Bienvenidos a Llullu Llama: Mi Hostel es su Hostel

efflorescence noun A state of blooming, flowering, and development.

After returning from our slightly less-than-successful partial hike of the Quilotoa Loop we found ourselves standing outside the pale yellow walls of Llullu Llama Mountain Lodge.  To our right, was a chalkboard sign bidding guests a happy hike and behind us was the tiny town that would be our home for the next three weeks. One church, a woodworking studio, a central square that doubled as a basketball court, one tiny little shop, and two hostels: Welcome to Isinlivi.

Looking out the front door of Llullu Llama at the bustling village.

So how did we end up working in this tiny village in the middle of the Ecuadorian Andes?  Well, the same way most people end up most places these days: the Internet.  Before we even set out on out great Latin American voyage, we planned to make our trip a little cheaper by doing something called work away, or woofing, as it sometimes called.  We purchased a one-year membership on ($29 per individual or $38 per couple) and typed in the countries we would be visiting, then spent hours browsing through the lists of employment opportunities.  Work away agreements function like an exchange program.  Volunteers work a certain number of hours performing jobs in exchange for housing and sometimes food, rather than a paycheck.  It’s a cheap way to travel is you’re interested in staying in one location a little longer (the average minimum commitment is one month, though you can find them for as short as two weeks).  Different work away programs obviously have vastly different agreements in terms of what is provided in exchange for the work and how much work is required.  We had a pretty sweet deal, really, with both our housing and all our meals covered entirely, one of which was a fully prepared dinner.  We had no expenses for a month, which, after the blow of the laptop theft, was a pretty nice reprieve.

For the first two days upon arrival, we were treated as guests, staying in an unoccupied private bunkroom before moving to our semi-private double room upstairs.  The volunteer rooms were considered semi-private, because we didn’t technically have a door; instead it was just a curtain hung in the doorframe and wicker walls dividing us from the room door.  It was a dark and dreary little room, but for the first time, we could fully unpack our bags without the dread of having to pack them back up a few days later.

We couldn’t actually move in to that room upon arrival because Will and Elizabeth, a couple from Canada who we would be replacing, were still finished their last couple days at the hostel.  During these two days where we got to play guest, we tried to familiarize ourselves with the hostel itself and the people that worked there.

I call it a hostel, but Llullu Llama wasn’t technically a hostel; it was a “mountain lodge”, which meant it was a little more expensive and quite a bit nicer than your average hostel.  No ant-ridden bed frames there (though I did stumble across a moth half the size of my hand sunning himself on one of the cabana doors once).  A dorm bed cost $18 per person, which turned a lot of budget travelers away, despite the fact that we reminded them that the price included breakfast and dinner, as well as free tea and coffee. For a private room, prices increased to $23 per person, or $35 per person for one of the private cabanas.  Needless to say, backpackers never stayed in the cabanas.

Just in case you were worried about losing your keys...

Just in case you were worried about losing your keys...

The Llullu Llama grounds were stunning and the hostel was charming.  Setting its isolation aside, I really couldn’t imagine a better place to take a break from the backpacking life for a little while.  Stepping inside the main building was like stepping into a cabin, with warm pink walls, a hardwood floor, and couches covered with Navajo patterned blankets surrounding the wood burning fireplace.  Between the various llama paintings, the fluffy llama dolls sitting on the shelves above the coffee station, and the clunky wooden llamas that accompanied each room key, Llullu Llama lived up to its name.  Above the living room on an open air second level was the semi-private volunteer rooms and the eight-bed dorm room, nestled right into the farmhouse rafters.  On the other side of the living room was the dining room, a veranda with huge windows on three sides.  Through those windows, we could watch the hills to the east illuminated gold in the rising sun each morning, and, if we were lucky enough to catch a cloudless evening, a beautiful purple sunset over their crests in the evening.

The flower lined path outside the dining room led down to the four private cabanas and the spa, which consisted of a Jacuzzi, a Turkish wet sauna, and a traditional dry sauna.  As volunteers, we could use the spa any time we wanted during our down time provided a guest had also used it that day.  That way, we wouldn’t be wasting gas to heat up the water just for ourselves. 

Despite the spa, which is a rare luxury among hostels, Llullu Llama was also quite antiquated in other ways.  For instance, the main farmhouse had only one bathroom inside to be shared among all the private rooms, volunteers, and those in the dorms.  If you had to take a shit, it was encouraged for guests to use one of the two outhouse composting toilets with a "lovely view of the mountains".  The view may have been nice, but the smell, thinly masked by cedar chip we piled in the hole each day, was less than charming.  On the whole, however, it wasn’t as bad as it might sound, at least not until someone got ill and took up that one toilet for the entire tea drinking night.  Or when people would plug up that bathroom using the shower despite our very vocal requests at check-in that people not use those showers because it would then plug up the bathroom.  No matter what country you’re in, people never listen.

