Finding My Place in LATAM, Part II: Backpacking through Central America and Returning to Colombia

April 26, 2024

Chaka Tellem is a class of 2023 UC Berkeley graduate who studied political economy with minors in public policy and race & law. Tellem will attend law school in the fall of 2024. His passion for advocacy and law grew from his formative years in Dallas and Los Angeles. Tellem was the ASUC (Associated Students of the University of California) student body president for two years, from 2021 to 2023. He is currently working and studying in Bogotá, Colombia, supported by the Political Economy Student Experience Fund and the Social Sciences Career Readiness Internship Program. Tellem shares his reflections on the program's impact in this second entry in a three-part series.

In my last post, I shared my initial months immersing myself in the bustling life and communities in Bogotá. As my time with Redepaz came to a close in early December, the seeds of curiosity about the wider Latin American world had been firmly planted. With a month free before my next internship, the adventurer in me couldn’t resist the call to explore; thus, I embarked on a backpacking journey through Central America, which turned out to be as enriching as it was enlightening.

Embarking on my Journey through Central America

With just my Cal Under Armour backpack, a tight budget, and a heart full of excitement, I ventured from Panama to Guatemala. My journey, marked by $5-a-night hostels and 16-hour bus rides tested my endurance. But what these weeks lacked in comfort, they made up for in vibrant experiences and meaningful connections.  Each day that passed, I felt like I was getting closer to the real, raw pulse of Central America. The road was tough, but every new place brought a story, a smile, or a sunset that made it all worthwhile.

History and Culture

My strong interest in history guided much of my itinerary. In the capital cities of Panama, Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Guatemala, I delved deep into each country’s history — from their fights for independence to their present-day political and economic climate. In Honduras, I ventured to Copan Ruinas, a site of ancient Mayan ruins. There, I immersed myself in the pre-Hispanic Mayan culture, learning about their incredible advancements and enduring legacies. Through museums, guided tours, and conversations, each place I visited stitched a richer pattern into my perception of Central America.


Nature’s call was loud in Nicaragua, where I kayaked across Lake Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America. Surrounded by the sounds of howler monkeys, diurnal bats, and an array of birds, it was an immersion into a vibrant ecosystem.

The most breathtaking experience, however, was the two-day summit of Volcano Acatenango in Guatemala. Sleeping in a tent above the cloud line (at over 12,000 feet) was nothing short of surreal. On the hike up, we passed through four different biomes — ranging from clouded forests to arid deserts — and experienced temperature variations of over 30 degrees. To top it all, an additional four-hour hike brought us tantalizingly close to El Fuego, witnessing a volcanic eruption from just a few hundred meters away.

A man with a coat, beanie, and headlamp smiles at the camera. Behind him is a cone-shaped volcano.

Chaka on top of Volcano Acatenango, with Fuego Volcano in the background.

The road was tough, but every new place brought a story, a smile, or a sunset that made it all worthwhile.
Chaka Tellem
Three red, yellow, and blue birds perch in front of trees.

Three scarlet macaws perched in Hondorus.

Trees grow between the ruins of stacked stone buildings and steps.

Copan Ruinas, an ancient Mayan site in western Honduras.

Cooked mixed vegetables under a sauce on a restaurant table.

A lunchtime meal in Granada, Nicaragua.

Sunlight filters through the sprawling canopy of a large tree by the water

Kayakers pass a sprawling tree at Lake Nicaragua.