“Hello Father Michael, I was told next door at the church to come here and ask for you. I’m from the United States and passing through. I’ve heard that some Monasteries may take people in for a night or two and wanted to find out if I could stay here for a night.”
“Yes, come on in, we just sat down for dinner. You can put your stuff here, Brother George will take you to your room after dinner.”
“Thank you Father.”
That is the conversation I had with the Father at the first monastery I attempted to “surf” at. Monastery Surfing, my new term references Couch Surfing, which I use to stay with locals during my travels. While I love Couch Surfing, it’s not always an option, so outside of camping, I’ve found other ways to obtain free accommodation, such as monasteries, Red Cross’s, and random locals.
I first got the idea to try to surf at monasteries from a traveler I met in Xela, Guatemala. She was excited to meet the man who was trying to spend only $700 in 2.5 months while going through all of Central America. She had heard about me from another traveler who I had met in Nicaragua. She told me that if she was doing what I was, she would be staying at churches. Her father had always told her that if she ever got into trouble and needed help or a place to stay, to go to a church, they’re usually open 24/7.
While that certainly was never my experience, most I had seen were closed a lot, and this is still true, I liked the idea and decided to try it. I was able to hitch hike my way to Cobán, a town that I heard had a monastery and was close enough to my destination, Semuc Champey, where I planned to do some bridge jumping, to stop at. This is where the above conversation comes into play.
After the Father invited me in, we sat down at a dinner table with three Brothers. We had a delicious meal of rice and beans, plantains, fresh fruits, and juices. I was lucky that they all spoke English very well, so we were able to get to know each other a bit. I was glad I was also able to give a bit back by entertaining them with travel stories.
After dinner, I was shown to my room. I was surprised to find that I had my own room. There were three beds to choose from, I was provided toiletries, and I had access to WI-FI in the Father’s office. It was better than a hotel!
In the morning after making my bed, I went looking for Father Michael to thank him again.
I found a maid in the kitchen and she informed me that the Father was gone for the day. She then offered me a delicious breakfast and water to fill my bladder (the one in my backpack… not like the, you know, one where it goes once you’ve drank something…) I thanked her and asked her to thank Father Michael.
After Guatemala, I surfed at two more monasteries in Belize. I found the first monastery in Santa Elena, not far into the country. I did the same approach, only this time, informed the Father that I was a bit sick, exhausted, and needed rest (Montezuma was taking his Revenge.) He informed me that they usually only let people stay for a night, but he would allow me to stay a second if I needed extra time to rest.
Again, I was provided with my own room, food, a shower, and WI-FI. I explored a bit in this town, but mostly I rested. On the second day, I met a Canadian, Father Nicholas, who was visiting from the monastery just west in San Ignacio. He invited me to come to his monastery to experience the Festival of the Patron Saint Mary that was taking place over the next couple of days.
I love festivals, especially ones based so deep in culture and religion, and loved the festival in this small town. The first part of the festival was a parade. The whole town came out to watch as members of the Church, Brother’s, and Father’s carried the statue of Mary around the town.
After the parade was a feast. I was happy to be able to serve the masses food and give back a little after I had been given so much. Following the food were fireworks, though not the usual big, colorful fireworks. First, was a street length set of firecrackers, a constant pop-pop-pop, for a full 30 seconds. Then there were the Bombas. Bombas shoot up into the air and make a small explosion and a very loud BOM-BA sound. They are awesome to experience.
The next morning, I went to my first Catholic service. While embarrassing, it could’ve been worse. At one point, the Father welcomed the congregation to partake in the Eucharist. As a Christian, I’ve experienced Communion many times, and anyone is welcome to partake, whether a devout Christian or not.
I followed the others to the front to take the Eucharist and after watching a few people go up to the Father, say a silent phrase, take the Eucharist and walk away, I still had no clue what exactly the procedure was. I ended up in front of the Father looking like a deer caught in headlights. I was grateful when he took pity on me and gave me the piece of bread. It was only later that I found out what I was supposed to say. I also found out that the Eucharist is only meant to be taken by devout Catholics and that he gave it to this little deer out of compassion to end it’s misery.
After the festival, I found out that the Church and these great people turned out to be the gift from God that kept on giving. I was planning on hitch hiking my way into Mexico now that I had rested a bit. Father Nicholas told me that he and a few others were going to make their way to Mexico that same day and that they were making room for me in the van. Once again, I was so grateful, I no longer needed to use the bit of energy I had stored to try to catch rides.
Monastery surfing has been one of the best experiences I’ve had while traveling. The people are amazing and it’s hard to beat free hotel level accommodation that includes food. This is definitely a underutilized form of accommodation. It is a diamond in the rough and I don’t see enough people trying this anytime soon to jade the church, so it’s worth keeping in mind as an option through your travels.
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P.S. Sadly, due to my camera and cell phone being stolen in Nicaragua, the above photos are stock and not the actual monasteries I stayed at.