Eleven things that Latin America taught me

Eleven things that Latin America taught me

I have travelled so much since I was a child that even before going on my long term trips across Central and South America I thought of myself as an expert and independent traveller and as someone who knows how the world works. I’d back up my opinion of myself using my academic background in international human rights law and my many travels, throughout Europe and beyond, whether of a few days or a few weeks, as examples to prove what I said and thought. I really felt I had a good idea of how most people live outside the Western world. I was surely convinced that as a backpacker, it would be a good practice to have a strict schedule with carefully planned days so that I could see more places and do more things. I enjoyed spending my time before a trip making minute preparations that included checking the bus schedules and the opening times of a museum, whether I intended to visit Valencia or to go to Peru.

Uruguay

Do I not look like an experienced traveller?

When I gave up my academic career and started my first long term backpacking trip through Latin America, I actually realised that I knew very little and had an eye opening experience. The things I have learned in those months of travel through that incredible continent I would have never learned even if I kept reading, studying and watching as many documentaries as possible. I had to come to terms with some aspects of my personality that I wasn’t aware of; I changed my perspective on what travelling really means and I finally started understanding much more of the world.

So, here are the eleven things I have learned in my wanderings across Latin America.

1. I won’t carry a backpack that is heavier than 12 kilograms ever again – or at least, I will try

I always start thinking about what to pack well before I actually have to leave. I make a list of things I must carry, and then pick my clothes. Each time, I carry less. I have even resumed to buying only black socks, so that if one breaks while I am travelling, I only have to throw away that one and not the pair. I have actually understood that I don’t need to carry that many clothes, because I am not going to attend gala events or fashion shows. I have managed to come to terms with the fact that one pair of shoes is enough, and that nobody will think less of me if I don’t wear something different every day, as long as my clothes are (sort of) clean. The problem is that I like shopping at markets. I love ethnic stuff. And I like buying presents for my family and friends. So, on my last trip I ended up carrying up to 18 kg on my back, when I filled my backpack with a bottle of Mezcal I had bought in Mexico (by the way, who drank that?) and two bottles of Malbec I bought in Argentina. Way too much to carry around. I promised myself not to ever buy so much alcohol again. Or to drink it so that I don’t have to carry it around.

Guabito

I could hardly walk with such a heavy backpack on my back. Have I learned my lesson?

2. When I gotta go, I gotta go.

One big fact I have learned in my travels is that I can pee anywhere. It actually is a skill I am quite proud of. It’s more than just going to the loo when it is not so clean, or in sharing a bathroom in a hostel. It even goes beyond the peeing in the nature concept. I have peed behind bushes, in coconut shells (yup), on a hole in the ground covered by some wooden boards, in the (dark) toilet of a moving bus, in the hole of the helm on a sailboat in the high seas. I challenge anybody at saying they can do the same.

Female toilet

Amateurs! Despite the strange position, this actually is a proper toilet – photo courtesy of Bjarki Reyr (flickr)

3. There is no way I will ever be able to stand cockroaches.

Or spiders. Or rats. I can adapt to weird toilets, uncomfortable beds and I can sleep almost anywhere. The almost means I have to strike out places that are infested with cockroaches, spiders and rats. I just can’t take them – try as I might, if I know there is a cockroach in the room, I have to leave. It is a matter of survival. It’s either me or the cockroach. I respect its space and would like it to respect mine, but since I know for a fact that cockroaches have a reputation of invading other people’s vital space, I pack my stuff and go, exclaiming in defeat: “Ok, you win!”.

Cockroach visitor

I hope my effort in placing this picture on this post is appreciated. I will shriek any time I see it – photo courtesy of Jean and Fred (flickr)

4. I don’t really have to be obsessive with planning.

On my first trip to Cuba, I was so obsessed with the idea of “making the most of it” that I thought the only way I could have a full experience was by following my plans minutely. Then, I was crushed with the Cuban system. No wi-fi, no booking system, no computers, no facebook: I had to improvise or leave. I decided to stay, do as the Cubans and stop having arguments with the locals who had apparently joined forces to boycott my plan to visit their country. When I eventually started going with the flow and relaxed, I felt liberated and I enjoyed Cuba so much more.

