internet specials mean that you can fly around the West for 30-70 USD.

  • Local poisons for the body: Visitors to Colorado are able to purchase one quarter of an ounce of marijuana for private consumption. Public consumption is banned and this [legalisation] is still something in its infancy to be treated with respect. This is not Amsterdam. Well done Colorado for its forward thinking in this respect.

  • Rating: 8/10

» Alaska

Warning: can be expensive

  • Intro: mountains, fjords and glaciers and roughly twelve times the size of England, but with the population of one London suburb, of whom half (250,000) live in Anchorage. Some of the world's most dramatic mountain scenery and exotic wildlife – in fact, the grandeur of the scenery can get overwhelming at times. Great, though expensive, winter sports facilities. Alaska is, however, an extremely expensive destination to explore properly, and prices rise in high season.

    • Highlights: the wildlife, Denali (Mount McKinley), the Alaska Marine Highway, the Northern Lights.

    • Lowlights: the expense, the huge distances, Whittier.

  • Typical tourist trail: ferry up the coast from Bellingham, Washington or Vancouver to Anchorage or Seward, a cruise or three through the glaciers along the coast from Seward or Whittier, and then inland to Denali National Park with the tallest mountain in North America.

  • Hot/cold, wet and dry: four months a year of summer (June-Sept) when it can get up to 80F in Fairbanks in the interior and mosquitoes are the main problem, brief springs and autumns, then a long, cold winter. The interior and the far north are much colder in the winter. Needless to say, prices rise considerably during the tourist season.

  • Getting around: for once in America, having a car isn't everything, as roads are generally limited and in poor condition. In fact, you can't even get to the state capital, Juneau, by road. To explore the interior, be prepared to rent a plane and pilot from Anchorage or Fairbanks, though this is very expensive (200-250 USD/day). There is a railroad which goes from Seward, through Anchorage to Fairbanks, though it is so expensive that you are likely to be better off renting a car. Along the coast, there are plenty of ferries, including the state-run Alaska Marine Highway, up from Seattle through the islands and fjords to Anchorage and beyond. For non-Americans, Alaska Airlines does an airpass which will get you to the state and fly you around at discounted rates.

  • Rating: 6/10



» Hawaiian Islands

Warning: can be expensive

Edit Many thanks to Michael Cain for contributing the above Hawaii summary.







? Please find Central America info on that page. Many thanks to Glen Risco and Michael Cain for their help on Maui and the Mid-West. Any more is welcome. The USA can always use some updating.





Remember, this is only a take (an overview if you will); very few get the chance to see every inch of every country or have the time to get everyone's opinion (you are welcome and encouraged to mail in yours). Please, please if you have been anywhere recently send your comments to contribute and help keep all information fresh for future travellers. Or if you are about to head off remember this site when you return and put a few lines in an e-mail to let us know if things have changed.

 

'The tragedy of life is not so much what men suffer, but rather what they miss'

Thomas Carlyle




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