Category Archives: Chile

The Best Hostels in Latin America

Travelling for a year, constantly on the move, rarely staying more than three or four days in one place, where I end up staying makes a huge difference to my my stress levels. End up in a nice hostel, with things like comfy beds, warm showers, free breakfasts, a good location and a nice atmosphere keeps me far more relaxed and happy than when I’ve been unlucky enough to end up in somewhere lacking some or all of those factors.

Luckily, I’ve been very pleasantly surprised to find the vast majority of places I’ve stayed in have been brilliant. Finding the good ones isn’t too hard either – best of all is to get personal recommendations from other travellers, failing that, a quick look on hostelworld or hostelbookers gives a pretty good (and crucially, up to date) steer on where’s good. One of the main reasons to avoid using guide books is that new hostels are opening all the time, and in many places the best hostels have only opened recently.

Seeing as personal recommendations are the best kind, I thought I’d thank some of the best places I’ve stayed in by giving them a bit of a plug here – I make no apologies for the fact this list is entirely subjective (it’s not like I’ve been everywhere in Latin America, and I only ever stayed in one place in each town). But I reckon if you happen to be a budget traveller in any of these places and choose to stay in them, I hope you won’t be disappointed.

1. Casa de Dante, Guanajuato, Mexico

Me on Dante's roof

This one has pretty much everything going for it – Dante is the perfect host, welcoming new arrivals with a beer and a brilliant explanation of everything to do in the fantastic city. His mother is an amazing cook, and the free breakfasts (including fresh fruit, a cooked breakfast, delicious fresh smoothies and coffee) cooked by his mother are the best I had in any hostel by far. Add to that the peaceful roof terrace with views all over the city, and wonderful personal touches like the fact they fly flags on the roof for every nationality staying there on a given night (although let me know what Dante does if you happen to stay there and come from a small country he doesn’t have a flag for) and you have a real home from home.

2. Hostel Lao, Mendoza, Argentina

The Hostel Lao probably had the friendliest atmosphere of any hostel I stayed in. And it definitely had the friendliest (and possibly maddest) dogs too. There’s a huge garden (with a pool) too, and the weekly barbecue is really not to be missed – I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that much meat (and the salads are pretty awesome too).

3. Casa Felipe, Taganga, Colombia

There can’t be many backpacker hostels in the world that have a chef who cooks posh restaurant quality food. Casa Felipe is certainly the only one I’ve ever come across. Great breakfasts too, and the rooms are really spread out, each with their own hammock, and with a lovely shaded outdoor seating area for chilling in, this is the perfect place to relax and recover after trekking to the Lost City. This is also one of the few where it’s definitely worth booking ahead – it’s always full.

4. Hostel Patapata, Valparaiso, Chile

Hostel Patapata

Valpo was my favourite city in Latin America, and a not insignificant part of my enjoyment was the wonderful Patapata. It’s in a big old 19th century townhouse on the best of the city’s hills, and is another family run place that really has a proper family feeling. Another place with great breakfasts too.

5. Albergue Churup, Huaraz, Peru

Huaraz sunset from Albergue Churup's balcony

Huaraz is a hikers’ and mountaineer’s town, and if you are either of those, Albergue Churup is the perfect place to stay. It’s really popular with the serious outdoor types, which can help if you’re looking to join up with people for activities. Best of all is the top-floor communal area, with huge windows giving perfect views of the mountains (and even better ones from the outside terrace), and a coal fire to keep you warm on the cold mountain evenings. Really hot showers are also an essential after a big hike, and they don’t disappoint. Yet again (bit of a theme developing here from me) the breakfasts are great (I can highly recommend the banana pancakes before a big day of activity).

6. Altons Dive Shop, Utila, Honduras

Alton's Dock

If you’re diving, this is the best bargain in the Americas I reckon. For a start, you get free accommodation if you’re doing a course. Even when you’ve finished a course, divers get a special rate, which was easily the cheapest I paid anywhere (just over $3!). And for that, you can get a room right on the dock, with beautiful views across Utila harbour. Hammocks on the dock are perfect for chilling too, there’s a bar right on the dock too and a weekly sunset booze cruise (more civilised than it sounds) and barbecue too. In fact if they just did decent Baleadas (yummy Honduran street food) I would barely have needed to leave the place the entire time I was there.

