When I started writing this article, I looked up the word hostel.
1. an establishment which provides inexpensive food and lodging for a specific group of people, such as students, workers, or travelers.
This is a fairly narrow approximation of the word hostel, a word which - for travelers - evokes something much more exciting: possibility.
Every new place we stay offers the excitement of the unknown. Who will we meet? What will we do? Travelers will tell you, every person and place we interact with drastically changes our trip. Some of my favorite people in the world are in my life because of the place I decided to stay at on my travels. One night at a hostel in Costa Rica could be the title of my story on how I ended up living in Australia.
It's truly the people you meet that make your trip what it is, but hostels act as the backdrop to those tales. They become our homes, force us to meet new people, both good and bad, and give us inspiration for our adventures. They are a place to share stories, make memories, and possibly get bed bugs.
Everyone has their own "favorite" hostel - there is no definitive 'best'. However, we have attempted to compile a list of the top contenders: the places that we loved the most and why. For a different perspective, I've also asked a couple of friends I've met along the way for their personal favorites as well.
What's your favorite? Leave us comments below on your experiences with these hostels and any other places that you think people need to see.
For me, this article couldn't begin anywhere else but at Rockin J's. This is where you go in Central America if you loved reading The Beach. It’s a backpackers’ paradise that could have been created from the imaginations of Bob Marley and Hunter S. Thompson. The tiled mosaic found near the bathroom reading “Sex, Drugs, and Reggae” gives you a good idea what you're in for. The infamous full moon party, with a mandatory toga or less dress code, more than lives up to its reputation and draws hundreds of people to J’s every month.
No other hostel has ever been more passionately recommended to me while traveling. It was as if it was a rite of passage that other travelers felt needed to be shared. You can't go anywhere in Central America without being asked if you've been to J's.
From $5/night hammocks (that are pretty comfortable) to the incredible $26/night tree house observatory to the $70/night “honeymoon suite” (please don’t go their on your honeymoon), Rockin J’s offers more than enough options to satisfy everyone’s desires. They put on events almost every day, have live music in their bar, and you can always count on finishing the night around a large bonfire on the beach.
Some people will say that Rockin J’s isn’t for everyone. It’s loud, it’s messy, and there’s no quiet place to get away from whatever party is going on that day. But you can’t go backpacking and avoid people the whole time. Traveling is about the experiences that you have and Rockin J’s is an experience that should be had by all backpackers.
Come with an open mind, leave with a hangover and some great stories.
Most of the time I usually only stay at a hostel for a few days at a time, a week max. Not at Aqua Lounge. After taking the boat ride 30 minutes off the northeastern coast of Panama to the instagram heaven of islands known as Bocas Del Toro, I ended up staying for 22 days. To this day, it is still the longest I've ever stayed at one place. Aqua Lounge has everything you could want in a hostel, plus a couple of things you probably didn’t realize you wanted. It's a backpackers playground that has created its own world unlike anything I've seen before.
So you want to be near water? Aqua Lounge is built on a dock in the middle of the Caribbean. Through the floor boards, you can watch as tropical fish swim by. Bocas Del Toro is known for it's incredible scuba diving conditions. And there's no better way to start your day than by waking up, walking out of your room, and jumping, swinging, or trampolining into the refreshing blue water. Yes, I said trampoline. They have a trampoline built into their deck. On water. I can probably stop right there, but maybe you’re not sold yet.
Bar? Check. Restaurant? Check. Free Wi-Fi? Check. Need a break from the sun? There’s a lounge room that’s almost completely dark, with a projector and fans so you can watch movies while sprawled out comfortably on mattresses. You're probably beginning to understand why it was so hard for me to leave.
It's not just the hostel itself that is so great, but the location as well. Aqua Lounge isn’t located on the main island with most of the other hostels and bars, but a few hundred meters away on a smaller island. It’s a short 30 seconds boat ride costing only $1 to get across and gives you more privacy than any other hostel in the area.
Once a week, the hostel is host to a backpackers night that brings everyone over from the main island for a night of dancing and drinking until the party begins to spill into the ocean. Book your room early as space is limited and the place is almost always full to capacity.
I'm generally not a big fan of hostels in Europe. Anytime I'm paying more than $30 or $40 for a bed I don't feel like I'm really backpacking, so I try to stick to campsites in this part of the world. That said, it's not always an option to camp, especially when you want to visit some of the main cities. So if I'm going to pay that kind of money for a hostel, I want amenities. And PLUS Hostel in Florence definitely has that and more.
I've stayed at a couple of the Plus Hostels around Europe, but it was the Florence location that really hooked me. There are two pools, one underground and one outdoors, a sauna, and turkish baths. There's also two bars, a restaurant, and an incredible terrace with 360 degree views of the city. On top of that, the place has comfortable beds, clean linens, and a very professional feel.
Hostels in general are still trying to adapt to a younger and savvier clientele. More people are traveling, more people are using technology on the road, and this is making it easier for travelers to prepare and plan where they are going to stay. The hostels that are ahead of the curve are beginning to stand out a lot from ones still operating under the old rules. At the minimum, any good hostel should include the following: Security, different room types, device access, enough (and clean) toilets/showers, social opportunities, convenience, on-site laundry facilities. PLUS Hostels tick all of these boxes, and then some.
