Top 5 backpacker hostels in Central America, according to me

Recently it’s become apparent that everyone assumes I am a greasy-haired banshee in my tent braving the elements somewhere every night when I’m traveling. This is definitely not the case. While traveling across Central America for about 50 days or so, I think I only spent 11 or 12 nights in the tent.

I spent about a week’s worth of nights staying at the house of some friends, and the remaining 30 or so nights were spent in hostels.

The word “hostel” seems kind of scary for English speakers. When I tell people I stay in hostels all over the place, they don’t know if this is a good or bad situation to be in. All over Central America I was completely satisfied with every place I stayed, and hostels always felt like a safe-haven, and dare I say it, most of them actually felt like home. Central Americans are really good at welcoming you so much that you feel like family, but then they seem to know exactly when to back off so that you have your own space and can move about the premises unimpeded so that you feel as if you were at home in your own house.

Before we get started with the top 5 countdown, let me settle the issue of money right here and now. If I can afford it, you can afford it. The most expensive accommodation on this list was $15 per night USD. This was outrageous, rude even. Let me put it this way. Most accommodations at hostels in Belize were $5 USD per night or less, in Guatemala $2 or less (and $2 was a splurge! In Guatemala, my daily budget was $4 USD), El Salvador $7 or less, Nicaragua $9 or less, and Costa Rica had the $15 and more expensive prices, but this is because Costa Rica is no longer a secret, and it is so touristy and so they charge more down there. In other words, according to this list, accommodations get more expensive as you head south. (These are not exact prices, these are my estimates from what I can remember.)

Here is a list of 5 great places I stayed over throughout Central America. This post is mostly about Casa Mariposa in southeast Costa Rica, because it is pretty much the coolest place I have ever stayed, nestled right at the foot of Mt. Chirripo– please see my older post about summiting this mountain after an overnight hike.

I have these hostels (p.s. hostels are also called “backpackers” around the world) numbered from 5 to 1. While Casa Mariposa is without a doubt my #1, the other four aren’t necessarily in any particular order of preference. They all appear on the list for different reasons, too, so comparing some of them would be like an apple vs orange situation.

#5 Papaya Surf Lodge in Playa El Tunco, El Salvador, (about an hour south of San Salvador) makes the list, because it exceeded my expectations. When I see something with “surf lodge” in the name, I don’t expect much. In fact, I expected nothing. In a famous surf town like El Tunco, where everybody’s life revolves around the waves and the tides, I don’t think anyone cares much about cleaning or customer satisfaction, but this was not the case. The ladies maintaining Papaya were really friendly, welcoming, and prompt with accommodating requests.There was also this dude who slept on the couch every night as sort of the night guard, and on the day when I had to leave to get my taxi at 3am (to make it back to San Salvador in time for 4:30 am Tica bus, why do these buses always leave so early!), the night shift guy pretty much interrogated my taxi driver, checked his taxi-guy papers and license, helped me put my bags in the car, and made sure the driver was charging me a fair price. Everything was in order. Additionally, I hadn’t been expecting the accommodations to be nice, because if you’re obsessed with waves maybe all you want is a hammock, and there certainly were hammocks:

The dorm beds were also really comfy and the sheets were of a pretty colorful variety, and the dorm was really clean.

I loved the indoor / outdoor feel of the place:

They had a palapa thatched roof palm frond theme going on:

Also, for old ladies like myself, Papaya lodge was actually really quiet at night, and I caught up on some sleep. Oh, I got food poisoning while in El Tunco, (out at the restaurants having nothing to do with Papaya Lodge), and it was nice to at least be in a place that was quiet, with nice staff, and where I could catch up on sleep at that point of not feeling well at all.

#4 Quetzalroo in Guatemala City makes the list due to the feeling of family and security in a town that has never exactly been lauded for its safety factor. If you’re traveling by bus throughout all of Central America, your odds of coming through “Guate” are quite high, almost inavoidable. I was a little wary about spending the night in Guatemala City all by my lonesome, but I had gotten a recommendation about Quetzalroo ahead of time. Write this down: Quetzalroo is on Avenida 6 in Zona 10. Guate is divided up into zones, and the taxi drivers get persnickety if you can’t tell them right off the bat which Zona you’re going to. If you’re wondering what the heck is a Quetzalroo, it’s obviously a cross between a quetzal (resplendent elusive Central American bird, and of course, I’ve never seen one) and a kangaroo (I believe Manny, the owner, likes Australia). “Quetzales” is the name for Guatemala’s currency. Anyway, Manny and his sister welcome you like family, they have a comfy TV room with tons of DVDs, a spotless kitchen, and squeaky clean bathrooms and clean beds. The most amazing part is that Manny got up one day around 4 in the morning to drive me to my bus stop. By the way, I actually stayed 2x at Quetzalroo while in Central America, as I passed through Guate 2x. The second time was a no-brainer. Get me to Quetzalroo!

#3 Continuing on with the theme from #4, my choice for #3 is also an example of a gem in the midst of a place that some travelers dread. If you’re ever taking a Tica bus into Costa Rica from Nicaragua, you don’t have to ride it all the way to the end of the line deep into San Jose. You can get off shortly before the city in Alajuela. Get off the bus right at the airport terminal, and then you catch a short bus ride that brings you right to the front door of Alajuela Backpackers’ Boutique Hostel. I don’t personally have any issue with San Jose, it’s just that when you’re traveling extensively, it always seems as if the capital cities are always the creepiest at night. So, getting off a bit sooner in Alajuela spares you from tramping around in the dark in urban San Jose looking for a place to stay. There are specific directions on their website about which bus to take from the airport to get to them.

