IT looked like a pink shoebox from the behind the wet glass of the bus station window. Alone in the wind. Solitary like the dusty dog that loitered in its front yard. Cigarette butts, piles of caked cement and empty paint tins strewn across its footpath. In other hostels you’d expect here perhaps a well-kept lawn.
Our need to leave the mountain-locked town drove us to the sterile white-tiled bus station but our laziness and planning incompetence forced our stares through its windows and the grey air outside. The bus was to leave at 10.30pm and we arrived at 6.30 to find it fully booked. The next bus didn’t leave until midday the next day. I didn’t fancy a walk through town to find a bed for the night wheeling my obese silver bodyboard bag, which constantly drew the confused double-takes of passers-by. The footpaths consisted of hearty gravel and rocks with a side of the ever-present dog shit, and the road – ankle deep potholes. We would head through the spitting rain to the shoebox.
It didn’t even have a name. A wooden sign bearing the word ‘HOSTEL’ in white paint sat atop the building’s exterior, which even from up close looked as if it could’ve been made of cardboard. Tangles of exposed electrical wires and pipes spurting fountains of water dotted the pink façade. The owner had obviously never heard the old saying about first impressions. Disarray also ruled inside the building. Two boys, not quite out of their teens told us in broken English, yes there were two beds left and it was 35 pesos a night each (30 pesos less than the next cheapest hostel in town), while their stocky moustached father looked on and nodded approvingly.
One of the boys walked around the corridor and returned with a notebook of yellowing paper. But in his haste he dropped the book and loose pages spilled across the floor (the building’s concrete slab). Embarrassed he scooped them up and hurried to the counter, scribbling our first names illegibly on the page with a blunt pencil. No need for passport numbers or key deposits here. I pulled out a fistful of dirty scrunched notes from my pocket – the only ATM in town spits out only 10 peso notes – and put them in the boy’s hand. ‘I show you around’ he said. He took three steps past the wooden counter, ‘there is your toilet, shower’. Then three steps to the left, ‘and there is your beds’. An extended silence. ‘OK?’. We thanked him and put our bags down on the last remaining square metre of floor space. I’d seen closets bigger than our six-bed dorm, but we liked it. It was cosy. A man in his 40s with greying hair, a hook nose and a lazy eye muttered something to me in Spanish and flashed a toothy grin. I never worked out what he was doing in our room or whether he was even staying at the hostel.
We finished our dinner of leftover pizza (Muzzarella of course – Argentina’s dominant choice of topping) in the kitchen, which was the hostel’s biggest room. The owner and his family played a complicated board game on the table next to us, and laughed heartily. This thing looked one-half monopoly, one-half Snakes and Ladders and one-half checkers, with a multitude of dice, tokens and cards flying around the table. They looked happy. We chatted with a friendly New Zealand couple and a brash American girl about good books we’d read and later, about environmental issues such as Australia’s mining boom and I felt hideously unintelligent. A German guy came in from the piercing cold and the family managed to find him a bed despite a wooden sign in the window that read ‘FULL’. He told us through bites of his avocado and raw onion sandwiches that there was water leaking from the ceiling on to his mattress. No matter he said, he’d put up his tent on his bed if he had to. All four of our new friends had seen the shoebox from the bus station window.
Here’s to the cheap, no-frills, family-owned accommodations you find along the road – the ones which spoilt travellers can’t give bad reviews to on Hostel World or Hostel Booker because these places don’t exist on the internet or in Lonely Planet guidebooks. Hell, this one didn’t even have a name. They’re friendly and they have time for you because there are only 12 beds in the whole place and they themselves live in a room out the back. They care about your stay because it’s their livelihood. You can’t complain about the WI-FI there because they don’t have internet access. And if you can’t handle lukewarm showers with no pressure then maybe you should just check into one of glitzy hotels down the street.