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Vagabond Journey to Start a Hostel in Mexico?

Vagabond Journey to Start Hostel in Mexico? SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico- Funny things happen, interesting opportunities arise when you stay in places a little bit longer when you travel: You start to make friends, you begin becoming part of a community, growing like moss in the landscape of a place, and when you [...]

Vagabond Journey to Start Hostel in Mexico?

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico- Funny things happen, interesting opportunities arise when you stay in places a little bit longer when you travel:

You start to make friends, you begin becoming part of a community, growing like moss in the landscape of a place, and when you see a mate in the street who tells you that he is renting out an entire hostel for $200 a month, you find yourself jumping in on the project.

That is right, hostels are rented out cheap in San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico. They are rented out so cheap, in fact, that I have been sniffing the ground for the possibility of starting one up. This seems like an odd thing for a traveler to want, but a few months of work could be enough to establish a little business that I could then leave with a well paid manager and have another stream of income coming in while traveling to other locales.

The thought of traveling with streams of income coming in from various sources is a good ones for sure.

When a good friend told me that he was going to rent out a hostel that sits right in the middle of downtown San Cristobal, I said that I was in. Hands down, I said, “in,” and that was it. I like this guy, Chaya and I both get along well with him, Petra adores him, we all get on real well with his girlfriend, I trust him as much as anybody, he is a friend — why wouldn’t I want to start a business with him?

First view of the potential hostel in Mexico

Later that day we planned to go over and take a look at the hostel, meet with the landlord, sign the papers, move in, get started — we were going to open up a hostel.

On my way to meet this friend I ran into a mutual acquaintance in the street. He told me that he was also in on opening the Hostel — fine, the more help and money we have in the project the better. The three of us then went to seal the deal. $200 a month for a place on a month by month rental basis is not a heavy investment, I went to check it out.

The hostel is located just to the west of the main square of San Cristobal, the location could not be better. The three of us sat in the street and discussed ideas for the hostel while waiting for the landlord to come and let us in. Eventually, he arrived and opened the doors to what could be a new project: running a hostel.

Potential hostel in Mexico

From first view, it was evident that the hostel was adequate, but little about it was ideal. The place was still well put together, the utilities functioned in proper order and had not been shut off, all the hostel needed was a little love, care, elbow grease, a fresh coat of paint and it would be good to go. This was seeming like an excellent road to walk down.

The hostel consisted of six rooms and a dormitory, but none of them was what could be described as nice, good, or beautiful, but they all were adequate. At $200 a month rent, I knew that I could not expect the place to be ideal. But there were some major limiting factors which would always keep this place a cheap stay, vagabond house no matter how nice we made it.

Limiting factors of the prospective hostel

  • Tight living quarters- The hostel is made on the lee side of a larger commercial business, it is very narrow and a little cramped.
  • Low dormitory ceiling- The dormitory is on the second floor of the main building and has a very low ceiling where any person over 5′ 7″ would need to crunch down to access it. The dormitory is the perfect size for gnomes.
  • Rooms shoddily built- Three of the rooms in the hostel are cabins made of split logs. They look cool, but they seemed to have been put together with haste. They are shacks and little more, though they are more than adequate for travelers looking for a cheap room. The other rooms are virtual cinder block dungeons.
  • Low light in dormitory and rooms- There are hardly any windows in the dormitory or in the rooms. The cabins have windows that were boarded up long ago but they could be refurbished easily to allow for good lighting, but the rooms in the back of the hostel are about as bright as a cave.
  • Only one bathroom and shower- There is only one bathroom and shower in the whole place. I estimate the carrying capacity of the hostel at 20 people — sharing a bathroom between this many people is not too enjoyable.
  • The common area is open air- The main common area of the hostel is a loft and the corridor that runs along the side of the establishment towards the rooms in the back. There is not a roof on any of it, which is fine when the sun is shining, but in the rain I can imagine this place to be not very good for hanging out in.

In point, this hostel is, and always will be, a vagabond home — a place for travelers to get a cheap place to stay, and to hang out with other extreme budget travelers. This is alright by me, I could not expect anything more for the amount of money asked for rent. The possibility was clear that I could help open up a true traveler’s home, a place where people could stay for $2 a night and have immediate access to downtown San Cristobal. These limiting factors are perhaps benefits for the hostel, as they would surely keep the prices understandably low. This sounded like an excellent type of hostel to open up in a world where the traveler lifestyle is continuously becoming more gentrified and full of tourists with backpacks wanting hostels to be replete with luxury.

This is the dormitory of the hostel

We would open up this house for travelers, we would create a cheap place to stay for people traveling on a very limited income, we would design the hostel to be for vagabonds working their way around the world.

