Adventure on a shoestring
From Panama to Guatemala, Elissa Doherty finds six hostels to remember
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.