You know how first time travelers get overexcited about being on the road for the first time and totally overschedule themselves trying to do and see it all and then eventually crash and burn? Despite the fact that I had years of travel under my belt when I touched down in Latin America, I made the same mistake out of excitement for being in a totally new part of the world. Whoops.
I slowed down progressively throughout the trip, but Month 32 was a turning point. I really self-corrected and accepted the fact that not only am I traveling, I also have a full time job, and simply reducing sleep to five hours per night is not really totally the best way to handle that situation. So while most travelers we knew were budgeting less than two weeks of time for Panama, we decided right off the bat to more than double that.
After a low-key final week in Ecuador, we arrived in Panama City. From the moment I stepped off the plane I felt lighter. As much as I loved Peru and Ecuador I am most at home in the tropics, and so it was there that I once again found myself bursting with happiness.
Where I’ve Been
• Three days in Mindo / Ecuador
• Four days in Cuenca / Ecuador
• Eight days in Panama City / Panama
• One day in El Valle / Panama
• Seven days in Santa Catalina and on Isla de Coiba / Panama
• Six days in Boquete / Panama
• Watching butterflies being born in Mindo. Hummingbirds, orchids, and other displays of exotic flora and fauna paled in comparison to sitting and watching in awe as dozens of butterflies dropped dramatically from their cocoons. Mindo in general was one of my Ecuadorian highlights.
• Long afternoons lingering in our fave cafe in Cuenca. We almost missed Ecuador’s most beautiful colonial city but a cheaper flight nudged us to rearrange our plans. For four blissful days we did nothing but wander the cobblestone streets and become temporary regulars at an expat-owned cafe. Perfection!
• Landing in Panama City. From that first day I knew something special was in the air. (Probably the tropical heat I love so much.) And eight days later, it was firmly on my list of favorite cities ever.
• Riding the Panama Canal Railroad. I am obsessed with this experience! The history, the scenery, the offbeat factor… I’m not sure what it was, but this was one of my favorite things we did in Panama City.
• Learning about the Panama Canal. I was kind of worried the canal would be anti-climactic based on the shrugs and mehs I heard from others, but let me assure you, we were so into it. I was completely fascinated by this engineering marvel and historical hotspot, and soaked up every tidbit of knowledge I could.
• Falling in love with Casco Viejo. Sorry, am I gushing? Survey says yes, but I can’t quite describe all the ways in which I loved our Panama City base. I don’t often speak in such absolutes, but here we go: If you come to Panama City and you stay anywhere else, you’re doing it wrong. The end.
• Finding my favorite hostel of the trip. Competition is pretty fierce in this category — I adored Kokopelli in Paracas and Mama Simona in Cusco, but Panamericana in Casco Viejo stole my heart above all. Who could resist that rooftop view, the funky hostel art, and those plaza-facing balconies? Swoon.
• Heading out for almost nightly runs down the Cinco Costera in Panama City. Perfect running route, amazing routine. One evening I ran into an expat friend we had made who was also out for a stroll, and I almost felt like a local.
• Date night downtown. We found a Thai restaurant downtown that does $10 curry buffets on Wednesdays, the same day the movie theaters do half price tickets. Eating Thai food, seeing a movie — it was almost like we were normal people, having a normal date! If I ever relocated to Panama City (which clearly, I was thinking a lot about) this would be a regular routine for me.
• Trying ropa vieja for the first time. It is probably my favorite Latin American dish thus far! And no, it did not hurt that I followed it with a delicious slice of tres leches cake — another major weakness. In general, the restaurant and bar scene in Panama City just blew me away, with dinner at Tantalo and our night out dancing in a pop-up club being two of my faves.
• Swing jumping like seven-year-olds in El Valle. While our time there was short I think fondly of our carefree afternoon in that idyllic jungle swimming hole (and the hysterical gifs that resulted). Spotting a colorful toucan at close range didn’t hurt either!
• Chasing down the vegetable truck and then cooking at our outdoor kitchen in Santa Catalina. Our chilled-out day and a half at laid-back Rancho Estero was exactly what we needed after two days of public transport madness and the four days of diving intensity that was to come.
• Touching down in Isla de Coiba. We had talked and planned and fantasized so hard about this trip, it almost felt like a dream when it was finally happening! A very, very good dream. Topside highlights included watching the sun rise with eagle rays leaping in the foreground, learning about the island’s storied prison past, hiking to the viewpoint to peek down at our idyllic beach, gourmet meals served on an uninhabited island and getting to know my amazing fellow divers.
• Underwater dreams in Coiba. There were a few moments so perfect I wondered if I had hallucinated them — swimming in the largest school of fish I’ve ever encountered, being met by a magical giant grouper, and of course, finally, finally finding that whale shark.
• Chasing rainbows in Boquete. Our six days here represented my ideal balance of work and travel experiences — mostly hanging out on my laptop in the best office ever, but breaking occasionally to ride horses for a few hours, head to a Superbowl party with some expat friends we made in Panama City, take a tour with our hostel and of course, rent a motorbike to go chase some rainbows.
• Starting a Facebook page. It’s been on my blogging to-do list for, oh, two years or so. And in Boquete, I finally went for it. Come hang out with us !
