Top 5 Tips: Question to Ask When Renting in the Tropics / by Amy Thibodeau

Photos and text by Amy Thibodeau

I am smack in the middle of spending six weeks in San Blas, located in the Nayarit province of Mexico. It is stop two on our around-the-world year of travel, chosen in part because we wanted to be immersed in a different culture long enough to get a real sense of it, which is nearly impossible when staying in a resort community. We also wanted to be near the ocean; lastly but crucially important, we needed to stay somewhere cheap. Japan is going to be very expensive so we need to cut corners where possible in this early leg of our journey.

I was exquisitely naive when booking our six week accommodations in San Blas. I looked at the website, read one or two reviews, had a nice email chat with the owners and promptly transferred half the amount owed to secure our rental. It turns out that although it isn't quite as comfortable as we hoped it would be, a few small adjustments are allowing us to cope with things and live relatively comfortably. There are a range of different kind of rental situations in most countries spanning from very basic camping to luxury hotels. The most important thing is to ask the right questions so that, wherever you end up, it meets your expectations.

The reason I've focused this list on hot weather climates it because there are different factors at play here: temperature, a special range of gigantic insects and, in some locations, variable bathroom facilities. Please feel free to add additional tips to our list in the comments below.

Five Questions to Ask Prospective Landlords in Tropical Climates

1. Are there screens on the windows and are the doors sealed (or mostly sealed)? When I first moved from Canada to the United Kingdom, I was stuck by the lack of screens on windows. Where I'm from in the Canadian Prairies, everyone has good solid screens to keep out the mosquitoes that try to eat us alive every summer. It turned out that the UK is relatively bug-free - a fact that still confuses me given that it is essentially a rainy island.

In Mexico and other tropical areas, screens are equally uncommon outside of resort areas but unfortunately, the blood sucking, flesh nibbling bugs are numerous. I didn't think to ask about window screens before we booked our bungalow and we are lucky because it does have screens; unfortunately, the screens have seen better day and have holes and gaps in them. There are also big gaps under our door.

We've managed to mostly bug proof our home by laying towels along the bottom of the doors to the outside, shoving an old Vanity Fair in the gaps between the window screen frames and the walls and using duct tape to manage just about everything else. It would have been good to have a realistic sense of this in advance to ensure we were more prepared. We may have also brought along mosquito netting to sleep under if we'd known ahead of time.

2. What are the bathrooms like and do the toilets flush? We knew in advance of booking that we had a private bathroom but we didn't ask any specific questions about it. As people who are generally used to traveling in Europe, Canada and the USA, it didn't occur to us that the washroom facilities might not be what we were expecting. Often the bathroom is the ugliest room in any rental property and often photographs aren't included on the website; it's not a bad idea to ask to see pictures before making your booking.

Our bathroom is ugly - more of a wet room than a proper bathroom - but thankfully everything is in working order. When we first arrived we were worried, because there is a sign next to the toilet that says "Please do not flush toilet paper, antique system." This was a pretty big concern because we both had ranging cases of touristas (bad belly) and it was hot; the idea of putting soiled paper in the rubbish bin was almost unthinkable. Luckily, we've pretty much ignored the sign and three weeks in, it's still flushing. Fingers crossed it stays that way.

3. What temperature controls are available? This is a fairly obvious one. If you going to stay somewhere hot, you should find out if your accommodation has air conditioning and if not, whether there are there decent size windows or fans. In other words, how do you control the temperature. Maybe more importantly, it is crucial that you be honest with yourself about the seasonal reality of where you're visiting and your tolerance for heat.

Our bungalow is not air conditioned but it does have lots of windows with a good cross-flow of air and fans in every room. When I booked it I was still in London, where it had been cool and rainy for months and I couldn't fathom that the heat would be a problem. It's like going grocery shopping when you're hungry - it's easy to get caught up in the excitement of a new experience and forget about your reality. We've managed without air conditioning but as we're both trying to work while here, it's been a challenge; some nights the humidity is at over 80% and sleep is very difficult. If I had it to do over, I would realize that six weeks is too long to go without air conditioning in this climate - at least for us. I also suspect that the bugs would be less prevalent in an air conditioned place.

4. Are there any loud bars or roads next to where you'll be staying? What is the policy on noise control? The place we're renting did an excellent job of letting us know where our bungalow would be positioned within the town and it's great; we are about five minutes on foot to a beautiful beach and about ten minutes in the opposite direction to the center of town. What they didn't tell us (and we didn't think to ask) is that there is a bar right next door. In an urban setting or an accommodation with air conditioning, this might not matter too much because your windows would probably be closed. In a tropical climate, the windows are always wide open, all the time so a thumping club next door can be pretty hard to ignore.

The second part of the question just lets you know what you're signing up for. Maybe you plan to be up howling at the moon all night - but it's important to know that you're staying in a place that allows you to do that. If you're like us and sleep is important, it's equally important to know whether your landlord does anything to discourage disruptive tenants.

5. Can I have a list of amenities and services that are included? It's best not assume anything. You will want to make sure the following items are included with your rental or make sure you're prepared if they aren't:

  • If you've rented a place with a kitchen, are dishes and cookware are included?
  • Are towels and bedding included? Who launders them when they become soiled?
  • Is bottled drinking water provided? Is the tap water in the hotel potable? Is there a limit to how much potable water is provided as part of your agreement?
  • Is there internet and/or cable television available?
  • Is cleaning included? If so, how often does it happen? If not, how much does it cost?
  • It toilet paper included?
  • Are there laundry facilities? If not, where is the nearest launderette?
  • Will you place be secure? Do windows and doors lock? Is there a safe available?

These question will be more pertinent to people (like us) who intend on staying somewhere for a prolonged period of time. It also may be that you are accustomed to traveling rough and these details don't make any difference to you. But if you're like me and you're looking for somewhere you can call home for awhile, the details matter.

Despite not asking any of the right questions when we booked, we've actually settled in fairly nicely here. We leave for the next leg of our journey at the end of July and I think we'll both be feeling a pretty big sense of accomplishment that we weathered the intense heat and the bugs in a place that falls well outside our comfort zone.