From Five-Stars to Five-Dollars, It’s All About Affability

Arriving in Guayaquil after the 11-hour journey from Chicago, I was immediately antsy to escape the sky-scraping cityscape of Ecuador’s largest city. My desired destination was the historic, high-mountain town of Cuenca. Though not a particularly rural population either (Cuenca has as many inhabitants as the entire state of Vermont), this UNESCO World Heritage Trust Site is sprawled through the beautiful foothills of what is now known as Parque Nacional Cajas (Cajas National Park, 4500m).

With all the craziness of my Marks-Family-Fun weekend, I had forgotten to book a hostel for Cuenca. When I got to Guayaquil, my trusted source for hostel bookings, http://www.hostelworld.com, informed me that all hostels we booked for the first night I would be in Cuenca. I couldn’t get in touch with Jeremy, who was in Mancora, Peru and on his way to meet me, so I did something I have never done before. I booked a room in a five-star hotel.**

Finding good accommodation when you’re on budget is probably one of the trickiest things about traveling. Especially because “good” can mean a lot of different things to different people. A good hostel may be one with a bar filled with young people looking to party. A good hostel may be one that’s run by a local family whose kids sit on your lap while you have breakfast. Or maybe what makes a good hostel good is just that it’s near the bus terminal. Since I’ve started traveling, my budget for lodging averages $10 per night. And for $10, you can’t expect the service or amenities of a five-star hotel.
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Hotel Boutique Santa Lucia was everything a top of the line hotel should be. Upon check-in I was welcomed with a drink of local fruit juices, a couple of chocolate truffles and led through the large open courtyard restaurant to our room. The hotel was in an old colonial building with quaint Victorian decor from ceiling to floor. All I could think, as they opened the door to our room, was how Jeremy was going to react to this place. For five months, we have been living in shared housing or cheap hostels with no television, weak internet, shared bathrooms, musty beds, lumpy pillows, and cold, slow-flow showers. One look around our luxury room and I felt spoiled. The room was stocked with everything we had been secretly missing: a good mattresses, fluffy pillows, heavy comforter, cable TV, minibar, and above all, a clean high-pressure hot shower. There was even a hairdryer under the sink — something I hadn’t seen since June! It was going to be hard to leave in the morning. 

When Jeremy arrived later that evening, I was waiting for him in the hotel’s lounge bar with two freshly shaken martinis. We sipped our cocktails as he surveyed the hotel. I knew he was thinking the same thing I had wondered myself – how will we ever be able to go back? For the next 12 hours, we didn’t leave our room. Like gitty teenagers whose parents have left them home alone, we stayed up til 2am watching HBO, eating chocolate cake, and catching up on the past five days in the blissful comfort of our overstuffed bed. 
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The morning came too soon, and after a delicious breakfast of real coffee, mango, watermelon, papaya and bananas (Bienvenido a Ecuador – la Tierra de las Frutas!), we started the search for more economical accommodation. In need of swinging the pendulum after our night of indulgence, we booked the cheapest hostel we could find. 

Ten seconds before check-out, we grabbed our packs and trekked across town to the less than glamorous Hostal Sanchez (yes, they misspelled their own name). Climbing three flights up a gated staircase, we were showed to our new room; a welcome back to reality if I’ve ever had one. The room was what you’d expect for $5 per night: twin beds with thin, moth-eaten blankets, pancake-like pillows, no TV, no internet, dirty shared bathroom, and an I-don’t-even-want-to-know-what’s-happened-in-here-shower. However, there is only one thing that makes a cheap hostel better than a five-star hotel: the staff. 

With zero desire to spend time in this room, we dropped our bags and went out to see Cuenca. On our way out, we were caught by one of the owners, who talked with us for almost an hour about the town and his other travels around Ecuador and South America. Really nice guy, we agreed as we left, feeling instantly better about our switch. 
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We followed the directions of our hostel owner to the main plaza, stopping alone the way to try some unfamiliar sweets and candies. We must have had some of that teenager still kicking around in us when we decided to split a giant ice cream sundae for lunch as well. Lightening began to strike as we were walking down to the river, so we decided to sit out the storm in a local brewery. Not being a typical tropical afternoon shower, the rain lasted longer than expected, leaving us several beers deep by the time it stopped. 

It was dark and cold when we stumbled upon a hole in the wall falafel & hookah joint. The food, drinks, hookah, and music, were so perfect for that moment, I could have stayed there all night. I knew leaving the sweet cardamon  fragrance of the Middle Eastern lounge meant returning to our tattered, musty bedsheets. 
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Unlike the previous morning, we were quick to rise and eager to catch a bus to our next destination. Before we could even ask for directions, however, our hostel owner was offering us a ride to the terminal. No compensation, no problem! We were shocked. In a country where everyone is constantly hassling you for money, this was a true sign of a nice guy.

So what’s the moral of this story? The back-to-back nights at Hostal Sanchez and Hotel Santa Lucia were a great reminder of what’s really worth appreciating while you travel. True value exists as kindness, generosity, and integrity. The kindness of the family and the personal attention we got at the hostel completely compensated for the lack of fluffy pillows or frills. In the end, it was just as rewarding, if not more, knowing that our money (even if it was only $5) went to such affable people. It’s hard to complain about no hot water or high speed Internet while being treated like family in someone else’s home. The best hostels are made by the people who can make you feel the comforts of home, even in the most humble and foreign conditions.

**How to afford a night of luxury while living on a shoestring: Book hostels and hotels last minute through http://www.booking.com. We got our night of five-star luxury for only $45, breakfast included!

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