Relax on a hammock after an eventful day

It’s when I start relaxing that the trip gets better

 5. Life changes depending on how we look at it.

I never get on a crowded train or bus in Europe. If the London Tube approaches and I see that the train is packed, I resolve to wait for the next one, I get annoyed and I make a mental note to write a complaint to the company. In Nicaragua, packed chicken buses are part of the fun and I find the whole thing a good way to get in touch with the locals – quite literally so. I end up taking pictures, having a laugh at the lady that gets on with a basket of live chickens, and eventually even write a post about it. Same thing with the timings. The train is late in London? I want my money back! The bus I need to take to get back to Lima is not running that day, for whatever inexplicable reason, is not running at all? I shrug it off, spend an extra night in the village and go meet some locals.

Estelì, Nicaragua

Chickens ride the chicken bus to Estelì, Nicaragua

6. What is hell to me, may be paradise to you.

I have travelled to certain places because anybody I met told me they were amazing and I should visit – only to find out that I could not see what they saw in them. My friend had a fantastic time in Bocas del Toro, Panama. I was completely disappointed when I saw it with my own eyes. Then I have been to places that are not even on tourist maps and fell in love with them. People’s opinion should only matter so much when picking a place to visit, because what moves one person’s emotions won’t necessarily cause the same reaction in me.

Bocas del Toro main attraction?

Bocas del Toro main attraction?

7. It is actually ok to trust people I don’t know.

Whenever I travel to some exotic country, my family and friends warn me to be careful, watch out and don’t trust strangers. I get back, and people ask me if I have experiences any danger, if I ever was afraid, if Ecuador/Honduras/Guatemala are as dangerous as people say. I was either very lucky or very oblivious to my surroundings, because not for a minute I felt in danger during my travels. Quite the opposite indeed. I have met some truly kind people in Central and South America, that have gone above and beyond what was reasonable to help me out. For example, a stranger in Costa Rica saw that I needed a toilet and could not find one, and showed me to her home so that I could use hers. Or another woman at a local market in Peru crossed the city to look for some herbs to prepare a tea that would help my sore throat – and she would not want a penny in exchange of her efforts.

Mercado de San Blas, Cusco

The lovely lady who helped me cure my throat

8. We should never hide our identity and we should preserve our traditions.

People all around Latin America – from Mexico to Peru, from Guatemala to Bolivia – proudly wear the symbols of their identity. Whether it is a traditional hat, a beautifully embroidered skirt, golden teeth, tresses or other particular hair-dos, they do all they can to protect their culture and pass it on to future generations. It is a notable effort at preserving and protecting identities. I used to be a human rights lawyer and I have spent years researching on how to protect cultural identity. I also am a member of a minority in Italy: I can’t stand racial discrimination and don’t appreciate the subtle attempts of governments’ to wipe out entire cultures for the sake of so-called progress. Integration can’t and won’t ever mean assimilation.

I love travelling alone

I had to show my Sardinian pride even when I was in Chile!

9.  Culture and traditions are actually profitable.

One thing I saw in my travels in Latin America is that indigenous groups hold on to their traditional sources of income. Women in Guatemala have created cooperatives to keep their traditional occupations: they weave, they sell their works and they even organise workshops and demonstrations for visitors. Their businesses are successful. A sign that a possible solution out of the major financial crisis that Sardinia and Italy are facing may be in returning to their ancestral traditions?

Lake Atitlan

Fully dressed in traditional clothes in San Antonio Palopo – the women have turned their traditional occupations into a profitable business

10. In 2015, not everybody in the world has access to potable water.

Tap water is safe to drink all over Europe and North America. Yet, we have an incredible offer of bottled water; tv advertising that shows the benefit of one specific brand for having low sodium, for being bottled in recycled plastic bottles, for coming from the highest mountain source in Europe and what not. In most of Central and South America, it is not safe to drink tap water. Most people can’t afford to buy bottled water and have to vigorously boil tap water to be able to drink it safely. Malnutrition is hardly due to lack of food or to poor quality food, but is generally caused by contaminated water used for cooking and drinking, whose bacteria cause bad infections and diarrhea. We take right to water for granted in Europe and North America, but for most of the world it is still a dream.

