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.