In my last blog I covered how I used Workaway to find a hostel in Tenerife where I spent just under two months volunteering. In this blog I’m going to take you through what that was like, what a normal day looked involved and just generally the reality of working in a hostel. Overall I had a great experience so a lot of what is to come will be positive. However I will be honest about some of the challenges and the more difficult aspects of it as well.
La Tortuga Hostel
First let me introduce you to my lovely hostel, La Tortuga, located in the south of Tenerife in an area called Costa Adeje. In this area saturated by classic Brits abroad and all inclusive resorts, La Tortuga is a bohemian haven. La Tortuga has a laid back vibe, not a party hostel by any means but a very sociable place to stay. The overwhelming majority of guests are solo travellers which results in a lovely atmosphere where everyone is open to talking to each other and becoming friends. In the evening you often find people making plans for the next day with people they didn’t know twenty minutes before. This includes volunteers who are very much a part of this ever evolving community in the hostel. That’s what it feels like to stay in La Tortuga and is very much an aim of the managers and all the staff, for all guests to feel like they are being welcomed into a new family.
With four dormitories and ten private rooms, the total occupancy of the hostel is about 35 guests with 8 volunteers. There are also two full time receptionists and the two managers of the hostel who are all instrumental in keeping things running smoothly. The hostel is actually spread over three houses: the main house (known as Tortuga 1 or T1) with the reception, the principal socialising areas, a kitchen, most of the dorms, a shared bathroom and shared toilet and the housing for volunteers; the secondary house (T2), a mirror image of the main house but quieter and more tranquil with mostly private rooms; and the third house (T3) that has three private rooms and it’s own kitchen and terrace. T3 is the top floor of the building on the main street whereas T1 and T2 are tucked behind so it has a feeling of privacy and seclusion. The hostel’s location is in a more residential part of Costa Adeje, removed from the many large hotels and all inclusive resorts that are common in the town, but only a short walk from supermarkets, restaurants and most importantly the beach. If you want to go further afield there are also bus stops in the immediate vicinity.
Something unique about the hostel was that it had a Whatsapp group that all guests could join and that volunteers were part of as well. I think this was a really nice touch that allowed the hostel to have a real sense of community. It was a great way for people to find others to go to dinner with or open up their plans to more people. That is how a lot of the volunteers would fill their free days. If we weren’t working we were free to do whatever we wanted so lots of people, myself included, would go out and explore with guests. I had a very useful habit of making friends with people who had hired cars, allowing me to tag along on adventures across the island! Even on the days we were working, we would still have most of the afternoon and the evening to ourselves so we might arrange an afternoon trip to the beach (although there were also a lot of days when all I did in the afternoon was take a nap and chill around the hostel!).
It was also possible to arrange a wide range of activities through the hostel. Volunteers got a slight discount on these so I took full advantage! I learnt to scuba dive in Honduras but haven’t done it in the five years since. The price of diving in Tenerife, or at least through La Tortuga, was so ridiculously cheap that I did several over my time there. It was great to get back under the water and it all came rushing back to me. I got to see some incredible things, highlights being two rare angel sharks, one dive with so many turtles that wouldn’t leave us alone and came right up to us and even a few dolphins while on the dive boat! There were also things like paragliding (done!), kayaking, turtle and dolphin trips, tours of the island including to Mount Teide and stargazing. Particularly popular are the surf lessons. La Tortuga actually works closely with a surf school in nearby Las Americas called SurfLife. If someone booking onto a surf camp with SurfLife was looking for somewhere to stay, they would recommend La Tortuga. Sometimes it felt like the hostel was filled with people doing surf camps! From what I’ve heard (as someone who has taken two surf lessons in her life and stood up maybe three times) the surfing in Tenerife can be a bit of a mixed bag. It’s not a bad place to learn to surf but at least during the summer the waves are a bit small for more advanced surfers. Apparently the waves are a bit bigger and better in the winter.
A Day in the Life
Now to share with you what a typical working day would look like. As you’ll see that might involve cleaning or working on reception or even leading groups to a flamenco bar or sunset at the beach. I’m not going to go into too much detail about what I got up to in my time off as we would be here for hours! There will be plenty more blogs all about the places I explored, the things I did and what I would recommend so for now I’m focusing on the volunteering side of things.
In La Tortuga volunteers work 4 days a week, between four and six hours per shift depending on the amount of work. There would be three volunteers working each day. A cleaning shift starts at 8.45am so I would usually get up between 8am and 8.30am. At the beginning I would get up more last minute and just start working but towards the end I actually enjoyed getting up even earlier to enjoy the peace and quiet around the hostel. It obviously depended on how tired I was but the coolness of the air and the tranquillity of the common areas before everyone else woke up were rare so I tried to enjoy them. There was no uniform for volunteers so I would usually wear a pair of shorts with a sports t-shirt (it might have been cool when we started but changing beds is sweaty work!) and either trainers or Birkenstock sandals.