Benefits of the prospective hostel

  • Location- The hostel is situated a block from the main square of the city, right in the middle of the night life district, within strolling range of nearly everything in downtown San Cristobal. The location is perfect, and would be an immense draw, as the other super cheap hostels in the city are a hike away from downtown. The hostel is also flanked on all sides by commercial buildings, which means that variables such as noise at night would not be as much of an issue.
  • Condition- The place would need a decent amount of work, but not too much work to get it up and running. After taking an initial inspection of the hostel, it seems that all it would really need was a couple windows, a coat of fresh paint, some rugs, and a few more light bulbs to get it into good working order. The roof showed no sign of leaking, the water and electricity worked adequately, the water appeared clean, the toilet worked.
  • Simple design- The architecture and utility structure of the building could not be any simpler. The rooms are constructed of nailed in place plank boards, there is an steel staircase leading up to the hostel, the electrical wiring stapled to the walls, a straight forward plumbing system, this place could not be any simpler to adapt and repair.
  • Price- $200 a month is the rent, the landlord seemed to be a decent guy, we know people who have rented from him and ran the hostel before without any vocalized complaints. The projected prices for utilities also seemed minimal. For what we were to pay, what we were to receive seemed adequate. Even if nobody came and stayed in this hostel, we would still save ourselves a ton of money — as the rent to have this place was vastly less that what we all are currently paying when added up together. I am paying $230 for a room in San Cristobal, this entire hostel was going for $200. Even the worst case scenario — we move in, try to get a hostel running, fail, move out — seemed as if it would not cost any of us much more money than what we were already paying.

The down fall

It became clear that my idea of running a hostel did not match that of one of the partners. I am pretty headstrong when it comes to projects, and, apparently, so is he. We found ourselves — how should I put this? — at  friendly odds with each other.

I suggested that each of us pool together enough money to get the place running square: enough money to buy a second hand refrigerator, a table top gas stove, a water tank, paint, supplies, miscellaneous expenses, and enough sheets so people did not have to sleep in each other’s filth. The amount of money initially needed to get the place running at full speed would probably not be more than a $200 investment from each partner.

Balcony of the hostel good for socializing on sunny days

I did not want to allow guests into the hostel until it was in operational shape — running a hostel is a word of mouth business, I have worked in them all over the world, there was no way that I wanted to run a place that would immediately be labeled a dysfunctional flop house.

Another business partner had a different proposition — he did not want to put up much of an investment in advance and proposed that we should pay for everything as we went along, solely with the money earned from clients. His way could work out, for sure, as the hostel would eventually get into good shape.

But the fact still remained that I seemed to have been proposing a very different business model than this partner, we seemed to disagree on just about everything. It was clear that for this project to work, one of us would need to go. When he said, “we don’t need to buy sheets right away because backpackers travel with sleeping bags anyway,” I looked for the door.

This hostel has a lot of potential, these log cabins are cool

There is definitely potential in this hostel, but for a businesses to function well, in my opinion,  every partner needs to be on the same page. I wasn’t. I wish my friends the best with this hostel, I am sure that they will eventually make it a landmark traveler’s home in San Cristobal de las Casas, but I found myself on the lee side of this project from the start, it was time to get out.

Related articles: Work at hostel in Budapest | Work at hotel in Guatemala jungle

Filed under: Accommodation, Economics, Mexico, North America, Work

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 88 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3422 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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10 comments… add one

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  • craig | travelvice.com October 1, 2010, 10:52 pm

    Word of mouth is no joke, and you were right to bail when you did. They may have been personable gents, but you need to either partner with someone for their capital, connections or their vast travel experience. Seems like 3 strikes on all counts.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com October 3, 2010, 11:48 am

      For sure. One of the guys I would love to go into business with, the rest, no. I looked up from the table when we were discussing options to realize that I was the only one who had money and the will to invest it.

      It turned out that this place is not going to function as a business but as a communal “traveler’s home.” Much less complicated that way.

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  • Dave from The Longest Way Home October 2, 2010, 12:36 am

    Next time you come across something like that. You might get in contact with me.

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    • Chris Smith October 2, 2010, 5:54 pm

      You know, next would have been carrying packets of Hostal flyers and a stapler to Guatemala to leave post ups in Xela, Antigua, Livingston and the Lago Atitlan towns to attract your Viajeros and other Extranjero Visa Runners.

      Congrats, you have joined the ranks of Hobotraveler Andy Graham in ALMOST getting a Hostal. But you will.

