How to Hitchhike Abroad, Our Story
"An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered."
Gilbert K. Chesterton
Hitchhiking came about organically for us, and started as a progression. Prior to St. John, we've both respectably avoided hitchhiking. But something about the rum-infused air of the Caribbean brought us to the brink, and our low budget pushed us right over the edge.
Our first brush with hitchhiking was informative and not altogether successful. We were pleasantly tired and hungry after snorkeling and getting our camp set up the way we wanted before our second night at Cinnamon Bay. Our stomachs threatened mutiny at the thought of another Luna Bar, the sugar in them cloying after making them our primary fare for two days. We trekked up the massive hill from our campsite to the commissary to find out about dinner and were chagrined to learn it was a $20/plate affair that looked likely to occur on disposable plates and in the open feasting grounds of mosquitos in the thick jungle. At that point, anything seemed better than our only available option. Taxis waited just outside the commissary ready to charge us $7 per person each way. Nearly $30 total for transportation was unthinkable on our budget. With the roads being too treacherous to walk safely, no other restaurants within four miles, and nightfall coming, we made a bold choice: escape the campground creatively, or eat more Luna Bars for dinner. It was do or die time.
Walking past the bathrooms, we'd overheard some tourists talking about their car. They'd come to Cinnamon Bay for the day and were headed back to Cruz Bay where we'd discovered a plethora of dining options the night before. I butted in and asked them if we could ride along, and they said their car was already full, and they had to sit on each others’ laps as it was. So we trudged back up to the parking area to try to find someone else who could help us. Nervously, we eyed each group of tourists coming and going from the parking lot, and we made a few feebly awkward attempts to ask for a ride. After a while, the same group of folks arrived at the upper parking area and told us they’d talked about it and decided we could ride in the trunk area of their Jeep. A feeling of freedom washed over us as we piled in next to their beach gear. And that’s how these vagabond-hearted travelers turned into hitchhikers.
On our drive, we picked our short-term friends’ brains about ideas of where to stay, what to see, and so forth. They told us they come here all the time and they love this place. They told us that they’d just recently chartered a boat to go see a bunch of different islands. It sounded like they’d had a marvelous time, and when we asked the cost, we choked a bit as they told us they’d spent $95 per person for the boat plus $50 per person for customs on the British islands...and it was so worth it. They said they'd gotten a cheap deal. We felt sure as we listened to them that there had to be cheaper options. .
Just at the edge of Cruz Bay, our temporary friends let us out of the Jeep to avoid getting in trouble for having us in the trunk. We walked into town and all the way through to the other side stopping to request menus to peruse prices, and always moving on because nothing fell within our price range. We stopped at the much-raved-about Banana Deck to take a picture, but then moved on because of prices.
Feeling a bit concerned about time (restaurants close here promptly at 9pm and taxis stop at that time, too, we’re told), we chose a place that had food in our price range…on the appetizer menu. We sat down and found there were also burgers for *close* to what we could afford. And even still it wasn’t low enough. We walked out spending $33 on the meal. That makes today pretty wildly expensive for this trip, and it strengthened our resolve to stick to the things we brought with us or eat small even if our hunger was on a mad rampage.
We asked our waitress about transportation options to other islands since we’d planned to go to Jost Van Dyke and Virgin Gorda the following day. She told us the ferry runs a cool $100 per person round trip plus $50 for customs and it’s just so worth it. We died a little inside. Our hopes of seeing other islands vanished. The cost of passage to an island we could see from our beach (and could reach on a paddleboard if we needed to) would be a much higher price than the airfare that brought us to this epic tourist trap.
Somewhat disheartened, we tried to hitchhike our way back to camp, but discovered that the tourists in the area were either staying in Cruz Bay or were taking spendy cab rides to expensive resorts around the island. Since our campground is pretty far out of the way, we ended up having to hail a cab and pay the gouging $7 per person to ride back to camp. We rallied behind the fact that we'd only had to pay to go one way for the evening. It felt like a miniscule victory.
On our way, we rode with a couple who was staying at the Westin, and a couple who was staying in a house-like structure in our campground. So far, everyone we’ve met seems to be serious regulars on this island. Our fellow cab riders also talked about how many years they've been coming to St. John, about returning in a few months, and then again one more time before this tourist season is over. And none of them mention flying on Spirit. All we knew is that these were not our people.
The people in our cab looked at us like we had just proclaimed allegiance to North Korea or announced we were doing research to try to grow a third arm when we said we wanted to hike to and from town. Jason tried explaining that there were trails, but everyone was too busy gasping about how dangerous it would be on the roads, so no one heard.
We dropped off the folks from the Westin and then we began to ask questions of our fellow Cinnamon Bay campers. They told us they come here all the time and they do it “cheap.” They explained that they can’t stomach the hotel prices which range from $300 per night to $600 on average, so they "camp" in the hotel-like rooms which cost double what our tent costs per night, but well under the average for this crazy island.
They told us Salt Pond was well worth the visit and there’s a bus that runs to that area. The bus costs $2 to cross the entire island. You just have to get to a different road several miles away through dense jungle. We didn’t tell them we’ll likely hike to most places we go after that cab ride. They proudly declared that they use the taxi service on days when they want to be "cheap" and that they rented a Jeep for a few days before today and it was just so worth it. It cost them a cool $75 per day. To them, the cost seemed agreeable. For us on this trip, it's close to our entire daily budget including airfare, meals, lodging, transportation, and entertainment. But we just tried to look like it made sense to us so they didn't have to look at us like mutant beasts.
