How To Travel The World At Wholesale Rates With Genie Traveler

How To Travel The World At Wholesale Rates With Genie Traveler

Genie Traveler is the new way to travel the world at wholesale rates.

If you’re like me and have a passion – or rather obsession – for traveling then you’ll know that the biggest pain point is the costs involved. Searching for hotel deals, cheap flights and various travel hacks becomes a bit of an obsession. We all have limited funds and we want to maximize the travel opportunities we can get for them. I am so hopeless at saving when traveling that I even wrote a post calling myself “an unsuccessful backpacker.”

There are various sites that promise travel deals, cheap airline tickets and discounted hotels but the reality is that these deals just don’t exist. Trust me. I’ve been doing this a long time and while the big sites might seem like they’re offering you deals, the prices they offer are mostly just marketing spin, enticing you in, while not really exposing the limit of their pricing strategy.

The travel industry, specifically the Online Travel Agents (known in the business as OTAs), are a duopoly – there are just two companies that control the market. You might have heard of lots of different brands but 80% of this online travel space is controlled by just two companies – Expedia and Priceline.

You might think when you’re booking flights, hotels, car rentals and more that you can compare the prices and get the best deals by going to a few different sites. But all they do is compete against themselves with small price differences to make you feel like you’re getting a deal.

In fact, because they’re so powerful they enforce something called rate parity and ensure the public rates they offer can’t be undercut. Well, at least in public.

That public part is important. There are also wholesale rates that aren’t available to the general public. These rates can be significantly lower than you can find elsewhere. This is often how your high street travel agency access their inventory and makes bookings on your behalf. There can be a huge difference between the retail rates you and I pay and the actual wholesale rates that are available behind closed doors.

Travel deals do exist. Just not for you. Until now…

Wholesale Rates

Wholesale rates aren’t meant for the likes of you or I. They’re aimed at businesses. Those that buy in bulk. I’m talking about Fortune 500 companies or travel agents. These businesses pay a premium to access these rates, often $50,000 to $250,000. But, because of their scale, it’s worth it for them. The rates are normally 30% to 70% cheaper than the rest of us can get. Sometimes a bit more, sometimes a bit less but, even so, that’s some pretty significant savings.

Businesses either sell the products (travel agents), use them to book their own corporate travel and/or as an employee benefit which they can use for their own (and family) personal travel. Access to these wholesale rates are restricted and behind a password protected firewall preventing us from accessing them.

These wholesale feeds are only allowed to be accessed by authorized personnel. The people that can access them must be members or a group, known as a Closed User Group (CUG). If you’re not in a CUG you can’t access these secret rates.

And you can’t get into a CUG. Until now…

How You Can Save With Genie Traveler

I recently teamed up with a company called Genie Traveler that is breaking open these travel myths and exposing the travel industry’s Dirty Little Secret. They’re bringing these wholesale rates straight to the general public and disrupting the OTAs.

They’ve created their own CUG and they’re letting anyone join. Instead of marking up their rates 30% to 70% like the OTAs might do they are making their money in a really ingenious way; they’re charging a small monthly fee for you to access these incredible deals. Rates start at just $3.99 a month (when you pay annually). You can easily save more than the cost of a years membership in just one booking through them.

These guys are fairly new to the marketplace but are already making waves and upsetting the more traditional OTAs.

Of course, I had to check them out for myself.

Travel Savings With Genie Traveler

I wouldn’t have teamed up with Genie Traveler if I hadn’t checked it all out properly myself.

First I had a look at their flights. I didn’t think the deals would be that great. The margins on flights are so small that I really didn’t think they’d be able to do much.

I picked some dates and decided I’d look at a flight from JFK in New York to London Heathrow.  Here’s a screenshot:

image6-min

Genie Traveler’s best deal was $697.17 with British Airways (all inclusive of taxes too).

I then went to the British Airways website to see what I could get it for:

image4-min

British Airways (including taxes) was $983.01.

That’s a $285.84 saving at Genie Traveler or a 41% saving. Now that’s impressive.

I searched a long haul flight on purpose. Savings on short haul flights are not as likely to be so good (unless you’re flying Business Class). If you’re a short haul traveler then the flight savings might not be for you.

Next I went on to look at hotels. I was hoping for some good savings here as I know the margins can be quite good.

I also wanted to check in a few different countries to see how the rates stood up.

First stop, Washington DC.

image2-min

As this was the first place I was checking out I decided to test their top two best deals, especially given that they were at very different price points as well.

The Mayflower Hotel is a beautiful hotel. Genie Traveler shows an incredible 80% saving (note you can only get savings above 70% on their All Travel Elite annual plans which work out at $4.99 a month) from $2,975.60 down to $610.94.

I checked Expedia first:

image7-min

They have it listed at $3,000.

Orbitz also list it for $3,000:

image1-min

Note on the bottom of the Orbitz listing they show prices as well at Hotels.com, Hotwire and Travelocity also all at $3,000.

Genie Traveler are offering incredible value here with their huge 80% savings. If you stayed for one night you’d save $2,364.66. You could buy 40 years of membership at Genie Traveler with that saving (even more if you use a coupon code – more on that soon)!