11. There are poor people who are way happier than wealthy ones.

I came across shanty towns. I met people who, despite the fact that they lived in what to me was no more than a shack, gave all signs of being happy: they laughed, they smiled, and they enjoyed life. For example, I never really enjoyed Christmas – all the frenzy to buy presents, to sit around during endless meals, to meet those relatives that ask the same, annoying questions every time. Then I ended up in Ometepe, Nicaragua, and on Christmas day I was caught up by a thunderstorm. It was raining so hard that walking back for 45 minutes to get back to the hostel was not an option. The first shelter I found was in what I soon realised was someone’s home. A group of people were sitting in the patio, enjoying the day singing and playing the guitar. I ran into their place, said “Merry Christmas everyone” and after a blank stare that lasted no more than one second, they just offered me a chair and went back to their singalong. They seemed poor to me and I am pretty sure they had not been exchanging presents that day. Their only wealth were probably the chickens roaming about in the patio. Yet, they seemed way happier than most of the families I know that live a comfortable life.

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Learn what Latin America taught me - via @clautavani

How I went from being a bored academic to a fun and free blogger

How I went from being a bored academic to a fun and free blogger

Not long after coming back from Uruguay after one of my many trips to Latin America, last April, I started catching up with the usual horror stories of the Italian job market. One of them was particularly touching to me, as I could relate to it. It was published by the very well known Italian magazine, L’Espresso. The article soon went viral. It was a piece by an Italian researcher who just reported his story, and pointed out the total lack of merit in Italian academia (but the same would go for the rest of the job market) – a story that happens only too often in Italy, something we talk about on a regular basis but for which we seem unable to fight.

Then, I read another piece, this time on The Guardian, where the author pointed out that mental health issues of PhD students and academics are becoming increasingly accepted in British universities, where staff is pushed to perform beyond their limits.

I fully enjoyed travelling alone in Uruguay

I fully enjoyed travelling alone in Uruguay

Once upon a time, I used to work in academia – and I thought it was cool

Two job environments that should be similar – despite in different countries – in reality could not be more different: in one, researchers struggle to work and have their work recognised; in the other, they are put under so much pressure to perform and gain better results that they eventually face extreme stress and even depression. I have studied and worked in both and, quite frankly, I find the issues faced by academics in the UK are almost laughable compared to the ones faced in Italy. Sure, when I worked at the University of Essex or at University College London I used to be snowed in with work. I had lectures, seminars, meetings, administrative work, conferences, workshops, office hours, papers to mark, exam questions to write (and have approved). All of that, besides having to write my PhD dissertation. But at least I was rewarded. At least my work was acknowledged. And I was part of the staff – from the highest ranking professor to the newly arrived admin worker, we all knew each other, we all respected each other, and we knew that we could count on each other. It was homey.

I should have stayed in England and I should have kept working there. I should have done many things, I suppose. But I didn’t. Because I am from Sardinia, and as pretty much anybody from Sardinia, I have a visceral connection with my land and for as much as I (we) can live away for even decades at times (I spent more than 10 years overseas), I (we) all want to go back home eventually. So, when after more than 10 years away from Sardinia, I got a fellowship to work at my old university, I did not think about it twice: I quitted my job, I packed my belongings and I boarded a plane that would take me home, finally.

La pelosa, Sardinia

I couldn’t help wanting to go back to Sardinia

Do I regret coming back?

I don’t regret giving up my academic career in England, because through a long and difficult path it brought me where I am now.

Working at my old university in Sardinia, the place where I was educated and that ultimately molded me into being the awesome human being that I am, should have been rewarding. But it wasn’t. In fact, it was the closest I could imagine to being in hell. It should have been homey (more homey than the University of Essex, I would have guessed) but I felt like I was walking in foreign territory and I should watch my back at all times.

