Opening a Hostel

Every backpacker has thought at one point or another of opening their own hostel.  What better way to continue living the backpacker life than to have your own place right?

Hostel Owner

The reality however is hard work.  Running a hostel isn’t something you can take lightly.  It is a 24/7 business where you are permanently on call and that call can and does arrive at any time of day or night.  It isn’t just a job, it is a way of life, and if you are not totally committed to it then don’t even think about it.

Realistically there are 3 prerequisites that if you can’t meet it is better to stay well clear:

1) Speak the local language perfectly

I thought my Spanish was good, but when you start to talk to workmen about drainage, piping or circuit breakers you suddenly realise how much vocabulary you are missing.  Being fluent in the local language is obligatory.  You may think that you can pay a bilingual manager to take care of these issues but the buck stops with you.  When you have the police in front of you you better be able to deal with the situation in the local language.

2) Access to funds to start the project

A sound business plan with a 3 year budget approved by a qualified accountant is your starting point.  Financially you need to plan for a worst case scenario.  What will happen if it takes longer than anticipated to get customers?  Make sure you have an emergency fund to cover your expenses if your income isn’t what you had anticipated.  Whatever you think it will cost, double it.

Hostel Budget

3) Know your city and the hostel market in that city

You should have lived in the city for AT LEAST a year and have a good knowledge of how it works.  You should be aware of tourist demand, and if there is space in the market for another hostel.

Think you are up to it?  Let’s start the process

Without those three factors in place I would strongly suggest that you don’t proceed.   Let’s say though that you have all that down.  Now we can begin to get serious and start the process.

The Paperwork

Get yourself a good local lawyer and accountant who can register your business with the Chamber of Commerce and the tax authorities.  Once you have a registered business you can set up a bank account, arrange a broker to transfer the seed capital from abroad and apply for the business visa (where relevant).  Your lawyer will be able to advise on the relevant licences that your business needs or refer you to a specialist in the field who can.  In Colombia we have around 9 different licences for our hostel and the authorities frequently pay us a visit to verify that all is in order.  You should understand this perfectly as the fines can be astronomical.  Failure to comply can result in closure or even jail time for you so you need to be very clear on what is necessary.

For me this legal process took around 7 months from start to finish.

Hostel Paperwork

Time to Plan

You should be clear about your brand, your hostel’s name and make sure that all artwork is ready to go when you begin paying rent.  The same can be said about your website, Facebook/ Instagram pages, text to appear on websites such as Hostelworld.  All your marketing should be ready well in advance of looking for a location.

Before even looking for a property I had established who would be my suppliers of all our fixtures and fittings.  I had discussed designs, seen examples of work and agreed on a price for each.  Once the contract was signed and I began paying rent it was just a case of calling them with the exact number of units needed and work began.  That way I didn’t waste time shopping around for quotes after I began paying rent.  Problems will arise before opening and it is important that you are on top of the work from suppliers to reduce delays.  Just one delay in one area will delay the whole project.  In our case, although most things ran smoothly the showers took a week longer to install than planned.  As you can’t have a hostel without showers we had to pay another $750USD in extra rent for that week that we couldn’t open.

Building a hostel

Now you have your homework you can begin to look for a premises.  You need to manage your expectations here.  Well located and well constructed buildings don’t stay on the market long.  You will have an idea of how many m2 you need, in what kind of area and how the room distribution will look.  The truth is that unless you custom build a premises yourself you will have to make do with something that isn’t perfect in every way.  Maybe it’s a little further from the centre of town than you had wanted, maybe you will end up having a couple of weird shaped communal areas.  Most hostel owners rent their building so your opportunities for construction may be limited.

Any decent hostel has to be in a good, safe area, close to local sights of interest and/or transport networks.  It also needs to be a large premises to accommodate dozens of guests.  Those two factors mean that your rent will be huge.  Once that contract is signed you start paying the rent immediately, so you want to make sure you are organized to efficiently do the necessary work on the premises and kit it out with beds, furniture etc as soon as possible.