I then checked the second hotel in Washington DC, Courtyard by Marriott which is showing a 54% discount down from $647.08 to $302.42.

I went to Hotels.com and found this:

image8-min

They’re selling it at $659.

I’ll save you from too many screenshots but Expedia and Travelocity also have it at $659.

Genie Traveler again save you $344.66 on this hotel.

With that done I went to check Europe. I settled on Venice, Italy:

image5-min

The savings weren’t as high for Hotel Carlton on the Grand Canal at 39% off but that’s still pretty impressive.

Booking.com lists it at $356 (including breakfast, but Genie Traveler includes breakfast as well):

image11-min

Hotels.com does a little better at $323:

image10-min

But even at the Hotels.com rate it’s still a 38% saving at Genie Traveler.

I went on to check Prague, in the Czech Republic, which has an incredible 86% saving:

image3-min

Although, I found that the best comparison savings I could find worked out at 83% and not 86%. I’ll happily take the 83% though.

image9-min

See again on the Orbitz listing you get prices at Expedia, Travelocity, Hotwire and Hotels.com all at $441 compared to the Genie Traveler price of $77.67.

How To Use Genie Traveler

There are a couple of ways to use their service. You can either save massively on your travel budget – that’s probably the option that most people will take. But the other way is to upgrade how you travel. For example, if you normally stay in a 3 star hotel then you can often find a 5 star hotel for the price you would normally pay for a 3 star hotel. In fact, Genie Traveler will even let you search by star rating too (and they use TripAdvisor’s rating system so you know it’s valid).

I’ve given my examples in dollars but there’s an option to switch your currency too, so don’t worry too much if you’re not from the US. Membership though for Genie Traveler is only currently in US dollars though – they’re rolling out more currencies later this year though.

There are no packages (currently) so you would need to book your hotel and your flight separately. They also don’t have car rental although they expect to add that to their site soon.

Is Genie Traveler Worth It?

Is this worth it? Well that’s up to you and what fits for your personal travel needs. Personally, with savings like this, I’m hooked.

But, here’s the best bit. Genie Traveler offer a 7 day free trial. That means you can sign up and check out the deals yourself, all for free. In fact, it’s even better than that – you can book as much as you want during that period and, even if you cancel your free trial, all of those bookings will still be honored.

But wait, it gets even better.

I said earlier that I’d teamed up with them. Well in doing so I’ve negotiated an exclusive discount code just for readers of my blog.

If you sign up before 28 March 2018 on an annual plan then you’ll receive 18% off membership for life. Most promotions give you a deal to sign up but then boost you back up to their normal rate later on. I had a long talk with the team at Genie Traveler and persuaded them that you guys deserve the best. They agreed and made the discount code last for life.

If you want to check them out, and huge savings then make sure you use code CLAUDIA18 for a significant discount. Prices start at just $3.99 if you pay annually. That’s less than a cup of coffee a month or a Netflix subscription yet giving you incredible savings. Go here to sign up (and don’t forget to use your code).

I don’t get anything from you using this code but I just wanted to pass the value on to you. They’ve got 800,000 hotels, a Best Rate Guarantee and 15,000 destinations.

130 million people have been using this technology for the last 20 years. Genie Traveler have now opened this up to the general public to allow us all to get these incredible savings.

Why pay retail like everyone else when you don’t have to?  

Legal Disclaimer: this post is written in cooperation with Genie Traveler.

Pin It For Later

Learn how to travel the world at wholesale rates - via @clautavani

 

How to be an Unsuccessful Backpacker

How to be an Unsuccessful Backpacker

A lot of travel bloggers enjoy bragging. They are all about the number of countries they have visited (hint: often times, they have just gone through a country during a bus ride on their way to a different once, but since they got a stamp on their passport they still think it’s ok to tick it off their list). They talk about the epic trips they have taken. They show off their ability to pack light and to travel on an extreme shoestring, to go local, to get off the beaten path and what not. If this is what it takes to become a good travel blogger, then I may well be in the wrong place and will soon have start working on a different project, because I don’t think I can fit in with any of that.

group tour

Get that passport stamped! – courtesy of roadjunky.com

Am I a lousy backpacker?

I may well be the lamest traveller in the blogging community because I can’t nearly top the 70+ countries that many others claim to have visited. I have “only” visited 40. Although granted, I have been to most of those 40 two or three times. I have lived in 4 of them for longer than 3 months. And I can actually give directions to a taxi driver to take me to my hostel in Granada, Nicaragua, from Managua international airport.

the turtle

You may call me Turtle

Besides, despite my best efforts I haven’t mastered the art of packing light and during my last trip across South America my big backpack weighted a full 16 kg (that’s when I actually wore all the heaviest clothes) and my small one was around 10. Fine, I got carried away in Argentina and bought 3 bottles of wine that I carried around for months (no, I didn’t want to drink them because they were presents, and yes, I broke the rule of all budget backpackers – I did buy presents!) and I even had a whole pharmacy with me because I am really, truly, tremendously afraid of being sick on the road and not having any medication, just in case I can’t get in touch with my health insurance company (ok, I am sounding lamer by the minute – did I just admit that I travel with an insurance?).