Lessons & Lowlights
• Our journey from Cuenca to Panama City. We took the five hour bus from Cuenca to Guayaquil in the afternoon, and rather than pay for a night in a hotel we decided to sleep in the airport before our early morning flight. Turns out it is the worst airport for attempting sleep I’ve ever encountered and I didn’t so much as drift off for a moment. By the time we were boarding the plane I was in tears I was so delirious from lack of sleep induced-naseau. Lesson — next time, at least consider the hotel room.
• Sticker shock upon arriving in Panama. Ecuador was the cheapest country I encountered on this journey, and Panama was significantly more expensive. For example, we paid a dollar per hour for buses in Ecuador. In Panama, it was anywhere from $2-4. However, the biggest difference was in food, which in case you have not noticed, we eat a lot of. In general I think it’s best to travel from most to least expensive countries — we did the opposite on this trip!
• Cringing at our “pit stop.” While we had a blast in El Valle, it simply wasn’t worth a one night stopover. Though on a map it appears to be between Panama City and Santa Catalina, it was incredibly difficult and inconvenient to “stopover” there. It took us four different buses and almost eight hours to make the journey to Santa Catalina the next day!
• In general, public transportation in Panama City was not as simple as we would have expected from such a developed country. If you stay on the beaten path and pay up for tourist shuttles (as we did from Boquete to Bocas and from Bocas into Costa Rica) then it’s no sweat. But trying to use public transit to more out-of-the-way locations like Santa Catalina often required kind locals to step in and help us navigate the madness.
• The noise terrorists in Santa Catalina. My ears still ring in protest when I think about them.
• My very scary dive in Coiba. It was extremely upsetting but it kind of helped me be realistic about my diving preferences. While I loved Coiba and I’m so glad I had the experience and I would enthusiastically recommend it to other experienced divers, it is not something I feel the need to ever repeat a second time. I like to use diving as an escape and a meditation and this kind of trip is the opposite. After three dives a day in Coiba conditions I absolutely collapsed in exhaustion each night. When I look through my photos I’m so bummed I didn’t take a picture of the group, or explore the island more, or whatever, but I was literally too tired to so much as get my camera out!
• Realizing my business model isn’t scaling well. I’ve mentioned this once or seven times, but when I got back on the grid from four days in Coiba I had 270+ emails pulsing with urgency from my inbox. I have more and more readers (which, needless to say, is fantastic!) but there is still only one of me! I’m still working on a solution for how I can give people the responses they deserve without spending the entire day taming my inbox, but this month made me realize I better figure it out soon.
• As usual, I can’t go a month without a bus ride that makes it into the LOL category. To get from Santa Catalina to Boquete requires three bus rides, and we had inadvertently chosen a holiday weekend to travel. When we arrived in Santiago we were assured that buses to Boquete were full for the next two days. You know that saying, where there’s a will, there’s a way? Well, in Panama, where there’s a gringo willing to embarrass themselves, there’s a way.
So we sweet talked our way into buying tickets — full price, obviously — that entitled us to sit in the little staircase that leads down to the bathroom.
• One night, Anders and I watched (believe it or not, the majority of our glamor-filled evenings are spent watching documentaries on my laptop in a hostel somewhere) and the resulting conversation was immediately added to my list of Danglish (Danish-English) Favorites.
Anders: What is an OBGYN?
Me: They deliver babies.
Anders: To who?
Me: What? They deliver womens’ babies!
Anders: [Pause.] The company does?
• I am always saying how small and incestuous the diving community is, but this month we had irrefutable proof of it. The dive shop where Anders worked in Gili Trawangan, and where I did my DMT, and where we first met? Just so happens that the dive guide on our trip to Isla de Coiba was an employee there for two full years, and taught my DMT instructor his open water! It’s a small ocean after all.
I spent $1,907 in Month 32. This was an increase over Month 31, which was an increase over Month 30 — not a great pattern to get into. But Panama is significantly more expensive than Peru and Ecuador, so it’s not exactly unexpected.
As usual my biggest expense was food at $570. Next was entertainment at $400, with our diving trip to Isla de Coiba making up $160 of that (while the trip was provided to us for free we each paid our own tips and National Park fees).
My miscellaneous charges clocked in at a whopping $380, thanks to a mix of business stuff ($56 for domain registrations, $50 for my monthly charity donation, $25 for blogging plugins, etc.) and restocking on essentials once we hit Panama City ($21 for more Lush solid shampoo and conditioner, $16 on a replacement for my moldy water bottle, etc.). Transportation weighed in at $290, a full $188 of which was for our flight from Guayaquil to Panama City. Accommodation was my lowest cost of the month at $267, a modest figure thanks to finding great deals and arranging partner-provided accommodation in several locations along the way.
Thankfully, while it was nowhere near as profitable as Month 31, I did good work and even managed to turn a small profit in the end for the third month in a row.
Isla de Coiba
Month 31 was kind of rock-bottom for me, fitness-wise, and in Month 32 I started to turn it around. I started eating a bit healthier and worked out regularly in both Panama City and Boquete. While I was still struggling, my get-happy epiphany definitely helped kick start me in the right direction.
After a final twelve days in Panama, we moved onto our final destination of the Latin American adventure — Costa Rica.
Thanks for coming along for the ride, guys. I can’t believe the next roundup will be the last one from Latin America!
Since I left home for my Great Escape, I’ve been doing monthly roundups of my adventures filled with anecdotes, private little moments, and thoughts that are found nowhere else on this blog. As this site is not just a resource for other travelers but also my own personal travel diary, I like to take some time to reflect on not just what I did, but how I felt. You can read my previous roundups here.