For as much as I worked, as much as I achieved (publications in international leading journals, books, conferences and what not), I felt that the university I wanted to give back to so much did not want me and in fact did its best to push me away. I realised soon enough that I was seen as a threat: I was highly specialised, I was a hard worker, and if only I was involved in a research project or participated in a conference, I would easily put the most of the others in the corner. Like the time I happened to attend a book presentation and a professor kept calling the Roma “gypsies” – he did not like it when, at question time, I pointed out that “gypsy” was a derogatory term hardly used by people in the field nowadays. Or like the time another professor said that a specific international treaty hardly had any relevance as not many states had ratified it, when in fact – as I told her – 90% of the UN members had done so.

In my years at my home university, I faced increasing obstracism. The course I taught on discrimination was cancelled on demands of another researcher who – incidentally – was married to a professor. I was first asked to teach at a summer school in human rights, and then found out that someone else was called to do it – and that very someone did not have the expertise to teach the subject, so she demanded that I passed her my notes rather than backing off and pointing out to the director that I should teach the course instead.

The isolation I faced in Italy, the less than cooperative approach to research, the lack of any real connection and the unfriendly environment where I worked slowly brought me to hate academia. What kept me going were the conferences I attended, when I met other international academics and we exchanged ideas, views, projects. But then, that was not enough anymore. The frustration I felt made me forget what I had loved about academia and research. My hey-days in England, when I felt like the world was my oyster, and it was just waiting for me to blossom, were over.

Then I started travelling

Then I started travelling

…Then I started travelling, and that is way cooler than academia

Was it all so bad? I’d say most of it was. The good thing about being forced out of teaching and only having to do my research meant that I had no real commitments and thus I could travel whenever I wanted. So I did. Multiple short trips across Europe, then longer ones on the other side of the Atlantic. Peru first, then Mexico, Argentina, and finally Cuba in February 2013.

Quebrada de Humahuaca, Argentina

I had a blast in Argentina

Cuba changed my life. I did not know it back then, but looking back, two years after visiting, I can see that it did. It isn’t just that the place was so special and that I found myself there. Sure, it was and I finally came to terms with the fact that I love it. But it was a series of factors that, coming together, had a real impact on my life.

Mojito time

I left from Cuba with a huge smile on my face – I wanted that to last

Factor number one was the extreme frustration I felt during my first 10 days there. I’d lie if I said I did not hate it. I really did. Travelling in Cuba, for an organisation freak like I am, was frustrating. Try as I might, there was no way I could get things my way in Cuba. It was like the entire country had plotted to boycott my travel plans. It took me a while to get to appreciate and embrace spontaneity as a way of travelling. So, when I got home, with my zero knowledge of the blogging industry, I decided that I wanted to create my own blog, in English, to tell the truth about Cuba and warn anybody who may go there. I knew so little about blogging that I had no idea about how I could even get readers. I just thought that, since it was online, people would eventually find it. In fact, some actually did find me and started following me. In other words, I started a blog to vent about Cuba and say whatever I wanted without being censored. Cuba eventually grew on me – but that is a different story.

Machu Picchu, Peru

I want to feel as amazed as I was when I visited Machu Picchu

Factor number two was meeting Guiselaine on an eventful ride from Santiago to Baracoa. As the tire of the bus exploded, the driver asked all passengers to get off so that he could change it. So, we all started wandering about, taking pictures, and laughing at what had happened (and secretly thanking God that we were all fine). I had spotted Guiselaine at the bus station, and she sat behind me on the bus. We started talking when we were waiting for the tire to be fixed, and we agreed to meet later in Baracoa to have dinner. We did the same for every night we spent in Baracoa and eventually went separate ways, but we kept in touch since.

Where to go in Cuba: Playa Maguana, Cuba

Relaxing in Playa Maguana I realised I never wanted to work in academia again

Starting a blog and meeting Guiselaine may seem two separate things. But they weren’t. In fact, talking to Guiselaine we realised we had many things in common, which included a desire to travel the world for longer periods of time than the usual 3 weeks vacations, and the increased frustration with the traditional job market. I was increasingly frustrated with my job in academia – aside from the obstracism I faced on a regular basis, I found no purpose and no thrill in writing on the same topic over and over, in attending conferences which were auto-celebratory more than anything else, in talking about human rights issues without really taking action towards change. But while Guiselaine decided to take a step towards happiness and establish herself as a digital nomad, I wasn’t ready to go as far.