But hey, at least I can prove that despite being small I am tough and strong, right? Besides, what would you say if I told you that it was a technique I carefully devised to meet the locals? I got many bemused stares, a few of them congratulated me on being so strong, others offered their help (which started a conversation!) and some simply laughed (and helped me) when they saw that I could not pick up the pack of tissues I accidentally dropped on the floor, because I could not really bend under the weight and if I did I risked falling on my back and looking much like an upside down turtle. Not too bad, huh?

Blogger girl who quit her job to travel, actually travelled and spent all her money on it

Ok, I am mocking some of the most sensationalist media title here… But, check this out! Instead of travelling with no money at all, I have managed to spend all my savings on travel. Yup. Quite shameful considering that there apparently are millions of ways to travel for (almost) free, to get free accommodation and to even make money while travelling. There even are ways to hitch boat rides that go through amazing places, such as the San Blas islands in Panama. All it takes to catch those rides is patience.

Relax on a hammock after an eventful day

Did you say “patience”?

But, did I mention I am the most inpatient person you may meet? Seriously. Even the hyperactive globetrotter Diana – master of shoestring travel, incredible travel writer (she actually gets promoted from being a “just a blogger” because she’s won prizes with her short stories, plus she is a journalist) and amazing friend – who’s not really a champion at patience, managed to score a free ride that took her from Panama to Colombia. She may have spent 2 full weeks in Portobelo, she may have become the subject of a few jokes at the hostel, but who cares, when she managed to save the $550 USD that the ride normally costs?

slow travel

Why ride a car, if you can go by horse? – photo courtesy of George Kenyon

All of this, when I was the good student to begin with. I did all the homework: researching the best boat companies that crossed from Panama to Colombia, enquiring on dates, routes, and discounts, reading all the online reviews, checking the recommendations to get a decent boat and stocking up on motion sickness pills “just in case” I may unexpectedly get seasick. I studied so hard that then, when I had to sit the exams, I was so nervous that I failed: I happily boarded a boat that was a whopping $110 USD cheaper than the rest. “Blimey”, you may say, “that is actually quite good saving!”

doing homework

Doing my homework looking for good deals online

Ha, I say. Wait till you hear the rest of the story. Because you see, on top of being over 1/5 cheaper, the boat was also smaller and more crowded – understandable, considering that there were 10 passengers, including the 3 backpackers who had actually managed to score a free ride (how did I miss on that?). The crowd, combined with the worst case of seasickness ever (you can read about it here) led me to abandon the boat after 24 hours of suffering (even back then I knew I was lame, and proudly so!), having to wave farewells at my $440 USD, to arrange my return to Panama City and eventually find a flight to take me to Cartagena.

Read more about my horrible sailing experience on my post “Sailing San Blas.”

So, just to give you a rough overview of my expenses: something that normally costs around $500 USD, and that a few good backpackers manage to do for free ended up costing me around $800 USD, including the one night accommodation in Isla Porvenir, the extra meals, the fast boat and 4X4 ride back to Panama City, the extra night at the hostel in Panama City and the flight.

San Blas, Panama

A sunrise worth $800 USD

Call me lazy

Yay me, I am the champion of going over the budget! Now, don’t come to me and say: “Oh Claudia, that’s ok – you didn’t really know that you could travel on a budget, and get freebies in exchange for a little bit of work!” Errrrr… actually? I knew. All those beautiful programmes that allow backpackers to get in touch with farms, hostels and to do homestays, housesitting, and “volunteer” were known to me. I even subscribed to one – and paid my subscription.

cockroach - The Infiltrator !!! :)

Cockroaches as roommates = not fun! – photo courtesy of Anil Jadhav (flickr)

But really, is it not my fault that all those gorgeous farms were infested with cockroaches and I really really have a phobia for them so when I got to the third one in a month and the (very green, tree hugging) owner told me I should just tell them to go away I thought I’d had it. It is not my fault if I like to eat real food and all those very green and very environmentally friendly farmers think they can save the world by eating (and feeding others) just mango and papaya. And truth be told, as a former human rights lawyer, I cringe at the thought that people consider working all day in exchange for a bed at a farm or at an hostel (aka actual businesses making profits) as “volunteering” when in actual legal terms it should be considered slavery. Never mind the lawyer in me! Call me a lazy ass, but quite frankly I could not be bothered to work while travelling after having spent years and years working hard and saving to be able to backpack across Latin America. Not my idea of fun! Besides, I may be picky but I really am not interested in the oh-so-cultural experience of dealing with a bunch of 20-something western drunk and often stinky backpackers; and I have already done my good share of toilet scrubbing, dish washing, glasses filling, plates serving, fruit picking, animal rescuing which is enough for 3 lifetimes (and, shame on me!, I did not even do that to support my travel addiction but to actually pay my tuition fees while at university). Read more about my opinion on voluntourism on my post “Is voluntourism really worth the time and money?”

