July 23, 2006

Beach Combing
Playa Carmen, Costa Rica

Enjoying one final location change, and thoughts on what makes a hostel a good home.

My brother and I are on a stretch of road in the Nicoyan Peninsula somewhere between the towns of Malpaís and Santa Teresa—Playa Carmen is about as close to an official name for this place as I can come by. We relocated here after I grew weary of hearing gringos and expats describe Montezuma—a small cluster of restaurants, bars, hotels, and tour group operators—as mellow or magical one too many times.

This place—this balanced beach/jungle/hostel environment—has been a nice spot to conclude Glenn's vacation. I was finally able to prepare him a "home cooked" traveler meal, which we gleefully consumed in a thoughtfully designed outdoor kitchen surrounded by jungle, amongst travelers cradled in hammocks.

Thousands of shells

The location is just touristy enough to passively provide access to what we need to stay fed and entertained, without cramming it down your throat. I love the beach here, not for its sand or water color (neither of which are particular impressive), but for the interesting artifacts that litter the shore. Never before have I seen such a concentration of tidal pools, shells, and animal life. I could spend a week combing the coastline for oddities, making jewelry from the best of the lot.

Glenn took it upon himself to engage in a full day of hiking in the nature preserve, four kilometers down the road. I played and hunted for shells on the beach with some people from the hostel.

Hostel Priorities

What do backpackers look for in a hostel? I think it boils down to three very important things:

  1. Location—its proximity to the big three: a grocery store, Internet access, and local points of interest
  2. Safety and Security—with regards to both the traveler and their belongings
  3. Cleanliness and Comfort—well maintained bathrooms and clean beds

I think many would list socialization as one of the top three attributes sought after—perhaps above that of a toilet with a seat—but I find that if the above three are in place, the location will be filled with happy travelers, and finding someone to chat up won't present much of a problem.

The hostel that Glenn and I have been staying at (the other Tranquilo Backpackers) has a great location, but has made some annoying oversights in security and comfort (easily corrected with minimal effort). For example, we're in the middle of the jungle (perhaps 150 meters from the beach), but the proprietors have omitted any screening over the windows (which are covered with a creative rebar design, but devoid of glass or any type of closable mechanism). I lit anti-mosquito coils to help keep our blood supply intact at night, but that didn't stop Glenn from waking me up in the early morning hours, thrashing around in his bunk, claiming he was awakened by a large Costa Rican Death Spider crawling up his thigh.

Lockers that I can store my entire backpack in were another failing of this particular hostel. I can't stress the importance of being able to place your pack inside of a cage or box, with the ability to lock it up with your own lock. A shared key to a 6-person dorm room does not a secure environment make.

A Simple Question

Someone asked me recently what I liked the most about Costa Rica. The Playa Carmen beach scene came to mind, but I can honestly only reply with one answer: Traveling with my brother has been the highlight of this country. His presence was wonderful to have down here, and I greatly enjoyed bringing him into and exposing him to a piece of my lifestyle. Perhaps this time next year he'll be able to join me again, somewhere in Europe.

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