Then, my fellowship expired, there were no funds in sight to keep me working at my home university, and I did not fight to find any more. I started looking for other jobs in academia, but my heart wasn’t in it. I refused any temporary job I was offered by other universities around Italy, as I saw it as slave labour and the money wasn’t even going to cover my basic expenses for having to move to another region.

Speaking to Guiselaine, she gave me the final push to follow my dream: it was then that I decided that it was finally time to go on that backpacking trip across Latin America that had been on my mind for years. I set to leave at the end of November 2013, first stop Guatemala. Destiny can be tough at times, and with my luck, a few days before travelling, I got a permanent job offer from a university in England, but the negotiations for the starting date did not go as I had hoped – they were not willing to wait for me to get back from my travels. And although that was a good job, that would take me back to British academia, I was not ready to give up my dream when I was so close to fulfilling it.

Yaxha

I want to see the world, have fun, explore!

So I left. I just wanted to explore that part of the world and I thought that, once back, I could still look for a job in my old field. My family encouraged me to travel. My father was enthusiastic to know I’d be visiting so many places. But what is even more interesting is that my mother and sister insisted that I figured out a way to blog about my trip and make this my new career. However, blogging was only a past-time to me, something I’d do (less than seriously) while I travelled.

Finally blogging, for real!

I guess I only realised how right my mother and sister were when I got back and, after a surgery to remove my tonsils, I spent a few weeks of total misery, feeling completely lost and unsure about what to do with my life. The thing is, I did not have the guts to go back to a job in academia. I was so done with it, that the thought of writing yet one more academic paper, or preparing one more lecture, made me sick. My family encouraged me to do what I loved the most and what made me happy. And I could only think of travelling. I knew I had to give it a try, at least.

I thus applied for a course in travel design to become a specialised travel consultant. And all my years of travelling across Latin America (and spending all my savings on it) paid off when I was hired to work as a tour leader in Mexico and Central America. Finally, I decided it was time to give it a try and become a real blogger, and bought my own domain, started studying SEO manuals, social media communication techniques, and working hard on it.

I am not even close to making money yet. I work an average of 10 hours per day, every day. But I wake up with a smile on my face each morning. I like what I am doing and I am happy. I keep being interested in human rights issues and wherever I travel I can’t help observing the world through the lenses of a former human rights lawyer.

Will I succeed? I may, or I may not. But, sure enough, I will keep on trying. The years of suffering, isolation, frustration and humiliation at work were not in vain, as they brought me to a much better place. I have left academia, and I am never looking back.

I still have dreams

I still have dreams

What is your story? Did you also have a career change?

 

 

 

Five amazing sunsets that will make anybody want to visit Nicaragua

Five amazing sunsets that will make anybody want to visit Nicaragua

Nicaragua

The flag of Nicaragua – courtesy of George Kenyon

Everybody knows I am in love with anything Latin America. But those who have the privilege of talking to me, quickly find out I have an obsession for Nicaragua. I have been there 3 times, and I hope to visit Nicaragua again soon. Yes, it is my favourite country in Central America, so much so that when people contact me to ask about other countries such as Costa Rica or Panama, I end up suggesting visiting Nicaragua instead.

What makes it so special to me? It simply is an amazing country, that has so much to offer to travellers. Beautiful colonial cities

Leon, Nicaragua

Leon is one of the best places to visit in Nicaragua

A turbulent yet fascinating history

Leon, Nicaragua

Museo de la Revolucion, Leon

Incredible nature and wildlife.

Las Isletas, one of the places to visit in Nicaragua

Panchito lives on La Isla de los Monos, at Las Isletas: one of the places to visit in Nicaragua – courtesy of George Kenyon

Lakes and volcanoes.

Masaya, one of the tourist attractions in Nicaragua

Volcanoes are among the tourist attractions in Nicaragua – courtesy of George Kenyon

Amazing beaches.

Poneloya, one of the best beaches in Nicaragua

Poneloya is one of the best beaches in Nicaragua

Kind and warm people.

