I fear I may have peaked too soon.
Puerta Vieja hostel in San Cristobal De Las Casas is my new favourite place in the world; knocking my bed off the top spot and Amsterdam into third. It’s a place where the bell behind the bar signifies free shots and not last call, a place with beds comfier than the one I have at home and far easier to turn into a fort, it has easily the best breakfast and dinner menus I’ve had so far, and the showers actually have hot water; but most of all it is the place where I have met the largest concentration of awesome people.
If you stay in any hostel for over three days you will get the chance to see old faces leave and new ones arrive, and this can be a double-edged sword. Sometimes your best friends leave to be replaced by those people who have been traveling since the dawn of time and have become slightly unhinged in the process; and sometimes a population of aggressively average human beings will be replaced by people you swear you could have known since you were a child.
Over my six days at Puerta Vieja I was lucky enough to enjoy a revolving door of increasingly great people.
I met a man called Joe in Merida a few days prior and we bonded over a shared self-deprecating sarcasm and the fact that we both think I’m hilarious. We went to Palenque together and then on to San Cristobal after Joe had somewhat of a harrowing experience involving the most annoying Finnish girl either of us have ever met, the phrase “thumbing in a slug” on the roof of her hotel as there were other occupants in in her room, and then almost getting kidnapped/raped on the walk of shame home by a inhumanly strong Mexican prostitute whose price went from 1000 Pesos (£45) to gratis (free) after she literally chased him back to our hostel. It’s a fantastic tale when Joe tells it as you can see the genuine trauma in his eyes as he re-lives his journey from disappointment to mortal fear, and needless to say I revel in making him tell every new person we meet.
It turns out that I am not the only one who enjoys tormenting Joe.
The first group of people we met were a gang of Swedish guys whose names all have far too many consonants for me to remember but nonetheless we had a great night of twenty-ones in the bar, managing to get it to land on Joe four out of five times and each time he had just bought a fresh beer. Glorious.
After they left we met an English woman, Nat, and after it transpired that we all fancied witnessing a bit of bird murder, we went on a day trip to a particularly bizarre church in San Juan famed for chicken sacrifice and an addiction to Fanta. After a lunch of rotisserie chicken (we had a hankering for some reason) we bonded over a round of tales involving all of us misjudging bowel movements on a form of transport and she took great pleasure in abusing the pair of us for having no game. Apparently awful Finnish girls and Mexican prostitutes don’t count. This came to a head after the super cute receptionist said a passing “hello” to me in the garden as we were playing cards and Nat spent the next hour berating me for not bedding her instantly.
The last bunch included Swedish friends Adina and Sonny, a Danish girl named Catu, the most adorable German girl I have ever met called Charlotte and an insanely hilarious man from New Zealand called Ryan. We went out a few times, Catu tried to teach me how to salsa and Charlotte took 45 minutes to eat her soup one lunch as she could not stop laughing at me. I’m still on the fence as to whether this was a compliment or not, maybe Nat’s got a point…
The entire week was underpinned by the presence of Mikkel from Denmark and Steve from California who we met on a Canyon tour on day two. They overheard me giving the crocodiles a backstory to Joe as we couldn’t understand our Spanish guide, and we bonded instantly.
The staff were the icing on the cake of our stay and were all wonderful. Like most hostels, Puerta Vieja is almost exclusively staffed by people who have become so attached to the place they never want to leave and included the aforementioned cute receptionist who reminded me of Amelie from the film of the same name, a Californian man who had arrived some years before and is now the barman, local Pox brewer (a local liqueur) and whose band plays the hostel and various other bars in the area, and a kindly Mexican man who told me off at least three times a night for a combination of drinking/smoking/talking in areas of the hostel that were forbidden i.e. anywhere in hostel after 11pm. Each time he politely told me to shut up and go to bed I saw a level of patient disappointment in his eyes only usually reserved for a parent, and I’m sure if he were capable of a single malicious thought, he would have smothered me in my sleep.
Joe and I became legends as we made Puerta Vieja our home away from home, teaching drinking games and regaling everyone with Joe’s harrowing tale. I have so many great memories such as hearing sporadic cries of “ay ay aaay!” (The Finnish girl’s blood-curdling catchphrase) being called across the garden by various people just to see Joe wince; abusing the motorcycling, beard wielding, lothario Steve for having the perfect life – no one man deserves so much happiness; and Joe’s cry of unbridled anguish the moment he collapsed into a hammock for some alone time in the early hours of the morning after a tough night of drinking, re-living his personal hell and striking out with various girls, only to have me pop out of the one next to him like a jack-in-the-box designed to remind him of his failures.
On about the third day an English girl named Bex arrived, she came up to Joe and I and told us that she’d been on a tour with an American man named Jake whom Joe and I had gone out with on our first night. After hearing where she was headed Jake told her to go to Puerta Vieja and find “the lanky Brit with the short one” as we were hilarious and, in his words, “would definitely still be there”. This solidification of our fame was enough for us to ignore the mildly insulting if not totally accurate insinuation that we were too lazy to have left by then.
San Cristobal De Casas itself is a beautiful city, the cobbled streets are lined with innumerable cafes and bars, the view from the San Cristobal church is well worth the hike up the millions of stairs, and due to its mountainside locale, it is the only place in Mexico that I haven’t been covered in a thin layer of sweat and subsequently is the only place so far I’ve been able to wear the joggers my mum made me pack.
It is for these reasons and many more that Joe and I were so sad to leave Puerta Vieja – Joe’s crab dance that became a craze; my roommates Kira, Scott and Matt cooking me dinner one night simply because I happened to be in the kitchen; and the wine bar that’s 20 pesos a glass (about £1) with a plate of free tapas with every one – to name but a few more. The collection of great people, great location and in-jokes that ran all week – will Trevor the crocodile ever get his band signed? – made our stay at San Cristobal De Las Casas one I will remember for a long time.
The final knife to the heart of our longing for this magical place came during our check-out, when Amelie joked that she wouldn’t let me get my bag from the safe room because she didn’t want me to leave. When I eventually persuaded her to release my luggage she told Joe and I that she wished she had spent more time with us as – and I quote – “you guys are superheroes round here”.
As if the pain of leaving wasn’t bad enough, I now have to deal with the fact that Nat was right about her all along. Maybe I’ll pop back in to San Cristobal on my way down to Belize; just to wear the cape one more time.