29 November 2018

What Exactly is a Hostel?

One of my favorite spots in Leon Nicaragua, Hostel La Tortuga Booluda
on a 3 month Central American trip with my, then girlfriend, Tracie, Spring 2015.
Is there a difference between a hostel and a hotel? Yep. There's a difference. Hostels are one thing and Hotels are another. That being said, you still come across some that are both. They usually start out solely as a hostel, then open more locations, but are able to maintain an "upscale" hotel feel at each new location, but keep a hostel vibe. Selina is a good example of this. I've hit them in Cartagena, Bogota, I'll miss them in Quito, but see them in Lima, Peru and La Paz, Bolivia.

I don't think I have to spend a lot of time telling you what a hotel is. If you've never stayed in a hotel... well, write me off line and we can talk. For the rest of you, you already know what you are getting. Not all are the same, of course. Big difference between a Hilton and a Motel 6, but you know you want something private, safe, clean, and affordable.

Isla Verde, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala 
Here's the thing with Hostels

Hostels are not the backpacker's paradise with noisy dorm room accommodations; not all of them anyway. They do aim to cater to travelers, though and they are often much less expensive than a hotel. They are often a Mom and Pop enterprise who don't really get rich off their business, but they can have a comfortable living to say the least.

Here are the different hostels I've run into during my travels. I've done plenty. When Kristi and I set out during the month she was with me last Jan, I think we did close to 10. In 2015, my girlfriend, Tracie (in all these photos) and I traveled for 3 months. We hit about 20 places throughout 5 countries. I stayed at my first ever hostel in 2012, La Terreza in Antigua, Guatemala. I have been gone almost a year so far I've stayed in plenty, to say the least. Here's what I've run into during my research and travels.

Tracie at Chaltunha Hostel, Flores, Guatemala
Party Hostels
This is one of the top things people know about hostels. Party-time. And they do exist everywhere. You'll likely see a much younger European crowd. I avoid them! Nope, not doing it. They may have "Backpacker" somewhere in their name. There will be loud music. Not for me. I'd be out of place there. I'm old enough that I like my peace and quiet at this point in my life and I've had my fill of drinking games. Nonetheless, these tend to be a bit cheaper with a focus on dorms... $6 to $15 a night.

Boutique Hostels
If I see the term "boutique" in the title, I'm usually going to check it out. It depends on the theme of the place or what exactly they mean by boutique. I find these are a bit more pricey, but if you have a model with you, they can be interesting interiors to shoot in. There will be some attempt at interior design with a focus on an art, modern or antique themes, or some feng shui concept that may be be beneficial to your energy/spirit flow or whatever they call it.

Tracie at Chaltunha Hostel, Flores, Guatemala
For those concerned with the environment, Eco Hostels are they way to go. If they are not implementing solar power of some sort, they I don't think they can call themselves Eco anything. You may see them advertise a low carbon footprint, use organic, locally harvested materials and food, ask you to help with water conservation, etc. These will not usually be a budget place unless they also get you to help in their gardens or to do volunteer work with the locals.

Homestyle Hostels
Simply put, homestyle hostels will be virtually that... a hostel in someone's home. The owners may build on additional rooms or remodel a large house with several rooms into rental spaces. Chances are, they live on the premise. Prices will can range from down right cheap to the upper limits, probably no more than 5 rooms and some will need to share a bathroom down the hall.

Waking up at Paradise Cabins, Tobacco Caye, Belize
These are those that are going to be a little different than anything you'd come to expect and in some cases they may not call themselves hostels. Case in point... Island bungalows made of driftwood and recyclable materials. The term hostel doesn't lend itself to the unique island experience nor the inexpensive connotation that a hostel name may garner. Nonetheless, by definition, they are hostels and can usually charge much more. I've paid upwards of $100 a night and would gladly do it again.

Yeah...these hostels can usually provide a more complete experience with not only accommodations but a bar/restaurant, more private rooms, BETTER private rooms which usually mean larger with a view, and come closer to the hotel experience. Sometimes its just worth it. I've paid maybe $150 a night for the most expensive I've had the pleasure to visit.

If you can remember Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book", okay...or the several films based on his book, then you'll recall the most perfect analogy of the budget hostel. If you can "look for the BARE NECESSITIES, the simple BARE NECESSITIES and forget about your worries and your strife... that's why a bear can rest at ease with the simple bare necessities of life". If you can literally keep that mindset, you'll be fine and pay $100 for a week's stay someplace. I've done about $13 a night for a private room and private bathroom once in Xela, Guatemala.

