I’m On a Boat!

This post is actually not about a hostel, it’s about a boat. A sailboat called the Amande, captained by the Argentine Victor, accompanied by his trusty first mate, the French Sophie. And while this blog is generally about hostels, we felt this would be relevant to people who frequent hostels since the voyage through the Kuna Yala (San Blas) Islands generally appeals to backpackers, much like hostels do.

The information below is specific to our April 2015 trip on the Amande, from Cartagena, Colombia to Porvenir, Panamá, but may be helpful for others on similar voyages.

To start off, we booked a speed boat trip through San Blas Adventures but after paying our deposit it was canceled, and our money returned to us. We then decided to go with a sailboat, booked through Mamallena Hostels and we were super impressed with Doriantt, with whom we exchanged about thirty e-mails. He was polite, informative and almost always quick to respond.

The trip generally costs $550pp, but we decided to splurge for the $650pp private ensuite cabin, not in small part because we read about leaks on the boat on blogs like this one and this one. For some guaranteed privacy and fewer chances of a soaking wet bed and luggage, it sounded worth it. We thought it was odd that we were told to pay a $50 deposit each by Paypal, but the rest directly to the captain in cash. Upon arrival at the dock where we boarded, we met the other travelers who all booked through Blue Sailing, and had paid all to the hostel prior to meeting us. We would have preferred that set-up, in order to not have to meet at the dock, at night, with $1200 in our possession.

Speaking of arriving at the dock, at the Club Náutico, we were told to meet there at 8pm. We arrived at 7:45 and met the captain and the other twelve passengers. After having our things inspected by the police, we boarded the ship briefly, after taking off our shoes (we wouldn’t wear shoes for five days) and before learning that we wouldn’t actually take off until 4am (we could have held off on the motion sickness pills we took around 7:45pm). It was also time for bed assignments. We were surprised to find that another couple had also book the only available private ensuite cabin, and the captain left it to us to sort that out. At some point, he did suggest that we draw straws (“palitos”) as an option and we took him up on it. We won, so the captain gave the other couple $200 as a refund for what they had paid Blue Sailing. We were happy to win but felt bad for the other couple,  and it added some awkwardness to the beginning of the trip. Some others ended up drawing straws too, and it seemed to us that assigning beds with reservations might improve the social dynamic of the boat at the beginning. Thankfully everybody on our boat was pretty cool and we ended up getting along pretty well.

While we were told to meet at the Club Náutico at 8pm, the boat wasn’t actually leaving the port until 4am. We had taken a couple of seasickness pills at 7:45 so we passed out pretty quick that evening. Food was not served on the boat that night, but the captain let us go to shore and buy some food. I woke up around 5:45, just a bit too late to see what I was told had been an amazing sunrise behind Cartagena.

I didn’t throw up on the high seas, but Emily did and neither of us felt great. We took Bonine until arriving in the islands. We recommend downloading an audiobook and just staying in bed when you start feeling bad.

We were surprised to find one outlet available on the ship that we could use from time to time to charge our phone and iPod. The ship also has a hammock and a bean bag which were nice when hanging out up top. There are a number of sets of snorkel gear, but because of the varying quality and sizes some of us shared equipment. We really enjoyed snorkeling!

Our room was right next to the engine which was needed most of the time that we were traveling from one place to another. It heated the room a bit so we were thankful for the little fan in our room. Some other rooms had fans but one was broken. We wish there had been some hand sanitizer in the toilet of our bathroom. Thankfully we had our own.

Victor loves to sail, and he seems to really appreciate the Kuna Yala people. He has good relationships with many of them and particularly with a woman named Rosalinda. I think Victor is an introvert, and he isn’t the most social captain. He wasn’t unkind to us but you could tell he would rather be sailing alone, and understandably so.

Sophie, on the other hand was very social and kind and went out of her way to help with anything we asked. She did a great job with the food and we were impressed with the way she managed our various vegetarian, pescatarian, lactose-free, and gluten-free diets. Sophie really made up for Victor’s reserved manner, so I guess they are a good team. Sophie was pretty much our DJ for the voyage and played some nice laid-back tunes. She even helped us clean out our bucket when Emily got sick on the open sea (I think each room got one sick bucket).

