Worldschooling with a Preschooler and a Toddler: Road Trip-Style
If you follow me on Instagram (please do!), then you know we just got back from an epic worldschooling road trip from Guatemala City to El Salvador.
This was a big trip for me because I went without my husband — just me, my four-year-old, and my 18-month-old toddler. There were two other families in our caravan, so I wasn’t 100% solo, but I was still the only one driving our car, carrying our luggage, and managing our family’s side of the logistics.
What is worldschooling?
Worldschooling refers to learning through travel.
There are so many ways to worldschool — some families take short trips on school holidays and some families backpack across continents full-time.
Some kids attend traditional school, while other families incorporate homeschool into their worldschool adventures.
We moved abroad to Guatemala due to my husband’s job with the Foreign Service. This has allowed us to worldschool through a mix of daily life, day trips, weekend excursions, and international travel.
Road Trip to El Salvador
The amazing thing about Central America is that there is SO much to see and do, and it’s all relatively close together.
The challenging thing about traveling in Central America is that the roads are often poor, there’s a risk of crime and violence if you don’t know where you’re going, and there is a limited tourism industry, particularly outside of developed areas.
When you hit the road in Central America, you need to know roughly where you’re going in advance, and you need to have your travel plans arranged such that you keep travel to daytime hours only. But even with those precautions, there is still plenty of room for spontaneity.
Don’t let any preconceived notions deter you from visiting this part of the world. The people are warm and welcoming, the scenery is breath-taking, and the history is mind-boggling. With some simple safety precautions, pretty much anyone can explore this incredible part of the world.
Seriously, would I take my two small children on this trip (by myself) if it weren’t safe? I am many things, but relaxed about safety is not one of them.
Safety Tips for Worldschooling in Central America
With some simple preparations, you can safely travel this part of the world with your whole family.
- Travel in a group — there’s safety in numbers.
- Plan your travel to take place during daylight only. Make sure you won’t arrive after nightfall.
- Don’t carry large amounts of cash or valuables, and split your cash up in various locations.
- Be aware of your surroundings, and avoid drawing (too much) attention — keep your fancy iPhone tucked away, don’t wear expensive jewelry, and don’t leave your purse over the back of your chair in a restaurant. In other words, don’t make yourself an easy target.
- In the rare chance that you are robbed, don’t fight it — just hand it over and move on. It’s not worth fighting.
- Keep a paper map in the car, as cell service can get sketchy once you leave major cities.
- Try to learn a little Spanish — you’re unlikely to find English-speakers in the rural areas.
- Plan to be self-sufficient once you leave major urban areas — have enough of your important medications, food, and a few bottles of potable water in your car. Don’t expect to find a local pharmacy or convenient grocery store out in rural areas.
- Make sure you have a full tank of gas (and stop for a refill whenever it gets below a half tank). You never know when a random road block or weather pattern will delay you by several hours.
- Register your travel with the local U.S. Embassy (or your country’s embassy) so that there’s a record of your travel in the event of some unexpected emergency.
- Check-in regularly with family back home and let them know when to expect your next call or text.
- Check your passport and visas to ensure they won’t expire too close to your date of travel — different countries have different rules about this.
- Hand-carry important documents, like vaccine records or your car registration.
It might seem like a lot to think about, but the more prep you do in advance, the more freedom you have to just relax and enjoy the journey once you’re underway.
With these precautions in place, it’s easy to take the scenic route on a whim or to linger over pupusas at a local market — you know that you’re prepared, no matter what happens.
Driving in Guatemala
Driving in Guatemala is practically a competitive sport. Most roads are narrow, poorly maintained, curvy or dangerous, and absolutely chocker-blocked full of aggressive drivers (and, worse, motorcyclists).
This makes even a simple trip to nearby Antigua, about twenty kilometers away, take anywhere for 90 minutes to three hours, depending on the traffic.
More than just the traffic, drivers here are unpredictable and often ignore traffic laws, so driving just a short distance can be crazy stressful.
One of the few good roads is the Pan-American Highway, which thankfully took us the majority of the way to El Salvador. That said, we still had to traverse some windy mountain roads to reach our destination, and for one misty stretch, it felt like we were in Jurassic Park.
We started our drive at 6 am so we could beat the notorious early-morning Guatemala City traffic.
My big kid developed motion sickness after we moved to Guatemala (see above re: windy mountain roads). Now, I bring Dramamine if we’re going to be in the car for any length of time.
I didn’t give any medication to my toddler, and unfortunately, I could hear her begin retching after we’d been in the car for about two hours. It was just me in the car, and we were somewhere in the Guatemalan jungle, and there just wasn’t a good place to pull over.
After I confirmed that my daughter wasn’t choking and seemed otherwise okay, I decided to keep driving.
I knew we were close to the border, where I hoped there’d be a place to stop, so I knuckled down and kept driving, while *that smell* of baby vomit filled up the car.
