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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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!

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? 

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. 

The #1 Danger of Staying in a Hostel Dormroom

Emily and I have been staying in a private room in a hostel for the past few nights, which is nice but also makes it a little more difficult to meet other hostel guests. And one of our favorite things in a hostel is the opportunity to meet other travelers from around the world. At breakfast this morning when we talked to a german traveler at breakfast, we were reminded of one of the benefits of being in a private and not a dorm.

“I hardly slept all night,” she said, with bags under her eyes. “The new guy in the room snored all night. None of us could sleep and it was so bad we woke him up five times in the middle of the night, trying to get him to stop. But it was of no use.”

“Do you have earplugs?” I asked.

“Yes and it didn’t help. I’ve never heard anyone snore like that in all my life!”

The enterprising hostel manager used this opportunity to suggest that she and her boyfriend pay a little more and move in to the private (which we are vacating this morning) for their last two nights. They accepted the offer.

Unfortunately, if you stay in enough dorm rooms you are bound to come across a world-class snorer at some point. They’ll shake the bed with their breathing and the walls will tremble with every exhale. And while with that type of snorer there may be no true solution, we think it’s a good idea for a hostel to have earplugs available for their guests. We’ve thought about having a sign in the reception area that says something like, “Someone snoring in your dorm room? Don’t get mad, get earplugs! Free upon request.”

Happy sleeping!

On Favela Tours (or, “I went so you don’t have to”)

My blog is about hostels, and I think it is relevant to my readers in that it discusses ethics and tourism. For my wife and me, it put into words what we were feeling with regard to the favela tours and helped confirm our decision not to go on one while in Brazil.

Americas South and North

I’ve long been a critic of favela tours, for any number of reasons, few of which are likely unique: it objectifies the poor; it is voyeuristic; it reinforces a so-called “First World”/“Third World” dichotomy that objectifies both the poor and those in “developing countries” (a term as loaded and barely better than “Third World”); it fails to connect local poverty to broader national and global issues and economics; it rarely provides tourists an opportunity to hear the voices of those who live in the favelas, instead relying on tour guides to “interpret”; and they fail to connect local poverty to broader national and global systems that allow for such poverty to exist and that often implicate and involve the tourists themselves, be it directly or indirectly.

In an attempt to perhaps placate and alleviate some of the guilt the (relatively wealthier) tourist may feel, some favela tours insist that the…

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I guess every hostel can’t be amazeballs

Emily and I have been spoiled by the really great hostels we’ve been staying in since we started our trip. The last hostel we stayed in, Hostel de la Viuda, was particularly awesome, so when we arrived at a more mediocre hostel, we were kinda disappointed. I am not going to name the hostel, because I don’t want to cause them harm (I will leave a review on a review site), I do want to write about why we weren’t so impressed.

IMG_0856

The hostel, which has a an 87% rating on Hostelworld, is located in Montevideo Ciudad Vieja, and the location is pretty good. It’s located near the Museo de Carnaval, where you can see a “tablado” in January and February during Carnaval. Cruise ships dock in the port in their tourist season, so there are lots of little shops and restaurants to cater to tourists.* Just down the street from the hostel you can rent bikes to tour the city, or you can take a bus to just about anywhere, it seemed, from a bus stop just around the corner.

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Our interaction with the staff was really positive. They answered our questions with a smile, and went out of their way to make sure we understood what they said to us.

It’s an old building, which is to be expected in this neighborhood, and they’ve put some effort into making the common areas more welcoming with some decorations and lots of plants. They also have a decent kitchen and dining area.

Their breakfast was okay, pretty typical for what we’ve seen in Argentina and Uruguay, except that they had Nescafé and hot water instead of dark coffee and hot milk. I did like that they had some frosted flakes in their cereal offerings and not just corn flakes.

So far, so good.

But despite those positive elements, we immediately felt like something was missing. I think the hostel was lacking in the “vibe” department. We can’t totally explain why, but guests didn’t seem to talk much to other guests they didn’t know. There was also no music, and I think even just a little bit of quiet music would have brightened the mood. Maybe an album by Uruguayan Grammy winner Jorge Drexler? Forgive the cliché, but the silence in that place was loud!

But despite the silence there was also a noise problem. We tried to take a nap shortly after our arrival, and it was difficult due to a hammering sound that reverberated through the walls. I think someone may have been doing construction next door. The acoustics of the place allowed lots of noise to reach our room, whether it was someone cooking in the kitchen, or just talking in their dorm. Maybe that’s why there was no music.