While we thought it was great that the ship had solar panels, we thought they could do a little more to protect the environment that we were enjoying. We washed our dishes into the ocean, so it would have been nice if we had had some biodegradable, eco-friendly soap. We also dumped most of our organic waste into the ocean, including some paper products– and I don’t know what the long term effects of that may be on the marine habitat.

We had been under the impression that there would be a lot of products available for purchase on the islands,  but it was pretty minimal. Bring what you need with you. We brought 750ml of rum and 12 juice boxes as mixers. We ran out of rum on the last night and didn’t party hard. Sophie made one cocktail for us each night with fresh fruit juice. Also, we were each allowed a little fridge space, which was much appreciated. If I were you I would bring some snacks for in between meals.

We bought some molas from the Kunas, two for five dollars each and one for ten. You will have opportunities to buy various handicrafts from them if you want.

They have a ton of fresh water on board for various purposes. I recommend bringing a watter bottle to carry your water, but there was plenty of drinking water so we didn’t touch the extra gallon we had brought with us. While there is plenty of water, they try to be smart about how they use it. They use saltwater for rinsing dishes. They also include a couple of rinses in the ocean as part of the bathing ritual on deck. Once a day you bathe and then rinse with fresh water from a hose.

While all our fellow travelers came from different countries, English was definitely the lengua franca. A non-English speaking traveler might have felt left out.

While we didn’t see any leaking on the Amande, when we left Porvenir by water taxi at the ene of the voyage, everyone on the left side of the boat got soaked. Our stuff was dry under a tarp but may not have remained so in rain.

Upon arrival to our land taxi stop, we had to wait two hours for our LAM Tours connection. We were not impressed with the company. When we finally left they separated us, sending some of us in vehicles by ourselves. They tried to split Emily and me but I told them they would not separate me from my wife. After two girls in our group arranged to meet at the Allbrook bus terminal one of the drivers refused to go there until we appealed to the manager. It was a frustrating end to our trip.

Nonetheless, this was an amazing trip. The islands are beautiful and we loved living on a boat for five days. Victor and Sophie are a great team and the Amande is just what we were hoping it would be!

 

The Amande
 
Let us know if you have any questions!

Also, follow this link to the blog of another couple from our trip.

   
                 

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Replies to hostel reviews-If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. 

Have you ever paid attention to the responses that hostels leave to reviews left about them on Hostelworld or Tripadvisor?

In our past four months of travel, I’ve found that these responses left by hostel owners, managers, or workers to reviews on hostelworld of tripadvisor often do more harm than good.

When I read in a review that a staff member at the hostel was rude, for instance, it ever so slightly lessens my chances of choosing that hostel. Maybe the staff member was having a bad day. Maybe the person leaving the comment was actually the rude one. You never know. But when I see sarcastic, rude, and/or accusing responses from hostel owners/managers on Hostelworld or Tripadvisor reviews my chances of staying at the hostel drop dramatically.

Not sure what I mean by sarcastic, rude or accusing responses? Here are some of the worst I’ve ever seen. These all happen to be from the same hostel, but unfortunately it’s not an isolated issue.

 

 

Pretty bad, right?

Clearly these reviews weren’t great to start with, but the owner only made things worse with his replies.

In my search, I’ve had trouble finding an example of a hostel that replies well to a negative comment. It seems that most don’t reply all, and those who do reply often don’t reply well.

Here’s an example of a good reply to a review from Local Hostel Manaus. It’s professional and polite.

I think that if a hostel wants to reply to a review they should always start by thanking the person for their review and mention how the review will help them improve. Local Hostel does just this in the above reply. 

When it comes to responding to negative reviews, I think that hostels should never argue or get overly defensive. A simple apology and, when appropriate, a non defensive explanation will be much more likely to attract future guests. A person complains about the water going out? Thank them for their comment and mention that you’re sorry the water went out and and maybe note that it was a citywide problem. Tell them about efforts to work on the problem if any have been made, and thank them again. But, never, never, accuse the guest of being dramatic, of expecting too much, of being at fault for choosing the wrong hostel etc… even if that’s what you’re thinking. 