Crossing the Guatemala-El Salvador Border
I’ve crossed a lot of international borders, but the El Salv-Guatemalan border is especially chaotic.
(For the record, the weirdest/most rural border crossing I’ve ever traversed was the Bosnian/Montenegran border. It was a just a dirt road, occasionally clogged by passing sheep.)
When you reach the border, you find somewhere to park your car along the road in front of the station.
Then you enter the station, wait in the queue, and get your passport stamped.
This is more problematic if you have sleeping kids in the car, or if you need to de-vomit a carseat.
I was parked in front of a fruit vendor and had to half-block the road (yes, the entire Pan-American Highway) to open the car door and baby-wipe off the vomit.
Did I mention how important a sense of humor is on a trip like this?
El Tazumel Ruins in El Salvador
After crossing the border, it was just twenty more minutes of driving before we made it to the Tazumel Ruins in Chalchuapa, which date back to 100 AD (!!!).
I’ve seen Mayan ruins in three countries now, and I really enjoy these smaller, less-traveled sites. Chichen Itza is amazing, don’t get me wrong, but I love the intimacy and the accessibility of these smaller ruins, particularly when you’re the only ones there.
That said, there wasn’t much in the way of signage or information at Tazumel, so if this is on your itinerary, I recommend reading up beforehand.
Also, it was barely 10 am, but it was already hot.
Despite the heat, the kids loved exploring the site. I think it’s so cool to watch them play tag around the pyramids and climb the stonework.
After a few rounds of freeze tag and some cool drinks from the market in front of the ruins, it was time for our next stop — La Casa Blanca.
La Casa Blanca
Just five minutes away from Tazumel are the Casa Blanca ruins.
There’s evidence of human activity in this region dating back more than 5,000 years.
I mean, seriously, MIND BLOWN.
This site includes a pleasant colonial manor house/museum. There’s also an indigo workshop at the museum where the kids learned about dying fabric.
Attempting to explain human sacrifice to a four-year-old:
In one of the rooms of the museum, we stumbled across a decapitated mummy and some very life-like drawings of human sacrifice. 🤦♀️
My four-year-old was pretty confused, and I struggled to explain why the figures in the murals had so many swords in them.
“Um, some people thought that doing this was, um, helping them, like, after they die.”
*incredulous look from preschooler*
“Mommy, it’s NOT nice to put swords in people.”
“You’re absolutely right. Why don’t we GO ANYWHERE ELSE BUT HERE.”
Jungle trail to the ruins
At this point, it was high noon in the El Salvadoran jungle and it was HOT. Hot, sticky, humid, and still.
I’ve always been prone to heat exhaustion, and I recognized the signs when they started to pop up — headachy, a little nauseous, fatigue. But we were mid-loop around this trail through the ruins, and I had to carry the baby.
Next time, I’ll know to go earlier in the day, to wear shorts, and to have extra water on hand for emergencies.
I didn’t internalize much from the ruins, unfortunately, as I made a beeline back for the air conditioning in our car.
Driving in El Salvador
It was pretty rough to get my hot and cranky kids rounded up and back in the car when I wasn’t feeling so great myself.
That’s one of the hard parts of doing these trips solo — there’s no back-up.
We made a quick stop at a road-side pupusa stand where I rested with my eyes closed in the air conditioning, occasionally passing back snacks to my kids. After twenty minutes or so, I was fit enough to drive and on we went with our caravan of other families.
I found the roads on this stretch of El Salvador to be pretty decent — most were two-lane with good signage, which definitely helped.
However, the last 45 minutes of the trip would prove to be the most challenging.
Ferry Ride to Isla Teopan
After the turn-off from the Pan American Highway, we had nearly forty-five minutes of bone-rattling driving over dirt roads and muddy potholes to the “Embarcadero” — the ferry crossing to Isla Teopan.
To be fair, I’ve definitely taking MUCH more harrowing ferry rides (the car ferry to Monterrico in Guatemala comes to mind).
That said, I’d been in the car now for seven hours, I was battling heat exhaustion and tough roads, and the smell of baby vomit was still wafting out of the carseat in back.
So you’ll understand why I found it so incredibly stressful to drive our car (and my children) on to this thing, and worse, to back off of the ferry…as the boat sways with the current and I hear my muffler scraping along the concrete as I attempt to gun it in reverse.
After we disembarked, we had a short dirt road to The Driveway of Horrors. Honestly, it’s really not possible to express in words just how terrifying it was to nose down this road, but more on that later.
Isla Teopan on Lake Coatepeque
As you may have deduced, the trip to El Salvador was both simpler than I expected and more harrowing in other ways.
But it was all worth it when we got to our Air B&B on Lake Coatepeque.
This lake is unbelievable. Warm, clear blue water, misty volcanoes in the distance, and tons of space to kayak, swim, and jet ski.
And one of the BEST PARTS about traveling in this part of the world is how far your dollar stretches.
Our (affordable) Air B&B was absolutely gorgeous, with five bedrooms, multiple entertaining spaces, a pool, access to a kayak, and two on-site staff who helped with cooking, cleaning, and water sports.
