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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.

Mindo

 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

Cuenca

Highlights

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.

Panama City

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 !

El Valle

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.

Santa Catalina

LOLs

• 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.

Budget

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

Fitness

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.

What’s Next

After a final twelve days in Panama, we moved onto our final destination of the Latin American adventure — Costa Rica.

Boquete

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.

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45 Comments...
  • Janice Stringer
    April 17 2014

    Hi Meihoukai,
    I really liked this roundup post. I found it covered a lot of information in a very concise manner.
    I think its because it made you into a whole person – if that makes any sense at all!
    Keep sharing
    🙂
    Janice Stringer recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 17 2014

      Thanks Janice! I like them too as they give me a chance to squeeze in a ton of thoughts and stories that otherwise wouldn’t make it onto the blog.

  • Tyrhone
    April 17 2014

    I have to say, if I came back to 270+ emails, around 250+ of those would never get opened.

    Fortunately or unfortunately depending on how you look at it, there are nowhere near that many people interested in making with me, I’m gonna have to think about that one…
    Tyrhone recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 17 2014

      Ha, I’m not sure if I see it as fortunate or unfortunate either… I suppose it depends on the day!

  • Shaun
    April 17 2014

    270 emails! I got one… like a week ago. hah. The costs in Panama were higher than I had thought as well but I managed and share you opinion on public transit. Not well organized. I like the business side of blogging so I hope you get the it worked out.

    Cheers!
    Shaun recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 17 2014

      Once we gave in and started taking tourist shuttles, things got much easier! It’s tough because that’s usually a category I prefer to save in, but alas. Sometimes you just need to pay for convenience.

  • Katie
    April 17 2014

    I’m so sad to hear that Panama is coming to end… I just can’t wait to get to Panama City myself (I’m scoping out flights now – one step closer!). I’m interested to hear your posts on Costa Rica, though – it was one of the first “real” trips I took abroad (outside of school, etc.). Would you recommend trying to make it to Santa Catalina on limited time?
    Katie recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 17 2014

      Don’t worry, there are a couple more posts coming up 🙂 As for Santa Catalina, it depends where you are going to and coming from. I think from Panama City it is a long but doable day, a bus from Panama City to Santiago, a bus from Santiago to Sona, and a bus or cab from Sona to Santa Catalina. I think it is worth it if you plan to dive!

  • Anders
    April 17 2014

    I don’t remember that LOL, I think you made that up!!

    • Meihoukai
      April 18 2014

      It’s written down under the “LOL” note in my iPhone… it must be true!

  • Sofie
    April 17 2014

    Good round-up post!
    Happy for you to read that your business is/businesses are making a profit. Probably gives you a bit more peace of mind when traveling around.
    I don’t know if I’d be good at combining work with travel. I think I’d also be torn between guilt for not working and guilt for not exploring the entire time.
    Kuddos to you!
    Sofie recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 18 2014

      Yes, I like to say guilt is my constant companion when I travel 🙂 This trip was a big lesson for me. I don’t think I’ll travel like this long term again. I am planning a fairly packed six week trip to Europe this summer, and then off to Southeast Asia to just chill and work!

      • Sofie
        April 18 2014

        Europe? Let me know should you pas through Belgium!

        SE Asia on my list for next year. I hear so many great things about it. Think it would make a great destination to work in a relaxed way, if that makes sense.
        Sofie recently posted..

        • Meihoukai
          April 20 2014

          I actually will be in Brussels for Tomorrowland! Where do you live?

          • Sofie
            April 22 2014

            I live in Leuven, which is about half an hour by car from Brussels.
            You do know that Tomorrowland is in Boom? That’s closer to Antwerp than to Brussels, but maybe you want to stay in Brussels?
            Antwerp is worth a visit as well. I studies there for a year:)
            Sofie recently posted..

          • Meihoukai
            April 22 2014

            Cool! I’m actually staying in Dreamland, the Tommorowland camping, for the festival itself but will be staying in Brussels before and after as that’s where my flights go in and out of. I’m hoping to do a day trip to Antwerp, though! Let me know if you want to meet up in Brussels 🙂

  • Andi
    April 17 2014

    Adding “watching butterflies being born” to my Bucket List!!!! Latin America is the best!
    Andi recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 18 2014

      Ah, you should definitely make it to Mindo someday Andi. Best butterfly garden I’ve ever been to.

  • Erika
    April 17 2014

    I love reading these because I always feel like I get to experience the destinations you visit in a different light — and it definitely points me to some posts I might have missed!

    I also really enjoy hearing how you are journeying along. Like with your business growing and finding more balance and everything.

    And hearing your love for Panama just makes me smile! Finding a place we really enjoy is always the best!
    Erika recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 18 2014

      It really is 🙂 Someone commented at some point that I gushed about Panama the way I have gushed about Southeast Asia and it’s true. I definitely found a soul spot there!

  • wes
    April 17 2014

    Funny to read your scaling issue just after writing a weighty travel guide (with helpful pictures) to your fellow bloggess, all about Sri Lanka.

