“Sit still”. “Be quiet”. Our stay in every new hostel seems to begin with these words, as Michael and I organise ourselves in our new, usually compact, surroundings and Ishbel, Neamh and Ruaridh are impatient to play.
More often than not we’ve just got off a bus after many hours, sometimes overnight. We’re all tired, hungry and a little disorientated. Michael moves swiftly into security mode, checking exit routes and hunting down a large immovable piece of furniture to which he’ll fix our bag of documents and bank cards. I’m responsible for understanding the many rules and workings of the latest pit-stop. Although my Spanish is fast improving, this inevitably requires several trips back to reception until I’ve got it all straight.
We’ve spent 50 nights in 16 different hostels across Uruguay, Argentina, Chile and Bolivia over the last 10 weeks, in addition to a few nights here and there in rented flats and on buses. I had set my expectations of the accommodation pretty low, packing clean pillowcases and sleeping bags for us. These have turned out to be entirely useless and irritate Michael on a daily basis as we lug one more bag around the continent than is necessary.
Most hostels have put us up in one room of bunk beds. Michael always sleeps on the bottom, ready to leap up in any situation. Ruaridh is desperate to sleep on the top but can’t yet be trusted not to roll off, so he is consigned to the bottom as well. Ishbel and I take the top bunks, and Neamh doesn’t care as long as she can curl up with her toy rabbit. (Michael and I live in fear of losing that rabbit).
The rooms are usually small and we’ve had to get better at keeping our things tidy, especially when there is limited storage space. I must admit I rolled my eyes at the colour coded packing cubes, one colour for each of us, which Michael ordered before we left. But he was right. They have been the most effective way to remember where everyone’s things are. In the middle of the desert between Chile and Bolivia, we came across a pool to swim in, heated by the nearby volcano. Of course we had to jump in. But where were our costumes? Poor Johnny, our guide, climbed onto the roof of the 4 x 4 to dig out our carefully secured bags. In less than five minutes we had found the costumes, with the help of our colour coded cubes.
We’ve learnt it suits us better to stay in one place for a few nights at a time. We get a better understanding of where we are staying and have a chance to do the normal activities of life: the washing, cooking, running and schoolwork. We may not be in paid employment for the year but we haven’t got our feet up. Organising the trip and looking after three children all day every day is hard work (Believe me, I’m not expecting any sympathy). In the same way that we relied on a routine to see us through the children’s early years, we are trying to maintain something of a normal routine this year.
If we are not on the move, we try and sit down and do an hour or so of schoolwork with the children every day, after breakfast. Ishbel, Neamh and Ruaridh have three splendid looking journals coming along, in their best English, filled with their memories of our different stops. Michael is patiently teaching Ruaridh to read. At lunchtime, we head out for a bargain “menu del dia”. We’ve been able to feed all five of us with three courses for £12! The afternoon is for exploring our surroundings. If we’re in a hostel with a reasonable kitchen, we take our turn to cook – then play cards and go to bed.
It hadn’t occurred to me before we left, but staying in hostels with children gives us an entirely different, yet complementary, timetable to many other travellers. We’re often up earlier for breakfast and showers, so we’re out of the way before everyone else. The communal spaces are quiet in the mornings after breakfast, when we are most likely to spend some time doing schoolwork with Ishbel, Neamh and Ruaridh. We cook in the evenings before everyone else is ready to eat. Our last games of cards before bed coincide with everyone else socialising and relaxing before they go out for the night.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much other travellers have enjoyed larking about with us and the children. To begin with, I assumed we’d be more of a noisy disturbance to other guests. But in almost every hostel, Ishbel, Neamh and Ruaridh have been entertained, and showered with sweet treats, by other guests. Thank you Katie in Puerto Varas for the pack of cards and teaching us Go Fish! Last week in Sucre, Cristina, who runs the lovely Casa de Huespedes Isabella, got the children making Nutella and banana pancakes for themselves and all the hostel’s guests.
We’ve spent a fair amount of time in and around our hostels and the best are the ones which have made us feel a little more at home. This is entirely intentional on the part of the hostel managers and is what makes them so different from hotels. It’s not just that the best have great kitchens and common areas, it’s also that they expect their guests to respect each other and take care of common spaces. In a hotel, this is the responsibility of the hotel and not the guests. Don’t get me wrong, if we had the money we’d be staying in at least some hotels. But for a cheap option, hostels are working out just fine for us.
Seven hostel essentials
- Clean bedding and provide towels
- Clean, well-stocked and fully functioning kitchen (with tea-towels, cloths and washing up liquid) where more than a couple of guests can cook and eat at a time.
- Clean bathrooms, with somewhere to put your things
- Large lockable storage space for luggage, clothes and food
- Reliable WiFi
- Comfy communal space
- Reading light by dorm beds – even though it always makes me laugh when Michael and I spend an evening reading with our head torches on when the children are asleep
It’s easy to choose the best night we’ve spent in a hostel. We were in Puerto Varas, at Mapatagonia hostel, full of people who had spent the day trekking, climbing and cycling around Volcano Osorno. Everyone was tired and gathered round the telly to watch a children’s film with Ishbel, Neamh and Ruaridh, sharing snacks and drinks in companionable silence, as if we’d known each other for years.
If you’ve not yet had the pleasure of staying in a hostel, give it a go. It’s cheap and the best are very comfortable. In the meantime, we could do with some more card games to play, so if you know a good one that would suit us all, please send us the instructions.