Tracie, outdoor shower, Farm Peace and Love, Little Corn Island, Nicaragua 2015

So here are a few things you may have to compromise on.

1. Accommodations can be basic. Likely no TV!

2. It might be a bit noisy at times. Walls may be thin or there's a party hostel close by. Couples...keep that in mind! Just saying...

3. You may or may not have hot water...depending! In tropical areas you'll be grateful.

4. You may have to share a bathroom.

5. The wifi may suck.

Hostel Holistica, Antigua, Guatemala 2015
On the PLUS side

1. You're usually going to have a more personable experience. Yes, HOTELS can be experienced in hospitality with managers and staff being educated and trained. But how often do you get invited to the owner's kid's birthday. Or going to dinner at THEIR house and meeting the whole family.

2. You'll likely meet many more travelers from varies countries just like yourself with whom you can swap stories and experiences.

3. Hostels, in my opinion, tend to be more grateful that you chose them and thus will go out of their way to make sure your stay is comfortable, safe, and enjoyable. This has been my experience in particular where the owners are running the show and the staff is family.

4. You're going to save a ton of money that can go towards doing tours and experiences which is the reason for your visit anyway.

5. Personally, I think there are overall more stories, good and bad, that get rolled into your journey. Nobody returns home talking about hotel stays. But I can tell some hostel tales about a busted bed in Belize; bringing back an ineffective itch cream from the pharmacy, til Ismael advised me that it was made for vaginal itch in Guatemala; or being awoken at 6am by Dona Lucia for breakfast in the morning even though she knows you came in from drinking all night at 4am in Nicaragua.

Busted bed, Resort in Hickatee Cottages, near Punta Gorda, Belize.
Oh...never drink shower water no matter now nice the accommodations are!
In more cases than not, it's usually going to be what you make it. I listened to a chick at the front desk in Cartagena complain that there was a blond hair in her shower. She was pissed. Now me, I'm easy. I came across a tarantula in my shared bathroom. Yes, I screamed like my little niece, Courtnee when she sees a tiny spider. I did momentarily jump on the toilet seat. BUT, I took a second to compose myself. Walked up to the front and advised them of the situation. I didn't ask for my money back or demand to see the owner. I did insist they not kill the thing. We took it outside and released it.

Asleep at Chaltunha, Flores Guatemala after a full day
Just do your research. Read the reviews. Check the pics of the rooms. You'll be fine. As I mentioned in the last post, I do most of my research and reservations through Booking.com. I usually find everything I need there and have only had maybe 2 or 3 problems with a booking. To date, I'm just over 50 bookings. Stay as long as you want. I've been here in Bogota at Hostal La Candelaria for a month now and its costing me right at $500. That's just over $16 a night. The owners and I sit and talk every day. They help me with my Spanish. I help them with English. I get advice about the city of Bogota and Colombian culture and cuisine.

So what are your questions about hostels?

Labeha Drum Center Cabins, Excellent place, Hopkins, Belize
Another Big Fave, Hotel Anahuac, (its a hostel!) Juayua, El Salvador

18 November 2018

TWO Types of Backpacking

Interior of a chicken bus... not as crowded, though

When I tell people I'm backpacking around the world, it can sometimes be a bit confusing as to what a picture of that actually looks like. In these confusing situations, the picture most people imagine in their minds is that I am traveling through the wilderness, desert, or some far off wasteland while avoiding bandits, outlaws, or wild animals. So let me paint a more accurate perception of my reality while I am venturing around this planet.

Coach buses are much more comfortable for long trips. As you can see.
Courtesy of Art Model, Kayci.Lee this past January when she accompanied
for a month to Nicaragua and up to Guatemala.
While there may be several different types of BackpackERS, BackpackING is usually divided into two distinct categories. First, there is WILDERNESS backpacking. This is usually associated with, as the name suggests, backpacking in the wild. While day trips can fall into this category, I'd say the norm is going to consist of camping and thus the packing choices will reflect this. Ergo, sleeping bag, and plenty of food. Much will depend on the availability of water, distance and the duration of the trip will dictate the remaining needs to sustain you. It goes without saying that you'll be hiking all this gear around, as opposed to throwing it in your vehicle. Otherwise you're just car camping.
Guatemala Chicken Bus 
This could be a backpacking trip to simply go camping, rock climbing, hunting, or you could be trekking to a specific destination like a log cabin or over the river and through the woods to grandma's house. Regardless, you'll need to be prepared with good hiking boots and weather dependent clothing, and everything you need to protect yourself from environmental concerns, threats from the wildlife, and basic safety. This is not my primary mission.

