North America – despite popular misconception – is far more than just the United States. In fact the states themselves barely make up a third of what is a huge continent that also includes Mexico, Canada and many other individual countries beside. Countries that span almost every climate and landscape imginable, from vast deserts and sunny beaches to snowy mountain tops and tropical islands.
North America has traditionally been more popular with international package tourists and road trippers than independent travellers, but increasingly the wonders of North America are opening themselves up and backpackers are discovering the sheer range of unique things to see and do in this diverse region.
Know Before You Go.
North America is a huge continent, with twenty three countries that make up the diverse land mass. Canada, the United States and then Mexico are the largest land masses, with another twenty countries that for the most part make up the technically seperate region of Central America and the Caribbean.
Compared to the USA, Canada often feels like the sedate, more sensible older brother that doesn’t get as much attention, but there is far more to Canada than just Hockey and Mounties. Canada is so large it spreads itself over six time zones and stretches to the arctic itself. It often seems to be endlessly vast and is the backdrop for countless awe inspiring landscapes. Jagged Mountains, ethereal ice flows and glacier fields, epic snow covered forests and wild, freezing oceans, Canada truly is is one of the last great wildernesses.
Despite this, there are pockets of civilisation that can swing from the ultimate stereotype of hardy outdoorsmen far away from civilisation or cities that redefine the term cosmopolitan. Canadians pride themselves on their tolerance, friendliness and politeness, and this is often the overriding feeling that many visitors to Canada leave with.
There are so many states and so many destinations within the US that you could spend an entire lifetime exploring them. Ignore the stereotypes and the revisionist Hollywood ideology that has attempted to insert America into ancient world history or claim that the Americans won World War II single handedly, and instead enjoy America’s rich recent history for what it actually is.
Iconic cities, legendary experiences, vast swathes of national parks and an oversized land where everything is big, from the countryside itself to the famously oversized portions, the US has something for everyone! Each state is a vastly different experience from the next, from the big and brash Texas and the easy carnival feel of New Orleans, to the vibrant, pulsating and teeming city of New York that feels like a separate country in its own right. Whichever state you visit, the USA is an eclectic adventure filled mixture of experiences that are all yours for the taking.
Mexico is one of the most popular holiday destinations in the world, but especially to those few Americans who do venture out of the actual states, and it is not hard to see why. The historical remnants of the Mayan civilisation, the foodie scene and the long stretches of white sand beaches, to surprising off the beaten track destinations hidden from the pockets of mass tourism. Mexico is worth far more time and attention than a simple holiday, and long term independent travellers will find a lot to keep them here.
When To Go.
With a continent as large as this, when to go becomes relative and depends largely on where you go. The climate ranges from freezing ice flows in the North to baking temperatures in the deserts of the South and everything in between. Canada and New York can get literally freezing in the winter while LA and Texas can be uncomfortably hot in the summer, so beyond the practicalities of preparing for the weather wherever you go, there really is no reason that you can’t travel to any part of the USA or Canada at any time of the year.
North America and Canada are not really budget destinations, and they aren’t really traditional long term destinations either. The vast majority of visitors to America and Canada – apart from those on working holiday visas of course – tend to have short term holidays or occasionally snap years, visiting a single city or state at a time. This isn’t to say of course that it isn’t possible, or desirable to travel in these two amazing countries long term, but as in many Western countries the cost is often prohibitive, and surprisingly, traveller infrastructure is actually not that great in the United States, with cheap overland travel options thin on the ground in a lot of areas and hostels being a strange thing found only in movies. Canada is a little better in this respect, but again, costs can be prohibitive to long term travel.
Many countries and regions such as the UK, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and many more used to have a simple visa waiver scheme with the USA, but since 9/11 the Americans have gone insane over security, with the often excessive security measures such as compulsory digital fingerprinting and headshots of all visitors kept on file actually turning a lot of travellers off, and the visas are not exempt from this. Now those countries that used to be under the visa waiver scheme now have to apply for an ESTA, which stands for Electronic System for Travel Authorisation, as well. It is a simple enough process, just apply online at the ESTA website, and it is valid for two years. Be aware that US officials are now much more strict on entry criteria than they used to be, and will often check that you have your ESTA number, an address in America (your first nights hotel is sufficient) and an onward ticket before they let you in.
Canada on the other hand is an enlightened travellers dream by comparison, at least in visa terms. Citizens of many countries, including the US, the UK, Europe, Australia and New Zealand amongst others, only need a valid passport to enter. US citizens may not even need that if they have one of the newer alternatives such as passport cards, enhanced drivers licences or trusted traveller cards. That’s it. Seriously! Great isn’t it? You’ll still have to fill in a customs declaration form of course as you do in many countries, but that still beats the excessive security of their Southern neighbours.