Tranquil Nature Reserve Actually Shanty Town

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Disastrous holiday with appalling customer service. Never will I use Airbnb again.

Over two months ago we found out my partner was pregnant. We decided that before the baby arrived we wanted a relaxing and peaceful break where we could quietly celebrate the news with her parents. We set about searching for somewhere suitable. We are both experienced travellers all over the world and happy hiking and camping but obviously this time with my partner being pregnant and her elderly parents coming along we didn’t want anything too basic.

We settled on the idea of a nearby island of Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands which is owned by Spain. It is frequented by millions of European tourists per year and well developed so it should have been a very easy trip.

After much research I finally found the perfect place on Airbnb located in a nature reserve in the north of the island. The description said “ideal for those who choose tranquility” and “for those who want to live in contact with nature while enjoying the sport and what seas of tranquility offer.”

Again, as my partner is pregnant, we didn’t want anything too basic and this was the perfect fit: TV, iron, laptop-friendly workspace, etc. We even got an extra reminder that this was one of a “few places in the area where breakfast would be included!”

It was advertised at 50 euros a night but slightly less on the nights we were looking for. I naively was only slightly wary when I saw it just had one review but it was a new place that had very recently opened and it was absolutely glowing: “The garden gives great spaces for the eyes. A feeling of great freedom, openness, connection with the authentic nature of Fuerteventura… great pleasure staying in the house… contemplate the beauty of what surrounds you.”

It went on and on with absolute rave reviews. This guest clearly thought this was the best, most beautiful place she had ever stayed so surely we in the very worst case weren’t going to dislike it. We booked four nights and were very excited about it. How wrong we were.

The trip started out well with good communication from the host who by a strange coincidence turned out to be Italian just like the solitary reviewer. Polite, quick to respond and would be meeting us at the property at the check in time. After a long day of travelling, by late evening we drove into the nature reserve; the reviews were correct, it was beautiful.

I continued to follow my GPS across a dirt track towards our peaceful isolated house. Upon the horizon a group of buildings started to appear. As we got closer we realised that these buildings were in fact made of pallets and various other discarded materials and were surrounded by rubbish. This was a medium sized chabola illegal house, called slums or favela in other parts of the world.

We have seen many of these on our travels through Asia and Africa. Essential and unavoidable in many developing countries but unusual to find in the middle of a nature reserve. It was with absolute disbelief when I saw the GPS was taking me right into the middle of it.

However, there was no GPS mistake when I pulled up outside a somewhat recognisable house and was met by a smiling host and a stray pit bull. We were quickly ushered into the house which in fairness wasn’t too different from what we were expecting; the interior matches the photos that were displayed. We had studied the photos on the website so we knew the basic style and layout.

What wasn’t apparent from the pictures was the horrible smell and that it was that it was an entirely open plan including the bathroom and toilet which was adjoining the living room. My partner started to panic about having to ask everyone to leave the house any time she needed the toilet (which is often during pregnancy).

It was then the other conditions started to be explained. First, there was no water main; it came from an outside container which is very limited so ‘use the toilet at least four times before flushing it’ as it will run out. Second, no electricity. We were taken back outside through a broken rusted door that was falling down and needed to be tied on by rope. There we found an old generator and a couple of jerrycans.

Our host politely explained the quirks of how to start this particular old generator. He also explained that it would last about five hours, then I needed to drive to a nearby petrol station (about 30 minutes), buy enough petrol to fill a jerrycan, and then refill the generator with a half water bottle scattered around the floor that could be used as a funnel.

While I was trying to work out why I was having to pay for the petrol or the logistics having to refill something every five hours night and day just to have a fridge working or the lights on I became aware that it wouldn’t really be a problem as there was no way we were going to be able to stand the ridiculous noise of the generator for longer than five minutes, let alone five hours. Once started we couldn’t be heard over the top of it and even in the house it was loud enough to feel like you were in the middle of a construction site. Tranquil it most certainly was not.

The tour of the outside didn’t get any better. Past the pizza oven – which was being used as a bin – around to the side of the house which wasn’t shown in the pictures we discovered a pile of broken furniture leaning up against the house (sofa, plastic table and a bathroom sink, indoor dining room chairs) and then just beyond that a dumpsite. All manner of broken things and building rubble which I imagine was the previous interior of the house had been piled up and left.

Was this the “authentic nature of Fuerteventura”? It was certainly true that in stunned silence we were ‘contemplating’ the ‘beauty’ that surrounded us. In truth at this moment the host looked so embarrassed by the place and eager to move us away from the rubbish that we didn’t really question it much, he just kept repeating that he wasn’t the owner, just the host.

Once the host had left and the pit bull had chased his car out through the chabola we had time to reflect upon what we were about to stay in. Luckily my partner’s parents weren’t due to arrive until the next day. I sat down on the sofa and rechecked the advert on Airbnb to see I had made no mistake. I had not.

It was clear that the accommodation no way matched what they were advertising from the important things like clean and with electricity and water to the less vital things like the breakfast that was most certainly not going to be provided. While contemplating how to explain the situation to her parents I looked down to find my shoes and legs cover in flees, and I do mean covered.

At that point my partner decided she would do the rest of her contemplating in the car. She rushed outside to find a local resident and extremely suspicious looking character peering into the back of car which was still loaded with all our holiday gear. When I asked who he was he merely commented that he was the cousin of the owner and continued to walk around the property at his own leisurely pace.