From 8.45am to 9am the priority is getting breakfast out. I say breakfast but it’s really more of a tea and coffee spread. The hostel used to provide a more complete breakfast including things like pancakes but stopped due to covid. I believe it might be making a comeback in the next few months though! For now, we just had to make a couple of types of coffee and set that out with milk and sugar, tea, mugs and a few little cakes that we provided. This was free for all guests as well as volunteers and the leftovers would be available for free in the kitchen later in the day. Anyone could make their own free coffee and tea at any time of the day as well.
After breakfast was out we would start on the common areas. Check out was at 11am so we couldn’t start going into any bedrooms until then. In the meantime we would clean the shared bathrooms, living and dining spaces and the terrace outside. There were 3 volunteers working together so one person would go to T2 and knock that out while the other two stayed in T1. T1 was generally busier in the morning so it took a little longer to clean around everyone hence why two people stayed there. They would also keep an eye on breakfast and refill anything that needed it. This usually took until around 10.30am at which point we would have a wee break for some breakfast. I might have had something quick like a granola bar or a yoghurt before we started and a coffee and a piece of cake while putting breakfast out but this was the chance for something a bit more substantial. Often I would make a cheese and ham toastie from the food provided for volunteers (shoutout to my beloved sandwichito as we would call them!) or sometimes some eggs.
After check out at 11am our lovely, all-knowing receptionists would give us a list of the rooms that needed cleaned, whether that be because someone was checking out, someone had been there for three or four days already (at which point we refreshed the sheets) or it was a dorm room that just needed a once over. The work would be split up between the three people working and then we would just get on with it. We were allowed to wear headphones while working so I would usually put in a podcast and get my head down. Whoever was working primarily in T1 was also in charge of keeping the washing machines going because as I’m sure you can imagine there was always a mountain of dirty sheets needing to be washed. Depending on the day there might also be some extras like cleaning out the communal fridges, doing the windows or a little bit of gardening. If I or someone else finished before the others then we would all muck in to get the work done.
Depending on how much work there was on any given day, we could finish between 1pm and 3pm although it was usually somewhere around 2pm or 2.30pm. The end of the shift was quickly followed by lunch. I’ll talk more about how food and meals worked in the hostel another blog post but basically someone who wasn’t working would make lunch. If everyone not working had gone out to the beach or elsewhere, we would just throw something together ourselves. Once we finished the work of the day we were free to do whatever we wanted!
While Workaway volunteers at La Tortuga primarily handled the cleaning of the hostel, some are also trained up to work on reception and cover a handful of evening shifts throughout the week. Anyone that spoke Spanish and English well (other languages a bonus) was a candidate for reception training. It was more optional though as there were volunteers at the same time as me who had the language skills but didn’t particularly want to work on reception and that was fine. For me, it’s something that I was keen to get trained up on. I like the people facing jobs, I like talking to people (preferably in a different language), I like solving problems for people and being helpful. On reception you are often the first person new guests meet at the hostel and being the face of that first impression is no small responsibility.
Volunteers are only ever charged with the evening shift, from 5.30pm to 11.30pm when reception closes, as it is much quieter than the morning shift. There is a list of things to go through, such as finishing any laundry from the cleaning shift in the morning, checking the details of the bookings made in the past few days and the arrivals in the next few days, turning lights on as it gets dark, giving the kitchen a quick clean, taking the bins out, feeding the cats and more. You might also have check ins which includes giving them a tour of the hostel. Keeping an eye on the emails is very important so that you catch when new bookings come in. Crucially, do not overbook the hostel! When a booking comes in on one platform like Hostelworld, it doesn’t just need to be logged in the hostel’s own system but blocked off on the other platforms like Booking.com. On my first solo shift, that was the one thing I needed to do, or not do as that case may be, and guess what I did? Overbooked the hostel. But with some help from Pasqui, the manager, the crisis was averted and you can be sure l never did it again!
By the end of my time at La Tortuga I was averaging two cleaning shifts and two reception shifts a week which I liked as a combo. The cleaning shifts were more physically demanding, a lot of running back and forth, up and down the stairs, and if you’ve ever put a fitted sheet on a top bunk, you know you break a sweat! In comparison, the reception shift always left my brain feeling a little frazzled. There was a lot more that you had to be on top of at all times but weirdly combined with stretches of boredom when things were quiet. Finishing at 11.30pm added to the tiredness at the end of it. Having the mixture kept things interesting for me and also means that some days I got afternoons off and some days mornings.
In addition to cleaning and reception for some, volunteers had some additional responsibilities. The hostel has several organised activities, like an in house yoga class, a group outing to a bar for live flamenco music or a trip to a beach to watch a sunset. Each week one volunteer would be tasked with leading the trip to the flamenco bar and the beach for sunset in the place of a regular shift. In the same vein, someone would be put in charge of watering the grass and general gardening for the week, also in place of a normal shift.