In the end, when it comes to replies to hostel reviews, it seems that what our moms and dads told us as kids still rings true: if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

Hostel Review: Kokopelli Paracas

  

We tried to book a couple of beds at Kokopelli Paracas three or four days before our arrival in Paracas. Unfortunately, all their beds were booked. We met lots of travelers who had also wanted to stay there and couldn’t. We didn’t understand why they sold out so fast until we stopped by. It’s a massive, impressive hostel, with more hanging out space than sleeping space!

  

The common areas have tons of shaded seating, a big pool, a pool table, a foosball table, a well-equipped bar, and a door that leads directly to the beach. We liked the interesting art they had painted on the walls. In the bar, we recommend their mango slushy drink, it’s pretty good. Breakfast is included each morning, unlike other hostels in town. They also have indoor seating areas with a couple of computers for guest use. The dorms look nice, though we didn’t get a chance to stay in them. Someone who did stay there told us they got a bit hot at night, but they do have fans.

  

It has a bit of a party atmosphere at night, but not crazy and the place is so big I don’t think the noise would bother someone in the rooms.

  

We recommend staying at Kokopelli when in Paracas, just make sure to book way in advance. And if you don’t get a bed, you should at least swing by for a drink!

Hostel Review: Paracas Backpackers House

Emily and I chose to go with “Perú Hop” for our transportation between Lima and Cuzco. Our main stops along the way are Paracas, Huacachina, and Arequipa. The Perú Hop service is pretty convenient since they pick you up at your hostel, so no taking a taxi to a bus station or arriving 30 minutes before your departure. You also don’t have to worry about buying bus tickets along the way, and printing them out if you buy them online (a frustrating requirement of Cruz del Sur). And to top it off, the bus makes some extra site-seeing stops along the way in places like Nasca.

For our first stop, Paracas, we stayed at Paracas Backpackers House.

  

Paracas is a small beach town where the main tourist draws are the Ballestas Islands (sometimes referred to as the “poor man’s Galapagos”) and the National Reserve, both very beautiful and worth a visit. The wildlife we saw reminded us of our boat tour in the Beagle Channel, but it was so much cheaper.

  

Paracas Backpackers House has the second best rating on Hostelworld, second only to Kokopelli, and we think it deserves that rating.

The beds were comfortable, they kept the place clean, and always had soap by the bathroom sink. The showers always seemed to have hot water. We liked the shaded seating areas, and particularly the patio with hammocks and chairs, shaded by a small pavilion and a large, hanging tarp. The WiFi was decent most of the time, and better than we expected for such a small, remote town. While there were no towels in our four-person dorm, a bar of soap and a towel were provided to each guest in the private rooms. The kitchen is small, and you could cook in it if you wanted. We just used the fridge and also microwaved some leftovers for lunch one day. The location is good, just a couple blocks from the ocean.

  

On the negative side, there wasn’t much air circulation in our ground-level dorm room which meant it got uncomfortably warm at night, and unbearably hot in the middle of the day. Also, there were two pet cats which is never a pleasant surprise for us since Emily and I are both allergic. Thankfully, we didn’t experience any notable allergy symptoms while there.

The staff was kind but quiet, though they did warm up to us some by our last morning there (we stayed two nights). While we waited for our bus, we had a nice conversation with an Italian man who is working at the hostel for a couple of months.

  

All in all, it was a good stay and we would recommend Paracas Backpackers House if Kokopelli is all booked up. We will write about that hostel in a later post.

—————

*Also, for vegetarians I recommend the restaurant by the pier, Punta Paracas. A lot of times Peruvian servers don’t understand the whole vegetarian thing, but when I ordered the vegetable thai rice, the server clarified that I was okay with egg in the dish. I do eat eggs, but the server’s awareness that I might be vegan–that impressed me. They have a number of vegetarian dishes on the menu.

Hostel Experience: Huanchaco

Emily and I went and spent four days and five nights at the Peruvian beach town of Huanchaco, per the recommendation of a friend whose boyfriend is from Trujillo. We enjoyed the time to relax by the ocean, learn about the caballitos de totora, and our visits to local archaeological sites like Chan Chan and Huacas del Moche. While our stay was a pleasant one overall, we learned more from what this hostel did wrong than what it did right. If I have mostly negative things to say about a hostel I avoid mentioning it by name, unless it poses a danger to travelers. My post will remain on the web for a long time, possibly long after they’ve resolved these issues.