This was now a step too far, it had gone from being a somewhat comical, farcical situation to actually feeling quite unsafe. While the nature reserve is certainly ‘isolated’, the house being in the centre of the chabola most certainly was not. It may be the area is quite safe and the ‘cousin’ was just coming to be friendly but this certainly wasn’t the type of holiday that had been sold to us and we weren’t willing to stay and find out.

I stayed just long enough to take some photos and then drove away to try and work out what to do next. I called the host to tell him we wouldn’t be staying even a night and by his tone he had been waiting for that phone call. He said not a problem at all and even avoided an embarrassing situation by not asking us for the reasons. He just reminded us again that he was not the owner which I understood to imply that even he wouldn’t want to stay there. I asked about a refund and he said he hadn’t received any money and it would all be returned by Airbnb.

At this point it was 8:00 PM and with very little mobile battery left we were trying to navigate the nightmare Airbnb customer support site and look for somewhere to stay. I eventually found the support contact and emailed explaining the situation. On that evening I received absolutely no reply at all and we were in a desperate sprint to find something, anything safe that we could stay in that night.

By 10:00 PM we were lucky enough to find a very accommodating host who replied pretty much immediately to our messages and let us stay. Before I could book the new place my only option was to ‘cancel the reservation’ of the old which seemed to imply it was in some way our fault and therefore we were penalized in that they kept most of the money. Only 66 euros were returned to us.

While the new accommodation was excellent, a great host who had provided an honest and truthful advert, it was a more expensive flat, only for two people and in a crowded tourist resort. Not at all the holiday we were looking for. It also meant that there was no space for my in laws and with all the uncertainty they decided to cancel their flight and not come at all.

I have attached a link to show just how poor the support was when they eventually replied as my words couldn’t really do it justice. Needless to say we ended up paying for two accommodations (minus 66 euros). I wrote at length and sent plenty of pictures as evidence but Airbnb seemed entirely uninterested, delivering superficial responses.

It was only after five days with one day left in our holiday that I was passed to a specialist who asked if he could help book us into accommodation. I guess he imagined we had been sleeping on the streets for the previous four nights. When it was apparent that he wasn’t properly reading my replies or trying to understand the situation his response of ‘I have a lot of cases needed to be assisted as well’ was infuriating. A particular favourite phrase that he wrote after admitting it was a host violation was ‘just to set your expectation we will do our best in order to meet the proper standard but we cannot guarantee this hundred percent to provide the expected outcome’ (sic).

It has now been nearly a week and Airbnb has just stopped replying to my messages. Last I heard I was eligible for a refund but that has never arrived and they are simply ignoring all my attempts at communication. While we are both safely home and we can look back on a spoilt holiday somewhat fatalistically as I explained to customer support it is the safety of others that is most concerning. People book with them expecting a certain level of security, their whole brand is based around that. If not we might as well just arrive in a place and knock on any old door and ask to stay.

A current look on their site shows that this accommodation is still being advertised in exactly the same way. My lengthy review has not been published, still only the original poster, so they will have people booking it expecting what we expected. I find it worryingly immoral that Airbnb is continuing to advertise it in the same way. At best they will be spoiling people’s holidays and costing them money. At worst… well, it doesn’t bear thinking about. Here is the link to the place. Check it out in full here.

Posted in Airbnb Guest Stories and tagged , , , , , .

4 Comments

  1. Pingback: 20 Real Photos These Airbnb Hosts Wouldn't Want People To See

  2. The saga continues with ridiculous customer service. Every time i ask for information about a refund or why my review isn’t published or why it is still advertised in exactly the same way the customer support just closes the chat. Unbelievable. https://youtu.be/Ir7qCNM6E6k

  3. Good idea, i will try follow up with the credit card. I’ve opened up 3 different support chats on their site. All started well with the standard introductions like…
    ‘Greetings,

    Thank you for taking the time to write in today. My name is David, a SuperHost, an Airbnb traveler, and an Airbnb Certified Expert located in Edmonton, Canada. It is my pleasure to assist you and I look forward to successfully resolving the issue which brought you here today.

    How may I assist you today?’

    I then explained i was waiting for a refund…to receive…

    ‘This support case is now closed. Still need help? Visit the help center.’

    I had no idea how blantant and poor the support is! So frustrating!

    Ps. The price of 50 euros a night isn’t too good to be true on the island at the moment. Thats why i didn’t question it too much. Mass tourist destination and summer months are very windy. Plenty at the price range on booking.com etc. I just wish i had booked through them!

  4. What a bummer! When a deal is too good to be true like 50 euro per night for 4 guests on Canary Island, it is NOT true!!!
    Airbnb has moved to a no-service platform more like Ebay. They are maximizing profits to value up the 2020 IPO. You take all risks as they still collect about 20% gross costs.
    We all have to look at AIRbnb as a craigslist that charges 20% … with rampant fraud.

    I had a similar experience in Peru at a “nature preserve” that I booked via an American travel service! It ended up being a cattle ranch in poor condition. After a near death experience, a very cold night at 12,000ft elevation with no heat, and no sight of a better situation for the rest of a 1 week stay we left. We only got refunds for nights not stayed, after making a dispute of charge on American Express card. Credit cards can help, but only for service not received.

    I found it much more successful to look for accommodation after arriving! This allows one to inspect and decide if a place is up to ones expectations. One night at a more expensive hotel might be necessary to do this method when you arrive in the evening.

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