Disclaimer: I was young and foolish when I made this mistake. You would never do something like this, right?!
It was New Year’s Eve of 2008, the sun was setting on the gorgeous paradise island of Aruba, and my friend and I were… homeless.
We’d made a dreadful miscalculation.
Marleny and I are experienced travelers throughout Latin America, but in the rush of planning for our Aruba trip, the euphoria of getting such a cheap flight, and the thrill of seeing all the “Aruba: 10,000 Friends You Haven’t Met Yet!“ ads on Boston trains, we had neglected to realize: Aruba is not a “developing country” — it’s a rich place.
Aruba may be in the Caribbean, and it may be just a few miles from Venezuela by boat, but that island does not follow the rules of Latin America budget travel!
“Duh!” you may say, but plenty of people said “Duh!” to my article about getting visas to enter certain countries, and then forgot to do it, and were denied entrance at the border of Vietnam or China! And thus I share this embarrassing story in hopes of saving a few folks from being stranded as we were.
So here’s the rule of Latin America travel (and, in general, developing country travel) that Marleny and I were erroneously following in Aruba: Money talks, and a little American money will get you a long way. There is ALWAYS a way for anything.
In the Dominican Republic, Marleny and I had rented a beach-side mansion for about $10 a night. In Brazil, we’d arrive in any town with no plans and no housing, and would find fifteen great, cheap options in five minutes.
In Mexico, beautiful budget backpacker hotels lined the water, and we even got a free upgrade to a first-class cottage! In Argentina, flocks of locals greeted us getting off the bus with glossy brochures of cheap and wonderful housing.
Further, at any time in our Latin American travels when we couldn’t find what we wanted in housing or anything else, a local would know a friend or uncle who had a perfect connection for us for a few bucks.
But this “A little money goes a long way, and you can always find things at the last minute” rule did NOT apply in Aruba.
Long story short, everything is crazy expensive in Aruba, and, in the high season at least, we found absolutely no backpacker or budget accommodation on the tourist side of the island. (We wanted to get to the other side of the island, but transport would have been too expensive.) Oy!
After hours and hours and hours of fruitless searching with the help of a kind employee from one of the many full hotels, we finally found the one available hotel room on the whole tourist side of the island: for a zillion times more than we ever dreamed of paying. Oy again!
And so it went. And so we learned our lesson: research the housing costs and availability of a new place before arriving!
Ascertain whether there is a backpacker scene at all, and if there ain’t, book your first night’s hotel ahead of time, even if you think it’s somewhat expensive, because you can bet your rear that when you arrive, the prices will be even more astronomical in a high-rent place like Aruba in high season!
But this lesson actually goes the other way, too: When you’re traveling to a place that DOES have a budget, backpacker scene, do not be tricked into paying too much!
Case in point: Southeast Asia.
In Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos, especially, a traveler can live like royalty for $30 a day, including all food and housing. In general, I paid $10 each night for stunning beach-front cottages all to myself.
But a bunch of international travelers were not aware of this. In lovely Luang Prabang, Laos, I paid $6 a night for a first-class hotel room, but the owner whispered to me: “Don’t tell anyone what you pay. The American couple next door is paying $50.”
Because $50 a night seems like a good deal by many American standards, and numerous Americans and Europeans are unaware of just how cheaply you can buy great quality housing and goods in developing countries, that inflated price gets paid. But a little research and bartering can save hundreds of dollars!
Marleny and I ended up having a fabulous time in the “A” of the ABC Islands, Aruba, despite the craziness of the first bunch of hours. We swam, ate, lounged, chatted, met great people, and generally felt deeply lucky to have the opportunity to see such a gorgeous place.
But we couldn’t help but wonder: did the masses of package tourists lining the beach and paying hundreds of dollars a night for their rooms know that just a few miles South in Latin America, similarly beautiful beaches beckon for a fraction of the price?