I actually felt lonely in Cuba

I voluntarily spent all my money on travel

It’s not that I have anything against 20-something western backpackers (I have also been 20, you know), but although a good portion of the travel media industry tries to perpetuate the idea that age doesn’t matter, to me it does – I am 40, for Christ’s sake! (thank you, thank you, I do get told that I look younger!) I do get tired, I do get back pains, I can’t be bothered to binge drink and party all night (been there, done that), I need a good meal at least once a day, I value my beauty sleep and my idea of getting to know a local culture has evolved into a more sophisticated, quieter and introspective one that sometimes required taking part in a guided tour (and paying for that). Mind you, I am not against the concept of working while travelling, when one doesn’t otherwise have money. But yaaaaawn – been there, done that, end of story. Read more about my opinion on guided tours on this post.

What’s wrong with being a tourist, anyways?

I also confess that I don’t get the big frenzy about going to off the beaten path places. Wait a second, what did you just say? “Going local, silly!” Oh, ok. “Getting to know the culture of a place, darling!” Mmmm. True. Granted. Then forgive me, but I truly must be less than intelligent. Because I actually do enjoy touristic destinations, so much so that I even pay the entrance fees without trying to find a way to sneak in for free, and on top of that, I even go to the same place three times!

Machu Picchu, Peru

Tourist x 3 – I have actually been to Machu Picchu 3 times!

The Colosseum in Rome is touristy? Call me a tourist then, fine by me! Everyone goes to Chichen Itza and Machu Picchu? I am one of those everyone. There are better sites than Tulum? Matter of opinion, I say – but, come to think of it, I really have been to pretty much all Mayan sites in Yucatan and I have yet to find one as beautiful as Tulum. Besides, I think some locals must take a real pity on me because even if I find myself in the middle of tourist-landia Cartagena, or right at the market in crowded Cusco, I eventually get to talk to the them. They really must feel bad for me that they eventually start spilling little local secrets about the city. Oh no, I swear they were not trying to rip me off! Unless being offered a whole bunch of eucalyptus leaves to cure my sore throat is an attempt at poisoning. Mind you, I don’t have anything against going off the beaten path. I actually end up off the beaten path – because I get lost, or stuck. Or both. Like the time I went to the insanely beautiful Marcahuasi, in Peru, and realised there was no bus going back to Chosica, where I could catch the bus to Lima. So I did the only thing to do: spend the night in the lovely, quiet (aka isolated) village of San Pedro de Casta, listening to the village donkeys bray, do like the locals, and wait around. Some bus would come. Eventually. Just in time to catch my plane from Lima to Cusco.

Marcahuasi, photo 2, Peru

Getting off the beaten path in Peru: my only company was a dog!

One thing I do well when I travel, though. “Finally!”, I hear you say. “Ha, you see?!”, I answer. Yes. I do eat street food. I really do. Except when I do get a terrible stomach infection from eating tacos in Palenque and end up having to stay in bed for 2 full days (well, not really just in bed, but you get what I mean). And except the times when I really, really want to read a menu and sit at a table and eat whatever I am served in more than the 5 minutes it takes to gorge down street food.

Tacos Guadalajara

Mmmmmm, street food! – photo courtesy of Bill Walsh (flickr)

Why am I telling you all of this? Why am I spilling the dirtiest travelling secrets I have? It is not like my opinion matters more than that of anybody else, or that I am more authoritative on the subject. Not at all. But I am tired of reading article after article that try to give the definitive and right idea of what travel should be, and since I am at it, and I write a travel blog, I may as well give my very humble opinion. What I want you to understand is that it is ok to make budgeting mistakes (ahem, it is, isn’t it?). We are not all accountants who walk around with an in-built spread sheet to tick off expenses as we go. I am not even good at math – in fact, I am so bad at it that my sister keeps saying I am a perfect target to rip offs, although with time I managed to master the art of haggling.

I also think it is ok to be attracted by touristic destinations and major attractions. Because seriously, for as crowded as it is, for as expensive at it may be, Venice is an incredible place to visit (and you’d be surprised, even I managed to do good there). And, more than anything else, it is ok to travel and spend money, because money comes and goes and there will always be a chance to make some and ultimately, travel is a huge revenue and a great source of income in many countries (even the ones where it is possible to travel on a shoestring, such as Nicaragua) and we may as well show a little support for the local economy.

Ziplining, Argentina

Do whatever makes you happy!

So no, I do not feel like a loser and I don’t feel less than amazing for having spent all my money on travel (except when I don’t have money to buy a new fancy camera, that is). The truth is that travelling already is epic enough and already brings us outside of our comfort zones for having to deal with places we don’t know, cultures we are not familiar with, and languages we may not understand. We are free to enjoy it in whichever form we want – an all inclusive luxury resort were we splurge and pamper ourselves, or a bed in the cheapest hostel in town. That’s the beauty of travelling: there is something for anybody.

Pin It For Later

Discover what it takes to be an unsuccessful backpacker - via @clautavani

My very own top 3 hostel nightmares

My very own top 3 hostel nightmares

We’ve all spent at least one nightmare night in a hostel during our backpacking years, haven’t we? Well, I can count at least 3 that have been less than memorable in terms of getting proper rest, but which somehow managed to stick to my memory for the hilarity and absurdity of what happened.