As you approach opening time you can begin to interview potential candidates for reception, night-shift and cleaners.  Blank employment contracts should have been written and approved by a lawyer well in advance of this stage.

So there you have it.  You are now ready to open your doors to the public.

Now the hard work really begins.

Budget Travel in Colombia

The internet is full of blogs about how to save money while traveling with some even claiming that it is possible to travel for free.  The only guaranteed way to not spend any money on travel though is to stay at home.  Good budget traveling isn’t about cutting all costs.  It is justifying how much value you will gain from each element your expenditure.

The trick to optimising your experience on a budget isn’t to take the most frugal option.  Sometimes in spending 10% more you can have twice as good an experience.  Other times you may be able to have practically the same experience for a fraction of the cost.  Unfortunately there is no such thing as a free lunch, and some expenditure is unavoidable.  This article is designed to ensure you get value for your money meaning you can have the maximum experience for the most efficient cost.

Budget Travel

Travel expenditure can generally be classed in 4 categories:

  • Food
  • Accommodation
  • Inter-city Transport
  • Cost of doing and seeing things

Food

Menu del dias (menu of the day) lunch restaurants are plentiful in South America and give you a huge plate of food for only a couple of dollars.  These restaurants don’t give any variety, but make one dish per day for all its customers.  Eating a big lunch means that you won’t be too hungry and will probably be happy with just a small snack for dinner.

menu del dia

It may seem obvious that cooking yourself will save you money compared to eating in a restaurant but in Colombia this isn’t necessarily the case.  The sum of the price of all the ingredients is often more expensive in the supermarkets than it would be in a small menu del dia restaurant.  This is because the owners of the restaurant will go to the wholesalers in the morning, finding out what is cheap that day and buying direct from the farmers.  They then design the day’s meal around this produce, buying in bulk as they know they will be only preparing one meal.

Accommodation

There are so many hostels to choose from with prices ranging significantly from one to the other.  You are likely to spend a lot of time in your hostel and a good hostel can be an amazing resource of information, service and facility to meet other travelers.  Better hostels cater for travelers on all kinds of budgets and are able to give a range of advice depending on the needs of each person.  Cheaper hostels tend to be cheaper for a reason, and you will probably end up spending more in compensating for a lack of free breakfast, lack of wifi or unreliable information.  It may seem a good idea at the time to save $1 by opting for a hostel with no breakfast until the following day when you have to pay $2 to make your own.

Purple Monkey Hostel Breakfast

Your trip will be defined by the people that you meet and the places you visit.  Staying in an unsociable hostel with few other guests or unwelcoming communal areas won’t help you with the former.  Speak to other travellers about their experiences in specific hostels and read online reviews rather than just focusing on the cost.

Intercity Buses and Flights

Being such a mountainous country, journeys that may take an hour in the air may take up to 12 hours on a bus.  Consider how time pressured you are on your trip.  Are you likely to be able to sleep on a bus, or is it likely that you will need to catch up on sleep the following day in your hostel, thereby wasting a day in that city and having to pay another night in accommodation?  Some intercity bus companies have monopolies on certain routes meaning that they don’t need to compete on price.  Check out the costs of flights for the same destination.  You may be surprised that it works out cheaper.

Viva Colombia

VivaColombia is owned by Ryanair and is Colombia’s only budget airline.  Yes the customer service is poor and it infuriating being charged extra for bags or if you fail to print out your boarding pass but if you follow the small print you can save a lot of money.

If you can, try and book your flights a week before to get the best prices.  If you can be flexible on your destination you can even turn up at the airport and ask for a discount on flights that aren’t full just before they are depart.

Seeing and Doing Things

Before considering booking any tour you should consider if it is feasible to go yourself.  If you want to go and see a famous church for example, how bothered are you really to hear a guide talk about its construction for an hour?  It is likely that this information is readily available anyway on the internet so just read up on it before you go.  Tour companies have to pay for transport, guides, insurance and all this cost is passed on to you.  Check with your hostel if there is an alternative method of seeing it, if it is close to public transport or even if it is open to the public for free on certain days.

