The idea of staying with families while traveling doesn’t appeal to everyone. After all, most 20-something backpackers can barely tolerate living with their own parents, let alone somebody else’s. Indeed, some travel abroad to escape family.
There are advantages though in traveling through Central America hopping from home to home rather than hostel to hostel. First, you get to learn some Spanish and meet locals. Second, you get to avoid repeating the same conversation about crooked taxi drivers with dreadlocked guys named Mick or Moose.
If this sounds appealing, your first challenge is to find families with whom to stay. There are probably thousands of locals who would gladly accommodate a traveler who could help them out with the rent. Sadly, they aren’t listed in Lonely Planet. You could always just always randomly knock on doors and ask, but you run the risk of being imprisoned in someone’s basement for the next decade.
The easiest way of finding a reliable family is to go through a Spanish language school. Luckily, there are probably more Spanish schools than Spanish students in Latin America . Many organize homestays even if you don’t study with them.
The downside though, is that much like your own family, you can’t choose your local host family. Obviously, it’s a lottery. Some families will embrace you as one of their own. Others will resent the fact they have to eat with a stranger three times a day out of economic necessity.
I’ve stayed with families at both ends of the spectrum. At times, dinner conversation has been more stilted than it is with a reluctant first date. In Guatemala , I was placed with a family who I’m sure shoveled down their food at lightening pace to avoid having to talk to me.
You can’t blame them though. They’d been accepting guests for ten years to supplement their meager income. Eventually, one would get sick of having to make small talk with a stranger in Pidgen Spanish.
Most of my experiences, though, were far more positive. I took a Spanish course in El Salvador , and was placed with a wonderfully charismatic single mother and her adult son. Everyday, she would serve me delicious meals and fascinate me with war stories. Every night, I would go out with her son and visit cool bars that weren’t even listed in the guide books.
I soon discovered I was learning more Spanish from them than I was in my overpriced, grammar lessons. I dropped out of classes after a week and stayed with the family for a month. I’d go as far as saying they were the best flat mates I’d ever had.
Homestays, however, are not the cheapest accommodation option. In Mexico , for example, the going rate is usually about US$100 a week. This means that a foreigner renting a room pays about four times as much as a local pays to rent a house. Though meals are often included, this does seem a tad pricey. After all, it’s not a bad deal for the family. All they’re doing is giving you a previously unused spare room and setting an extra plate at the dinner table. A Mexican host mom with two paying guests probably earns more than the local surgeon or engineer.
But really, good luck to them! If these housewives were running their countries, Central America would be an economic powerhouse. And it’s still a cheap deal for us Westerners, so why not give it a try? You’ll learn the language. You’ll make local friends. You might even get adopted.