We have already talked about how expensive hostels in Europe can be, but in South and Central America, you feel ripped off paying more than $8 for a place to crash. Granted, you are more likely to suffer certain indignities that come with the cheaper price tag: bed bugs, dirty sheets, no actual bed, eight dirty smelly room mates etc. But by and large the value for money in these places is pretty amazing. My favourite hostel in South America didn't have so any of the fancy trappings that we enjoyed in Costa Rica and Panama, but it did have a volcano....
Voted best hostel in Ecuador for 2014 by HostelWorld, The Secret Garden hostel in Quito is a real treasure. I went there in 2010 after a horrendous bout of feeling-like-i-was-going-to-die-ingitis, and was immediately charmed by the rustic atmosphere feel of this adorable converted colonial hotel. Upon admission through the heavily guarded front door (they have had some problems with locals masquerading as backpackers in the past) you enter a narrow corridor with brightly colored, hand painted walls, high ceilings and a rickety spiral staircases leading you up and up and up until you finally reach the piece de resistance: the rooftop deck. From there you can get breakfast and dinner (with a vegetarian option), delicious drinks from the bar, and the most breathtaking view of the city.
The Secret Garden has all the usual South American hostel amenities, including Spanish lessons, a travel agent and a surprisingly decent book exchange, but the real selling point is the sister hostel in Cotopaxi. You take a very, very, very long and bumpy jeep ride up into the high Ecuadorean Andes, far from the city, surrounded by nothing but farmland and mountains. The hostel itself is more like an exclusive country retreat, nestled on a llama farm, surrounded by picturesque flower beds and vegetable gardens, with four or five dogs lounging on the deck. There's home cooked meals, wine and comfy lounges by the fire, and usually only one or two other travelers at any one time. It is certainly not a party hub, but it is beautifully homey and peaceful. You can stay for days and do nothing but read and relax, but most people come to tackle to towering peak of Cotopaxi, Ecuador's second highest mountain, and one of the world's tallest active volcanos. At almost 6000 metres high, reaching the summit is a mission indeed, and not for the unfit or faint of heart. There are, however, options. For example, you can drive up to the snow line and the mountain bike back down the steep, ungraded road to the bottom - just make sure you bring gloves, unless you want your fingers to fall off from frost bite!
From Matt Kohn of A Different Hunger:
If you're traveling, chances are you like to have a good time. If you're traveling to Australia, you definitely like to have a good time. And if you're traveling to Cairns, Australia and are looking for a once-in-a-lifetime-what-the-$%#-did-I-do-last-night good time, then you need to stay at Gilligan’s Backpacker’s Hotel and Resort, aka “The G-Spot”.
This place is wild. Look at their weekly schedule: Tuesday is jelly wrestling night; Thursday is “topless champagne boys” and striptease competitions; The weekend is chocked full of killer DJs, live music, and dancing by the resort’s gorgeous pool. You can scuba dive/snorkel at the incredibly gorgeous Great Barrier Reef by day and forget all about it by night while dancing and partying with friendly backpackers from nearly every continent in the world - pretty tough to beat that, amen?
Gilligan’s was one-of-a-kind backpacking experience for me, however, I wouldn’t recommend staying for more than a week or you may need a liver transplant or experience other adverse medical experiences. Oh, and make sure you bring a camera to document your trip, because chances are you might (will) forget.
From fellow traveler Jake Caplener:
As a seasoned, low budget traveler, I have stayed in hostels in 15 different countries on 3 different continents. Some were awesome, some were miserable, but all of them were memorable in their own unique way. My favorite hostel, however, was the Chill House Backpackers Hostel in Cartagena, Colombia.
Here's what I'm looking for in a hostel: location, affordability, and a good, friendly backpacking vibe. The Chill House had all of these. Located in the center of Cartagena's Old town, in the plaza Fernandez de Madrid, it is in the perfect location. It sits across the street from a small park where street vendors selling everything from empenadas to coffee are open from dusk until dawn and easily outnumber restaurants and shops (and I'm a big fan of street food). Walking distance to the coast, and a short cab ride from the cities main beach, La Boca Grande, The Chill House Hostel is in the perfect location.
For a 6 person mixed dorm, expect to pay around 8-14 dollars depending on which season it is. The beds were clean and comfortable and they had free wifi. As far as I'm concerned, those are the only amenities you need.
The Chill House couldn't have a more appropriate name. As you walk up the steps of the red and white colonial building, you are greeted with a friendly "bienvenidos" from a very helpful and welcoming staff and even a free glass of Maracuya juice, a Colombian favorite. The layout of the hostel creates an environment where travelers can lounge on old, "hippie style" chairs and couches. An open-air ceiling outside of the dorms created a perfect place to cool off and meet other travelers. I met four really cool girls, from four separate parts of the world, who I ended up traveling with for the next leg of my trip. While a hostel can just be a place to sleep and keep your backpack, it's the environment and the people you meet that make it special.
A poster hanging on the wall had a saying that I really enjoyed: "Less spoiled tourists, more enlightened backpackers", and that perfectly summed up the vibe of this place, it's employees, and the travelers staying here.