The taxi rounded straight-up hairpin corners that made me sure it would tip backwards from the extreme grade of the corner/hill combo. But we made it to the campground in a downpour and said goodbye to our friends who think they're traveling cheap. Then we turned in for the night ready for a glorious night in our hammock.
Two days later, we'd eaten copious quantities of Luna bars and fruit leather, met Princess and Ray, talked to other vagabonds at the campground, and made some important decisions about lodging and were readying for the next leg of our adventure. We'd tallied our mosquito bites and each of us had quit counting when we reached 150. Wheezing from the mold in the tent, we didn't want to take our chances on the house-like structures at Cinnamon Bay. For $10 more per day than the houses at Cinnamon Bay, we could go see another side of the island (which was fabled to be much drier and less mosquito-laden) and stay in an eco-tent resort I'd researched and found fascinating. I'd called Concordia, the eco-lodge, to reserve a tent for the final two nights, and a sense of relief washed over both of us on our third night as we bedded down knowing that in the morning we could gracefully bow out of our role as hosts for Dracula's feast of minions.
Coming out of the campground felt a bit like surfacing from a very odd, slightly pizza-induced dream. The air felt more open and alive with possibility. Light rain was our companion for most of the walking we did today and we marched happily through it.
We’d asked the receptionist at Concordia how much a taxi would cost and her best estimate was between $15 and $30 per person. In my opinion, there are far better ways to blow that kind of cash, so we opted for hitchhiking. We'd continued to hear how some of the locals use that as a primary mode of transportation.
We walked a short distance and came to some ruins of a sugar factory. There are ruins all over this island from the days of sugar production, including graves and all sorts of machinery.
We congratulated ourselves for teamwork, and from there, we began our hitchhiking in earnest again. It was still raining, but didn’t take long for a black truck with three local guys to pull over. We told them where we were going and they said they could get us closeish, so we hopped into the back of their pickup with bars around the top. Once we were situated, we gave each other knowing glances of pure excitement. This was exactly what we were hoping for.
The area was mountainous and rainy. It was stunningly beautiful, but nothing about it conjured the cold-weather memories that go with either Christmas or our wedding day. Neither did it seem remotely like Cinnamon Bay, or the things we'd heard about the side of the island we'd yet to reach. It was an entity all its own.
When the rain cleared a little, the couple running the food truck pointed the way to Coral Bay, the main "city" on the east side of the island, and we went on our jolly way.
As we chatted and he drove, he told us that if we’d buy him another beer, he’d take us all the way to Concordia instead of just to Coral Bay. It was an extra three miles, so we agreed. In Coral Bay, he stopped the car in front of a liquor and convenience store and we all went inside. The man behind the counter was from the Dominican Republic and wanted to have a real lengthy conversation with us about his roots. Our driver friend left the store, beer in hand, as the store owner waxed eloquent about how he’d lived here for just over 80 days and he was loving life on this island. He venerated island life enthusiastically and insisted on showing us a picture of a waterfall here on the island. Interrupting several other customers, he found the pictures on his phone and showed them to us. The waterfall was beautiful. Finally, we let him know we were ready to buy a beer for his friend, the man who was driving us, and we explained the arrangement. He told us we had no need to pay for him and the drink was comped. So we piled back in the car and pulled away from the store as our driver popped the cap on his second beer.
Our chatty driving friend stopped a short while later to pick up another local who was hitching her way to church. The driver set his seat upright so she could sit behond him and the woman climbed in the back seat with me. And there we rode along in perfect irony: the only person with alcohol in his hands was the driver who also lit up a cigarette as he drove, his passengers were perfect strangers, one bound for church, and the other two off to adventure on the map.
We dropped the lady off at her church, and our friend asked us more questions about our trip. When we told him we’d been staying in Cinnamon Bay, he howled with laughter. He kept repeating that we must have had a "great" time with the mosquitos, and he reassured us we had much fewer of them to worry about here. As we rounded our final corners, he pointed out his home on our route. Then he asked if we were the seasonal volunteer workers coming to the place, and we told him we wished so, but not this time. It was the first we’d heard of a volunteer program at this place.
He dropped us right outside the check-in desk for Concordia, and he drove off, beer in hand, still laughing out the window about mosquitos and Cinnamon Bay.
We went in to check in and asked about the volunteer program. A man named Matt who runs the program stepped around the desk and told us all about it. Apparently, every summer from June through October, Concordia takes on volunteers who can come spend a month here working on projects. The volunteers receive free lodging and discounted meals (but the tents also all have a full kitchen setup, so cooking is a viable option as well) in exchange for about 35 hours a week of work. They try to give about 2 days a week off so people can explore the island and see this ama
zing place. They take about 5-6 volunteers at a time, so the group becomes very tight-knit and the application process is fairly competitive. He seemed to really want to impress upon us that they require hard physical labor and that it’s very hot. He encouraged us to apply to the program and told us we can check out the website in mid-December for the Volunteer section.
This is their version of an eco-tent. We'll write more about it later, but it was unbelievably impressive to us.
After breakfast, we went, grinning ear-to-ear, to our tent on the mountainside and were elated to find a 2-storey house-like tent built on a deck high above the trees and receiving glorious ocean breezes. It was such a welcome relief, we took a nap.
These are two of the six beds available in our tent. We rented a basic tent.
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