Medellin bus

We would always recommend taking a licenced taxi or Uber after dark in Latin America.  Saving a couple of dollars by walking home through a dark neighbourhood isn’t particularly smart and expert budget travellers know you can’t put a price on safety.  This being said, during the day public transport is often cheap, frequent and safe.  In Colombia most people don’t own cars, it is just too expensive for the average person.  For this reason the locals rely on buses or in Medellin the excellent Metro system to get them from place to place.  It is always better to do as the locals do, so follow their lead.  Public transport is generally safe as long as you pay attention to your belongings.

 

Escaping Colombia’s “Gringo Trail”

In spite of being a relatively new country to appear on the backpacker scene, a certified “Gringo Trail” has soon become established in Colombia.  Cartagena, Santa Marta, Bogota, Medellin and Salento have become saturated with backpackers and staying on this well tread route limits your opportunity to see the many hidden gems that have not yet reached the main stream.

Colombia is a stunning country full of natural wonder, ranging from snow-capped volcanos to arid desert.  The following places are seldom visited by backpackers, although it can’t be long until they start to get the attention they deserve.

Caño Cristales

In terms of natural beauty, Caño Cristales cannot be beaten anywhere in the world.  The area is famous for its 5 coloured river, which gets its name through the different varieties of coloured weed that live on the riverbed.  At various points it appears yellow, green, blue and red.  The river runs for around 100km (62 miles), featuring multi coloured waterfalls and calm rainbow pools.  July-December are the best times to visit this unique paradise when the colours of the rivers are there most vibrant.

cano cristales

How to get there:  Being a remote river, the reason that it has limited tourism is the lack of accessibility to the area.  Inaccessible by land, it can only be reached via flights from Bogota (3 per week) or Villavicencio (flights daily).

Tatacoa Desert

Criss-crossed by dry canyons and gullies, the Tatacoa desert is an arid region of sandstone rock formations that is gaining in popularity with hikers.  Once home to a tropical rainforest, the changing climate forced the native flora and fauna to adapt to its surroundings, creating an ecosystem unlike any other in the country.  Cacti cling to the orange surface where millions of years of winds have sculpted the stone into the flowing landscapes visible today.  Due to the lack of light pollution, the desert is also a popular place for star gazers and so its observatory is well worth a visit.

Tatacoa

How to get there:  Located 45 minutes by bus from the nearest city Nieva, Villavieja is a small town which serves as the gateway to Tatacoa.

Chicamocha Canyon

Encompassing over 440 square kilometres (170 square miles) and with a maximum depth of 2km (1.4 miles), this giant canyon was originally formed 46 million years ago by the movement of tectonic plates and then was further forged by the erosion of the Chicamocha river which cuts through the valley.  The canyon is part of the Chicamocha National Park in which visitors have the opportunity to paraglide, go white water rafting, fishing or hiking.  A cable car system which runs 6.3km across the canyon provides spectacular views of the valley and has a 360 degree viewing deck at the highest point of the park.

cañon del Chicamocha

How to get there:  Located 54 km from the northern city of Bucaramanga, the buses to San Gil pass by the entrance to the national park after around an hour.

Nevado del Ruiz

The Nevado del Ruiz forms part of the Los Nevados National Park of Colombia, and is the most famous of the active volcanos of this region.  Towering at 5,300m, the volcano is covered by a 50m glacier on its summit, which due to atmospheric change has been receding over the last few decades.  The national park features different ecosystems ranging from grasslands to forests, with lakes, waterfalls and thermal springs adding to its diversity.

Nevado del Ruiz

How to get there:  Due to the volcano being active and the inherent risk of hiking in the wilderness, it is not currently possible to make the journey without the company of a guide.  A range of 1-3 day tours are available leaving from Manizales.

