Nine months travelling with a backpack

Around the globe, off the beaten track, you'll find Gappers, back-packers (and flash-packers, who do it the luxury way) and real travellers. Husband and wife Tony Barrett and Marilyn Mackley from East Anglia are the latter.

Victoria Hawkins

Around the globe, off the beaten track, you'll find Gappers, back-packers (and flash-packers, who do it the luxury way) and real travellers. Husband and wife Tony Barrett and Marilyn Mackley from East Anglia are the latter.

Nine months, tens of thousands of miles and an itinerary which took in Canada, the USA, Mexico, Panama, Columbia, Venezuela, Honduras, Brazil and the Guyanas, should have finally scratched their itchy feet. But who knows?

Tony Barrett, 57, and Marilyn Mackley, 55, for whom home is a quiet Suffolk village, seem to have an unquenchable thirst for travel and adventure. This time they took nothing more than a back-pack apiece and flew the 3,500 miles to Canada to begin nine whole months of travel.

Previously their longest trip, back in 2006/7, was six months in South America and since then they have spent just a total of two months in England as in between they also fitted in another 'short' trip (for them) - a three month backpack around the Mediterranean. This latest trip however, meant being together 24x7 for 36 weeks.

“A lot of married couples actually never spend that much time together, do they?” said Marilyn, “but it was absolutely fine, we didn't even think about it.”

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Having decided that traditional two and three week holidays just weren't long enough, the couple's serious travels started in earnest two years ago when they both gave up work and set off with the Rough Guide to South America with just their first night booked in a hotel. And since then they've hardly had time to draw breath!

And along the way there have been hairy trips with mad van and bus drivers, trains, planes and automobiles, a couple of bag snatch attempts, shenanigans at border crossings, snake hunts and trekking up the Machu Picchu. They have also cruised the incredible Galapagos Islands, cooked marshmallows on molten lava flows, been served up guinea pigs for tea, gone to Spanish school in Mexico and hooked marlin off the coast of California.

They spent last Christmas in Nicaragua and the one before in Chile.

The pair first met in the late Eighties at a Christmas party at work - at that time Marilyn had never even been on a plane. Tony had joined BT as a technician and was working in New Product Development by the time he took an early retirement package 38 years later.

“BT had one of its many re-organisations and this was a really big one. I think everyone has a certain number of reorganisations in them and then they think I can't do this any more. It made me determined to leave, which I did in December 2005.”

Marilyn who had previously worked in banking, the police and with BP, became schools liaison manager at BT, a job she took early retirement from back in 2003. She then took six months off before managing a community project part-time and had then taken another part-time job with the Learning Skills Council. She'd committed to a nine month project just as Tony had been released from BT.

“That's when we decided we were going to do it because we were at a point in our lives where the children were doing okay, our parents are well and so are we. I had a friend die suddenly at 60 and that made me realise we had to do this now or we may never get the chance again,” he explained.

The plan was to let the house and just take off, which is exactly what they did. “I spent the last six months, when Marilyn was working, de-cluttering the house. We had a whole system where we would sell things on eBay, put them on Freecycle, take them to charity shops or, as a last resort, take stuff down to the dump. We really cleared the house out!” Marilyn finished work on September 3 and they left the country on their first trip three days later.

The travel bug had been festering in both of them for a while.

“The first holiday we had together was 19 years ago, when Tony had a business meeting planned in Tokyo. We flew to Thailand and had a fortnight's holiday but even then we didn't have a package or anything.”

After that they always holidayed in fairly exotic places. Tony explained: “I had done a lot of travelling before for business but Marilyn hadn't even been on a plane before. From there we would do two or three week holidays but we would go somewhere like India and just travel round like we are doing now.”

“We don't have specific plans,” said Marilyn, “however we always book the first night in a hotel, you would be stupid if you didn't. I mean you get off the plane with jet lag and no real idea what sort of country you are getting out in. We always use a hotel for the first bit and the last bit and do our own thing in the middle.”