If I can't take it on my back, it can't come. 
As for me, I do TRAVEL backpacking, which can also be defined as a type of adventure travel. I have the same type of backpack that a wilderness backpacker might have. Getting one that fits properly, allows for great weight distribution, comfortable waist, chest, and shoulder straps, as well having convenient pockets and straps for gear that needs to be secured, but readily available on the outside of your pack. I use a Osprey Aether 70, with and empty Osprey Porter 30 strapped to the back of it. The Porter is my day pack for use when I venture from my hotel. Why do I like Osprey bags? Because of their All Mighty Guarantee! So yeah... no roller luggage here.

Sometimes ya gotta hitch a ride on an old commercial fishing boat when the seas are too rough for anything else.
So I travel with two bags (well, three, but one is kept empty while traveling between destination). I have my backpack(s) and then my camera bag which is a large Thintank Urban Disguise 60. I am usually traveling around via public transportation. Sometimes I take international and regional planes, but mostly I am on a local bus for short trips or a coach/tour bus for longer ones. I pack pretty much everything I need for my daily life. I average maybe 5 change of clothes. I say average because sometimes I may throw away a shirt or buy one from the local thrift stores that in Central America are referred to as PACAs. They are named so because they usually arrive from the US in huge baled bundles. So Paca is spanish for bales, not packages, as I recently learned. I can easily get a shirt for a buck or two and change out my clothes periodically, or dependent on a place I visit. I've been all along the Caribbean coast here in Colombia where T-shirts and flip flops are practical. Next thing you know, I'm in the mountains of Bogota at an elevation of 8000+ feet and temps of mid-40's at night.

I also pack camera accessories and gear that I use to produce videos, clean sensors, and extra things that make photo and video more convenient. Along with that, I have my toiletries and sundries, prescription meds, flashlights, knives, etc that also go in my backpack. I try to keep my weight from my backpack under 35lbs. I was 10 pounds over on my venture back to Bogota. I need to lose some weight!

Caught a horse-drawn wagon to the beach
As for city travel and accommodations, I can take public transpo which is usually pennies in any direction. Chicken buses are popular in Central America. You are not riding with a bunch of chickens. You are just packed into them as if you ARE chickens. That's how they make their money while fares stay cheap. Volume! But they are fun to ride on, just not over great distances or if you are a tall person. Your knees will suffer. They are usually very colorfully decorated re-purposed US school buses that traditionally have religious display art of some sort on them wish flashy lights. You must experience this a few times if you are ever in Central America. Otherwise, I take a cab or even an UBER which are available here in Colombia. Its good to be safe and let your hotel or restaurant hail a cab for you, unless you're told its safe to do so yourself off the street.

Or sometimes just catching a $20,000 Andalusian horse...more easily done nude, I guess
I stay in hostels mainly. Sometimes, I book a hotel. Hostels are much less expensive comparable to the same accommodations in a hotel. Not all hotels are the same, by any stretch of the imagination and that goes for hostels as well. A hostel will usually be much smaller with basic amenities. You may not have a TV for example, and in some places you don't even have hot water. I book through Booking.com for about 90% of my reservations. Just because you are in a hostel does not automatically mean Dorm Room! I only do private rooms. After that, I'm checking whether or not the room has a private bathroom, good wifi, good security, and I compare it to other hostels with respect to location and amenities. Sometimes airport pick-up is important. Other times, it may be policy issues such as do they have a good cancellation policy or whether I an pay on site or do I have to pay in advance. Some make you pay everything at time of booking and other's just secure a deposit equal to the first night's stay. You'll have to decide what's right for yourself. I'll be doing a post on hostel stays soon enough.

Regional flights are sometimes necessary, too. This time within Nicaragua.
A typical visit for me my cost me $30/night, but I often find good places where I am spending $20/night. If I know I'll be in an area for an extended time...such as a month, I'll rent an apartment for $400-$500 when I can. But once I'm there, I'm living out of my backpack and checking out the local scenes. Ordinarily, I'm in a particular city because there is something there I want to shoot nearby or just because I think it will be a good experience. Right now, I'm in Bogota, Colombia. Its the 4th largest city in all of the Americas. I felt this would be a good experience, even though my interests photographically are in more nature environments. I don't shoot as much in metro or urban places. So for me, the experience is worth my stay.

When I leave here, I'll pack up my backpack and camera bag, and choose the best transportation to get to my next location. I have no clue where that will be right now or even when I'll leave Bogota. Possibly by mid-December...who knows? Chances are, I'll hop a bus out of the Bogota to either Ecuador or one more city, likely coastal, in Colombia. It's entirely possible I may stay longer and take a flight to the Colombian-Ecuadorian border and then bus across. Why? Because many of these countries have a thing (or at least the airline does) where you can't board a flight without a ticket going out. Busing in is different. They leave it up to you to not overstay your visa, typically 90 days...30 in others. Sometimes, you need to apply for a Visa in advance of your trip, like Brazil or Paraguay.