Of course, Llullu Llama came with own little unique cast of characters as well.  First, there was Oliver, a scrawny British guy with an unkempt beard that probably weighed more than the rest of him.  He had been volunteering there for about a month and a half at that point, and thus he would be our guru for getting used to hostel life. There was Christian, a native Ecuadorian and good friend of Eva and her husband (confusingly also named Christian) who appeared at the hostel to help out every so often.  Christian was a sweetheart, always willing to help out and explain things we didn’t understand, even when the rest of the staff blew us off for not understanding something immediately.  We grew to love him and his patented exclamation “Opa!”, which from what we gathered, could mean anything from oops to holy shit

The rest of the staff were village locals.  The kitchen and cleaning staff consisted of Gladys (a mean spirited woman who arbitrarily decided to despise both Chris and myself for no apparent reason), Maria (Gladys’ crony who pretty much agreed with anything she said and therefore also treated us like dirt), and Rosia (a beautiful and sweet young girl who worked the lunch hours and actually treated us like human beings).  Needless to say, Rosia was our favorite, and we went out of our way during the daytime hours to help her out with things.  There was also David, Gladys’ husband, who was in charge of the hostel grounds themselves, and Melanie, Gladys’ four-year-old daughter who, while shy at first, took quite the liking to us by the end.

But our favorite people at the hostel were not in fact people at all.  First, there was Baloo, a friendly Saint Bernard the size of a donkey who loved to play and pounce on new guests as if he were the size of a poodle.  I took to calling him Beluga Whale, or sometimes Beluga Boy, shortly after arriving.  He had two modes: rambunctious ruffian and lazy lard.  If he wasn’t following us incessantly around the hostel begging for food, he was sleeping in the dirt just outside the kitchen, hoping to catch whatever scraps we didn’t need.

Finally, there was Tito the llama, because what good would Llullu Llama be without an actual llama.  Other than act a novelty, Tito was a pretty useless animal who spent his days staked down to various points on the lower yard, depending on where the grass had grown a little high.  He never did much but eat and stare spitefully at anyone who passed by.  Despite his constant look of judgment, he was actually a very docile llama who never spit and even allowed guests to pet him.  “Just don’t touch his tail or his head,” we would warn after being told stories of guests who had in the past. 

Baloo and Tito were also perhaps the most unlikely friends we had ever seen.  One of the Baloo’s favorite pastimes was to grab the rope looped around Tito’s neck and spin him around in circles.  I had never seen a llama with such patience.

We didn’t get to know Will and Elizabeth well because they left only a day or so after we arrived.  The second they were out the door, we stepped in to fill their shoes.  As we followed Oliver around, learning about the hostel and allowing him to spin our heads with how-to information, we found ourselves feeling a sense of urgency to learn it all. We didn’t know how long Oliver would be working there with us.  He didn’t even know; he was waiting on a credit card to be mailed to Quito and was pretty much stranded until it arrived.  We could be on our own at any second, running a hostel nearly on our own.

Our very official work rotation schedule.

Yet the human ability to learn and adapt can be astounding. While we are biologically one of the most inept creatures at adapting physically to changes in the environment, we are one of the most adept in changing behaviorally.  After only a few days of working at the hostel, we were shocked at how easily all the work came to us.  While none of our day-to-day tasks were particularly difficult or demanding, the sheer number of them did make for a long list of things to keep in mind.  Nevertheless, after only a few days, we felt like old pros.  It was like we had worked there for months.

A breakdown of a day in the life of a Llullu Llama volunteer:

  • 7:00am: A bright and early wake-up for the first person on shift.  Thankfully, morning shift was easy: start the coffee and hot water for tea, unlock the doors, set a pot of cooking water to boil to sanitize, begin sorting out check-out paperwork, and feed Baloo.  All these duties would take maybe 20 minutes, making the rest of the hour pretty pointless, but someone needed to be up that early to unlock doors for the kitchen staff.
  • 7:30am:  The second person on shift joins the first, not having to do much other than set the table for breakfast and drink cup after cup of coffee.
  • 8:00am: Breakfast began at 8, give or take a few minutes, laid out on the table, family style: scrambled eggs (or substituted for pancakes on rare occasions), fresh fruit, bread, the best jam I’ve ever tasted, homemade yogurt, and granola.
  • 9:00am: By 9am, most guests had finished breakfasts and wandered back to their rooms to begin packing up for the day.  One person would man the reception desk, handling any guests on top of their check-out, while the other would clear the breakfast tables.  Check-out technically continued until 11am, but most guests left within the hour in order to get a start on their hike.
  • 10:00am-1:00pm: Between check-out and the opening of lunch, this was our one guaranteed free period of the work day. Sometimes, we took the opportunity to go hiking with guests and others we chose to just lounge around and take some time to ourselves for a change.  Every few days, I tried to make a point to take Baloo for a walk down to the river, though given his size, it was much more like Baloo walking me.  It was always an exciting time when the local sheep would appear, causing Baloo to tear after them, dragging me in his wake.  He loved terrifying the sheep with his massive size and deep, resonating bark, even though he would never hurt a fly.
  • 1:00pm: By this point, one person had to be back at the hostel.  While check-in didn’t technically start until 3pm, lunch opened at 1pm and someone needed to man the place in case we got early arrivals or hungry passerbys, rare as that was. If we got lunch orders, we gave them to Rosia in the kitchen or, with simple items like Llullu sandwiches and grilled cheeses, we just made them ourselves for the guests.  We filled the spare time by casually restocking the bar from the bodega and tidying up the kitchen
  • 3:00pm-5:00pm: The second person working in the evening would technically start at 3pm, but that often wavered by an hour or so depending on how busy it got.  It was usually around this time that guests began filing in, dragging heavy packs from the direction of Sigchos.  As they arrived, we had them fill out check-in sheets that would act as their running tab until check-out and gave each group a tour of the hostel grounds.
  • 5:00pm: This time of day signaled the single worst of all of our hostel tasks, one we took turns doing because we hated it so much: starting the fire.  Now I’m a Montana girl.  I like to think I know how to start a fire.  I’ve started fires with wet wood in a pit surrounded by snow and even that was easier than starting a fire in this metal box. Between the slightly broken damper and the high altitude, fires at Llullu Llama took ages to start, and even if you got it started, you had to carefully babysit the fire for about an hour before you could solidly leave it alone.  Guests never believed us about the difficulty as we sat cross-legged in front of the fire, huffing and puffing at the weak coals until we offered to let them give it a try.  We humbled one gruff Canadian outdoorsman until he conceded that we weren’t making it up.  Once that fire was going, however, there was nothing nicer than spending the evening sitting in front of it and sipping tea.
  • 5:00pm-7:00pm: The check-in process continued through early evening, but most of this time was spent making guests drinks (like our popular mulled wine and mojitos) and giving them recommendations for the hikes ahead of them.
  • 7:00pm: Dinner was served at 7pm, give or take a little bit.  The two volunteers working in the evening were in charge of setting the table, serving and clearing each course, and cleaning up the dining area when finished.  We usually ate during this time, snagging whatever food was left over.
  • 8:00pm-10pm:  Our favorite time of day, the two evening hours after dinner were when we got to relax, enjoy a glass of wine by the fire and get to know the guests.  While we still had to do a little work refilling drinks and monitoring guests in the spa, most of our duties during this time were fun ones, like starting large group card games and simply chatting.  Even though we were working there, we were technically just fellow travelers and we liked to just exchange stories and advice.  And the people we met were incredible, like the woman who had grown up in Whitefish, MT.  Ever the lessons on how small the world is.
  • 10:00pm: By 10:00pm, most guests were usually in bed, getting some rest for a long hiking day ahead.  We couldn’t say we were disappointed in the fact that this hostel wasn’t much of a party hostel, not being party people ourselves.  We loved that we got to go to bed by 10pm each night.  Closing down the hostel was a simple process: prep the coffee and tea machines for the next day, make sure the spa was shut down, lock all the doors, and turn out all the lights.

Of course, there were always the occasional other random tasks thrown in to disturb our relatively consistent routine.  Mondays were delivery days, where we constantly had to go to the door to accept boxes of beer, fruits, and vegetables and pay for them.  Throughout the week, we received water and gas deliveries with which we subsequently had to refill the hostel canisters.  Overall, however, the work itself was easy.  We didn’t have to cook or clean the rooms; we really just had to make sure the guests were happy.  The hard part was simply being on-call pretty much all but a few hours of the day.  It left no time for us to ever really leave the hostel and do much, except maybe a short day hike.  While we grew to enjoy our time there, it was a little discouraging at first, simply because the workload description online had been misleading.  On Work Away, it was described at 5 hours of work a day, 5 days of week.  In reality, that was a vast underestimation and we were more bothered by the dishonesty than the actual work increase itself.

In fact, we enjoyed the work we were doing.  Even if it was challenging, it did on very important thing for us; it altered our perspective just a little and made us appreciate the work that goes into running a hostel.  As a traveler, it’s easy to get sucked into a self-centered and often whiny attitude when it comes to hostels. While our low standard of luxury may pale in comparison to rich travelers who complain about the lack of pillow mints, we can still be incredibly bitchy and uncompromising when we feel as though the few standards of living we do maintain are violated.  Look at me back at the spaceship hostel in Panama.  Working at Llullu Llama taught us just how difficult hostel work can be, and that’s when we spoke the same language as most of our guests.  As hard as it was being a guest to those who spoke no English, I could no longer imagine how difficult it must have been to be the host.  We dealt with customers who complained about the lack of wi-fi, guests who missed dinner of their own fault and expected us to accommodate, and walk-ins who grew angry because we had no space.  Because yes, you should totally get mad at us for running a popular hostel and not yourself for not making a reservation in a town with two total hostels over Christmas… right.  We learned what sort of things were in our control and what sort of things weren’t, and later when we moved on from Llullu Llama, we looked at every hostel we stayed at with a little bit more patience and appreciation.  Having done my time as a waitress, I’ve always said that everyone should have to be a server for a year because it teaches you how to not be an asshole.  On that token, I think every traveler should have to spend a little bit of time working in a hostel.  After all, hospitality is a two way street.