This hostel recently came under new management, and was renamed just a few months ago. It gets pretty positive reviews, probably because the managers know how to get a party going and promote a really laid back vibe.

Other positive points are the big terrace with tables and chairs where lots of guests hang out all day, sunning and looking out at the waves. The location is pretty good, and the WiFi works well on the first couple of floors. Also, all or most of their rooms face the ocean. Rooms are cleaned regularly and the bathrooms are taken care of.

Those positive points kept our stay a good one. We didn’t move to another hostel (though we know others did), but our stay could have been so much better if they improved on their weak areas which fall into a few categories: information, facilities, and service.

Information

There were a lot of communication problems, starting with wrong information on their Hostelworld site. They indicate “breakfast included” but when we asked about breakfast the first morning, they said, “Oh, we don’t do breakfast.” We double-checked their page and saw that while in one place it says breakfast included, in another place, it says they don’t serve breakfast. We also saw they had flyers around town that said they serve breakfast. Hostelworld also says nothing about outside alcohol, but when a guest went to open a bottle of wine, the manager came over to say they don’t allow that. There is nothing on Hostelworld about that, no signs on the walls about it, and nothing said at check-in. He let her drink the glass, but made it clear this was an exception. Later when I asked what time checkout was, the person at the front desk said 11:00. Hostelworld and the sign in our room said 12:00. We signed up for a tour that they arranged and were told it would be in English and we might have to pay an extra ten soles to get into the attractions. The tour was in Spanish, and we spent 25 soles extra to get into attractions. 

It was just pretty frustrating to never really know if the information they gave us was accurate. It might seem like a small thing but it is important to make sure that information is accurate when given verbally, on your website, on Hostelworld, on flyers or on signs.

Facilities

The worst facility issues were in the bathroom. We stayed at this hostel for five nights and had just one hot shower, even though Hostelworld says they have hot water. The shower head kinda sucked and the knob on the bathroom sink had broken off, making it hard to use. It couldn’t cost too much to replace the knob in the sink and get some decent shower heads. They have a small kitchen area but it’s closed to guests. The blinds were broken, making them difficult to open and close. While AC isn’t really necessary because it cools down most nights, some fans would be awesome on the warm nights.

Service

The service wasn’t bad, it was just unprofessional. It kinda felt like you were staying at a chill frat house for a few days. They often put up signs in the reception saying they could be found elsewhere. Maybe watching a football game in the café area or chatting up a female guest on the terrace. Sometimes there was no sign and nobody to help you. You didn’t get the impression that the managers were really invested in the enterprise. It didn’t get under our skin so much but we ran into another guest who was bothered enough to move to another hostel. He said he was staying at Meri Surf Hostel in a room with three others who had also moved there separately from him.

Until we found out about the people who had changed hostels, we were thinking that maybe a good vibe is able to make up for the small shortcomings. But now, we really see that is not the case. We weren’t the only ones who were disappointed. No matter how good the vibe, the little things do matter.

Oh and also, we got drinks at Meri Surf Hostel our last night in Huanchaco and it looks really cool. We recommend staying there if they have beds available when you visit Huanchaco.

Travel Talk #3: Affording Travel – Accomodation

One traveler’s thoughts on hostels, and some photos of her favorites.

SEEK THE SKY

For this third post in the series, I’m talking about accommodation when traveling. As I’ve stated previously, when I travel I like to pack my days full of sightseeing, food, and generally being out and about. As such, I’m very much a no-frills person when it comes to accommodation. Why spend hundreds of dollars on rooms you’ll only sleep in? The beauty of European travel is the prevalence of inexpensive accommodation.

Europe 804Dining room at the Youth Hostel Füssen.

When I traveled in Europe in 2011-2012 I stayed almost exclusively in hostel dorms. To date I’ve stayed in at least 22 different hostels for between one and five nights each. Despite a few sketchier/shadier ones, I’ve had very good experiences and absolutely recommend them to everyone traveling in Europe. Here are a few tips I’ve picked up:

Europe 2241
Hostel California, Milan.

1) Be Bold. Be sure to speak…

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Hostel Review: Red Psycho Llama



We flew to the Lima airport and our hostel had arranged a taxi driver to meet us and take us to Miraflores. We stayed in Miraflores for three nights in a private room. Despite the fact that I (Teo) was fighting off an illness the whole time, we had a good stay.

