When I first started teaching English as a foreign language in 2010 in Austria (that's a small, German-speaking country wedged between Germany and Italy that definitely has no kangaroos), I was giving intensive one-week courses to teenagers. This meant I worked for just one week in each school, before moving on to another place with entirely different students in another part of the country. I spent almost three years doing this on and off, and it's safe to say that I got to know Austria much better than many Austrians.
The company I worked for organised all the accommodation in the towns where I was teaching, which always meant my own private room and bathroom. At weekends, however, they didn't book me anywhere to stay but instead gave me a generous accommodation allowance, meaning I could stay on in the place I was, go to the next place early, or visit somewhere else on the way. In order to spend as little of the allowance they gave me (and thereby, save more for this trip), I often stayed in hostel dorms.
I got to know various hostels in Vienna, Innsbruck and several other towns you've probably never heard of, such as Bregenz, Feldkirch and Bad Ischl (bonus points if you have; doesn't count if you're Austrian).
At first, this was fine and I enjoyed the freedom to spend a weekend off exploring a new place before travelling on to my next assigned guesthouse on Sunday afternoon. After a while, however, it became too much, with the intensity of the job (teenagers can be really draining), and I just wanted time alone at the weekend.
This is why, after about 6 months of travelling on this job, I decided not to stay in hostel dorms any more, certainly not between work weeks, and possibly not at all. I value my sleep too much, and since that decision, I have only deigned to stay in dorms in the off season when I was travelling not for work.
This February, however, Zab and I were in Southern Chile, a region which proved to be more expensive than we had expected. We tried couchsurfing, and we managed to do it once, but February is the time when Chileans go on holiday too, so most people were away, already had guests or were otherwise unable to host us. This meant we had little choice but to stay in dorms.
Some were fine…good…great, even. Others, not so much. These were our highs and lows.
High: Patagonia Hostel, Coyhaique
Definitely our favourite hostel in Southern Chile overall, this place was run by a group of clean, efficient Germans (as if any other type of Germans exist), who had hand-made the gloriously wide single bunk beds, as well as a few other quirky features, like a seat made out of an orange bathtub in the calm and spacious common area.
Breakfast was more German than Chilean, meaning cold meat and cheeses, freshly made bread, real coffee, tea, slices of fruit and orange juice. And with only space for 10 people, there was a calm, intimate atmosphere in which everyone was respectful of everyone else's personal space.
- Downsides: Only one bathroom for all 10 guests. No kitchen access.
- Price: CP$12,000 (£17) for a dorm bed, CP$30,000 (£42) for a double, including breakfast
- Address: Lautaro 667, Coyhaique
Low: Random hospedajes, everywhere
The first night we arrived in Coyhaique (which was also the first night we arrived in Chile), we had planned to stay at the Patagonia hostel along with some other travellers we'd made the journey with, but without a reservation, we were unable to, as they were full.
Instead, we had to stay at an uninviting hospedaje, two doors down, where the owner let us in reluctantly and showed us the shabby rooms in a way that seemed like she couldn't care less whether we took them or not. We didn't have much choice, so we took the tiny twin room with miniscule shared bathroom of questionable cleanliness.
- Upside: the price. It was only CP$16,000 (£23) for both of us, and considering the location, that was pretty cheap.
Later on, along the Carretera Austral, we had to spend a night in Villa Santa Lucia, a small cluster of streets before the bifurcation in the road, that lead one way to the coast and the other towards Argentina.
When I knocked on a door advertising alojamento (lodging), a woman appeared whom I asked the price of a room. “¿Quieres, o no?” (do you want it, or not?) followed immediately, and when I asked if we could see the room before deciding, she looked extremely put out. It was a cramped little room with a bunk bed and dirty floor, which clearly used to belong to some small children, as evidenced by the Spiderman bedspread on the bottom bunk.
Upside: again, the price. At CP$10,000 (£14) for the room, it was the cheapest room we had in all of Southern Chile.
High: Hospedaje Don Carlos, Chaitén
Chaitén is a strange little town, and the only reason to stay the night is if you're taking a ferry to Puerto Montt or to Chiloé (as we did) the next day. This is the place to stay for that night. It's clean, quiet, the wifi is reliable and the staff generally friendly and helpful. A room on the corner will give you the best views, and be the brightest as they have windows on two of the walls.
