Photo: Lane Undhjem

How Word of Mouth and a Little Luck Propelled Me Through Central America

by Lane Undhjem Feb 7, 2018

A spell of insubordination at the beer bar I was working at had left me jobless. It was the busy season in Flagstaff, AZ, so my bartending gig had paid out nicely for the three or so months that I had been pouring pints. But the prospect of spending winter in a small town gave me serious anxiety, so with snow on the horizon, no desire to job hunt, and about five thousand dollars under the mattress, I bought a one-way ticket to Mexico City. I signed up for a WorkAway in a beachside hostel in Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca. A one-month commitment seemed appropriate, and the reviews and photos were encouraging. I didn’t have any semblance of a budget, nor did I have any idea of my final destination — I was determined to show up and figure out the rest. That’s what I did and it would ultimately change my life path.

Coastal vibes in Playa Carrizalillo

It was surprising how easy it was to fall into a normal day-to-day life in Puerto Escondido. The hostel that I had chosen, Vivo Escondido, turned out to be a great fit for my new fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants lifestyle — it was not too large, not too energetic, and the guests had a tendency to extend their stay over and over again as a result of the chill atmosphere. I didn’t put on a shirt on for nearly 10 days, and alternating between the pool and the ocean kept everyone cool and clean. My poor Spanish was not much of a hindrance as the international community that came and went inevitably had some level of English. Working the desk at a beachside hostel has its perks — I was repeatedly gifted beer, food, and Oaxacan hash as I checked guests into the giant two-story house-turned-hostel. The rooftop spliff session became a daily routine amongst the long-term residents, who all gathered on the rooftop during sunset. We quickly moved past the usual conversation pieces that travelers carry, and were forced into hours of deep, drunken storytelling from which I gathered as much information as I would need for the remainder of my trip.

By this point, I was convinced that I would surely run out of money before I ran out of destinations or recommendations that had been scribbled down in my journal. A Swiss guy, two Aussie girls, and I were both traveling southward, and we all bought tickets to Envision Festival in Costa Rica as our promise to each other that we would reunite in just over four months. It would be another three weeks of friendship, warm beer, and pleasant energy of Playa Carrizalillo before we would say our goodbyes and continue our separate ways. I took the long haul over the mountains to the capital city of Oaxaca, my eyes set on the Guatemalan border.

A terrace with a volcanic view

It was about two months later on Lago Atitlán in Guatemala that the status of my bank account induced a wave of panic. After a few emails, I had another offer through WorkAway, this time tending bar at The Terrace Hostel in Antigua. Contrasting the lackadaisical receptionist that I had been in Mexico, in Antigua, I would be a high-speed, high-volume bartender for tourists and locals alike. The next morning, I hopped on the earliest chicken bus out of San Pedro de La Laguna, eager to leave the lake behind, and explore a new city.

The narrow cobblestone streets and the undisturbed ruins that populate the city of Antigua were just like the pictures that I had seen in my first Spanish language class back in Arizona. Traffic was hectic, motorcycles were abundant, and squeezing past the foot traffic on the narrow sidewalks was a measured balance between patience and assertiveness. The Terrace Hostel was a three-story, relatively small, dimly-lit hostel with a small courtyard. Its main attraction was undoubtedly the third story terrace that lent the place its name. The view of the two volcanoes imposing over Antigua was complimented by a full bar and a couple of stools, and that was surely enough. Over the next month, that bar became my temple, and I spent four or five nights a week serving Gallo beer and taking shots with the owners and guests. In the mornings and on my days off, I spent my time writing in the quaint bars or coffee shops that had been established in these largely undisturbed ruins. After months of spotty correspondence, one of the founders of Envision published my blog piece in exchange for a ticket to the festival, thereby saving me a couple hundred dollars. That cash and my bar tips supported most of my late nights at Café No Sé, a candlelit, graffiti-ridden expat bar that mirrored the divey nature of my favorite bars back home. Enamored by one of the tall, tattooed, punk rock bartenders from New York, I spent most nights there discovering my love for mezcal while being laughed at for my inability to roll cigarettes.

