I think we're getting half decent at this South American backpacking thing. We've learned a lot by doing, but we've also picked up some helpful hints from other travellers along the way. As such, to mark the four-month anniversary of our trip and to give back to the travelling community, I've cobbled together a couple of pieces of advice from our experiences that you might not find in a guidebook. I hope somebody out there finds them helpful.
Almost exclusively, we rely on Tripadvisor reviews to determine which hostels, pousadas or B&Bs we'll be staying at. While that is probably not particularly helpful in and of itself, I think understanding what the reviews are actually saying is a bit of an art and I have some suggestions for would-be backpackers looking for a translation. In addition to taking all outliers with a grain of salt (i.e. if the reviews for a place are nearly universally positive or negative, you can usually ignore the reviews that don't fit), it's important to understand the inflationary/deflationary impact that certain types of backpacker reviews can have on the overall score given to your potential lodging. Certain words or phrases are indicators that you may be reading such a review. Here are three examples:
(1) Reviewer says: "This was the best hostel I have ever stayed at in my life. I had the most amazing time and wish I could have stayed there forever. Go here!!"
Possible translation: "I hooked up with somebody way out of my league at this hostel. I stil can't believe my good fortune/their poor judgement. If this had been a roach motel, I would have given it a perfect rating. Man, they were so much hotter than me."
Analysis: These reviews are often easy to pick out because they give virtually no detail on why the experience was so awesome. It's like the reviewer is still in shock that the hook up happened at all and can only provide a review that is akin to a verbal fist pump.
(2) Reviewer says: "Pretty decent hostel, but probably only worth one night."
Possible translation: "I hooked up with somebody way out of my league at this hostel the first night, but then they found somebody more attractive the second night and I was unceremoniously tossed aside."
Analysis: A variant of the Type 1 class, these typically come with a fairly low rating for the hostel. It is worth noting the the likelihood that you are looking at either a Type 1 or 2 type of review increases dramatically if the reviewer's profile indicates that they are (i) Male, (ii) Australian and (iii) between the ages of 18 and 24... some stereotypes exist for a reason.
(3) Reviewer says: "DO NOT STAY HERE!!!!!!!!!!! [Insert laundry list of complaints]"
Possible translation: "I am very tough to please and/or I just finished a 30-hour bus ride. I'm not in a good mood and somebody is going to pay!"
Analysis: Amazingly, the accuracy of a review does not always correlate perfectly with the number of exclamation marks that a reviewer uses. Some negative reviews are justified, but those that nitpick every single detail and don't mention any positive or redeeming factors are often suspect. That said, we typically read criticisms about cleanliness, safety and unfriendly staff more closely. Also, backpackers are loathe to pack up all of their things, throw on their 30-pound packs and move along unnecessarily. If the reviewer mentions they switched to another hostel in the same city, that's probably a pretty big red flag that something wasn't right.
Long Bus Rides
No, I don't have any hints about how to increase your likelihood of surviving South American bus rides (which I'm still convinced is some function of sheer luck) or how to figure out bus timetables with any degree of confidence. But since many of the buses we have ridden are not equipped with toilets and pit stops are few and far inbetween, the urgent need to use the washroom on a trip can ruin an otherwise run-of-the-mill, horrifying bus ride through the Andes. To combat this evil, for those of you who have been stricken with alarmingly small bladders like myself, I highly recommend intentional and thorough pre-departure dehydration. WARNING: I actually think this advice is directly contrary to what is suggested by physicians when travelling at high altitudes, so it may not be for everyone. That said, I'd rather stagger off the bus upon arrival and overpay for the first water bottle offered to me than be one of those people who ends the ride with their legs crossed and tears streaming down their face.
Seizing the Day
This heading isn't meant to be advice; more of an apology. I started this blog with the intention of including a couple of additional headings, but then we arrived in Rio yesterday right after I wrote the bus paragraph and ... wow, this city is cool. As a result, I'm tucking away the laptop, cutting this post a little short and heading back out to explore. Instead of more advice (which I'm sure you were all really craving ...), I've added a few pictures from our time in Trindade, Brazil, which you can see here.
As an update, Kristin's cousin is joining us from Calgary later today for about a week of Brazil time. She isn't 29 and she still has a job, but we've still decided to make her an honorary Freedom29er all the same. If she brings a Blackberry into our hostel room, however, I'm giving her the boot. Just kidding. Sort of.