Around the world they'd always hook up with fellow travellers and Marilyn said: “We were so fed up that we were only doing a few weeks and they were doing six months. I think it was Vietnam '03 that did it for me. In some countries there are places where package holidaymakers go and places where 'gringos' or travellers go and we thought, hang on a minute, there is more to life than three week holidays.”

They thought that six months away would get it out of their system, but no.

“We came back in March last year and we found it so expensive here that we just thought, no, we can't cope with this,” said Marilyn. “We were only here three weeks and then we went off to Spain to carry on learning Spanish and then we did three months round Europe and were back for five weeks before we left again.”

So what does the future hold? “To be honest I think we are going to get bored and we'll soon be thinking where can we go,” said Tony but they have got a week's holiday planned in France in June and then six weeks in Canada this summer when Tony's son is getting married, on their wide horizon.

As Marilyn said: “I am not a brave person so if I can do it, anyone can.”


Tony and Marilyn's only plan when they set off on their epic travels was to visit Tony's son in Toronto first. After that they took a train to New York, flew to Las Vegas, hired a car and hit New Mexico. Next it was on to San Diego, from where they walked across the border to Tijuana. That's where their South American travels began in earnest, travelling by bus (lots of them), trains and even a rather rough five days at sea on a 31ft yacht which took them from Panama to Columbia - to avoid the notoriously dangerous overland trip across the Darian Gap.

Along the way they've also taken in trips to the Amazon, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Venezuela. They finally flew home last month from Natal in Brazil to Amsterdam and took a train to The Hook, ending their travels in Harwich, where they were met by a couple of Marilyn's girlfriends armed with a heart shaped balloon and a bottle of Lanson champers.

“At first we were going to fly direct to Mexico City but on the flight over to Canada I read a newspaper article about the Lightning Fields in New Mexico, which have been there about 30 years but only about 5,000 people have seen it. It's an art installation with loads of lightning conductor poles in the middle of a wilderness,” said Tony. “It is in a place that gets a lot of lightning and if you are lucky enough you see them being struck. It didn't happen when we were there but the light, as it goes down and comes up again in the morning, reflects off them and it's quite amazing.”

That was their first detour - just the 3,000 miles!

“We are pretty streetwise by now, when you go into a new city you can 'read' it quite quickly and I am quite proud of the fact we didn't have anything stolen in the whole of our trip; we are pretty wise to scams.” Though they did have a couple of attempted bag snatches, which were “both bottle of wine related.”

It happened once in Chile after leaving a restaurant in a dock area when they were taken off guard. “Suddenly this guy appeared and yanked the bag off Marilyn. All it had in it was her glasses and she shouts out 'it's only glasses, you prat' and I shout out 'stop thief' in English and started running after him.

“He ran across a junction and a guy kicked him and he dropped the bag.”

The other time was in Mexico, again after another meal, as they walked up an unlit road. “I turned to check the name of the restaurant again just as this guy ran up silently behind us. He jumped and I jumped and he ran across the road.”

Their advice is to always be aware and never carry anything of value. “The more stuff that you have got that is nickable, the worse it gets.”

Of their time in Colombia, Tony said: “It's a fantastic, fabulous country. For the last few years the Americans have piled loads of money in to sort out the drug barons there and you get the impression that the people are happy to be coming out of a fairly awful situation.

“We were going to go to Ecuador again and then it was a bit pathetic, really, but we realised that if we went to Venezuela and Guyana, at the top of the continent, we would have been to every single country in the Americas, so we did that instead.” And Marilyn achieved her aim of having a glass of wine in every country in South America.

One of the toughest legs of the trip was sailing from Panama to Colombia on a 31 foot yacht. “It took five days including a stop at San Blas islands, which is one of the most beautiful places in the world. It was very rough but it was so exciting. At the time you think I just want this to end and then you get off and think that was one of the best things I have ever done,” said Tony.

Marilyn added: “That was probably even tougher than the Inca Trail, which we did on the first trip.”

They say they never had any really scary moments on the whole trip. “The only dangerous things are buses and accidents and things like that. We have been in transit vans with absolute maniacs at the wheel when you think you are going to die,” said Tony and they agreed that Venezuela was horrible.

