By: Margarita de los Ríos
Photos: Demian Colman
We came upon Selina while taking a leisurely walk through the Casco Viejo in Panama City, not knowing that life was about to introduce us to yet another adventure in our extensive experience as nomads. My husband and I are accustomed to shouldering our rucksacks and taking off on a trip with a location in mind, but unconcerned about time, exact itineraries, or possible deviations, so this idea seemed tailor-made.
Last summer, we left behind a burning Buenos Aires and headed for Central America, our chosen destination this time, and of course, our starting point was Panama. Our nomadic lifestyle is made possible, without a doubt, by technology; we’re freelancers and our office is a laptop.
After seeing the “essentials” in the city, it was time to veer off the beaten track and start our adventure. As a teenager I dreamed of surfing and for years I had been toying with the idea of visiting Playa Venao, a hidden beach in the country’s interior. It is renowned among global surfers for its special waves, and during our walk through the Casco Viejo something caught my attention on a sign that read, “Selina Embassy,” so I stepped inside to enquire. Thus began our discovery. After hearing a description of the “concept,” we decided to chart a course along Selina destinations.
After about five hours on the road, we spotted the iconic Volkswagen nestled on one of the streets in Pedasí announcing that we had arrived at the right place. Pedasí is a pictures que town in the province of Los Santos with no more than five thousand inhabitants. Its colorful single story houses lend a je ne sais quoi to the place that makes you want to remain here in peace forever. It was nearby, in Playa Venao to be exact, where the fastest growing hotel chain in the world was born in 2014.
But it was in Pedasí where, in 2007, young Israelis Rafael Museri and Daniel Rudasevski originally came after traveling the world and seeing countless places. The two friends were convinced that they had invented a completely new model for the hospitality industry –neither the typical backpacker hostel nor a traditional hotel. Their project would draw both wealthier travelers and backpackers, united by a common desire to share with the communities they visited, understand their cultures, and exchange experiences with other travelers. This led to the launch of their first hostel in Venao, the most popular surfing beach in the Panamanian Pacific, located only a few miles from Pedasí.
Their second location was where we had just arrived: Pedasí, and the hostel’s Department of Exploration (an essential part of any Selina, for guiding guests to local attractions) suggested we begin our adventure with an excursion to Isla Iguana. This tiny paradise in the Panamanian Pacific, only minutes away by boat, has everything: a powdery sand beach, a coral reef abundant in colorful species, easily accessible nesting areas for pelicans and swallow-tailed kites, and an amazing hermit crab population. So much on such a small island!
The following day we traveled on to my dream destination, Playa Venao, where I hoped to surf for the first time. As soon as we arrived, we remarked upon the inviting atmosphere that makes hostels so much fun: friendly, talkative people, gatherings around a bonfire, stories of Australia, France, or Argentina told in an English that was more “universal” than official. Our idea of perfect hospitality.
We stepped into the CoWork space (another essential part of the ecosystem) and saw a barefoot man in bathing trunks, dressed in a suit and tie from the waist up. He was in a Skype business meeting and undoubtedly the type of CEO who has figured out how to lead a nomadic life. We moved on to the bar, where the music remained at a suitable volume so as not to overpower the conversation. There I met Moisés, the person in charge of the surf lessons and a partner in the small shop where a number of surfboards were hanging. Moisés came from Israel. He was obsessed with the idea of making a living from surfing in a Central American country and here he was, in the middle of nowhere, living his dream. As we chatted, we were joined by the kind of characters that you only meet in places like this.
I learned that the kitchen garden that I noticed at the entrance is a common feature in all the chain’s establishments and that it provides the vegetables and herbs for daily cooking. I also discovered the “Selina Gives Back” program, through which employees contribute 2% of their work time to the community, teaching English or cooking classes, for example. In addition, when Selina arrives in a new location they host a workshop in which global designers work with local artisans and artists to manufacture furnishings and transform existing items: old doors become works of art hanging on the walls, old lamps become armchairs, etc. This ensures a cultural exchange in which knowledge is transmitted and work is generated in the community. We move on to the rooms: standard dorms with several bunk beds and shared bathrooms (as in most hostels) and boutique suites with king-size beds, beautiful decor, and a private bathroom (new to this type of accommodation).
So I wonder, who is Selina’s target audience? The official answer is digital nomads and entrepreneurs not tied to an office; millennials typically holding off on marriage, the accumulation of assets, and financial commitments in order to travel and experience different cultures; and undeniably the new Generation Z, two billion consumers now entering the job market in the digital era. But also “older” travelers, those who were backpackers in their youth and now, “settled,” want to share the wonder of traveling light (but comfortably) with their children. My personal answer? For anyone who likes to travel, share with the locals, and enjoy social encounters with other travelers.
From the outside, all the doors look the same; it’s impossible to know whether an eight-person dormitory lies behind a door or one of the much more expensive suites. Finally, and almost without realizing it, I made an appointment with Moisés for the following morning, sharing with him my history as a frustrated surfer, and he promised to teach me. Despite my attempts to make plain my terrible physical condition, he assured me that I’d be successful and bets were placed all around.
The class starts on the beach. We draw a board in the sand and pretend to surf, danger free. Once I gain enough confidence, we step into the sea. I fall, Moses repeats his instructions, and I fall again. He talks about the sea, the waves, and timing. I have to learn to read the landscape as he does, become part of the wave, and let go of the fears that have haunted me for so many years. Suddenly, I get on the board, paddle when instructed, and jump up: I’m surfing! The feeling of floating on water is indescribable. The wind in my face and several seconds –which for me had actually been years in the making– of pure joy.
Having lived my dream, it was back on the road for another eight hours. We headed for Isla Colón and Red Frog, in Bocas del Toro, two more Selina locations on two of the islands that make up this western Caribbean province in Panama.
Selina began expanding after their model in Venao took off. By 2017 they had ten locations, mainly in Central America. A second round of investors provided 95 million dollars and the company began to expand to South America, North America, and Europe as well, with the opening of their first hotel in Oporto (Portugal).
There are now a total of 29 locations in nine countries; by 2019 there will be forty, and by the end of 2020 they expect to increase their offerings to 53,000 beds worldwide. It is the fastest growing chain worldwide.
What is the secret to their rapid growth? I asked Humberto Bouche, the Country Manager in Panama. “The model is as agile as the current traveler: the first step is to locate and secure long-term rental of an existing property in an attractive place, followed by a speedy conversion lasting 90-120 days, after which we’re ready to begin operating, with just a fourth of the investment of a normal hotel, thanks to our Workshops, in which existing materials are readapted.”
Each place is different and aligned with its particular location: Venao is about surfing; Casco Viejo is good food and rumba; Lima is gastronomy; Antigua has an incomparable view of Agua Volcano; Madera, Nicaragua is also for surfing; and Manuel Antonio, in Costa Rica, focuses on nature.
In Selina I discovered that it is possible to travel in a group, even if you’re alone, that one should never pass through a community without allowing it to leave a mark on you, and that traveling is a way of life even though millennials are always being told that it’s time to settle down.