THEME/BRAND

Red Psycho Llama is all about some branding. I love their name as it’s fun, memorable, and makes for some great logos. The red llama inside the green recycle/reduce/reuse triangle is excellent.

Their theme is protecting the environment and the theme permeates the building. They encourage you to fill your water bottle (for just one sol, or .33 cents) instead of buying bottles of water that may end up in a land fill. 



A lot of the decorations are made out of recycled materials, and the rooms are named after recyclables! In our room, vidrio (“glass”) they had a chandelier made out of glass bottles, and also blue glass bottles going through the wall to the bathroom as decoration. They also plastered the wall with a message about the environmental impact of making glass.



Other rooms were named for recyclable and reusable materials like lata, papel, tela, and p.

They also had a place for discarding recyclables in their common room.



We liked our room. The shower had good water pressure and hot water, though the knobs to control the flow of the water took a minute to figure out. There was no AC, but the room stayed pretty cool even in the heat of the day.

They had a lounging area with lots of pillows for people to relax, read, watch television, etc.

The Little Things 

We’ve been traveling for two months now, and we’ve stayed in over 15 different hostels. In every hostel we take note of what we like and what we don’t like. We notice how we feel about the hostel and ask ourselves why we feel this way. 

As we’ve gone along we’ve realized that having a great hostel isn’t so much about doing one big thing super well as it is about doing a lot of little things well. It seems the more of these little things a hostel does well, the more impressive the hostel is over all. 

While hostels with a really great vibe and community can sometimes manage to seem great even when lacking some of these details, it seems to me that focusing on the details is a good place to start when trying to run a successful hostel. 

So what are some of these little things? 

Soap! While I never expect hostels to have little shampoo and conditioner bottles waiting for us, I’m shocked by how many don’t put any form of soap by sinks for hand washing. Especially in a shared dorm, I want people be able to wash their hands after they use the bathroom!

Hooks/shelves- hooks and shelves are small easy additions to rooms that can allow people to store personal items within reach, dry towels/clothes, and in general keep their things better organized. Big lockers are a great addition to a dorm room too, allowing people to store away their whole bag and leave the room much neater.

Mirrors- when mirrors are placed in the rooms and not just in the bathroom it can make it easier for multiple people to get ready at the same time, especially in an ensuite dormroom.

A place to put your shampoo- On the topic of storage, a shower caddy or shelf to place shampoo/soap on while showering is a nice touch. Bonus points if it’s one that a small travel bottle won’t fall out of easily. 

Give guests a map- Again, it’s a small but appreciated touch. It’s even better if you also offer advice about things to do and places to see. 

Outlets for charging- It’s always appreciated to have outlets in convenient locations in rooms or common areas where people can charge phones, camera batteries, tabkets etc. Cruz del Sur hostel in Ushuaia, Argentina gets bonus points on this one. They not only had a lot of outlets, but they had power strips at each one with a few different types of plugs, so people from other countries didn’t need converters. 

Wifi password posted- Guests are going to want to get online, so having the wifi password posted in easy to fnd locations like the back of doors, walls of the rooms, or the fridge in the common area is appreciated. 

Music in common area/reception- A little music, nothing too loud or distracting can add a lot to he feel of a hostel from the moment guests walk in. 

These are just a few of the more basic things that I think all hostels can do to make their guests comfortable without too much extra expense or effort. 

What would you add to this list? 

Brief visit to the USA

Emily and I are spending this semester exploring Latin America, but we spent this past week back in the states for my sister’s wedding in Campbellsville, KY (pretty much the middle of nowhere). I had thought I would get ahead on some blogging, but I actually got very little accomplished. We did think a bit about the hotel we stayed in, Holiday Inn Express, and tried to see if there were any aspects of their service that we might be able to implement one day in a hostel.

One interesting thing we saw was a pancake machine. We’d never seen anything like it before!

image 

 It actually made some decent pancakes. You push the button one time for one pancake, two times for two, etc., and it takes about a minute for the pancakes to fall on your plate . I think I prefer the similar waffle irons I’ve seen in some hotels, but this was interesting. The pancakes were part of quite the array of breakfast offerings: bacon, scrambled eggs, biscuits, yogurt, cereal, cinnamon rolls, bread, juices, milk, coffee, and more! Probably a bit elaborate for a small hostel, maybe possible for a huge one.