Crossing the border meant paying bribes to appease their national guard, police and army, and in the first 20 to 20 miles, they were stopped at 13 checkpoints who all wanted backhanders.

“They varied from two guys with an oil can in the road, to a tank, to the last one, when the bus was pulled over because we hadn't paid the bribe back at the crossing and they had radioed ahead to them. They weren't going to let us go, so there was yet another collection.

“When we did overnight bus journeys, you were forever being stopped at two o'clock in the morning. Once they dragged us off a bus and started questioning us. Marilyn realised it was about visas and we'd been given a piece of paper, which was in our passports anyway. So luckily it changed and then they were all smiles.”

They thought twice about Guyana when they were shown a newspaper cutting about a gangster who was shooting up the police station, stealing the guns and then driving round in the police vehicles shooting people at random. “Someone said 'do you really want to go there' but we worked on the basis that you are far more likely to be killed in an accident,” said Tony. “In Georgetown, Guyana, at night nobody goes out on the street. If you want to go to a bar two blocks down the road you get a taxi, even the locals do that.”

The only disaster was losing Marilyn's Reactolite Rapide prescription glasses, “And I was really, really cross because they were very expensive.” That only happened when she went in the sea with them on.

So what have they done on this trip that they have never done before? “Climbing up a volcano and walking over molten lava in Guatemala, I think, that was probably the most exciting thing,” said Tony. “We took marshmallows and cooked them on a stick and people's shoes were melting.”

Tony isn't sure of how many miles they have covered yet but they took 80 bus journeys, each over 3 hours long (and 25 which took more than 12 hours), which is why, he said: “When got to Brazil we suddenly realised we were tired so we decided to take a plane home then.”


The cheapest place? Tony said was Guatemala where they could live happily for $70 between them each day, including a nice hotel, all food and transport for everything they did. Brazil was the most expensive at $100 between them a day.

They made no firm plans. “We had three Rough Guides, one for Mexico, one for Central America and our old South America, so we knew vaguely where we were going. Half the fun of it is finding somewhere you like or someone telling you about somewhere on the way, so we didn't even have a return ticket when we left.”

“If we were ever roughing it, it was because we had decided to go out and stay in a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere and we knew there would be no electricity or whatever. We stayed in probably the best hotel we have ever stayed in our life, in Mexico at Quinta Real in Zipilete, which is a beautiful town, and the hotel is a converted bullring. It even has a pillow menu!”

“There was only one occasion when we came in and there was a cockroach and I reckon that in nine months in the Tropics that's not bad,” said Marilyn. “We mostly had our own bathroom and if the sheets looked a bit suspect we carried our own silk sleeping bag liners. We didn't stay anywhere dirty.”

They travel very, very light. “Our first trip to South America was interesting because we went from the Equator to the Antarctica with one bag of clothes,” said Marilyn. “This time I took four T-shirts, two strappy tops and a black T-shirt that I wore for very, very best. I also had a pair of trousers with zip-off shorts and then another pair with zip-off three-quarter shorts; some proper North Face shorts; a posh skirt that went with the posh black T-shirt and a glamorous scarf that I bought for tuppence in South America; a pair of black flip flops; one long-sleeve linen top from Gap, which I didn't really wear at all; a short-sleeve top, £12 from Tesco, which has just been washed and washed; a pair of North Face trainers and I took another pair of sandals but I wore them out, so we bought Tevas in Panama. I had one pink fleece and a black zip up fleece, a pair of gloves that I only wore in Amsterdam on the way home and a pair of thermals which I bought on the first trip. We also took silk sleeping bag liners and travel towels.” Tony took the travel books, a camera, a pair of travel trousers, shirts T-shirts, a light pair of shoes (“because I like going to casinos and they won't let you in otherwise”), trainers, Tevas and waterproofs. “We always take a first aid kit, a torch and a snorkel, too,” said Marilyn who took her mobile phone and they had cheap MP3 players for the trip.

To read more about the trips and see all the pictures, see their blog:

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