    But I hope I helped her. She is, frankly, awesome for going to South Asia. :b

    w

    • Meihoukai
      April 18 2014

      Wes, you continue to be one of my favorite all time humans. Thank you for doing that. And the nice thing is you can copy and paste it to me when I arrive 🙂

  • Amanda
    April 17 2014

    I have to say, Meihoukai, you really have me considering going to Panama! It’s never been high up on my list of must-visit destinations, but your posts are slowly changing that! Sounds like it was a great month.
    Amanda recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 18 2014

      Nice! I know you really liked Costa Rica from what I remember of your posts, and Panama is actually cheaper than Costa Rica, which would make it a nice next Central American step 🙂

  • justine
    April 18 2014

    Despite the ups and downs it sounds like you had an amazing time the past month. And you have COMPLETELY sold me on the idea of Panama. Thank you for putting so much detail and heart into these posts. I’ve used your blog as a resource throughout my travels on SE Asia. And I know I speak for many others when I say I really enjoy and appreciate it 🙂
    justine recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 18 2014

      Justine, thank you so much for this sweet comment! I’m so glad Wanderland has been helpful to you on your travels, and hope it continues to be so! <3

  • Your round-ups are my favorite! too funny about anders and the obgyn! You should have kept it going and made him think that companies deliver babies to women who order online at obgyn.com
    Rachel of Hippie in Heels recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 18 2014

      Haha. It’s so easy to see the root of the confusion (the double meaning of the verb “deliver”) but I just can’t get enough. If there isn’t already a blog dedicated to language mishaps like ours, I would love to start it!

  • Emily
    April 18 2014

    We loved Mindo too! Wish we had spent more time there!
    Emily recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 20 2014

      Me too. Three days was more than enough to do the majority of activities but it’s such a great place to chill. Definitely could have stayed!

  • Gillian
    April 18 2014

    this is great! i really need to get more organized and actually figure out some budgets! heading to europe for an indefinite period of time in a month.. as the worlds least organized person budgeting for a trip is my nightmare!

    • Meihoukai
      April 20 2014

      Hey Gillian, you should check out my post “Managing Money Abroad.” It might have some tips for ya!

  • Amy M
    April 19 2014

    Ok love, love, love the picture that is three pictures down from the top and on the bottom right!

    Seems like a great place to explore – your highlight list is very long which is always a great thing to have when travelling. Costa Rica is on my ‘destination bucket list’ so looking forward to seeing what you get up to! xo

    • Meihoukai
      April 20 2014

      Ah yes, that was a Photo of the Week way back when 🙂 As for Costa Rica, I’m afraid I won’t have much to write. Due to the very high costs there and the fact that I’ve been once before we really only breezed through. We loved what we saw, though!

  • Sofie
    April 22 2014

    Hey Meihoukai,

    Couldn’t reply anymore to your last comment, so: Would definitely like to meet up! I’ll be in the country then, so no problem:)
    Feel free to email me when you’re plans are a bit more concrete:)

    PS Brussels Airport is actually in Zaventem. It’s a short train ride from Brussels and there’s a train leaving from the airport. It’s a bit more expensive than normal train rides… because apparently they have to charge extra if you come from the airport:)
    Sofie recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 24 2014

      I’ve only just started to research the trip, but I did see something about the airport being expensive to get to! We have the same here in New York actually, a regular subway ride is $2.75 but to get to the airport on the subway is an extra $5 🙂

  • tammyonthemove
    April 23 2014

    I can so understand that you had to slow down. We have done the same first in Sucre, Bolivia (stayed for 7 weeks) and now in Arequipa, where we are staying for 2 months in total. It is a really nice way to properly interact with locals too and also to get to know more unknown places that are not overrun by tourists all the time.
    tammyonthemove recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 24 2014

      Clearly you are way better at slowing down than I am 🙂 I am working on it, though!

  • Kara
    April 23 2014

    I’m going to be in Costa Rica in a few weeks – can’t wait to hear what your experiences are like!
    Kara recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 24 2014

      I was there for a super brief time but hopefully I can post something that gets you excited about your trip 🙂 How long are you going for?

      • Kara
        April 24 2014

        I’ll be there for a month but as a leader on a trip with high schoolers so I don’t have control over my itinerary, unfortunately. I’m sure anything you post will get me excited!
        Kara recently posted..

  • Shannon
    April 15 2015

    Hi Meihoukai, I’m going on a medical mission trip for a week in Panama this summer, but I love exploring and was considering sticking around and getting to know the area for a while once it ended. The only thing currently stopping me is my budget. Do you have any advice on finding cheap flights from Florida to Panama? I saw that you stayed at Aqua Lounge. I had heard about that before and was interested in staying there as well. Did you fly from Panama City there or is there an alternative/cheaper way? I know the flight wasn’t terribly expensive to David, but I would have to pay for it there and back to Panama City because (from what I have found so far) the flights are much cheaper leaving from Panama City back to the States, than from David. Please let me know if you have any tips or advice, it would be greatly appreciated 🙂

    • Meihoukai
      April 17 2015

      Hey Shannon! I didn’t take any internal flights within Panama — just bussed around! International flights will absolutely be cheapest in and out of Panama City. If time is not a factor, I’d recommend traveling overland from there. If it is, you’ll have to weigh up what’s of more value, the money or the time 🙂 Hope that helps! Let me know if I answered your question.

  • Jamie
    December 20 2015

    Hi Meihoukai!

    I stumbled across your blog and I’m absolutely OBSESSED. Traveling has always been one of my favorite things and I would consider myself extremely lucky if I am ever able to build up a repertoire like yours! I am, however, heading to Ecuador in one week and wanted to ask your advice. I’m going to be living with a local family in Quito and volunteering at a local school for three weeks. While the main purpose of my trip is volunteering and not sightseeing, I would hate to miss out on everything that Ecuador has to offer! I know you’ve been there and have done incredible things. I was wondering if you could give me any info on the must-see/must-do things in Ecuador as my weekends will be free for adventuring.

    Thank you so much and I look forward to reading more about your endeavors!

    Jamie

    • Meihoukai
      December 26 2015

      Hey Jamie! My highlights from Ecuador are covered here and in my Month 31 roundup, so that’s where I would start! Banos, Mindo and Montanita were my three favorites, with Cuenca a close fourth. Mindo would definitely be the easiest hop from Quito. Enjoy your time in Ecuador!