Mompox

Known for its well preserved colonial architecture, Santa Cruz de Mompox is a small town located in the north of Colombia and is recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.  Almost trapped in time, the town was originally founded in 1537 to serve as a port on the Magdalena river when it was used to ship goods between the coast and the interior of the country.  Mompox is unique in that in contrast with other colonial towns it wasn’t built around a central square, but instead developed as running parallel to the river, where 3 separate squares border the water each overlooked by their own church.

Mompox

How to get there: Located around 8 hours south-east of Cartagena, there is one bus a day from the Cartagena Bus Terminal.  Private transport is also available from Santa Marta and takes around 5.5 hours.

Jardin

With whitewashed colonial architecture and colourful balconies, Jardin is almost unchanged from how it looked centuries ago.  The Immaculate Conception Church looks over the cobbled stone streets which line the main square as gondolas ferry tourists high up above the city to the mountain top viewing platform.  Just outside the town La Cueva de Esplendor (the cave of splendor) lives up to its name, offering scenic hiking of the surrounding waterfalls and the cave itself.

Jardin Antioquia

How to get there: Buses leave from Medellin’s southern terminal 6 times a day and take around 4 hours.

Is Medellin Safe? Is Colombia Safe?

I have lived in Colombia for 5 years, and have owned a hostel here for two.  Almost every day I get asked the question about safety in the city.

Firstly the question of is Medellin safe isn’t a yes/no question.  When I am asked this, or see the question being asked on forums I always feel that people are missing the point.  Your safety is your own responsibility, and how you behave ultimately influences if you are safe in any place or not. We have welcomed around 12,000 people into our hostel from all over the world, and the majority have left the city with only positive experiences. Every once in a while however things have happened.  Whether it be guests being robbed, groped in public places or drugged.

no dar papaya

In Medellin we have a saying “no des papaya”, which roughly translated means “don’t make a victim of yourself”.  In many ways I don’t like the expression.  For me it puts the blame on the victim rather than the criminal, but I have to admit that there is a certain truth to the matter.  On the occasions that our guests have been victims of crimes I have heard their account of what happened, and while I sympathise and wished that they hadn’t had that experience, in the vast majority of instances they have put themselves into a situation which has given opportunity to become a victim.  Whether it be walking around a dangerous area at night, drawing attention to themselves by shouting in the streets or flashing valuable items, unfortunately we live in an imperfect world where some members of society prey on those who demand too much attention.

In the past we have had the police bringing people back to the hostel for their own safety.  The police have been amazed at what they were doing or where they were doing it.  Not that any crime had been committed, but that behaving in such a way would make it inevitable that they would become a victim in one way or another had they not been picked up for their own safety.

Medellin Safety

Backpackers in particular are especially vulnerable to these dangers.  Unfamiliar with the areas of the city and normally unable to speak the local language, there is an inherent risk in travelling anywhere.  Most backpackers also travel on a limited budget which can distort their judgement on safety, persuading themselves to walk home through a dangerous neighbourhood rather than paying the $2USD for a taxi.  Don’t get me wrong, I am not criticising traveling on a budget.  I myself did the same thing for 18 months and had to justify every small expenditure, but there are moments when your budget becomes secondary to your personal safety.  I have found myself in unsavoury areas and at those times didn’t hesitate in jumping in a taxi to get away.

Is Medellin Safe?

It is damaging to label any place as “dangerous”, but it is equally as damaging to label a place as “safe”.  Believing yourself to be safe is a danger in itself.  It means that you become complacent to potential danger and so more likely to become a victim.  It always concerns me when I hear, “I had been worried about safety in Colombia, but it is soooo safe here”.  Colombians are a proud people, and want to move away from the dangerous stereotype and so will swear that Medellin isn’t the city as portrayed in the media.  Between themselves however they would never honestly label it as “100% safe”.

