Living overseas like a local on a budget brings learning experiences, adventure

Posted October 22, 2013


QUEPOS, Costa Rica — After more than nine hours of travel, I was finally dropped off at my destination (or so I was told after giving the non-English speaking bus driver an address I had quickly scribbled down on a napkin in the airport).

The bus sputtered off and disappeared in the layer of mist that hovered a few feet from the ground. With only a backpack and a drawstring bag of SCUBA equipment, I stood alone before a steep, winding driveway at the base of a mountain in the middle of a Pacific Costa Rican rainforest.

Oso hangs out in the screened porch of the author's home-stay in Quepos, Costa Rica (Photo by Morgan Coleman).

Oso hangs out in the screened porch of the author’s home-stay in Quepos, Costa Rica (Photo by Morgan Coleman).

The 3 ½ month postponement of my freshman year at college had officially begun and at the top of the driveway lay my home for the next several months.

Little did I know, my cozy blue and yellow abode would be the place I learned more from than I have in all my years of college. Behind a squeaky screen door was a long, dark enclosed porch.

Local children, parrots, and Chihuahuas darted about and squealed at the capuchin monkeys that ran along the roof’s edge.

Dozens of wind chimes hung at varying lengths along the ceiling and twinkled in the puffs of breeze. Sunlight struggled to pierce through the foliage that desperately wanted to burst through the screened wall.

Anna, the mother of the house, greeted me with a hug, a few welcoming Costa Rican phrases (as she did not speak English), and a plate with pineapple slices bigger than my face.

For $12 per day, I had a small bedroom and bathroom (equipped with a very temperamental luke-warm shower), a home-cooked breakfast and dinner, laundry “service”, a nightly guitar serenade from Jose, the father of the house, and the company of the occasional backpacker who would stay in one of the other three rooms.

I was able to find this home-stay through a recommendation from the SCUBA shop I was going to work at during the semester. I never regretted my decision to stay in a Costa Rican home instead of a hotel. I ate traditional cuisine every day, became proficient in Spanish, and made friends with local “Ticos” I would have never met had I chosen to stay in a more Americanized establishment.

The majority of travelers who have chosen lodging outside of typical chain hotels and boutique bed and breakfasts, don’t regret their decision to do so.

“I actually can’t think of one bad experience,” said Colorado College junior Alex Suber of his decisions to stay in hostels and organic farms throughout his travels in South America.

Not only are these options usually cheaper, but they also offer a means to meet other like-minded travelers and locals who can divulge a city’s best-kept secrets. Hostels, WWOOFING, Couch Surfing, and AirBnB are all great resources for those traveling on a budget and wanting to experience life like a local.

Hostel — n; one of a chain of inexpensive lodging places for young people traveling cheaply.

Hostels are by far the most available, accessible and are therefore the most popular option among outgoing penny-pinching travelers. They offer a variety of amenities that rival those of neighboring hotels, but at a fraction of the cost. Because the market of hostel users is growing, the industry is becoming more competitive with hotels: many offer private rooms, internet access, restaurants, bars, coffee shops, tours, shuttles, locker spaces.

Gabriela Ferreira, a Miamian who studied abroad in Europe in the spring of 2012, stayed in a hostel in Florence that “had loads of activities including a night bike tour … our guide took us to such beautiful spots and even his personal favorites only the locals really go to”.

Aside from a cheaper price tag, hostels offer a sense of community between lodgers that is created in cozy social spaces, dorm-style bunk bed rooms, and young, outgoing staff members who can offer insider information on local attractions.

“The people who work at the hostel are usually the most interesting … it’s usually run by people who know the nitty gritty of the city and can tell you where to experience local life. You don’t get that at the hotel concierge. And if you are alone and want a partner in crime to run amok in the city, there are no shortages” said Suber.

Miamian Eileen Chang stayed in hostels during her 2011 travels across Europe.

“It was cheaper and usually had a more intimate and casual environment,” she said. “You get to know a lot of cool people and the people at the hostels are usually very friendly and have great suggestions when you come up to them. It’s not so formal like a hotel, where the concierge will give you general answer and don’t really hold an honest conversation with you.”

AirBnB — “a trusted community marketplace for people to list, discover, and book unique accommodations around the world.” –

Ashley Burgos, a Miamian, chose to use AirBnB to find cheap places to stay during her 2013 road trip along the West Coast of the United States. While in Oregon, she found AirBnB lodging on a boat.

“It was inexpensive, and I wanted to know what boat life was about,” she said. “It was a great experience. It really made me appreciate space, controlled air conditioning, and unlimited hot showers.”

AirBnB is also available internationally. Eileen Chang believed the experience using Airbnb in Europe gave her “a better sense of the city you are staying with locals who know what is worth seeing.”

While AirBnB hosts charge a small fee for a stay, Couchsurfing is a free (and slightly more adventurous) alternative.

Couchsurfing — “Couchsurfers share their lives with people they encounter, fostering cultural exchange and mutual respect.” –

Having stayed in numerous hostels, used AirBnB, and WWOOFed, Alex Suber believes his most unique experience was from Couchsurfing.

“I stayed at a squatter’s place where he grew his own food from his own poo. He never paid taxes, never really bought anything, and lived in a tree-fort inside the house made of salvaged telephone poles.”

Because Couchsurfing is free, it attracts a lot more members, which means while there is a good chance end up on the couch of a poop-composting hippie, there is a also a higher chance of ending up on the couch of a nefarious character. Luckily, you can review member profiles and their reviews from other previous Couchsurfers.

WorldWide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) — “In return for volunteer help, WWOOF hosts offer food, accommodation and opportunities to learn about organic lifestyles.”

WWOOFing is a great option for an adventurous, outdoor-loving traveler. The WWOOFing experience is available worldwide and strives to link people who want to volunteer on organic farms or smallholdings with people who are looking for volunteer help.

“Having never spent much time on a farm, it definitely gave me a different perspective, perhaps a greater appreciation of food and the work that goes into producing it,” said Erin Elizabeth, who WWOOFED in Germany in the summer of 2012.

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