Fighting the drunk hordes in The Terrace, Antigua (Guatemala)

I had only been in Guatemala for four days. This was meant to be the beginning of my 6 months adventure across Latin America. I was sure I had everything under control and I would be able to face any bad experience that may occur along the way. After the first three nights in Antigua, I decided to spend an extra night before making my way to Lake Atitlan. Unfortunately, the lovely hostel where I had been sleeping was all booked up, so I decided to make online reservations for another one. As a backpacker on a tight budget, I was looking for something cheap. The Terrace, at $ 8 per night, breakfast included, in a 4 beds dorm, looked good on the pictures and it had good reviews on hostelworld. One of the most popular hostels in Antigua, indeed: there must be a reason for this, I thought!

Another church - as many others, destroyed by an earthquake

Another church in Antigua – as many others, it has been destroyed by an earthquake

I made my way there in the morning, wanting to drop my backpack and have time to browse around town more. I missed the front door a couple of times before actually finding the place – it was hardly visible. When I finally found the place, I walked in to be welcomed by a 20-something American receptionist (and her lovely dog). She seemed nice enough. The hostel seemed a bit old and in need of refurbishment but I did not think too much of it. I would only be staying here for one night after all. When I was shown to my dorm, I realised it would be worse than what I had expected. A dressed guy was sleeping in his bunk – considering it was around 12 pm, it was a bit odd to me. The dorm was tiny, to say the least. The only window faced an internal covered patio and hardly any natural light or fresh air would come in. You can imagine the stench. The toilet and bathroom in front of the dorm had the mouldiest rug and shower curtain I have ever seen. The wooden door was so rotten that I thought it would fall apart if I pulled it too hard. The electric shower had wires coming out – I thought I might get electrocuted if I did not pay attention (or even if I did).

After a day of walking around and a lovely dinner, still a bit jet legged, I wanted to have an early night and went back to the hotel. I then realised I had accidentally booked at a party hostel, were all the other backpackers except me were in their early twenties. Noise travelled easily in the badly organised place: young boys and girls were all getting ready to spend a night out and party. I thought that, as soon as they would leave, I could finally fall asleep. Wanting to be extra safe I even put my earplugs on. I jumped on the bed to find out that I could feel the wires – this was by far one of the least comfortable beds I had ever slept on. I thought of sleeping on the floor, but there was not enough room to do that. The synthetic sheets on my bed were so old that they would come off the matress, revealing stains. I kept my clothes on, in an attempt not to catch bed bugs (luckly, it worked).

Worried but exhausted I fell asleep but my rest only lasted two hours: that’s when the other guests started making their way back to the hostel. Completely drunk, they kept laughing loudly, screaming, opening doors (which I kept on closing). To top this off, despite my earplugs I could hear them gagging and vomiting (and then laughing about it). The entire affair must have lasted about one hour, without anybody from the reception intervening to stop the noise. When the drunken crew finally collapsed, I sighted and thought I could finally rest a bit more. Or not. One hour later, somebody entered the room, pointing a flashlight at my face, calling for a girl named Myra. I told him off, and said there was no Myra in that room: I was the only girl there and I definitely wasn’t Myra. He then asked if I knew where she was, as he had to wake her up for her bus. I told him to go away, I did not know who this Myra was and I had no idea where she may be.

That was the end of my attempts to rest – I decided to get up, shower, and wait for my ride to Lake Atitlan – where I found a super cool hostel and finally rested my sore bones. However, the cherry on the cake was finding out that The Terrace was actually meant to be the hostel where I was supposed to volunteer in Antigua – I had talked to the owner several times over skype, but I had forgotten the name and despite being offered the position I decided I did not want to work on my first week of travelling.

The lesson I have learned? Always always always check Tripadvisor for reviews, and also check the age of the reviewer. Always read the bad comments – they are usually honest comments. Try not to book online, as you may end up having to pay for a terrible room and thus get stuck. It is better to walk around a bit, check the rooms, the bathrooms, and the overall vibe of the place. And, more than anything else, stay away from The Terrace, in Antigua.

Dancing the night away in Cartagena (Colombia)

I was happy to find Mama Waldy when checking for places to stay in Cartagena, Colombia. Conveniently located in the heart of Getsemani, a cool area undergoing constant restoration, popular among backpackers and with a lovely relaxed feel to it. I soon discovered that the location was just about the only positive thing about this hostel.

Cartagena, Colombia

Tiny streets of Getsemani

Upon checking in, I knew I had made a mistake. This is possibly one of the worst hostels I found in my entire life. It used to be an old colonial house. By the look of it, this had never been restored nor properly cleaned. I arrived there at night, after a day of travelling, to find there was a party going on. My dorm was just on the main lobby, and since there were no keys to the dorms, people could walk in and out as they liked – and by people I mean people, not just guests. In fact, while I was there, somebody who was at the party just did. All the guests belongings were left around for people to grab them if they liked. The room was so dirty (paper, food, clothes, shoes and what not on the floor, under the bed, etc; no bins to place garbage), the bathroom so cramped, small and filthy, that I did not even consider using the toilet. I just locked my stuff away and ran out to eat and breathe.