7. Camping Mihinoa, Hanga Roa, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Chile

It’s in one of the best locations on the island, sitting right on the edge of the ocean facing some of the island’s most dramatic waves. The beds are comfy, the showers are hot, and there are not one but two decent sized kitchens. Marta is the perfect host too. And best of all, it’s the cheapest place to stay on what is a pretty pricey island.

8. Medialuna Art Hostel, Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena is HOT. Ridiculously so. And very humid too. Walking around the city by day is a sweaty and tiring experience. So what you need is a hostel with somewhere to cool down. The Medialuna has two: a pool in the downstairs courtyard, and a nice high roof terrace that frequently gets a breeze that’s missing at street level. Housed in a lovely, whitewashed colonial building, it’s one of the more beautiful hostels I stayed in too. One note of caution – out of all the ones listed here, this is one that can be a bit noisy at night.

9. DN Hostel, Bogota, Colombia

Bogota is COLD. In my first hostel I nearly froze to death, even in my room. The DN, on the other hand, comes with wonderfully warm, thick duvets, atop one of the comfiest bunks I’ve stayed in. It has a really friendly owner too, and is another place that does a great weekly barbecue.

10. Casa Margarita, Creel, Mexico

Margarita’s gets a bit of a knocking sometimes, because the staff can apparently be a bit pushy about tours (although they weren’t to me), and admittedly the rooms aren’t quite up to the standard of most of the rest on this list. But it earns it’s place here for one very good reason – value for money. It was the cheapest hostel I stayed in Mexico, and yet it included not only a two course breakfast, but also a huge three course dinner – unique amongst all the places I stayed in.

That’s it for Latin America now – posts on New Zealand, Australia & Indonesia will be on their way soon as I work through my backlog of posts!

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Highlights of Latin America

I had such an awesome time in Latin America it’s pretty hard to pick out favourite moments. But I’m going to give it a go anyway. Here are the best things I’ve seen and done over the past six and a half months, along with links to what I originally wrote about them.

Favourite City: Valparaiso, Chile

Valparaiso

Runner-up: Guanajuato, Mexico
Hilly cities with lots of colourful houses are clearly the way to keep me happy.

Favourite Capital City: Mexico City

Mexico City Cathedral

Runner-up: Santiago de Chile
Quite a contrast here between enormous, chaotic, slightly crazy Mexico City vs Clean, calm, orderly Santiago. But I could live in ‘em both, I reckon.

 

Favourite Food: Mexico
Runner-up: Peru
Best street food in Latin America from the Mexicans, whereas the restaurants were at their finest in Peru.

Best course: Learning Spanish in Guatemala
Runner-up: Learning to Dive in Honduras
Who knew learning could be such fun? Learning Spanish enriched my whole experience in the continent, and diving was way more fun (and way easier) than I ever thought it could be.

Favourite activity: Sandboarding in Huacachina, Peru
Runner-up: Cycling tour of the wineries, Mendoza, Argentina

Favourite Hike: The Huayhuash Circuit, Peru

The Cordillera Huayhuash

Runner-up: The Lost City, Colombia
Again, quite a contrast. The Huayhuash took me to the most stunning mountain scenery I’ve ever come across, and was the toughest walk I’ve ever done. The Lost City was less visually appealling and easier on the legs, but made up for it by being with the best group of people I’ve me on the whole trip.

 

Favourite Natural Wonder: The Copper Canyon, Mexico

The road to Batopilas, Copper Canyon

Runner-up: The Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Sorry Colca Canyon, you may be deeper but Mexico’s is way better. It also gave me my favourite journey, along the Copper Canyon railway. Meanwhile, Uyuni was like a trip to another planet.

 

Favourite off the beaten track place: Mexcaltitan

Calle Venezia, Mexcaltitan

I feel like a bad traveller. I was pretty firmly on the gringo trail the entire time. Except in Mexcaltitan, tough to get to, not a lot to see, but one of my favourite stops so far.