When someone asks “is Medellin safe”, well that depends on the individual.  You should consider:

  • Your awareness of your surroundings (are you in a bad area, are you being watched)
  • Are you likely to draw attention to yourself through how you behave? (being loud, showing off money or expensive looking phones, jewellery)
  • Are you likely to draw attention through how you look? (blond hair, dressing like a tourist)
  • Have you researched your destination, familiarising yourself with common scams or stories of how others became victims

Medellin Safety

So then “Is Medellin safe?”  Only you can determine that.  Medellin is a Latin American city that has a wide gap between rich and poor.  It is a city where the locals don’t “dar papaya” as they know what can happen if they don’t take common sense steps to avoid becoming victims.  If you follow their lead and respect its culture, you can relax and enjoy one of the most beautiful cities in the world, where the locals welcome you with open arms eager to share their culture.

Colombian Football: The 90 Minute War

Thousands of people join together in a collective demand for blood, smoke fills the air. Police in full riot gear steel themselves on red alert. I am simultaneously filled with fear, nervousness, anticipation. This is no pagan ritual of human sacrifice, this is no political demonstration. What is about to pass in the following 90 minutes is so much more important: A game of football in Colombia’s top division.

To the untrained observer the reaction of the thousands of fans within the ground, and the millions more glued to their television sets in the local bars is a little extreme. Football here is more than a game to the locals, it is a way of life, some say a religion. It is a moment that divides families, that transcends racial and cultural values. Where grief can turn to elation in an instant.

I have been fortunate to witness top level sport in all its glory throughout the world. From more conventional contests, such as the Superbowl or NBA playoffs, to the more obscure such as illegal cock-fighting in Thailand. Nothing can compare to the intensity of this moment. The two titans will exchange blows until one emerges the victor, their fans triumphant with honour. The other will be forced to endure the heartache and subject to ridicule in the workplace for months to come. The referee blows his whistle and the slaughter can commence.

The spectacle on the field almost pales into insignificance when compared to the scenes in the crowd. Some fans seem not to notice the game at all, dedicating their time to hurling abuse at the adjacent enclosure. This is hatred on an epic scale. Total strangers who otherwise could be best of friends are divided irrevocably into two camps to fight a brutal war.

I draw my attention away from the field of play to stare at the family next to me. A middle aged man, seemingly with his infant son roars a torrent of abuse at the officials following a seemingly justified decision. Here football transcends the generations. The same boy will one day baptise his own son into the church of football, just as his grandfather did with his father before him.

Suddenly the ball breaks in the penalty area and a chance! In perfect unison the whole stadium jumps to its feet in an air of anticipation. The striker connects with the ball and for a brief second time stops. Fans hold their breath. The ball hangs in the air like the sword of Damocles. The goalkeeper, arm outstretched makes a futile effort to prevent the inevitable. The net ripples. The whole stand screams in unison: “GOOOOOAAAAALLLLLLLLL!!!!!!!!!” Suddenly time restarts and I am being jumped on from all sides, engulfed by total strangers who are hugging and kissing me. I struggle to maintain upright while bombarded by the bustling crowd that seems to have a mind of its own. Behind me I hear a flare being set off, the red tail arching over the stadium like a violent rainbow of elation. I cannot fail to be completely immersed in the joy of these total strangers. Like a choir, our screams merge into one collective whole. We move together, we sing together. The bond is unbreakable.

The game restarts and the taunts of our rivals continue. We now hold the advantage, and we are not afraid to let the other team know it. Voices merge in collective symphony, songs of our successes in the past, songs about the opposition players and their promiscuous mothers. I don’t know the lyrics, and there are far too many versions to learn, but I join in the beat by clapping my hands together adding my element to the explosion that booms around the stadium. Nowhere in the world is it possible to be so accepted as an outsider as in a football ground. I stand in solidarity, shoulder to shoulder with my 20,000 new brothers with one aim in mind that must be achieved at all costs: Victory.

Both teams advance forward and chances are created for both sides, with every intense moment I share the emotion with my fellow fans. Hope, anticipation and optimism in attack, fear and dread every time the other team have the ball. At times I am jumping with enthusiasm, at others I can barely look through the crack between my fingers in fear at what is about to happen. Whether positive or negative, my heart rate never subsides, its beat echoing the incessant striking of drums in corners of the stadium.