As I got back past midnight, it was finally quiet. But the dorm was so hot and suffocating (there were no windows in any of the room, just a door to the lobby) that I soon realised I would be unable to sleep there. I walked out and I must have looked so disheartened that one of the owners saw me and asked what was wrong, and I plainly said that my dorm was filthy, hot, and I could not sleep there. He eagerly explained that they cleaned the rooms regularly but there was little they could do against messy backpackers. Possibly, what would help would be putting less beds in a dorm and maybe a hanger and a basket to throw away stuff? Anyways, he thankfully offered to put me in a private room, which was only slightly better – yet, no shower curtain, tiny bathroom, and covered in an inch of dust.

Breakfast was supposedly included, and surely paid for, but consisted of 2 slices of toasted bread (with, I guess, cream cheese or butter), and coffee. Not even served on plates. After all, the kitchen hardly seemed equipped. There was a laundry service. That’s if you fancy your clothes being hung to dry on the roof of the hostel. By which I do not mean hanging lines in the roof, but actual tiles.

What really bothered me the most about Mama Waldy was the music and noise. It only stopped past midnight and was really so loud that, if one is up for an early night and feel tired, one won’t be able to sleep. It felt like being in a disco, really. And since noise travelled really easily and by 6 am people would start waking up, my sleep would be cut short every day.

Running water in Suchitoto (El Salvador)

I arrived in Suchitoto after a very long day of travelling from Leon, Nicaragua, during which I took a bus to the village of Potosi, where I did my immigration formalities; waited on the beach for 3 hours without having the possibility to go back to the village in search of shade, water or food (by then I was legally already out of Nicaragua!), as the Nicaraguan marina would not allow the boat to leave due to the rough sea conditions; eventually, 2 hours on the speed boat along the challenging Gulf of Fonseca during which I got completely soaked due to the bumping and the waves, and various more hours on a bus from La Union to Suchitoto.

By the time I reached my final destination, I was grateful that my hostel room at El Gringo had not been given away, since it was so late. The owner drove me to the hostel, on the other side of town from where he lives. His wife showed me to my room and explained how the keys worked. They immediately left and there was no staff on site.

The reality of the hostel was not hard to spot. My room was below a restaurant, the only window was on a living room which faced an internal living rooom (mind you, that is a big word). The bathroom, which was shared with another room, was no more than a sink in the patio, a wall to separate a toilet and the cold water only shower. And for as hot as it is in Suchitoto, I was not ready to have a cold shower that late at night, and went to bed with my hair full of salt from the Gulf. The room was so humid that it was covered in mould stains and paint was coming off the walls. The sheets so small and so acrylic that they would slide off the bed, so that despite all my efforts to arrange them, I ended up sleeping on the matress. The floor below the bed was so dirty and full of dust, hair, and garbage, that I wondered if it had ever been cleaned. I was so tired anyhow, that I could hardly be bothered with any of this.

Suchitoto, El Salvador

This 97 year old lady keeps on rolling her cigars on a daily basis. What’s her youth secret?

A refreshing shower the morning after and a lovely day in Suchitoto almost made me forget about the terrible hostel. That was, until the new Canadian guest came in. Hard to avoid him since my window gave into the living room where he was relaxing on a rocking chair. So, we chatted along for a few moments, until eventually he decided it was bed time and he’d brush his teeth, and I laid on my bed to do some emailing. That’t when I heard a crushing noise, like that of porcelain plates being broken, and the poor Canadian kid screaming “what the heck!”. I ran out to check what had happened. Water was splashing all over and he was completely wet. The remains of the sink were scattered on the floor: apparently, the guy decided he’d lean on the sink with his hand while brushing his teeth, but despite being a fit guy the sink did not hold his weight and collapsed! You can imagine the hilarity of such a scene. We took pictures, we laughed and eventually we decided that if we did not want to flood the entire place, we had to close all the pipes. It worked, but it meant that we were not even able to flush the toilet.

Suchitoto, El Salvador

Los Tercios waterfalls look a bit like the Giant Causeway

The morning after I was glad to have an early start and having to leave at 6:00 am, leaving the other guest alone to explain to the owner what had happened, and that perhaps restoration and refurbishing was much needed in the hostel!

What’s your worst hostel experience to date?

Click here for more of my misadventures.

Things to do in Bogota and Villa de Leyva

Things to do in Bogota and Villa de Leyva

The huge capital of Colombia takes my breath away, for there are so many things to do in Bogota. Part of the reason is its beauty, but mostly for the altitude: it is located at about 2600 meters above sea level. Add to this the incessant traffic and pollution, and it will be hard to breathe. What is most interesting about Bogotà is that, being the main city of what is considered a tropical country, it leaves me somehow puzzled. I did not really believe that the average temperature is 14 degrees celsius. And it does rain a lot, especially in the rain season – so, I was glad I had packed a raincoat, an umbrella, and warm clothes.

Yet, it is an interesting city to visit and I wanted to spend a few days wandering around its squares and museums: there are many things to do in Bogota. It is modern, very progressive and lively, with a vibrant cultural, political and social scene, and at the same time as relaxed as only a Colombian city may be. It is a city of contrasts: La Candelaria with its elegant colonial buildings on one side, and the skyscrapers and glittering towers on the other.