 

Best Night out: Sargento Pimientas, Lima, Peru
Runner-up: Mazatlan, Mexico
My last night in Lima was a chance to say goodbye to two good friends I’d been travelling with on and off since Colombia, accompanied by the best music I’ve heard in ages. Mazatlan on the other hand was an entirely random night out with three Mexican women who I was introduced to by a clown.

Favourite Beach: Tayrona National Park, Colombia

Tayrona National Park

Runner-up: Mazunte, Mexico
Sleeping in a hammock on the beach in Colombia was pretty close to paradise. Meanwhile the waves in Mazunte kept me entertained for hours.

 

Favourite Market: San Francisco El Alto, Guatemala
Runner-up: Oaxaca, Mexico
A pretty small hill town in Guatemala with the biggest, most sprawling market I’ve ever seen. Oaxaca was my favourite of the Mexican markets, especially for the crammed, smokey food section.

Favourite weird religious spectacle: Semana Santa in Guanajuato, Mexico

Semana Santa in Guanajuato

Runner-up: Meeting Maximon in Santiago de Atitlan, Guatemala
Catholicism may have its heart in Europe, but the way they do it in Latin America makes our version look pretty tame.

 

Favourite Country: Mexico
Runner-up: Peru
I’ve probably bored everyone I’ve met on this trip to death by going on and on about Mexico. But I don’t care. I love it.

Chile Round-up & Budget

Poor, underrated Chile. I didn’t meet a single backpacker in Latin America who reckoned Chile was their favourite country. Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia…yes, frequently. Chile? Never.

They always start with a couple of obvious negatives that I must admit I have trouble disagreeing too much with – first off, it’s expensive. Compared to the rest of South America, that’s certainly true – however it’s still cheap compared to home, and anyway, it wasn’t all that hard for me to save money by eating out less, especially considering negative number two: the food. I’d been forewarned, but boy do the locals love their fast food. KFCs & McDonald’s everywhere, and a lot of rather greasy Chilean options too. Luckily there are plenty of decent foreign options (especially Peruvian), and the supermarkets are great, so I still ate pretty well despite the lack of great local cuisine.

The third negative I kept hearing is, I think, rather unfair. Santiago seems to get a bit of a bad time from traveller. I can kind of see why – it’s not the most amazing sights or museums, but despite that, I loved it. It’s got a stunning location, with the peaks of the highest point of the Andes towering behind the city. It’s a lovely city to wander around in, with loads of cafes and great shops to spend time in, and it’s clean, modern and safe too. The nightlife around the Bellavista area is some of the best I’ve come across as well, with dozens of bars and restauraunts spilling out onto the pavements. It even has it’s own uniquely Chilean form of seediness – the famous Cafes con Piernas (Cafes with legs) – a bizarre combo of strip joint and Starbucks, where besuited businessmen go to have coffee served by women in extremely skimpy bikinis, something I got to see after being dragged there by two Peruvians who couldn’t believe such a thing existed.

I’d even go so far as to say it’s the first place apart from Mexico City on this trip that I can actually imagine living in – helped in part by the fact that it’s one of the few places in the world where you have ski resorts 90 minutes drive one way, and a beach 90 minutes in the other direction.

Aside from Santiago, I’ve already noted that Valparaiso is one of the best cities I’ve been, and the landscapes of the Atacama desert were starkly beautiful. Best of all was the friendliness of the people, something I’ve found time and again in every country I’ve been to so far, but I have to say I think I found the Chileans the friendliest of all.

It’s yet another country I really want to go back to – in particular to explore further south, including the Lake District and Patagonia, especially the Torres del Paine national park, home to the region’s best hiking.