Nicaragua

La cara de Nicaragua, the face of Nicaragua – courtesy of George Kenyon

And, something that backpackers should never underestimate, this beautiful country is still unspoilt by mass tourism (but hurry! This will change, it is such an incredible place), it is very safe to travel even for solo female travellers, and it actually is the cheapest country in the continent: my dollars could get me a long way here.

Not convinced yet? Perhaps these amazing sunsets will do the trick and prove it is time to plan a trip to Nicaragua.

Five amazing sunsets that will make anybody want to travel to Nicaragua

Granada and Las Isletas:

Anybody visiting the country will take a side in the local argument over which city is better, Leon or Granada? Many will say colonial Granada, is the prettiest one among Nicaragua attractions. I must admit my heart beats for Leon, but the most touristic destination in the country (which for some reason reminds me of Trinidad, in Cuba) is indeed picture perfect, and the waterfront of Lake Granada or a boat ride across Las Isletas offer fantastic opportunities to photography lovers. Snapping a good picture is one of the things to do in Nicaragua.

Las Isletas, one of Nicaragua attractions

Nicaragua tours can’t skip a stop at Las Isletas

Mombacho, Nicaragua

Volcano Mombacho – view from Las Isletas

Poneloya and Las Peñitas

A half hour ride on a chicken bus from Sutiava, Leon, these two Nicaragua beaches are more than a surfer’s paradise. Lay in the sun, challenge the waves, go for a walk, enjoy a cold beer and by all means, do not miss the amazing Pacific sunset.

Las Peñitas, Nicaragua beaches

Catching the waves at Las Peñitas, one of the best beaches in Nicaragua

Las Peñitas, Nicaragua

Las Peñitas

Volcan Cerro Negro

About one hour drive from Leon, Cerro Negro is a great, short and windy hike. I could practice volcano boarding here and get covered in sand. And, let’s not forget that the view from the top is simply stunning. I absolutely did not want to miss a volcano on my Nicaragua vacation.

Cerro Negro, Nicaragua vacation

It’s not a Nicaragua vacation if it doesn’t feature a volcano: view from top of Cerro Negro

Cerro Negro, Nicaragua

Storm in the distance – sunset from Cerro Negro

Isla de Ometepe

Located in Lake Nicaragua, Ometepe is an 8 shaped island which, despite the presence of two active volcanoes, is peaceful, remote, and offers great hikes, wildlife and spectacular views. Among Nicaragua attractions, it may well be my favourite.

Volcano Madera, Isla de Ometepe

That’s one smokey volcano!

Corn Islands Nicaragua

Whether I feel like relaxing under the Caribbean sun, snorkelling in the clear waters, diving or just want to walk around to explore the island, Isla de Maiz won’t disappoint me. And here, I can be treated to a beautiful, almost stereotypical sunset.

Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

Little Corn Island – courtesy of Nomad Kiwis

Care to know about more things to do in Nicaragua? Stay tuned for more posts!

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.

Highlights of Argentina

Highlights of Argentina

My first stop in Argentina was its incredible capital Buenos Aires. I loved walking around, visiting its museums and galleries, its parks, the area of Puerto Madero with its Calatrava bridge, Recoleta, Caminito and San Telmo. I tasted the great food – in particular the asado – in the many good restaurants; and I enjoyed a day trip at Delta del Tigre. I then flew to Trelew, from which I reached Puerto Madryn, a good place to start visits of Peninsula Valdes and Punta Tombo – where I saw the incredible wildlife.

A long bus journey from Puerto Madryn took me to El Calafate. There, I froze while awing and the spectacular glaciar Perito Moreno, I hiked the Estancia Cristina from which I saw the Uppsala glacier, and from which I reached the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine in Chile.

I then flew to Iguazu, from which I visited the magnificent Iguazu waterfalls, from both the Brasilian side and the Argentinian side. My next stop was Salta, from which I went to spend an incredible adventure day rafting and ziplining. I then rented a car and drove to the Quebrada de Humahuaca, stopping at Salinas Grandes, Humahuaca, Purmamarca and the lively Tilcara. This was my last stop before heading back to Buenos Aires and flying back to Italy.

For more posts about Argentina, click here.