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      • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com October 3, 2010, 11:40 am

        For sure, plastering the towns with flyers for the cheapest place to stay in town! Yeah, we almost did it. But I think running a business is something that I only want to do with myself and wife as the only partners. Or maybe with Dave from TheLongestWayHome.com haha.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com October 3, 2010, 11:47 am

      We will be on the lookout, and will surely let you know. It would be good for a few of us to open up hostels in various parts of the world and then we can all travel “migration” routes between them — so we can have a business to make money and still be able to travel while always knowing that our hostels are in good hands.

      Craig, Dave, Andy, for the most part I think we are all on the same page?

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  • Andy Graham HoboTraveler.com October 3, 2010, 3:21 am

    Fun stuff, and yes, I am the almost king of almost starting a Hostel. I traveled all the way to Aeroquipa Peru to start a Hostel with a British women. I was going to give here 100 percent of the money, and she wanted 50,000 per year… I said, there is no way to give you more than 100 percent.

    I rented a Home in Iquitos Peru, for 250 per month, started a complete Hostel for 2000 Dollars. I did this for a man by the name of Jimmy, he put up the money, I did it for fun, he now hates me. He has been sitting around in the Hostel doing nothing for maybe 8 years, living an easy life, I gave him a business for fun, but happy to not be his partner.

    Generally, you do not need a partner, that is the last thing you want, worst than getting married.

    A partner should only be for money, and minimum of 20 K, otherwise do the sweat equity.

    Rent a big house and make it into a hostel, there is a truly good one for rent in Panajachel for 600 per month, all ready to go. I think it was or is called the Hotel San Pedro.

    The problem is this, if you rent a place, as soon as you get it making tons of money, the owner of the building will take it back, or steal it back. The manager will steal it back etc.

    In a way, the underdeveloped world is “Squatters Rights,” you stay squatted on the property, or it disappears in a strange move.

    Stan at the Nirvana in Pie de La Cuesta, Mexico, north of Acapulco had not left his Hotel in 8 years, he went on vacation to Canada, while I watched the Hotel. The first day, Tommy his trusted employee of 8 years helped Stans ex-wife to steal a big pile of lumber. I went out and and asked, and knew this crap was going to happen.

    Stan just wanted to be sure they did not steal the “Hotel” while he was gone.

    The question is this, can you hire a manager to manage a Hotel and you continue to travel? Do you see this business model?

    Fun stuff, I have two large web sites, and I am 100 percent sure with the two sites, my knowledge of Google Adwords, I could fill up any Hotel 100 percent of the time.

    The sad part is this, contracts and relationships with people are way too much work sometimes, I am not in the business of buying work.

    I am sure both Craig and you presently know Marriage is a partnership.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com October 3, 2010, 11:37 am

      Very correct, Andy, the people that I was going to go into this hostel business with were broke and one of them was coming up with every excuse possible to not be required to put up any money.

      The manager issue is also a difficult one. The Finca Tatin is managed for long periods out of the year without the owner present — often out of the country — so it is possible. But I also observed how the staff slacks off, breaks rules, when he is not around.

      It is my impression that if I am serious about opening a hostel I would need to be there all the time. I don’t really want to do this, so I can only approach the idea with a lack of full commitment, without getting too emotionally tied up in any results.

      The original plan was for me and the first guy I mentioned in this story, Carlos — not the one I had disagreements with — to open up a couple different hostels in different places and then rotate between them. So each hostel would always have an owner present. But too many people were taken into the partnership, and the place did not look like something I wanted to be a part of.

      I also know that I don’t work well with others.

      The partnership of a marriage pushes my ability to get along with people to its maximum capacity haha I don’t really want to have to get along with business partners as well. I like things MY way haha.

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  • Dave from The Longest Way Home October 4, 2010, 12:16 am

    A Collective should be on the same page. I would imagine in one location, 3-4 collective minds, reputations, and powerful websites criss crossing the travel community would bring to it an awesome reputation before even getting started.

    For once Andy actually makes sense though. Renting in a developing country and seeing your business boom, will get you a knock on the door next month and kicked out the next day.

    I’ve seen it a lot of the time. The only way to shore it up is to go legal, and hammer them into an expensive contract. Which takes connections and $.

    The other thing that would hamper it is ego. Andy’s ego is as large as his imagination. I imagine the rest of us are not so far off either.

    In reality, could we all co-exist and make something work?

    If we did we have already found managers. Rotated between the collective each can travel, and come back for set periods. It’s the perfect melding of two worlds.

    But, like I mentioned. We each have are own ways and for all to come together in agreement, would near be an imaginative task.

    Reality is, what we have on the table.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com October 4, 2010, 11:18 am

      I suppose that we all have our egos for each other to contend with haha. I think that long term travel builds this sort of character — or maybe strong minded people are drawn to travel. I think if we were all into it and could see the big picture — and knew that we needed each other — perhaps we could pull it off.

      Though you are correct, we do have reality to contend with.

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