I’ve spent many memorable nights in hotels, but none can compare to the night that I stayed at the infamous Hotel Real (Royal Hotel) in Alajuela, many, many moons ago. In retrospect, one should NEVER ask a law enforcement officer for directions to a notorious whore house that is the center of illegal drug activity and crime for the whole city. Especially so, if you are a foreigner in a strange land. I should have gotten a clue from the look on his face when I asked him for directions. But I was blissfully unaware of all of that at the time.
I learned FOUR valuable lessons that night.
While walking towards downtown Alajuela, Costa Rica looking for the Royal Hotel (What’s in a name?), I had an image in my head of a palatial old colonial structure near a beautiful central plaza. Man, how wrong I was about that!
Have you ever been alone in a foreign country and feared for your own safety? Did you think that once you got to the safety of your hotel that your fears would melt away, only to find out that your hotel ended up being the most dangerous place to be at? Then, what should you do?
I asked a few people along the way on the 3 km walk into town, for directions to the Hotel Real, but nobody seemed to know much about it. Several had never even heard of it. That seemed odd to me at the time. That should have been a big clue that something was amiss. But what would an old married couple on an evening stroll know about the location of drug houses or prostitution rings?
Then, I spotted the law enforcement officer. Surely, he could tell me how to find the hotel. The Policeman’s eyes became wide with astonishment when I asked him the first time. He stared at me intently. I thought that maybe my North American accent of my Spanish was confusing to him. So I repeated my question.
“Puede Usted decirme donde esta el Hotel Real?” I repeated, enunciating clearly. I then told him that the airline booked the hotel for me since they lost my luggage. That fact seemed to calm him a little bit, but not much. His steely gaze pierced right through my soul. Then he turned and pointed in the direction of the hotel and said that it was about two blocks away and then I would have to make a right turn.
I thanked him and went on my way. When I glanced back, he was still staring intently in my direction.
I had started the walk into town from Juan Santamaria Airport outside of San Jose, the capital city of Costa Rica. The airlines do NOT deliver lost luggage in Central America, so I would have to come back to the airport to claim it when it arrived on tomorrow’s flight. Since San Jose is not near the airport, I inquired about local hotels. The representative at the service desk phoned several hotels, but it seemed that all were booked full. I was not sure if I should stay and sleep at the airport or not. Just then, one of the airline representative’s colleagues suggested to try phoning El Hotel Real.
“Great….they have a room”, he told me as he was on the line with the hotel. It was only the equivalent of $7 USD for the night. That sounded like a bargain upgrade from sleeping at the airport, so I said YES.
“They are asking if you ONLY want the room”, he informed me. I thought that was a strange question. This should have been the first clue that something was a bit off.
“Yes, just the room for one night”, I replied.
The reaction of the policeman had given me a sense of uneasiness. As I turned the corner, I spotted the sign to the hotel. The building was a dilapidated three story building with crumbling stucco. Maybe at one time back in the 18th century it could have been considered to be upscale, but it looked like it hadn’t been updated in the last 200 years. Lots of pedestrians were circulating around the street outside. The sun was setting.
The reception was on the second floor. I climbed up the dimly lit stairwell. My olfactory senses detected a faint smell of stale beer and urine. Two ladies were sitting at the reception desk.
“I have a reservation for a room”, I stated, in Spanish.
“Ah yes. The American” they responded. “Do you still ONLY want the room?”, she asked.
I thought to myself….what else might she be referring to?
“Yes, just the room”, I replied with a frown.
With a wry smile, she handed me a metal key attached to a wooden stick. Unlike back in the States, the room had to be paid for in advance, in cash. I paid my $7 in Costa Rican Colones, the local currency. She handed me an old, faded towel that was as soft as 180 grit sandpaper and told me that the showers were at the end of the hall and my room was down the hall on the left.
The room had no window. The door to the room consisted of a wire cage. So much for privacy. In the middle of the room was a bed the size of a cot with a sagging mattress in the middle. The light switch turned on a 30 watt light bulb that was hanging from two frayed wires dropping down from the ceiling. I laid down on top of the bed, not wanting to see what lay under the covers. I rested with my eyes open for a while. It was going to be a long night.
It was getting late and I was hungry. I arose and decided to explore the town and look for a restaurant. I reluctantly surrendered my key to the reception and left the hotel. I would have worried about theft if I had all of my belongings with me, but they would not arrive in the country until tomorrow.