Finally reaching those meager but welcome accommodations.
I'll continue to do this throughout all of South America, with the exception of Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana, (all on the East Coast). Venezuela isn't a safe or stable place to travel to at the moment and I don't feel the same calling to the other countries I mentioned. So, I'll be taking a plane, bus, or walking across country borders trying to see where I can get some great shots and life experiences.

07 November 2018

Saving Brazil and the Amazon for Another Time

Me and my brother, Greg last year.

I did not make it to Brazil as planned for October 1st. I had my hotel reservations, two flight tickets (one to Rio and one to Manaus), and my eVisa for Brazil. I even had my boarding pass downloaded to my phone. I was all ready to leave later that day to Rio de Janeiro for a few days and then fly up Manaus to being my Amazon River trip. The only question was whether I wanted to take a boat into Peru and Ecuador, or head back to Bogota, Colombia afterwards. All that changed in the blink of an eye. Looks like I will have to try to do the Amazon River another season.

Why? Well, early that same morning I got a message about my brother who was found unresponsive after somewhere between 24 and 36 hours alone in his apartment. 'Nuff said. The Brazil tickets were now useless to me. I booked a flight to Texas and was on a plane within hours. I got back and my brother, Greg was in ICU, but stable. I thought he was good to go at that point, only to realize my hopes were lost the next afternoon. An aneurysm from complications with high blood pressure took out my brother at 47 years of age. The whole experience seemed unreal. My sister, Camille was on top of things. She's a nurse and her training was definitely indispensable in helping my mother and family understand what was happening. Beyond that, she was hugely helpful in organizing the arrangements for my brother's funeral and cremation. I'd have needed a couple of weeks before even thinking about contacting a funeral home. And if that wasn't enough, my grandfather died two weeks later. Even though it was not that much of a surprise at his age and condition, the reality of it still took a toll on all of us. October was the worst month of my life. But I'm not going to get into a bunch of "Woe is me" rants. Its done.

My Grandfather's burial site, next to that of his beloved wife who proceeded him.

I spent the entire month in Texas and then I flew back to Colombia on November 3rd. I am currently back in Colombia's capital city, Bogota. I decided to come back here and give this city some more time. I have never really appreciated capital cities that much, so I only scheduled 3 days here on my original visit in September. I quickly deduced that I was wrong. My stay at Selina Hotel was excellent. I met 2 or 3 new people that quite frankly, were very impressionable. And then I took a walking tour of the area I stayed in and learned some more about the city's history as well as where it all fit into Colombia's history as a whole. I may just take that tour again. Fernando Botero is from here and his museum is just down the street! And its free. That was something he was insistent on. No charge for exhibiting his work here.

I re-booked the same Selina Hotel as when I was here in September, but I got the upgraded, Rockstar room for my first 3 days. Its was a beautiful room, but I honestly think the last room may have been preferred. Sometimes it works out like that where the best room on the property actually isn't. Possibly, that's just me, though.

Four balconies (one behind the bed)
That is a stairway to the left that leads to the downstairs living room and bathroom

I wanted to stay in the same district area of La Candelaria, which is the oldest  (500 years old) section of the city. So after leaving Selina, I booked a week at La Candelaria Hostel, near Parque de los Periodistas, or Journalist's Park. Its much more of a basic room compared to my room at Selina, but its also more typical of the hostels I stay in to save money. It's also close to Monserrate, which is another thousand feet of elevation that I'll hike for its excellent views of the city. I'm going to stay here in Bogota for at least a month, but I'm not certain exactly when I'll head out or exactly to where. I know I'll go through Ecuador and see the Galapagos Islands, but I don't know how much I'll see of the county in all. I have to be in Lima, Peru in January. That much I know. My daughter and her husband, along with my cousin and her hubby are coming to meet me there.

So the adventure continues. I'm back on the road and continuing with my journey. So when will I do Brazil and the Amazon River? Good question. The rainy season is well under way there now and flooding is soon to follow. I'd much rather not boat up the Amazon on such flooded currents with the banks overflowed. So possibly, I will likely pass through Paraguay and head into Brazil stopping in at Rio de Janeiro, by next March or April...that's a guess. As for boating up the Amazon River, I can't say for sure. The only possibility is maybe after I am coming back UP South America after Argentina and Chile. Its an option and I'll just have to keep exploring them.