In the morning I could see hummingbirds flying from flower to flower as my friends and I lazily swayed in the hammocks strung across our wooden balcony. The sunlight was starting to pour in and light up our corner of paradise on the sleepy island of Isla Colon in Panama’s Bocas del Toro region.
As my friend plucked away on the strings of her ukulele, our neighbors–a German couple–joined us on the communal porch for breakfast. Being from opposite sides of the world, it was unlikely we would ever cross paths again but in that moment, at that hostel we were one happy family living the island life.
When it comes to hostels many people tend to picture dark, cramped rooms emitting nose wrinkling smells. If the rooms aren’t enough to scare people off, then horror movies and their portrayals of dodgy hostel guests with murderous tendencies will. Hostels have a bad reputation and can often conjure up images of dangerous, dirty and downright uncomfortable accommodations. The stigma surrounding hostels can send travelers running into the arms of all-inclusive resorts, ultimately separating them from the culture of the destination they are visiting and costing them a fortune. Admittedly, I used to regard hostels with an air of hesitation since the idea of being in a foreign country and sharing communal everything brought images of theft and discomfort to mind.
During my recent trip to Bocas del Toro, Panama’s Paradise Saigoncito’s Hostel had surpassed all my expectations with their apartment-style rooms, amenities and vintage bicycles for us to roam the island with. Located just a stroll from the water front, our hostel had proved so wonderful that my friends and I had decided to extend our stay. While rentals through airbnb had saved me countless dollars during previous trips, it was after staying in hostels in Central America and South America that I stopped buying into the scary hostel myths.
MYTH #1: Hostels are Downright Uncomfortable
I once stayed at a hostel when I first moved to New York City and the room–if you can call it that–was the size of a water closet that both my friend and I had to share. The space was so comically small that in order to reach our bed we had to climb over our mountain of suitcases just to get by. Similar to a bathroom stall, the “walls” of the room didn’t reach the ceiling so neighboring sounds and conversation were impossible to ignore. If you had asked me 3 years ago about hostels, based on that first experience I would have told you to steer clear!
Recently I was on an island off the coast of Colombia staying at a beach front bungalow at Hugo’s Place Hostel. My fiance, Alex, and I found our own little corner of paradise with a small, open room and palm-leaf thatched roof boasting unparalleled views of the Caribbean. Hugo’s Place could not have differed more from the hostel back in New York, whose name I let fade as soon as I walked out its doors. It’s true that some hostels may prove uncomfortable but the majority (especially abroad) will be conveniently located and offer lovely rooms. With sites such as HostelWorld, WeHostels and HostelBookers people can read guest reviews, look up hostel ratings and research their stay before confirming a reservation.
MYTH #2: The Guests at Hostels are Odd & I Won’t Make Any Friends
While I won’t speak to the social ineptitude of all hostel guests, my experience has always introduced me to interesting, worldly and friendly travelers. While visiting Cartagena earlier this year, I booked an apartment through airbnb to ensure a comfortable experience for Alex’s first time in the country. Although our sunny home was cheerful and well situated close to the beach, each night we found ourselves drawn to Mama Llena and Media Luna hostels to meet new friends. It took little more than a cerveza and a smile before we found ourselves seated at a table, watching the futbol match and sharing drinks with people from around the world.
Staying at a hostel requires a certain level of being open minded, which translates well to making new friends while abroad. Most backpackers and hostel bookers are traveling in groups, solo or as a couple and are eager to swap stories and share tips with those from around the world. Like most things in life, what you put into an experience is what you’ll get out of it and in the case of hostels it is no different. The more social you are, interested in hearing other people’s stories and willing to share a conversation over a beer–the more connections you’ll make and friends you’ll walk away with.
MYTH #3: Safety and Theft are a Concern at Hostels
Most hostels will come equipped with safe deposit boxes, lockers to hold luggage and security measures to guard overnight guests. In Panama City you needed wrist bands to access the hostel, in Colombia you had large lockers to hold bags and in Bocas del Toro you had security codes for lock boxes. As is the case with traveling in general, common sense should not be left at the door when staying at a hostel. Leaving valuables out may lead to theft and opting against lockers and safe deposit boxes could very well leave you empty-handed. With resources available for researching hostels before you book your stay you can have all the information needed regarding accommodations, location and safety before walking in the door.