Candelaria at night is one of the things to do in Bogota

Candelaria at night is one of the things to do in Bogota

Bogotà is the main airport hub and has connections to the rest of the country and the world. It is well connected to Cartagena, and from Bogotà there are flights to Leticia, in the Amazon – this can only be reached via plane.

Things to do in Bogota:

The city is to big and interesting that I am never left wondering what to do in Bogota.

Plaza de Bolivar is the heart of the historic town, and is interesting to see, despite being, according to the Lonely Planet, a mishmash of architectural styles. On the western side of the plaza, the Catedral Primada is Bogotà’s largest church and can be visited for free. The Capilla del Sagrario, right next door, is the only colonial building on the square and there is no admission fee either.

One of the best things to do in Bogota is going for a walk around La Candelaria: located east of Plaza de Bolivar, it is packed with cobbled streets, museums, theaters and cafes and street food.

What to do in Bogota: trying street food!

What to do in Bogota: trying street food!

Things to do in Bogota: snapping as many Renault 4 as possible. This nice man is an institution in Bogota!

Things to do in Bogota: snapping as many Renault 4 as possible. This nice man is an institution in Bogota!

Visit Museo del Oro: I was looking for what to do in Bogota and headed to Museo del Oro. It has the biggest collection in the world of pre-hispanic gold work.

Visit Museo Botero: one of the things to do in Bogota is visiting this incredible museum. It is a great gallery founded by a donation of Colombia’s most famous artist, Fernando Botero, and there are works of other artists such as Picasso, Mirò, Renoir, Dali, Matisse and Monet.

On of the things to do in Bogota is to go up the Cerro de Montserrate: considered one of Colombia attractions, this is by far my favourite one in town. It is more than a simple mountain. It is a peak that towers over Bogotà, at 3200 meters above sea level, and a symbol of pride for the residents of the city. The view of the city from up there is amazing, but try to go on a clear day to fully enjoy it. There is also a lovely, flowery park at the back. It is possible to go up by teleferico or funicular, or, if up for the challenge, there are 1500 steps to the top. I also advise to wear warm clothes. It gets chilly at that altitude!

Things to do in Bogota: go up to the Parque Montserrate

Things to do in Bogota: go up to the Parque Montserrate

Where to sleep, eat and drink in Bogotà

The city is huge, so I had to consider my options carefully since I didn’t want to blow my budget on transportation. Most travelers opt for some cheap accommodation in La Candelaria, and while I must say the area is pretty and safe, it does get very quiet during the night. It is best to find a hostel that has a kitchen to prepare your meals, as almost everything closes at 7 pm, including fast food chains, and even street food is harder to find after dark. Surely, one of the things to to in Bogota is trying some of the local street food – arepas are delicious, there is a huge variety of fruit too. The best bet for late night food may be the Bogotà Beer Company pub – there are several around town, and one in La Candelaria in Calle 12D No. 4-02: this offers pub staples and great draft beers.

Things to do in Bogota: trying a beer at Bogota Beer Company

Things to do in Bogota: trying a beer at Bogota Beer Company

Villa de Leyva Colombia, the most beautiful colonial town in the country:

When I have had enough of crowded and polluted cities and ran out of things to do in Bogota, one of the best places to visit in Colombia is Villa de Leyva. This is a good place to recharge dead batteries. Declared a national monument in 1954, and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this small city is a beautiful colonial settlement perfectly preserved – there is no modern architecture here. The town was funded in 1572 and feels like a walk-through museum: the main plaza is one of the largest squares in the Americas, and nearby there are three perfectly restored colonial mansions that now house cafes, restaurants and craft shops. The weather in Villa de Leyva is pleasant – dry and mild – and many bogotanos come over for the weekend to enjoy the beauty and the climate. There are many activities in the surroundings, such as a number of hiking paths. There is also the possibility to go biking or horse riding.

Colombia tourist attractions: Villa de Leyva

Colombia tourist attractions: Villa de Leyva

Villa de Leyva can be reached from Bogota with direct buses that take roughly 5 hours, and from Tunja which is about one hour away. It offers many budget options to sleep and eat, such as El Solar Hotel in Calle 10A No. 10-60, a lovely hostel whose owner is a really sweet lady.

Things to do in Colombia: parking your carriage outside

Things to do in Colombia: parking your carriage outside

For more things to do in Colombia, read here.

Why San Gil is among the places to visit in Colombia

Why San Gil is among the places to visit in Colombia

Colombia is a huge country, and it is much more than the old cliches of narco-trafficking and kidnapping. As the Lonely Planet describes it, it is a great cocktail consisting of caribbean atmosphere, the great mountains and glaciars of the Andes, the Amazon, the unique Tatacoa desert, cloud forest, colonial cities, indigenous, Afro-descendants and European cultures, and colourful and friendly people. Top all of this with a great, relaxed atmosphere and here is the perfect place. One could spend months travelling around the country, and still feel unfinished and wanting to explore more.  Furthermore, some of the places to visit in Colombia are so isolated that no roads get there. Leticia – the main starting point for a visit of the Amazon basin – can only be reached by plane.