The game enters the final stages and we still hold the narrowest of advantages. All could be won or lost in a second. My eyes dart back and forth from the clock on the scoreboard to the action on the pitch. With one final blow of his whistle the referee ends our torment and sends half the stadium into a rapture of delight. The game is over and we have prevailed. The fans applaud their heroes and the crowd is a sea of green and white flags, with banners expressing their love and unyielding faith in their club. Finally we can relax and breathe again. The losers file out of the ground, dejected, inconsolable. Nowhere can such disparity of emotion be felt at the same time in the same place. At this one precious moment in time, Atletico Nacional own the city of Medellin. The home fans would give anything for this feeling to last forever. Fate is never so kind though: These die hard fans will return to the ground at the same time next week to do it all again.”

Tours can be booked via the Purple Monkey Hostel for $90.000. Price includes return private transport to the stadium from the hostel, your guide and the match ticket.

Medellin – A Proud City in Transition

The lush mountains enclose the city from all sides as the Eternal Spring sun beats down at a consistent 80 degrees year round. Salsa music resonates from a nearby store where an elderly couple share a dance and a bottle of Aguardiente. Colombia’s only Metro system mobilizes once forgotten workers from the poorer areas of the city. Tropical birds dart through the clear blue skies as friends take an afternoon stroll beneath the shade of the tree lined boulevards.

20 years ago however, the scene could not have been more different. With murder and kidnapping a daily occurrence, there was little cause for optimism in Medellin. In those dark times Colombia’s second biggest city was run by the Medellin Cartel and the infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar. Every life was effected in one way or another. To this day families still grieve the loss of close friends or relatives who were innocently caught up in the misery.

When put into that context, the urban regeneration in Medellin is astounding. Perhaps then this is why the Paisas (residents of Medellin) always have a smile on their faces. They have seen devastation, but live every day grateful for the new life that they have been rewarded. Every new day is a gift from God. They are living in a bright future that they never dared to dream would be possible.

Back in 2013 Medellin won the prestigious title of the most innovative city in the world by the Wall Street Journal. Spending any time in the city you are likely to be told that fact on countless occasions; to the locals though this was international recognition for the hard work and change that they had spent a generation aspiring to. To start from such humble beginnings and rise to compete with international cities such as New York and London is an unmistakable achievement. Having seen what is possible the city are striving to raise the bar even higher. As the Metro system continues to expand, ambitious projects to run botanical gardens the length of the city break ground. Medellin isn’t satisfied in just being Colombia’s second city. Deep regional pride inspires rivalry with the capital in the same way as Barcelona shares with Madrid. Like Barcelona, Medellin innovates and aspires to be the envy of its capital in terms of modernisation and urban regeneration.


While the beaches of Cartagena and Santa Marta have always been a draw for cruise ships, and Bogota as a centre for international business, Medellin, isolated between the mountains, has been geographically cut off from the rest of the country. Tourism was virtually non-existent here until recently and the residents are still coming to terms with how their new found popularity can further their economy. To some, the interest and sense of confusion from the locals as to why you are here can feel strange. Elderly couples stare at the unusual clothes and customs of their foreign visitors. To many, you are probably the first non-Colombian they have seen. School girls giggle at your presence and a young couple thrust their baby into your arms to capture a photo of this noteworthy experience.

Medellin is one of the few cities left where visitors can still claim to be travelers as opposed to tourists. To some, the absence of an established tourist infrastructure puts them out of their comfort zone. Here you won’t find a McDonalds on every street corner, or many places open at all on Sundays. The more experienced travelers see this as one of its major draws. Medellin is not afraid to celebrate its culture and refuses to conform to globalisation. Its development and new identity will be defined on its own terms and will stay true to its roots and proud history. It is a proud city in transition, running with hope and optimism towards a brighter future.