Anyway, that’s it for the round-up, onto more serious matters – the budget. Considering Chile is supposed to be the most expensive country in Latin America, and that I visited the most expensive places in the country (San Pedro, Santiago & Rapa Nui), I didn’t do anywhere near as badly as I thought. In fact, if it hadn’t been for buying a replacement camera, Chile would actually have worked out cheaper than several of the countries I’ve visited, mainly aided by my lowest activities cost yet, and all that hoime cooking kept the food spend down too. Sadly, the expense of the camera negated all my hard work at saving, and it meant the country did indeed turn out to be the costliest since my brief stop in the USA.
Accommodation: $12.13
Transport: $9.01
Activities: $3.15
Misc (including that Camera): $19.07
Food & drink: $20.40
Total: $63.77

And of course on to all those other numbers:
Funiculars ridden: 6
Buses: 3
Flights: 3
Taxis: 2
Cars: 1
Jeeps: 1
Cash withdrawals: 3
Phone calls: 2
Postcards sent: 2
Volcanoes climbed: 2
Beaches visited: 2
Laundry: 1
Beds slept in: 6
Canyons: 1
Deserts: 1
Moai seen: dozens
Cameras broken: 1
Cameras unable to be fixed: 1
Cameras bought: 1

And onto the people I met. Interestingly, this was the second country in a row I spent more time with locals than with foreigners. Chile was also the first country so far where I spent more time with Latin Americans than I did with gringos – more than half the people I spent time with were Spanish speakers, and it was a fitting end to my stay in the continent that my last few nights out were conducted almost entirely in Spanish (although I have to admit that was mostly chatting to the Peruvians, as I can barely understand a word Chileans say when they speak Spanish to me, which would be a bit of an obstacle if I were to decide to live there). On the gringo score, yet again Brits dominated the list, but surprisingly Chile was the first country where I didn’t meet a single USian.
Chile: 14
UK: 10
Brazil: 3
Germany: 2
Peru: 2
Australia: 2
Argentina: 2
New Zealand: 1
France: 1
Uruguay: 1
Venezuela: 1
Israel: 1

That’s it now for stuff on the individual Latin American countries – just a few general South American round up posts to come, and then on to New Zealand.

You can read all my posts about Chile here and see all my Chilean photos here.

Finally making it to Easter Island

You’d have thought that after waiting a lifetime to visit Rapa Nui (the increasingly commonly used native name for Easter Island), an extra day of waiting wouldn’t matter all that much. But seeing as I only had three full days planned, being bumped from my flight by LAN meant missing a third of my time. And I was furious.

I’d heard before that flights to the island are often overbooked, so I reconfirmed my flight at a LAN office the day before, I chose my seat, and I arrived at the airport nice and early. All to no avail. They’d already decided I would be one of the ones not flying that day, so I ended with insulting compensation and an extra day kicking my heals in a sterile hotel in Santiago. To say I was unhappy was an understatement.

But, after a frustrating day of waiting, I finally made it to the island, to be greeted by glorious blue skies and a fantastically friendly welcome from Marta, owner of Camping Mihinoa. Considering I’d been warned that a stay on the island could be extremely costly, I couldn’t have been happier with my choice – at 7,000 pesos (roughly $14), it was a complete bargain, considering the next cheapest was almost double the cost. And cheap certainly didn’t mean nasty – for the price I got a lovely clean dorm room, a big kitchen & dining area, a big communal TV room, and best of all, probably the best location on the island, sitting right on the water’s edge on a rocky outcrop facing some of the most dramatic waves on the coast. Absolutely stunning, I can recommend it to anyone planning on visiting the island.

Easter Island sunset

For my first evening and as an introduction to the island, I made the short stroll up the coastline to the other end of town, to see the sun set behind the most accessible collection of Moai (statues), which was quite an incredible sight. Despite having seen countless photos over the years, nothing could have prepared me for quite how impressive the giant statues are in real life.

Ahu Tahai sunset

The second day was much colder and windier, so I decided to postpone my plans to head out to see the other main Moai sites until the following day, and instead hiked up Ranu Kau, an extinct volcano sitting on the south-western corner of the island. It’s a pretty easy hike, and the views at the top down the steep-sided crater and across to the wild Pacific beyond are stunning.

The next day started out pretty clear, so I decided to set out for one of the biggest hikes the island has to offer – the 34km coastal hike from Anakena beach at one end of the island, all the way back to Hanga Roa via the major archaeological sights along the way. First stop was Ahu Nau Nau, an impressively restored collection of four Moai, all with their topknots reattached (unlike most other restored Moai). Unfortunately by the time my taxi dropped me off there, it had already started to cloud over, as the sight of the four Moai, surrounded by palm trees and overlooking a deserted beach, would have been ever more magical with the previous day’s skies.