While the hotel is “smoke-free,” you could definitely tell that someone had smokeds in my parents’ room at some point. I just take it as a reminder of how smoke seeps into the walls and floors and furniture of a room. Probably a good idea to make your hostel’s smoking policy very clear.

Our biggest take-away from the hotel experience was the importance of customer service. We were impressed with every staff member we spoke with from the front desk to the room cleaning staff. They were friendly and helpful, and even remebered our names and things we told them about ourselves. While the hotel appeared new, had spacious rooms and comfy beds, it seemed a bit expensive to me for a 2.5 star hotel. That said, the value at this location was in the quality of the service. Friendly and engaging service can really make guests feel like their money was well-spent. I hope that the friendly attitudes are reflective of staff members that feel valued and fairly compensated.

One thing we saw that we don’t expect to deal with at our future hostel is snow. A snowstorm dropped about 8 inches in our area in just one night. I guess if someone has a hostel in a colder climate they should have bags of salt and shovels on hand for these circumstances, but if we have a hostel in Central America like we’re thinking, that shouldn’t be a problem. 

Having grown up in a small town in Georgia, Emily had never seen snow like that in her life! 



Water water everywhere but not a drop to drink 

Travelers often ask “Is the water here OK to drink?” Often the answer is no…or it should be. In Costa Rica in 2010 I was overwhelmingly told that the water was fine to drink. I drank it. I suffered. I’m no longer so trusting when people tell me the water is good. 

So what can travelers and hostels do to best solve the drinkable water delima? 

Travelers have a few options: 

1) Buy water bottles-This Is a common solution, but, in my opinion, it isn’t the best option…at least not for longer trips. Bottled water creates waste, and having to go to the store to get your drinking water can be inconvenient. This is also likely the most costly option long term. 

2) Bring a water filter- A water filter allows you to make the tap water drinkable. Teo and I used the Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter when we traveled through Panama and Costa Rica a couple years back, and we loved it. This filter cost about $50 USD, but you make this money up by not paying for water. Con-It’s a little bit of a hassle to filter the water. The bags are best filled in running water, and we sometimes spilled when squeezing into bottles. After many uses it’s easy to wear a hole in the bag. Pro-You can also use your filter to drink from lakes or streams, and it’s faster than a SteriPEN. For me, this option takes 2nd place. 



3) Bring a SteriPEN- This is my winner. This small UV light makes tap water or any water without sediment drinkable and is small and easy to use. We have the Ultra model which cost about $100 USD and can be charged via USB. Again, this cost can be made up long term. Cons-the pen doesn’t filter out debris, so it’s not quiet as good for streams/lakes (you’ll likely want to pre-filter), and it takes 90secs to clean 1liter, so it’s not ideal for big groups (for big groups I would recommend the sawyer filter). *



Hostels have some options as well: 

1) Leave it up to the guests-this option isn’t awful, but it adds nothing to your guests’ experience.

2) Sell water bottles-This option is Ok, but not my favorite. It’s more convenient for guests than offering nothing, and maybe the hostel makes a little money, but again–waste. And you may come across as greedy.

3) Filter or water dispenser- For me this is the clear winner. It’s convenient and environmentally friendly. Local Hostel in Manaus has a water filter by their reception and it was such a treat to have cold drinking water at our finger tips while we were there (to read more about our stay at local hostel see our post about the hostel). We’ve also stayed at hostels (Including Lighthouse Hostel in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil) that have a big office-style water bottle in a dispenser where guests can refill for free. Red Psych Llama Hostel in Lima, Peru had one such water dispenser and asked for a contribution of 1 sol (.33 USD in March 2015) for each refill (pictured below). Obviously guest prefer free water, but I still thought this system was good, especially since 1 sol coins are easy to come by. 



* We try to always be aware of what contamination might be in the water and make our water treatment decision on a case to case basis. While in Lima we opted to refill from the bottled water at the hostel rather than using the SteriPEN on tap water bc we read that there was a lot of heavy metals and chlorine in the water.