There were also some disappointments in the cleanliness area. In one of the men’s showers, there was black mold growing in the crevices of the folds of the accordion style door. When I touched it with my finger, it came off easily, making it appear that they don’t do a thorough cleaning. Next to the showers, the men’s stalls with toilets smelled so bad I couldn’t bare to use them. Thankfully there was another unisex bathroom near their patio. My wife also just commented about the awkwardness of the main bathroom with the showers. It’s hard to explain but their was a common sink area but then two small parallel hallways with accordion doors leading to individual stalls and showers, it was cramped and didn’t feel very private.

Furthermore, when we returned to our room (a “two person dorm”) we were greeted by a mouse that hid under my backpack and then scurried into a hole in the wall. I am sure a mouse could end up in any building, but my wife was kinda unnerved by our unexpected third roommate.

So lastly comes the price. We paid $20 a bed, which was just entirely too much, if you ask me. I might not have been disappointed if we had paid half that, or if their Hostelworld rating was lower, maybe we wouldn’t have had such high expectations. Unfortunately, as a fairly expensive hostel, it just didn’t deliver.
*One of the shops is an excellent boutique bookstore called Moebius, found at Pérez Castellano 1432. It has an eclectic selection of Spanish language books, and I recommend a visit to anyone staying in Montevideo Viejo.

5 Things We Don’t Look For in a Hostel

Last time we talked about the primary things that we look for when choosing a hostel, this time we thought we would discuss some things other people look for in a hostel– things that aren’t necessarily on our list. We figure it may be important to think about people who might come to our future hostel looking for something other than what we look for.

#1 Party Hostel

Sure, we’re an “old married couple” now, but we weren’t into party hostels even before we earned that title. If there’s a DJ and a dance floor, we probably look elsewhere. But we understand that for some people, that want a hostel where they can drink and dance the night away and then walk down the hall to collapse in their bed.

That’s not to say we don’t love a social hostel. One of our favorite hostels is Hostel Villa Vento Surf in Panama City, Panama. They have a nice open pool and lawn area with muisc that is inviting and encourages people to hang out and enjoy some time together. They may even have some chill parties from time to time, but we think there’s a clear difference between a “party hostel” and a “hostel that sometimes has parties.”

#2 Single Gender Dorms

As a couple, single gender dorms are just not an option for us. We stay in either private rooms or mixed-gender dorms. As a male traveling alone years ago, I may have stayed in an all male dorm room once or twice, but it wasn’t something I really looked for or cared about. I can see how some female travelers might feel more safe in an all female dorm, or maybe some travelers with certain religious convictions might feel more comfortable in a room with people of the same sex. I imagine our future hostel would be mixed dorm, and maybe we would offer single gender dorms upon request in the off season.

#3 Full Kitchen

When it comes to a kitchen in a hostel, we wish we could say it was important to us, but the honest truth is we don’t do a lot of cooking in hostels. I mean there was that one disastrous time we tried to bake a pizza on a plastic tray in the oven at Hostel Villa Vento Surf, but usually we use no more than the fridge, a cutting surface, a microwave, fork, knife, plate and cup. A small kitchenette more than does the trick for us.

That said, I think I would like our future hostel to have a good, useful, full kitchen that guests can use. I want real budget travelers to feel welcome and able to make their own food at our hostel. Also, Emily and I would love to use our kitchen to make food with and for our guests from time to time, maybe for a small fee that covers the cost.

#4 Pets

A lot of people seem to really like hostels that have pets, or at least they mention the pets in their reviews. Some of our favorite hostels (like Periko’s in Bariloche, Argentina and La Ruka in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica) are named after pets. But that said, it’s not really something that plays into our hostel choice. Actually, quite the opposite, any mention of a cat means we won’t stay at a given hostel, since I am allergic to them.

#5 Cable Television

A lot of people want their hostel to have cable television and I think it’s usually so they can watch sporting events. Since Emily and I aren’t really sports fans, this isn’t really important to us. Maybe I would want a television during the World Cup, but that’s just once every four years!

We kinda like the idea of not having a television in the hostel, but could see possibly adding one if we found it was important to a lot of our guests.

So those are some things that aren’t really important to us in a hostel. Are those things important to you? What things don’t matter to you in a hostel?