Heading away from Anakena along the North-east coast, I really began to appreciate quite how remote I was. Rapa Nui is 3,500km from mainland Chile, and over 4,000m from Tahiti, the nearest major population centre in the other direction, making it one of the most isolated inhabited places in the world. Walking along the empty coastline, with not a single person in sight (all the inhabitants live on the other side of the island, and there were no tourists around), and the huge waves of the Pacific crashing onto the black volcanic coastline, was a strangely moving experience.

Ahu Tongariki

It took a few hours to reach the next main sight, probably the most famous image of the island – Ahu Tongariki, the biggest single collection of Moai on the islands. There are fifteen in total, all toppled from their Ahu (ceremonial platform) in the 18th century civil wars, damaged further by a tsunami, and finally re-erected with Japanese government help in the 90s. Sitting in a line with their backs to the swirling seas, and facing towards the volcano of Ranu Raraku, where they were made, they make a pretty impressive sight. It’s amazing to thing that such a small island culture could make (and move!) such massive statues at all, although famously the statue cult was to prove the society’s undoing, as the island simply didn’t have enough resources to support such endeavours.

Unfinished Moai in Ranu Raraku

A short walk from Ahu Tongariki sits the other major attraction of the island, the volcanic quarry of Ranu Raraku. The place is testament to quite how quickly and dramatically the social order collapsed, as the quarry is home to dozens of statues that are either complete and still waiting the move to their final home, or still in the process of being carved out of the rock face.

As I began to the long walk back along the south coast to Hanga Roa, the heavens suddenly opened, and I soon began to curse the islanders (for having chopped down all the island’s trees, thus denying me shelter) and LAN again (if I’d arrived a day earlier, I’d have had a day of sunshine and few clouds to complete my hike in). In no time, I was soaked to the skin, and contemplating a 17k walk back. Not an enticing prospect. Luckily, I soon spotted a car pulling out of a beach and managed to get myself a lift from the commander of the local naval base, who had been spending his day off fisghing on the empty souther coast line. All in all, a very lucky escape, considering quite how little passing traffic there is on the island.

Despite my anger with LAN for costing me a day on the island, the two and a bit days I stayed there were incredible, and a beautiful way to spend my last major stop in Latin America before the next leg of my trip began.

You can see all of my Rapa Nui / Easter Island photos here.

Valparaiso Graffiti & Street Art

One of my favourite things about Valpo was the huge amount of fantastic graffiti and street art dotted around the walls of the city, which help make an already beautiful and colourful city even moreso.

Here’s a selection of some of my favourites:

You can see the full collection of my Valpo street art photos here

Gorgeous Valparaiso

Much as I love the great outdoors, I’m a city boy at heart. And I’ve been to some fantastic cities so far – Mexico City, Guanajuato, Guadalajara, Medellin, Lima, Mendoza & Cusco stand out – but Valparaiso (or Valpo for short) may just be my favourite yet.

I do like a bit of faded seaside glamour, and Valpo has it in spades. In the 19th century, it was the biggest port in Chile, and attracted immigrants from all over the world, particularly Brits & Germans. You can still see plenty of traces of that era – The ‘dissidents’ cemetary is full of graves that tell fantastic stories of all the Brits and Germans that found their way to the city is one of the best examples.

Valparaiso cemetary

Valparaiso cemetary

Elsewhere, the history of immigration to the city can be seen by the former volunteer fire companies, with one one for each of the main immigrant nationalities – the British & German ones sit right next to each other, and still maintain links to their home countries, as can be seen by the fire trucks donated by the home countries.

The British Fire company

The British Fire company

Valpo isn’t really a city to go admire its museums and galleries – rather, it´s one that reveals its charms best by wandering and wandering round for hours on end. The port itself, and the commercial heart of the city, lies on a narrow strip of flat land by the coast, and for me the highlight of this part was the wonderfully curvy trolley buses.

