Imagine a summer camp for adults: strangers share space, meals, and recreation, sign up for activities, and form bonds quickly. They chat about where they’re from, what they like, what they’ve done so far, and where they’re going next. And then, they all move on, sometimes in groups sharing a destination or an interest, sometimes solo. Within hours, the staff cleans up, makes beds, welcomes a new crop of fresh arrivals, and the cycle begins again.
This is life in hostels—inexpensive lodges with dormitories and shared bathrooms at one end of the price scale and private rooms at the other. They serve family-style meals at long tables and offer access to a wide range of activities. Down the spine of the Andes, in surfing and party towns by the beach, in the main villages of the Galápagos, and even deep in the Amazon, travelers from all around the world find the hostels and each other, stay for a night or two, and continue on down the trail. Hostels are a unique cultural phenomenon, quite different from hotels and apartment rentals. It’s rare to meet other guests at a hotel, let alone engage in long conversations with them. Apartment rentals are solitary by nature. But hostels, perhaps more like marinas and campgrounds, bring travelers together around common interests.
During our time in Ecuador, we saw hostels in all regions of the country and stayed in several, where we met scores of interesting people—all gringos, mostly from Europe, Canada, and the U.S. We began to see patterns in this hostel life. For starters, the lodging is cheap, the amenities rustic, and the activities adventurous, so the guests are mostly young. We did meet other people in our general age range, but mostly we met people in their 20s who had an adventurous spirit and more time than money for their travels. Backpackers may not be rich, but there is inherent privilege in being able to do this: Nearly everyone we met was white, educated, physically able, and had saved enough money to not work for a while.
The vibe is a mix of nouveau-hippy bohemian, libertarian self-reliance, and adventure-seeking camaraderie. Like a ski lodge, there’s a buzz of excitement each morning as guests plan their day’s outing, gather the right gear for the weather, and fill up on a hot breakfast. In the evening there is a quiet hum as tired guests relax and relive their adventures over beer and wine. Simply being together in a beautiful, wild place is enough common ground for conversation, and something about the transience of the experience encourages people to connect quickly and easily. We found that people often don’t bother to exchange names, we suspect because they know that they likely won’t see each other again. But they share their stories willingly, listen with curiosity, and greet fellow travelers with genuine smiles.
English is the primary common language in the hostels we visited, but we also heard French, German, Swiss, Czech, Polish, and met so many Dutch travelers that there was a running joke among the hostelers that there must be only one person left in Holland to turn the lights on and off. One young man, from Poland, had lived for a while in Colombia before heading to Ecuador and is intent on making his way to Peru. He has dreadlocks well past his waist and a scraggly beard, flushed cheeks, and a youthful face. He had started out traveling solo by motorcycle, but on an infamous highway in Colombia, gunmen stopped him and stole everything he owned, including his beloved bike. He had to start from scratch (clothes, credit cards, computer, phone, transport) and found the police unhelpful, but had decided simply that the thieves must have needed all that stuff more than he did.
When he told us this story, it was the second time we had met, having shared time together at another hostel. He was, at this point, traveling with three other adrenaline-seekers—young men in their late 20s. They had all been traveling alone but met in a hostel and decided to do the Quilotoa loop, a three-day village to village hike, together. One was from Ireland, a teacher of kids with autism, who had a lovely accent, a wry sense of humor, and connected with Rachel over teaching and hot sauce (we had shared our bottle of Mexican hot sauce, a rarity in Ecuador, with the table). Another was from Australia, and the fourth was from San Diego, where he lives on a sailboat and works as a bosun on research vessels. The one from Poland cracked that it was just his luck to end up traveling with three native English speakers who each had a totally different accent!
We also shared a ride with a British couple in their mid-20s who had worked as teacher’s assistants while saving up to travel. They are mostly taking buses, subsist on a budget of $40 a day, and at this point had made it from Mexico south through Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Panama. There, at the Darien Gap, the Pan American highway ends, and the land passage is perilous due to armed gangs and jungle wilderness, so they found a cheap boat for passage from Panama to Colombia. Then they took more buses through Colombia into Ecuador, and from there will head down to Peru. They and others who were doing this same north-south trip had memorable stories about crazy border crossings along the way and loved El Salvador and Colombia (as everyone seems to; even the guy who was robbed of everything). We met other travelers doing all or part of the same route in the other direction, starting from Patagonia in the south. Many had not planned to stay long in Ecuador, but became enthralled by the mountains and the people and found it hard to leave.
Staying flexible seems to be key to this kind of travel. Most of the hikers rarely planned ahead further than a night or two at most. We were oddities by staying for 5 or 6 nights at a hostel—since we had the time, we wanted to explore the areas where we were staying as much as we could, and had not known that most people just pass through. We still think settling in at least for a few nights gives you a much richer experience and better understanding of a place, but it was interesting to stay put while nearly all the guests turned over each night. We became the “area experts” to the newbies in short order.
When we stayed at hostels, we felt less like tourists and more like, as one New Zealander termed it, “trampers” —I guess we would call it “backpackers,” but there’s something nostalgic, bucolic, and free about the idea of “tramping.” As I understand it, tramping simply implies moving from place to place, roughing it when necessary, enjoying new places, and living out of a bag. Trampers enjoy hiking and camping, but don’t necessarily do it all the time. Generally trampers seek out less-traveled places than typical tourists and stay on the road for longer than a vacation.
Of course, the distinction may be semantic: we did all the activities that adventurous tourists do, which are usually written up in guidebooks and offered by the hostels—hiking, bike-riding, horseback-riding, kayaking. There’s a reason so many people do these activities. They’re amazing! There’s a circuit most people do and everyone talks about. “Are you doing the Quilotoa Loop? Climbing to base camp on Cotopaxi? Have you been to Vilcabamba? Galàpagos? Are you going to Baños? See you there!” And sometimes you do see them.
For us, staying in hostels was also a reminder of the value of intergenerational living. One hostel had a sign-in sheet that asked guests to list their age. Let’s just say ours were the biggest numbers on the page by a sizable margin—I won’t get into which of ours might have been, ahem, triple the average we saw there. But despite being the oldest guests, we never felt marginalized or excluded. In fact, we were always welcomed enthusiastically into fascinating, energizing conversations over meals, during hikes and van rides, and around fireplaces.
It reinforced the value of intergenerational (and international) living: everyone had wisdom and experiences to contribute and to gain from each other. These younger travelers from so many countries were genuinely interested in us, and we in them. I think in the U.S.—and I know for me personally—we have gotten away from crossing generational and cultural borders. Once our kids are grown, we rarely live in close proximity to people from other generations, nationalities, or cultures. It could be that’s because we are more comfortable being around those who share similar circumstances, whether in our travels or our homes.
But maybe we should cross those borders more often.