The beauty of backpacking, is that every time you take a new trip, you have the freedom to do it differently from the last time. On this voyage, I discovered a new approach to finding accommodations, and I may just never go back.
I began my recent trip to Central America with a cautious traveler; as a first-time backpacker (though no stranger to outrageous adventures), she was weary of unknown elements and still under the impression that if we didn’t book accommodations ahead of time, there was a chance we’d be left out in the cold. This meant that for the first couple of weeks we were Hostelworld addicts traveling along the gringo trail and staying in one the top three highest-rated hostels on the site.
While almost always pleasant and enjoyable, what you get out of these types of accommodations is fairly predictable. Sure, the location might change, but you’re still bound to be greeted by a young traveler receptionist who will lead you through a maze of eclectically decorated hallways and show you to your bunk bed out of a row of ten identical sets. Should you get there on a Wednesday, they might inform you that it’s Wild Wednesday and that all shots and wings are half-price that night! Of course, the next night is Tequila Thursday, followed by Freaky Friday and Shot Saturday. At this point, the other guests in the room have already sized you up and tried to figure out where you’re from, how old you are, where you’ve just come from and where you’re headed next. Sound familiar? It might just be backpacker Groundhog day.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had my fair share of great times and quality conversations over a piping hot free coffee at #1 hostels, but it wasn’t until I accidentally slipped off the Hostelworld trail that I realized how different my backpacking experience could be if I tried out something else for a change.
It happened one day when my travel buddy and I walked up to the receptionist at what we thought was our hotel and asked to see our room. As it turns out, in the tiny city of Antigua, Guatemala, there are not one, but two unaffiliated hotels with the same unusual name. Once I realized how easy it was to simply walk in to a hotel and comparison shop on the fly, I uncovered a few things that simply must be shared:
The Price is Right
One thing that sets travelers apart from other people is that they tend to measure the value of every dollar in terms of how far away from home it can take them. While the general population doesn’t really see the big deal about saving a buck or two on accommodations, backpackers will vow that they can stretch those couple of pesos over a nice meal and a few beers. So naturally, I got pretty excited when I found out that for up to 75% less than your average bunk bed, you can stay in a cozy private double with an ensuite bathroom, hot water and speedy wi-fi. By showing up the day-of, you can also bargain down the price of the room, thereby doing the hotel a favour by filling up their otherwise empty slots, and saving yourself a few bucks in the process; it’s a win-win!
There’s a Better Chance to Soak in the Local Flavour
To me, one of the greatest pleasures in traveling is having the privilege to chat with local people and getting little inside scoops on what life might be like in the areas I visit. After all, pretty landscapes and famous sites are nothing but a backdrop until you delve a little deeper in to their stories, in my opinion. Whether or not you speak the local language, staying in lesser-known spots forces you to go out of your way to start conversations you may otherwise never have started. One of the most charming hotels I stumbled upon during my trip (Hotel Panorama, Big Corn Island) was discovered when a friend and I dipped in to a small fruit stand and started talking to the owner inside. When we let him know that we’d be back for groceries as soon as we found a place to stay the night, he casually pointed to a small resort next door, and said:
“I own that property over there, why don’t you just stay there?”
Five minutes later, we were settled in to our clean little room across the street from a beach that was essentially private, as we were the only ones ever on it. Every day, the friendly staff would crack coconuts for us to drink, we would visit Louis in his fruit shop and buy fresh beans from a family home across the street. The ladies who worked there would clean the rooms in the morning, and then spend the rest of the day entertaining their neighbours, cooking Caribbean meals of fresh fish and sipping on frozen beers. To further my previous point, this amazing little slice came at an easy rate of $7.50/night.
There Are Still Tons of Ways to Meet Other Travelers
Don’t worry, that big group of travel buddies you met somewhere earlier on is not about to disappear on you any time soon. I’ve learned a million times over that the world is a very small place and that whatever pace you travel at, or path you take, you will inevitably run in to the same people again and again. So if you’re a little nervous about meeting fellow backpackers, all you have to do is look for literal signs for what might be going on that night and you’ll surely be making new friends in no time. Trust me, it’s the least of your worries!
For Better or For Worse, You Will Always Be Surprised
On our lengthy journey from Managua to the Corn Islands (which involves 2 chicken buses, a tuk-tuk, a fishing boat, a cargo ship, and a hell of a lot of patience), we broke up the trip by staying the night in a shady little port town called El Rama. Picture this: our chicken bus halted to a stop on the side of the road in the middle of the night, and the driver asked my friend Caitlyn and I whether we had a reservation. When we said we didn’t, the driver shook his head and told us we were out in the middle of nowhere and it was a far walk into town… reassuring, right?
The driver’s aide proceeded to toss our luggage off the roof of the bus, and before it even had time to hit the ground with a heavy thud, the bus had roared off into the distance, leaving us alone in the dust. Simultaneously, Caitlyn had gone in to check for availability, and was greeted by a toothless guard holding an assault rifle. Gritty as it was, it was the only hotel around for miles, so we had no choice but to stay there.
As we got closer, the guard pulled out some kind of spray and started to walk towards us, all the while grinning his toothless grin.
“Is it pepper spray? Bear mace? POISON?!” I whispered to Caitlyn while faking a smile so as not to raise suspicion.
Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be some kind of floral scented room deodorizer with a picture of a princess on it. Phew! We had narrowly escaped death, that time.
So as it goes, sometimes the surprise is a guard with an intimidating weapon, or a slightly senile hotel owner pounding on your door at 5:30 am because he thought you mentioned something about having to catch a bus, and other times, it’s a private villa with a pool for $8/night or an invite to a hush-hush local beach party.
Whatever the case, as long as I can, I’d rather choose the spontaneous and unknown, and I suggest you challenge yourself one day and do the same!