Not only is the backpackers in Alajuela the most convenient stop-off in all of Central America, I have to give them the award for best staff in all of Central America. These people bent over backwards. From Alajuela I was wanting to head north to San Miguel de Sarapiqui. Apparently no one in Alajuela had never heard of this town. The receptionist called up every person she knew asking for directions on which buses I should take to get up there. She called her cousin who drives a taxi. She called her brother who talks to tons of people all day at his vegetable stand at the market. She even called her abuela, because abuelas always know everything. Abuela’s advice was to go north. Brilliant. On top of this drawn out game of telephone, I wanted to go sightseeing one afternoon in downtown San Jose but was having trouble figuring out the complicated bus times and drop offs. The bar tender / restaurant chef of the hostel had an errand in the city and took me personally to exactly where I wanted to go. If you are a traveler with tons of questions, this is the place where the staff will help you out.

#2 Zephyr Lodge in Lanquin, Guatemala, makes the list for so many reasons– proximity to Semuc Champey, great food, lots to do. If you’re looking for a party hostel, this is the one. I was forced to socialize and I drank two whole cervezas. Off the hook. In all seriousness it was good for me to mingle, as I made some friends from Australia, sister and brother Jessie and Will, with whom I have still managed to keep in touch. They just started their own brand “I Am.” You can “like” them on FB, too. Also, if you go to the I Am. website, you can see me there on their “ambassadors” page.

So anyway I had a great time at Zephyr Lodge. You can “like” them on Facebook or check out some of the great views in some of my pics I took at Zephyr Lodge back in May.

#1 Casa Mariposa at the foot of Mt. Chirripo in San Gerardo de Rivas is a sparkling oasis for the weary traveler. I came to Casa Mariposa on the tail end of my backpacking trip, and it wins the title of coolest place I have ever stayed. Here, on Casa Mariposa’s website you can get an idea of how lucky you will be staying at Jill’s place, fifty meters from the trail head to the hike directly to the top of Chirripo. When I came down after 36 hours on the mountain, seeing this inviting front porch just down the hill was like seeing an oasis appear out of nowhere in the desert.

I left my muddy soaked boots out on the porch before dragging myself into the comfy living room. Jill gave me newspapers to stuff my soaked Merrells. P.S. This model of Merrell hiking shoe has the “waterproof” tag on it, but let me tell you from experience my feet were swimming the entire time. They are not Gore-Tex, so perhaps this was the problem. I swear by Gore-Tex, which is clearly what I should have been wearing during Costa Rican rain season up on a mountain. After 7 or so hours coming down the mountain in soaked boots, I had awesome huge blisters across the bottoms of both feet; my feet were all nasty and shrivelly and sort of an unsettling greyish color. (The old newspaper color seemed to resolve itself after airing out in flip flops for several hours.) I love Merrell shoes in terms of comfort but wished they hadn’t said “waterpoof” on them if they in fact weren’t. Don’t get me wrong, these were really comfortable hiking shoes. It’s just that my feet were soaked the entire time.

I stuffed my hungry face with one of these Whopper bars that Jill makes.

As I inhaled it, Jill ran through some of the organic vegan options she was thinking of making for dinner. I guess that since it was low season on the mountain, Jill had time and was so kind to cook for Andre and me. From her list of ingredients posted on the wall, she made us zucchini pancakes, greens salad, and bean stew.

Then Andre took a soak in Jill’s awesome bubble bath. Tell me, have you seen anything like this at a backpackers in a developing country?

P.S. Jill recycles. Also not something you see at a lot of hostels.

Then it was time to pass out. Casa Mariposa is built literally into the side of the mountain. So, some of the rock outcroppings serve as beds. N.B. This was the most comfy bed I have ever slept in. Yep, this mattress up on top of these rocks. It was awesome.

And as usual, I was a sucker for the view when I woke up in the morning:

So, due to the au naturale beds, the vegan food, the recycling, the bubble bath option, the view, the amazing mountain adventure and national park a few meters away, and also because Jill was a very friendly and accommodating hostess, Casa Mariposa is the best place I have stayed to date. I can’t wait to stay there again the next time life casually brings me back to San Gerardo de Rivas.

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3 Comments on “Top 5 backpacker hostels in Central America, according to me”

  1. mike June 13, 2013 at 09:47 #

    Hey you forgot one of the greatest, a hostel with a pool, gardens and treehouses that serve as dorms all in the city of david panama founded by alternative travelers and backpacking experts michael esterson and gregg lapkin..

    • Marisa LaValette June 15, 2013 at 11:10 #

      Thanks for visiting my site, Mike! I visited your Bambu site, too. It looks amazing– I would definitely stay there! Not all places offer free Wifi; it’s great that you do that! Kudos!


  1. My Pick: Hostal Pata Pata in Valparaiso « 256 Days in a Pickup Truck - December 13, 2011

    […] This is hard to come by in more developed areas of the world like Chile and Argentina. See my past article about my favorite unique places I stayed in Central America; particularly check out Casa Mariposa […]

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