Mar 1, 2013 - By Katie Roenigk, Staff WriterWhen Central Wyoming College student Jordan Stapley set off on a 26-day solo trip to Central America, she wasn't sure whether she would enjoy the experience.
"I didn't know what to expect at all," she said. "I figured I'd either hate it by then or not want to leave. I ended up not wanting to leave."
She hadn't planned on spending a month alone in a foreign country, but when Stapley's traveling companion found out he couldn't go, she said she wasn't deterred.
"There was one day I doubted," Stapley said. "But I've been wanting to do something that would make me completely rely on me."
The Western American studies major grew up in Montana, and her world travels had been limited to vacations to Canada with her family. But her desire to become an archaeologist sent her searching for ancient ruins in Mexico.
She said she also was inspired by the community she has become a part of in Lander.
"A lot of my good friends ... talk about these great trips around the world," Stapley said. "I thought it was about time to have a trip to compare to their stories."
Stapley visited the ruins of Chichen Itza, Palenque, Uxmal, Kabah and Tulum on her circular trek from Cancun, Mexico, to Guatemala and back.
"It was great -- really empowering," she said. "I'm so glad no one came (with me). I think I'd have a tough time traveling with someone now. It was so freeing."
She did meet up with a friend from Montana who lives in Guatemala now. Stapley said the excursion to Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, from Mexico on a "chicken bus" was a memorable one.
"They're old U.S. school buses all tricked out and repainted," she explained. "It was weaving in and out on both sides of the road, and the guy who collects the money was on top of the bus, hanging off the side and yelling at the other cars. It was crazy."
For the first 10 minutes of the drive, she said she was nervous that the bus would hurdle off of a cliff, but eventually she was able to relax.
"I thought, 'If there's nothing I can do to stop it, I might as well enjoy it,'" she said. "And I did."
When she arrived at their meeting place, Stapley and her friend set out on a climb of the Tajumulco volcano, the highest point in Central America, reaching the 13,845-foot top early the next day along along with their tour group. Afterward, Stapley spent some time in Panajachel, Guatemala, before setting out on her own again.
She did talk about one instance in which she wished she weren't alone. Stapley said she was feeling ambitious on her way to the Kabah ruins when she decided to try to walk the rest of the way -- a distance of about eight kilometers from the little town of Santa Elena where she had spent the night.
"About two kilometers in it was like, 'It's just me and my backpack in the middle of the jungle, with a car going by every 10 minutes,'" she said. "Then way in the background I noticed a black speck getting bigger and bigger."
The vision turned out to be a big dog pacing toward her along the road. Stapley said she grabbed a stick and was ready to protect herself from the animal if it was unfriendly.
"He got within 20 yards of me," Stapley said. "At that point I thought my life was over. It was definitely the most vulnerable I've ever felt."
Luckily, a friendly couple drove by and noticed her predicament. They pulled over and offered to drive her the rest of the way to the Kabah ruins, where they happened to work.
"I was definitely a little rattled," Stapley said. "It was a reality check. ... After that I waited for the buses."
Despite the scare, Stapley recommended solo travel for anyone wishing to try it.
"I think if anyone has any sort of curiosity they should ignore any fear that they have about it and just go for it," she said. "If I can do it, and I'm 20 and I don't speak the language ... anyone can do it. There's no excuse not to."
She said she wishes she had learned to speak Spanish before heading to Mexico, but Stapley said she was able to make friends at hostels and in local villages despite the language barrier.
"Everyone's so nice," she said. "I have so many good friends now I want to meet up with in the future."
By the end, she had spent time in the Mexican states of Quintana Roo, Yucatan, Chiapas and Isla Holbox. Stapley also entered Beliz on her way to and from Guatemala.
She said the culture in Central America was rich -- as was the food.
"I ate a lot," she said. "And there's always music playing. You can be in the middle of nowhere and you can hear salsa playing."
She said she would like to return to Guatemala in the summer for a language immersion program, and now that she has survived her first trip abroad Stapley said she has other plans as well.
"I'm thinking about taking a semester off and going to southeast Asia," she said. "We'll see how that goes. ... But I'll definitely live out of the country sometime in my life. I had a feeling I would before (the trip), but this really confirmed it."
Her time in Central America also confirmed her goal to become an archaeologist, though she may want to study more contemporary cultures in addition to ancient ones. Stapley said she's interested to study people who have devoted their lives to a certain activity, from skiing to traveling to river rafting.
"They love (their lifestyle) so much, they'll do everything to support that," Stapley said. "I love talking to people about that. ... My passion is observing everyone else's passion, which is perfect for anthropology."
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