Valpo Trolley Bus

Valpo Trolley Bus

. Other than that, the city sits perched on a series of steep hills, most of which can be reached by rickety, often English built, ascensores, or funiculars that trundle up and down for less than a dollar a journey.

One of the many ascensores

One of the many ascensores

The hills are where my favourite bits of the city are to be found. They are mostly covered in houses clad in corugated metal, brightly painted, and with fantastic views out towards the ocean. I was lucky enough to have stayed in one, yet another fantastic South American hostel, the Patiperro, in the middle of one the nicest hills, Cerro Alegre.

Valpo houses

Valpo houses

One of the things I love about the place is the sense of being somewhere that was so grand back in the 19th century but that has faded – not into obscurity, but into its own comfortable, slightly dirty, but still glamorous present. It has a life and energy that many cities ten times its size would kill for.

The steps to the Patiperro

The steps to the Patiperro

There’s not much more I can say about the place – I didn´t do much, I didn´t see that many of the ´sights´ (although I did go to Pablo Neruda´s house, which the guidebooks make out to be fantastic for its artsy eclecticism – but to be honest, when you´re in such a fantastically electic city as Valpo, the poet¡s house just paled in comparison), I just wandered, and I fell in love. Oh, except for that feact it´s just hit me that the other city I adored was Guanajuato, which is also a hilly city with lots of colourful houses. If that´s all it takes to please me, can anyone suggest any other places round the world tjat fit that description.

On a final note, if you don’t have the time or the money to visit Valpo right now, you could do far worse than spend some time flicking through the pages of Corrugated City, a fantastic blog written by an English expat in the city that I’ve been reading and loving since my trip began, and is a way better introduction to the city than any guide book could ever be (and it’s not just helpful on the city – I followed his tips on how to make a substitute bacon sandwich when faced with Chilean ingredients and it worked pretty damn well).

You can see all of my photos of Valpo here

Valley of Camera Death

Unlike the transition between Peru & Bolivia, on entering Chile you could tell straight away you were in a very different country.

Chilean flag...with the Andes (& Bolivia) in the background

Chilean flag...with the Andes (& Bolivia) in the background

For a start, the scenery changed dramatically – from the Bolivian Altiplano, to the Atacama desert. The town of San Pedro de Atacama, my first stop, is a dusty town of single story houses that was more reminiscent of Mexico than of anywhere I’ve been in South America. The fact that virtually every single building was festooned with a Chilean flag (possibly prompted by the fact the town was once part of Bolivia until the 19th century War of the Pacific, and is probably very glad it’s now part of much richer Chile, a wound that still hasn’t healed on the other side of the border) further underlines the fact. And then there are the prices…ouch. I’d been warned Chile was the priciest place on the continent, but San Pedro was practically at US prices.

Atacama

Atacama

With just a couple of days to kill before crossing the border to Argentina on my rush south to get my flight out of the continent, I didn’t have time to do much except visit the nearby valleys of death & of the moon.

Atacama

Atacama

First up was the Valle de la Muerte, a narrow sandstone canyon with spectacular views down to the sandunes below. The narrow canyon was a perfect wind tunnel, so strong that we were whipped with sand and even walking forward was a bit of a struggle.

Windy!

Windy!

All that wind and sand may well have turned out to be my downfall, for just minutes after we’d arrived in Valley of the Moon, my beloved camera died. The lens came out half way, and then stayed there, refusing to go back in or come out further. I was gutted. My Canon G10 was newly purchased for the trip, and taking photos, and gradually learning to improve my initially ropey camera skills has been one of the highlights so far. So to see it die left me gutted – made worse by the fact that I feared that getting it repaired would be a far from easy matter. Even losing, it breaking it irreparably or having it stolen would have been better – as I could buy a new one and get the cost back on insurance. A broken camera on the other hand, means I’d only be able to claim to get it repaired. This was the first real piece of bad luck on my trip so far, and it left me in a foul mood that was to last several days.

The last photo before my G10 died :(

The last photo before my G10 died :(

You can see all of my photos of San Pedro & the surrounding valleys, up to the moment of camera death, here.