I found what looked like a decent restaurant a few blocks from the hotel, with some open air tables by the street side. When I asked for a seat, one of the waiters said that the kitchen was closing and the chef was going home. However, he said that I could have a bowl of soup or a salad which was already prepared. I agreed and ordered soup, bread and a beer.
When he brought me the food, he commented that there weren’t a lot of tourists who visited Alajuela. I told him about my eventful day.
“Where are you staying the night?”, he asked. When I told him where I was staying, he gasped in astonishment.
“You are in grave danger!”, we warned me. “The Hotel Real is a very dangerous place. Someone was killed there last week. Don’t go back there! Wait here until I get off of work. You can come home and stay at my house. I get off work in about another hour.”
Dead reader, have you felt vulnerable or been afraid for your life in a foreign country? What would you do? My passport and camera were back at the room. Would they be stolen? At some point I would have to eventually go back. And, should I trust that this waiter had the best of intentions?
Time to make a decision. Making the wrong one could have serious consequences.
Rather than wait around another hour until my newfound friend go off work, I decided to return to the hotel. He told me he would come for me when he got off work. Was he really a concerned person who would help me, or someone else who would take advantage of a vulnerable traveler? I hoped it was the former, but now had to think about the latter.
On the way back to the hotel, I stopped at a shop and bought myself a knife with a sheath. I attached it to my belt and went back to the “Royal Hotel.” It might offer minimal protection during a mugging. I hoped I wasn’t bringing knife to a gun fight.
There were a lot of people in the lounge of the hotel watching a soccer game on TV and drinking. Most of the men had young women sitting in their laps. A picture of a naked woman hung on the wall next to the TV from a calendar that was two years old. The place was a lot noisier than when I left. The woman at the reception desk smirked as she handed me the key to my jail cell. I wondered what devious thoughts were behind that look that she gave me.
I locked myself in the room and lay on the bed with the light on. I opened the folding knife and kept it in my hand by my side. I waited for well over an hour for the waiter to come and ask me to stay at his home, but he never came.
Through the paper thin walls I could hear a couple having sex in the room next to mine. Squeaking springs, banging bedposts and moaning momentarily drowned out the loud talking, drinking and the noise of the TV in the background. Through the wire cage in my front door, I saw people constantly walking by. Were they thinking about breaking in and robbing me? Or did the room next door have a door like mine where they could view a couple having sex? Both of those alternatives were disconcerting.
I don’t know how many hours I stayed awake lying on top of the sheets with the light on and my hand on my knife, while mayhem lurked outside of the room. The night seemed like an eternity as I waited for dawn. But I must have fallen asleep at some point. At some point my eyes opened, and I didn’t hear any more noise. I tiptoed down the hall to the bathroom to relieve my bladder when I noticed that it was beginning to get light outside. Time for my escape!
Gathering what few belongings I had with me, I headed for the stairwell and my escape, only to find a locked metal gate blocking my escape route. Drunks were passed out all over the floor of the steps, on both sides of the metal gate. I was trapped!
The reception desk was empty. I rang the bell and banged on the office door. Finally, a woman emerged, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. She grabbed a key to the gate and opened it. I had to step carefully around all of the drunk bodies passed out on the steps. The stairwell had an even more pungent stench than the night before.
Exhilarated to make my escape relatively unscathed, I hastily hiked back to the airport and waited for the morning plane to arrive with my backpack and luggage. I survived the night and would live to see another day!
The moral of this story? Don’t be fooled by a fancy name! If a hotel was really ROYAL, it would cost more than the equivalent of $7 USD and you would not have to pay in advance in Cash. If any hotel ever asks you, dear reader, “what else would you like besides the room?”, then just run (don’t walk) in the other direction. And, if you have a feeling that something just doesn’t seem right, you are probably correct about that!
The four valuable lessons I learned on that fateful night.
- When you smell alcohol and urine on the way to the front desk of the hotel you have a reservation for that evening, turn around immediately and walk away.
- Whenever you are lost in a foreign country and ask a law enforcement officer for directions and his eyes grow wide and his jaw drops, it’s a clue that you shouldn’t go there.
- Never stay in a hotel room that has a wire cage for a door.
- Try not to check a bag when flying, but fit all of your stuff in a carry on bag. If I had done that, I would never have had the “Hotel Real Experience.”
Now, if I ever have to take a lie detector test for some reason, and someone asks the question “have you ever spent the night in a whore house?”, I would have to truthfully answer YES. Would it make any difference if I added the fact that it happened at a ROYAL HOTEL? Probably not…..
But, at the same time I would have to insist that they also ask me, “did you pay for anything besides the room?” Thankfully, and truthfully, I can honestly answer “NO”.