As the charm of Antigua dimmed over the month, I took the nuggets of travel knowledge that I had overheard behind the bar, said yet another round of goodbyes to my new friends, and jumped in a packed shuttle towards Nicaragua.

Fishing for friendship on Isla Ometepe

One of the names that kept being repeated over and over during my last four months of travel was Ometepe. The volcanic island in the middle of Lago Nicaragua came up in conversation almost weekly from backpackers who were moving northward toward Mexico. A month after leaving Antigua, I found myself just off the ferry from Rivas, both feet planted on the island that would, unbeknownst to me, change my life. A bottle of rum strapped to my pack, myself and my travel companions piled into a shuttle with three American guys headed towards a hostel called Little Morgan’s. What I had loosely scheduled to be a three-night stay on the island quickly turned into ten days. Calling Little Morgan’s a party hostel, while correct, is a seriously insufficient description of its atmosphere. In less than a week, strangers became friends, friends became family, and our collective energy nearly killed half the staff, who couldn’t resist joining in on the festivities. The open-air bar served as the reception desk and was built from locally reclaimed wood, as was the three-story treehouse filled with woven hammocks. Huge spiders and scorpions encouraged meek guests to keep moving after a day or two, but the unequivocal camaraderie trapped quite a few of us over the course of that week. With no internet at the hostel, the conversations were lengthy and the adventures were plentiful. Day after day, I filled my journal with jokes, anecdotes, and philosophical ramblings that were mostly intelligible.

Every arriving guest thought that we worked there, and we tried to act the part, eventually getting invited to stay in the staff houses that dotted the lush, jungle property. Stepping out of the time vortex was difficult, but necessary. One sunny morning, twelve of us took a knee and chugged a beer in the hostel driveway, consecrating our friendship before hitting the road. After a choppy ferry ride, filled with karaoke and limbo on the top deck, I hailed a taxi headed for the Costa Rican border. Envision was waiting and I could not have been more excited.

Cooling off in the iceberg lounge

It was pretty late when I arrived at the Envision site in Costa Rica. Coming through the production gate, I was received by one of the few staffers who was still awake. She showed me to the canvas room that I would call home for the next two weeks. Atop a couple of pallets, there was a ground pad and a pillow which I covered in thin sheets. It wasn’t much, but there were a roof and four walls, which was good enough for me.

The next morning, like most mornings thereafter, I snapped awake to the sounds of howler monkeys in the nearby trees. They did not seem to be remotely bothered by our presence and howled their guttural, bass-laden howl at the crack of dawn. I checked myself in at the administration desk and received my credentials before tracking down my team, whom I had still never met in person. There was a lot of activity on site, seeing as the event was only a week and a half away. Suntanned folks sat at picnic tables, chatting idly without looking up from whatever was on their laptop screens. Power tools screamed somewhere out of site, and every once in a while, someone would carry a large stalk of bamboo down the main thoroughfare. I found my team sitting at a square table behind four walls of stretch fabric, creating a nice private enclosure that would serve as our oasis for the remainder of our time on site. From here, we would draft contracts and press releases, manage social media channels and blogs, and chain smoke hand-rolled cigarettes while generally serving as a positive refuge for any stressed out soul who was working outside of our department. We dubbed our little cove The Iceberg Lounge, named for the rock outside our nook that inevitably took out whoever was walking by. Multiple times a day, we would hear cries of pain and curses through the wall to which our whole team would call out “Iceberg!” before laughing hysterically at whoever had stuck the obstinate little rock. Like the rest of my trip, it was these whimsical jokes that made the whole experience for me. Other staffers would swing by and dole out massages and essential oils as we hammered away at our keyboards, enjoying the peaceful nature of the lounge, before heading back out into the other production madness.

The final day of the event came quickly and the staff all found themselves dancing wildly during the last set of the weekend, reveling in the final crescendo of what had been an exhausting, yet immensely satisfying, month. Shortly thereafter, I would pack my bags and head back to Arizona to digest my trip while replenishing my now depleted savings account. Everyone kept in contact via social media, and I ended up working with several of the same crew members at festivals all along the west coast. I still work for Envision, although my role changes slightly from year to year. The tight-knit community of gypsies carved out a special corner in my heart, and for that, I’m forever grateful and inspired.

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