On top of those more formal duties, there are certain unofficial things that volunteers are expected to do as well. These are just things like nurturing the friendly, welcoming environment around the place and chatting to new and old guests alike. If there was ever a face we didn’t know, that was a sign to strike up a conversation. It was so easy to get to know people really quickly in La Tortuga, it was a bit of a magnet for really sound people, and in a matter of days you might feel like you’ve known that person for much longer. However, as a new person coming into a situation like that, it can be a bit intimidating unless those already included reach out a hand to pull you in as well. Everyone was welcome in this family of tortugeños (the affectionate term for anyone at La Tortuga), no matter their age or where they came from or anything else, and a large part of that responsibility fell to volunteers. This was actually potentially one of the more difficult aspects to the job. Despite being someone who enjoys talking to new people, especially in places like La Tortuga, when this is essentially part of your job it gets a little tiring at times. Everybody has days when they don’t want to speak to anyone, whether it’s because you’re tired, hungover, on your period or just not in the mood.
The Other Volunteers
I was lucky to be surrounded by an incredible group of people for the seven weeks that La Tortuga was my home. In fact, I don’t think it actually was luck. I think they are very good at picking who they want to volunteer and in doing this carefully, they curate a group of people who are not only hard working and willing go the extra mile but also who are almost predisposed to get on with each other. We often joked that time doesn’t exist in La Tortuga, there is no concept of days passing, which means sometimes it all blends into one a little but also means that the forming of relationships are massively accelerated. People come and go throughout your time there, guests and volunteers alike, and there were a few volunteers who left within the first week after I arrived. In just a short amount of time I felt like I got to know these people really well.
As I settled in more, there was a core group of volunteers that were more or less the same for about three weeks. When I think of my time in La Tortuga, those are the people that I think of. There were people from different sides of the world, four people from Latin America and four from Europe, bringing a mix of languages, cultures and experiences together. We shared dishes from our own countries for each other (like moussaka from Greece or great barbequed meat from Brazil), we shared music with each other (500 Miles by The Proclaimers was put on anytime the Spotify queue got passed around and my new favourite band is Oques Grasses who are Catalan), and we shared ourselves with each other. In this way it reminded me a lot of the relationships that formed very quickly between myself and the other Project Trust volunteers I went to Honduras with. Sharing a unique experience brings people much closer much faster than normal. I know that some of the people I volunteered beside will be friends for life. In fact, I’ve already met up with one of them who happened to come to Edinburgh right after leaving Tenerife, just a few weeks after I got home!
Working in a Hostel
Overall, what was working in a hostel like? Pretty much what I imagined. That’s to say a relaxed environment filled with friendly people and good vibes. When I was working it was hard work but nothing too difficult or complicated and I even got to learn a lot of new skills. Even when you’re not working, you are still an integral part of the hostel staff. Here I want to give a proper shoutout to the full time staff members of La Tortuga, Karen and Mia on reception and Ale and Pasqui, the managers. Without Karen and Mia, the volunteers wouldn’t have a clue what is going on. They kept us right with what our work was, they were a steady presence when you arrived at this new place and they were a never ending source of knowledge and advice. If there was ever a question that I couldn’t answer or someone wanted more information that I didn’t have, I directed them to our wonderful receptionists. They both started as volunteers so know the highs and lows well. As for the managers, I only crossed paths with Ale for my first few days as he was away for a well deserved holiday for most of the time I was there. However I can tell that he is the life of the party when he is around and that the hostel is incredibly important to him. During my first day of training all the volunteers and any guests hanging around were summoned outside to cheer and drum, smoke flares in hand, while he climbed on the roof to film a video celebrating the win of his football team! Pasqui was around while I was there and he was a steady hand in a storm, helping me when I accidentally overbooked the hostel, working behind the scenes to keep things running smoothly and popping up randomly at flamenco night, live music evenings and even carnival!
I liked the sociable aspect of working in a hostel a lot as well. I’ve already spoken about the other volunteers but it was great getting to know the guests as well. There are all kinds of people coming through and of course you aren’t going to get on with everyone but I found some real gems who I’m still in touch with now. I did have a little dip in enthusiasm about three weeks in because I found it frustrating that people that I had met and formed a friendship with would leave after a few days, a week max. This might sound obvious but once you’re in that situation, it starts to feel like there’s no point making an effort with anyone because they’re going to leave soon. However, I got over it and learnt to just enjoy the time I had with the people I was meeting.
La Tortuga is exactly the kind of hostel that I love to stay in myself so any praise you hear from me is genuine. Knowing how much I would love it even if I was just there for a few days as a guest, being able to peek behind the curtain was even more special. Seeing the inner workings of a hostel has given me more appreciation for all the work it takes and the amount of thought that goes into giving a guest the best experience possible. At La Tortuga it’s all about being as friendly and welcoming a place as possible, not profit. I’ve stayed in plenty of hostels over the years and my favourites, the ones I still think about and would go back to in a heartbeat are the ones like La Tortuga. The smaller ones, the ones with a family feel, where you’re not just another wallet walking through. In my opinion it’s what a hostel should be like.
Next up we have a bit of a combination of this post and the last one, looking at how the Workaway profile of La Tortuga compared with what I experienced in real life. It includes more details on the living situation for volunteers, the food provided, what is expected of you and also what I spent while I was there! If there’s anything specific you want to hear about, let me know!