You can certainly travel for much cheaper in the area, but this was a good happy-medium for us — the help with cleaning and food prep made a huge difference and the pool was fantastic for the kids.
Exploring Lake Coatepeque
Lake Coatepeque resulted from a volcanic explosion tens of thousands of years ago.
The lake is set against a stunning backdrop of jungle and volcanoes. It’s large enough that there’s plenty to explore, but nowhere near as big as Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. I absolutely loved it.
We bumped into a few other holiday-makers at the “hot springs,” but other than that, our time there was very private and secluded.
Over the next three days, we kayaked, we jet-skiied, we swam, and we explored. We hunted for fossils in the riverbed. The kids played, and played, and played.
On rainy days, we painted and played board games and cooked delicious food.
If life ever takes you to this part of the world, please include Coatepeque in your itinerary — it is a hidden gem.
As wonderful as Coatepeque was, by Sunday morning, this mama was DONE.
Even with tons of help from our friends at the house, four days of constant vigilance left me exhausted. (I mean, you try keeping a toddler out of a lake AND a swimming pool 24/7.)
After one last swim in the lake, we loaded up the cars and the kids and prepared to depart.
Remember that Driveway of Horrors? Well, as car #1 attempted to scale the driveway (and repeatedly slid backward), there was an ominous *POP* as a tire blew.
We parked the car and unloaded all the suitcases to find the spare.
Guess what? The spare had a hole, too.
Guess what else? We were on an island in the El Salvadoran jungle, and there were no mechanics around.
It took the group efforts of all three families to figure out which spare tires from which cars would fit and how to keep ten kids (under the age of 9) entertained.
It was a rough morning, ya’ll.
But we finally made it back across the ferry, we found a mechanic in a small town who could top up the spare tire with air, and we eventually made it to a big enough town where we could get the tire patched (and get some lunch). The tire patch cost $3 and took about 10 minutes, so all’s well that ends well.
The border crossing coming home was hairy simply because there were so many other vacationers headed back to Guatemala.
The little parking lot out of the border crossing became completely clogged with cars, as drivers just hopped out and ran in to get their passports stamped (and found 100 other people there trying to do the same thing).
One member of our group, a legit diplomat, hopped right out of the car and began going window-to-window, figuring out where everyone needed to be and began directing traffic.
Yes, that’s right, a U.S. diplomat single-handedly solved the Guatemalan border crossing…for today. 🤣
The rest of the drive was exhausting, I’m not going to lie. My kids cried because they were hungry and tired, we stopped frequently as other kids needed a bathroom break, we puzzled over where we needed to get stamps in our passport and which documents we needed to present. It was a long drive home, but totally worth it.
Home at last
After seven hours, our little crew finally made it back home. Daddy was waiting for us with a glass of wine (for mom) and a big pot of soup (for everyone else).
Don’t feel too bad for me, though.
The next day, I was able to get a massage and a mani/pedi in my own bedroom to help unwind from the trip (for about $70 total).
Expat life is rough, ya’ll.
Does this count as worldschooling?
One of the awesome things about homeschooling in general (and worldschooling in particular) is that you come to recognize the educational value of simple moments.
Sure, my kids learned a lot from visiting the Mayan ruins and from exploring a new country.
(For the record, this is country #3 for my toddler and #4 for my four-year-old).
And they learned a TON from the hours of unstructured play with other kids at the lake.
But the most invaluable lessons came during the difficult moments — those moments you can’t predict or prepare for.
They saw their mom get flustered and overwhelmed trying to figure out how to get around a detour on the road, and Big Sister coached me through it with empathy and tenderness.
They demonstrated flexibility when we needed to get back OUT of their carseats while we trouble-shooted the flat tire.
They saw their mom problem-solve, again and again.
At one point, I decided to kayak around the island with my oldest while a friend watched the baby monitor for me during the toddler’s nap.
The island was much bigger than I anticipated, and when we hit the halfway point — aka the point of no return – the sky opened up in one of those equatorial downpours.
I was seriously nervous that our boat would capsize, and we only had one functional lifejacket (which was on my daughter, naturally).
Just by the way, I am not a particularly fit person, but I dug deep and found those reserves and paddled like there was no tomorrow.
I am so glad my daughter saw her mom cope and overcome this situation.
This is worldschooling, to me. And it’s not just for our kids — we all learn and grow in these situations.
In my mind, worldschooling is about learning life skills, about learning how to cope in difficult situations, and about demonstrating respect and empathy to people from all cultures.
By my count, we all got an A+.
How do you worldschool?
Leave me a comment below with your best tips or your hardest questions about how to make worldschooling work for your family.
Related Posts about Worldschooling:
- Reasons to Travel with Kids
- Moving Abroad with Kids: 12 Tips to Thrive
- Moving with Kids: Help Kids Adjust (Tips According to Age)
- Homeschooling Abroad: How It All Began