Why San Gil is among the places to visit in Colombia

By all means, I know I am an adventure seeker, and I know I have a choice of about a million places to visit in Colombia. But, since I was looking for some of the great Colombia tourist attractions combined with fun sports, I headed to San Gil. This is definitely THE place for extreme sports and I could easily fill up my days there with all sorts of activities, from rafting to rappelling, torrentismo (rappelling down a waterfall), horse riding, paragliding, caving, mountain biking, and so much more.

The best thing to do for me, since I didn’t want to burn all my energies was to alternate any of these extreme activities with quieter ones such as swimming in natural pools (such as the Pozo Azul), visiting the nearby waterfalls (Cascadas de Juan Curi) and going on easy, nearby hikes. Although San Gill is small city, it gave me a pleasant and authentic Colombian feel and it is not crowded with travelers. I could enjoy its atmosphere fully during the day, at the local market, or after sunset, when the locals meet for evening drinks in the main square, children happily run around, and everybody is up for a chat.

Things to do in Colombia: go mountain biking with Colombian Bike Junkies

Things to do in Colombia: go mountain biking with Colombian Bike Junkies

Rafting

Among the things to do in Colombia, there is some great rafting. Many companies in San Gil organise whitewater rafting excursions. Unexperienced rafters may prefer opting for the easier Rio Fonce – with rafts of grades 1 to 3.

I was in the mood for something more challenging, so I opted for the Rio Suarez: around 30 dollars for a full day (about 6 hours in total and snacks included, consisting of fresh fruit, local cheese, crisps and drinks). Colombia Rafting Expeditions is the most reliable company in town. I was picked up from my hostel and driven (about one hour drive) to the starting point.

The English speaking guides are very experienced, and did everything to make my day memorable. After a briefing on safety measures, we started rafting down the river. We all got soaking wet, we got the chance to swim in the river carried away by the current, and we even had to get to shore to hike up for a while, and even jumping off cliffs. The only low point is that there is nobody taking pictures for the rafters, so I would advise to carry a waterproof camera.

Things to do in Colombia: go rafting with Colombia Rafting Expeditions

Things to do in Colombia: go rafting with Colombia Rafting Expeditions

Mountain biking

Another one of the things to do in Colombia is mountain biking. Mountain bike tours near San Gil go through the Chicamocha Canyon and they allowed me to visit the beautiful Barichara, an immaculately renovated city of white-washed buildings and stone streets, with a beautiful cathedral and a gorgeous and airy main plaza, which is definitely one of the places to visit in Colombia.

Places to visit in Colombia: Barichara

Places to visit in Colombia: Barichara

The best company running the tour is Colombian Bike Junkies. It is based out of  the restaurant Gringo Mike’s, which is also the meeting point. The trip lasts all day (by which I mean ALL day – do not expect to be back before dark!), it costs around 60 dollars. Ok, that is not cheap but it possibly is the best and most fun among the things to do in Colombia and it is worth saving on other things to embark on this adventure.

Colombia Bike Junkies is reliable, the bikes are in excellent state, and it is organised to the point that when I booked the tour, I was even asked where I wanted to have the front and back breaks, and even a meal preference (yes: a delicious lunch, snacks such as fresh fruit and home baked cookies and water are all included, as well as a “well done” beer after finishing) and my size, as at the end of the day I was given a t-shirt that will always remind me of this great adventure.

There was a very good guide at the front, ready to help with any problems and to give instructions and advice on the technicalities of the path; as well as a guide at the back, driving a jeep and carrying any equipment that may needed to fix bikes on the road, including flat tires. And, to top things off, I didn’t have to worry about taking pictures as the two guides took plenty of shots in key points and moments and shared them with participants. Look at me in full motion:

Things to do in Colombia: mountain biking!

Things to do in Colombia: mountain biking!

The 50 km trip will be tiring: going downhill is challenging for non-expert mountain bikers, yet it is a lot of fun. After the lunch break, the path is an easier (in technical terms!), slightly uphill 16 km road.

By the time I got to the finishing point, I was dusty, sweaty, dirty and, most importantly, happy and accomplished and that beer tasted oh so good!

What do to in Colombia: become a Colombian Bike Junkie

What do to in Colombia: become a Colombian Bike Junkie

Where to sleep and eat in San Gil:

Open House Hostel in San Gil is an excellent option for backpackers. It is very close to the main plaza: it is clean, quiet, and it has nice, comfortable beds, an airy common area and very well equipped kitchen and a nice backyard. My humble advice is to cook at the hostel, as, other than Gringo Mike’s, there aren’t many good options to eat in town and the market sells lovely fresh vegetables and fruit.

How to get to San Gil:

San Gil can be reached by bus from pretty much anywhere in Colombia. There are night buses from Cartagena (the trip lasts 17 hours and goes through Barranquilla); there are regular buses to and from Bogotà (8 hours, around 17 dollars), Medellin (11 hours, around 30 dollars) and Bucaramanga (2 hours), which is the closest airport.

Looking for more things to do in Colombia?