Ad­ven­ture on a shoestring

From Panama to Gu­atemala, Elissa Do­herty finds six hos­tels to re­mem­ber

The Sunday Mail (Queensland) - Escape - - CENTRAL AMERICA -

I F YOU want 5-star scenery on a 1-star bud­get, look no fur­ther than Cen­tral Amer­ica, with its su­perbly se­duc­tive mix of Caribbean surf coasts, wildlife and moun­tain­ous ter­rain.

In this trop­i­cal swath of coun­tries, shoestring trav­ellers can un­wind in jun­gle tree houses as mon­keys swing from the bal­cony, sleep over the sea or watch light­ning crackle be­hind an ac­tive vol­cano from the rooftop bar.

From Gu­atemala to Mex­ico, Belize to Costa Rica, travel can cost less than $30 a night – and as lit­tle as $8. But be pre­pared to say adios to Egyp­tian cot­ton sheets, pris­tine bath­rooms and, some­times, even a de­cent night’s kip.

Crash­ing in hos­tels can mean shar­ing a shoe­box with seven snor­ing oth­ers, strangers’ hair in the plug­hole and sweat­ing un­der fans in the suf­fo­cat­ing heat. But if you are will­ing to rough it a lit­tle for a cheap crash pad, an un­for­get­table es­cape awaits.

Here is a se­lec­tion of Cen­tral Amer­i­can hos­tels where your dol­lar goes a long way.

BO­CAS SURF SCHOOL & HOS­TEL, ISLA COLON, BO­CAS DEL TORO, PANAMA

This cosy is­land hos­tel in a quiet part of Bo­cas town is built over the wa­ter.

Walk on to the back porch, spring off the dock and swim amid over­sized starfish and colour­ful trop­i­cal fish.

Green and pur­ple clap­board houses ring the shore­line of Isla Colon, the main is­land in this wildlife-rich ar­chi­pel­ago. At the Bo­cas Surf School hand­some in­struc­tor Chapo fer­ries surfers to lo­cal breaks by boat from the back door.

At dusk, guests loll in ham­mocks and watch el­e­gant birds dive for their seafood din­ner, be­fore head­ing out to the town’s bars and restau­rants. Din­ner aboard an old boat? The Rip­tide restau­rant is just two doors down, and never sets sail. How about drinks at a book store, or a wa­ter bar where you can swing over the sea?

In Bo­cas, life is quintessen­tially Caribbean, and you never know just where the night will take you. COST: Starts at about $23 a night for a dorm

EX­CEL SENSE, PLAYA DEL CAR­MEN, MEX­ICO

This Mex­i­can beach play­ground is full of ritzy re­sorts like neigh­bour­ing Can­cun – but you don’t have to fork out a for­tune to en­joy some of their perks.

At Ba­li­nese themed hos­tel Ex­cel Sense, a con­verted bou­tique ho­tel, guests get day­time ac­cess to a 5-star beach club for free. Splay out on sun lounges with a good book, swim in the pool and float in the calm, tepid, turquoise sea.

The hos­tel is set in a lush ex­clu­sive es­tate abut­ting a golf course, just a short bike ride to the beach and town.

There’s a small rooftop pool and bar, which buzzes dur­ing high sea­son. COST: Starts at about $21 in a 12-bed mixed dorm.

HOS­TEL FE, SAN PE­DRO, LAKE ATI­T­LAN, GU­ATEMALA

Fancy a quick lake dip after break­fast? Jump off the jetty right next to your ta­ble.

Lake life is lux­u­ri­ously lazy and this hos­tel, plonked on the wa­ter’s edge and creep­ing up the hill, is a pic­turesque spot to en­joy it.

Kayak over to the By­ron Bay-style chill-out town of San Marco or catch a wa­ter taxi to the tourist hub of Pana­jachel.

At night, a hid­den labyrinth of Mel­bourne-style laneways in San Pe­dro is packed with op­tions, from Caribbean-style grass hut restau­rants, trav­ellers sip­ping mo­ji­tos on cush­ions and open mic nights at a Bri­tish pub.

The towns are full of back­pack­ers signed up to Span­ish lan­guage schools who like to prac­tice in the bars at night. COST: From about $10 for a dorm bed.

LUNA LLENA – MON­TEZUMA, COSTA RICA

Howler mon­keys flip from the trees to your ta­ble and pro­vide a lively wake-up call in this bo­hemian sea­side vil­lage. The sound of ci­cadas and the ocean will lull you to sleep in the thick of a lus­cious, trop­i­cal jun­gle.

Just a five-minute climb out of town, the pretty hos­tel is rated by Lonely Planet as one of the best in Costa Rica. The pri­vate tree house-like cab­ins are taste­fully dec­o­rated and have a bal­cony, com­fort­able beds and the hon­eyed per­fume of ylang-ylang flow­er­ing trees in­fus­ing the air.

Pri­vate rooms are about $60 a twin. Com­mu­nal ar­eas have day beds with views of the coast, squishy couches and hang­ing egg chairs.

The tiny town has a rol­lick­ing night-life and a hip­pie vibe.

A chalk­board lists daily ac­tiv­i­ties in­clud­ing night walks at a sea tur­tle nest­ing ground, live mu­sic at the nearby Or­ganika cafe, surf­ing lessons and day hikes into Cabo Blanco Na­tional Re­serve. COST: From about $18 for a dorm bed.

THE TER­RACE HOS­TEL, ANTIGUA, GU­ATEMALA

The draw­card of the World Her­itage-listed city is the vol­cano – and the rooftop bar puts you in pole po­si­tion.

The hos­tel is ba­sic with a cap­i­tal B and the bath­rooms can make you baulk. It’s worth suf­fer­ing though for an eye­pop­ping light­ning show or the sun­sets that come free with a happy hour cock­tail.

At the right time of year, the flashes spec­tac­u­larly il­lu­mi­nate the com­mand­ing stra­to­vol­cano Vol­can de Agua, which dom­i­nates the hori­zon.

If you pre­fer com­fort, a num­ber of bars, cafes and ho­tels in town also have rooftops. COST: Starts at about $10 a night in a four-bed dorm with shared bath­room.

ZE­PHYR LODGE, LANQUIN, GU­ATEMALA

On a ridge with 180-de­gree views over emer­ald moun­tains, the view is the star at­trac­tion of this river lodge. The area draws trav­ellers for river tub­ing in the Lanquin River and swimming in the stepped nat­u­ral wa­ter pools of Se­muc Cham­pey.

The serene hos­tel is more swish than the typ­i­cal back­packer joint with a hill­top pool, wood-fire oven and skyloft beds. COST: A bed starts at about $11 a night for a dorm.

CHEAP STARS: (from top) Lake Ati­t­lan in Gu­atemala; the view from Bo­cas Surf School Hos­tel, Panama; and the hos­tel sits right on the wa­ter.

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