- Downsides: The breakfast room is dark. No kitchen access.
- Price: CP$12,000 (£17) per person whether in a twin room or alone, including breakfast
- Address: Riveros 53, Chaitén
Some high, some low: Palafito Sur, Castro
This small hostel looks lovely, and the breakfast area/kitchen immediately stood out as something special, with a huge water-facing window and sundeck, standing on stilts out over the water, as is the traditional palafito style in this area. Most of the rooms are upstairs, and appear to be tiny but very clean and well kept, and there is a communal sink area in the corridor outside the two main shared bathrooms.
The only problem was that we didn't end up staying here, because when we arrived, we discovered that they'd double booked us. The staff responsible for this error wasn't present at the time, and those in her place were very apologetic and helpful; they let us use the wifi, gave us tea and helped us find another place to stay and even invited us to have a complimentary breakfast the next day, which we took them up on.
- Price: from CP$12,000 (£17) per person in a shared room, including breakfast
- Address: Pedro Montt 465, Castro
Low: Melmac Patagonia, Puerto Varas
Melmac was our second choice in Puerto Varas (see below for our first) and we stayed here out of necessity; everything else was booked up. On first appearances, it looked fine, and in several ways it was, but in the end, there were more negatives than positives.
The best things about this hostel were that it has a garden with chairs and space to lounge, and that the kitchen was large and well equipped. It also had some quirky design features, but like many old Chilean buildings, it was constructed entirely of wood, meaning it was badly insulated for heat and noise. The rooms were cold, the walls thin, and the floorboards extremely creaky.
Zab, sleeping on the top bunk in the ground floor dorm said that it sounded as though the people above him were walking on his bed during the night. The bathrooms were also rather unpleasant (cramped and not too clean), the staff were indifferent at best, judgmental at worst, and for some reason, every morning there was a strong smell of petrol in the rooms.
- Upsides: There's a garden. Big kitchen. Towels included
- Price: CP$8,000 (£11) per person in a shared room
- Address: Walker Martínez 561, Puerto Varas
Some high, some low: Casa Margouya, Puerto Varas
In terms of cleanliness and atmosphere, Casa Margouya was the polar opposite of Melmac. The staff welcomed us warmly, and even though we only stayed one night, we quickly felt at home. The kitchen was much smaller than in Melmac, though looked to be fully functional and equipped (we didn't use it, so can't verify that) and there is no outside space as the hostel is above a shop.
The location was much more central than Melmac (only two blocks from the lake), though in a town as small as Puerto Varas, this really doesn't make much difference. The main problem we had was that the cozy common area is directly outside all of the rooms, as the hostel is all on one level.
This coupled with the fact that it is also an old, wooden house meant that we could hear everything people were saying. Every laugh, every movement of a chair against the floor in the common area were audible from our room and we could even see the light on out there through some gaps in the wooden wall.
- Price: from CP$8,000 (£11) for a dorm, CP$15,000 (£21) for a single and CP$23,000 (£32) for a double, including breakfast
- Address: Santa Rosa 318, Puerto Varas
High: Airesbuenos, Valdivia
Airesbuenos was our second favourite hostel in Southern Chile, vying closely for first place with Patagonia hostel in Coyhaique. It has clean, wooden floors, and is set in a modern building (meaning sound insulation!) across three floors with some cool design touches. It also advertises itself as a permaculture hostel, meaning it also has a garden where things are actually grown to be used (guests are encouraged to pick their own herbs), and a duck lords over the space and only the bravest among us during our stay dared to cross the gate and enter the duck's domain.
The kitchen is homely and very useable, and there is of course a compost bin and plastic and paper are separated for recycling. The common area is cozy and inviting, the wifi reasonably fast and the bathrooms are clean, though there is only one male and one female bathroom between 16 beds on the first floor.
The breakfast was the best we had in Southern Chile, consisting of homemade bread and jam, fresh fruit salad with granola and yoghurt, freshly squeezed juice and real coffee. My only complaint (and this may be due entirely to cross-cultural misunderstanding) is that the owner, an American lady in her middle age, was rather brusque and judgmental.
- Downsides: No towels. Bunk beds were squeaky
- Price: CP$9,500 (£13) in a shared room, CP$23,000 (£32) for a single and CP$26,000 (£37) for a double, including breakfast and the latter two both with private bathroom
- Address: García Reyes 550, Valdivia