Northern trees are just about bare, the leaves carpeting the ground, moldering to a dun brown. Winds now sweep from the polar region. In some places the first flakes have begun to sail. It’s time to pack the knapsack and head out on the southward breeze, to warmer climes. It is the Snowbird Season.
But where does the Shoestring Snowbird nest on these winter flights to the tropic airs? An RV is definitely out of the budget, not to mention luxury resorts. Camping is a possibility. But for those who don’t like pitching a tent and communing with Mother Nature or who don’t have the gear – or in countries where camping is not feasible for safety sake or lack of facilities – then what is the poor Snowbird to do?
Residencial, alojamiento, hospedaje – all names for cheap lodging in Latin America. These simple accommodations offer are the local travelers’ choices when traveling from market day to market day, or the temporary home for workers and families. Basically, they are just a place to lay your head. Sorry, no internet, breakfast of other amenities in these joints. Probably no-one will speak anything other than Spanish (just think of it as free lessons thrown in with the price). Choosing a room with a common bath is often much cheaper. In the tropics, not having a private bath is an advantage: no smell, no bugs, no humidity. Be sure to check the locks on the doors and windows before accepting a place. Also look for evidence of bugs and other creepy-crawlies. Avoid the mala muerte (literally, bad death) dives, as you are much more likely to end up with an adventure (like the prostitute in the next room getting into a fight with a client, or a rat rummaging through your gear). If you are staying for four days or more, ask whether a descuentico would not be possible. To qualify for a discount, you often will have to pay in advance.
Some travelers, though, might find hostels to be a more welcoming space. Hostales or albergues are becoming more common throughout Latin America. Often the staff is multi-lingual, making novice sojourners unfamiliar with the local language feel more comfortable and safe. Hostels are eager to help their backpackers find out what to see. (Some, unfortunately, do the hard sell on tours.) Free internet, WiFi, kitchen, breakfast and other bonuses are thrown in. You’ll meet many other foreigners here and future travel buddies. The disadvantages? You won’t be practicing a lot of Spanish or interacting much with locals, and a larger chunk will be taken out of your budget just for lodging. Websites like www.hostelworld.com, www.hostelbookers.com and www.hostelsclub.com list accommodations. Some organizations, such as Hostelling International (www.hihostels.com) and minihostels (www.minihostels.com), offer discounts to card-carrying members.
An alternative growing more popular with young travelers is couch surfing. One website that lists people who open up their homes to sojourners for free is www.couchsurfing.com. If you are interested in staying put in a place for a longer while, check into renting a house or apartment outside of the high season. It is often possible to get a furnished dig for $50-100US per month. As a back-up, pack a hammock, too (or pick one up along the way).
Those winds are growing a might bit icier. Double check the packing list and the ticket. It’s time to head out. But no matter where a traveler’s roads wend through the Americas, the poor Snowbird will find a nest for the night.