Alex In Wanderland http://www.alexinwanderland.com Working and playing around the world Wed, 23 Apr 2014 20:00:38 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.8.3 It’s Official! Announcing my Viator Ambassadorship http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/04/23/viator-ambassador/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/04/23/viator-ambassador/#comments Wed, 23 Apr 2014 19:40:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=22402 viator-ambassador-postToday, I’m excited to announce that I am a member of the 2014 Viator Ambassadorship team. Excited because as a world leader in tours and experiences, Viator is a brand I’ve enjoyed partnering with and freelancing for since 2012, and a bit proud too — because it’s an honor to be asked to represent a brand you love!

For me, this ambassadorship is a natural extension of the great relationship and mutual warm fuzzies I’ve had with Viator for a while now. Long-time readers will recognize the name — after all, I have gone around the world with them. In Asia, I visited the Bangkok Floating Markets, took a day trip outside Manila, and went white water rafting in Bali — all with Viator. In The USA, I toured the Louisiana bayou, went to the Grand Canyon, ate my way through San Francisco and had front row seats to a Mardi Gras parade — all with Viator. In Latin America, I took a private after-hours tour of Lima’s Museo Larco, went fishing for piranhas in the Amazon, and was serenaded by a live band in Panama City — all with Viator.

swimming with manatees florida

Why I Love Viator

There are a few Viator experiences that stand out as my absolute favorites. Swimming with manatees in Florida is one. Flying over Las Vegas in a helicopter is another. Learning how to make pisco sours in a private bartending class in Lima? That was nothing to complain about. And I can certainly say I’ll never forget my three days on the Peruvian Amazon. But I have more than great memories to back up my Viator love.

• There are unique offerings. Viator’s travel-loving team handpicks every tour on the site, and they go way beyond the basics. From adrenaline-inducing adventure experiences to private tours to front seat show tickets to multi-day trips, they pretty much have it all covered. When I’m heading to a new city for the first time, Viator.com is one of my first stops to get a pulse on what’s on offer.

• There are great deals. Viator has a low price guarantee, which eliminates the pressure to shop around for a better deal on the same tour. They also have great offers. When I flew into Peru, a sale on transfers meant it was cheaper for me to book a private car to pick me up at the airport than it would have been to take a taxi! There was a guy holding a sign with my name and everything (it’s the small stuff, right?)

• You can go behind the velvet ropes. Viator has all kind of exclusive tours, from VIP seating at Mardi Gras (which you’ll be reading about soon) to behind-the-scenes tours of the Vatican. Their unique relationships with a global network of local tour operators means they can get you in places others simply can’t.

• They are flexible. While local operators or suppliers may levy fees, Viator charges nothing to change your dates or cancel your activity as long as you give them 72 hours for changes and 7 days for cancellations. It’s also easy to book on-the-go with the Viator mobile app.

They are all over the world. Viator sells tours in more than 1,500 destinations!

• You can earn Frequent Flyer miles. Yes, point enthusiasts, you read that one right. For transactions of $500 or more (not heard to do if you’re traveling with a family or a group) you can earn a mile per dollar on American Airlines or United’s mileage programs.

Viator Pisco Making Class, Lima

What This Means for Us

You won’t see much of a change around here. I’ve already been traveling with Viator for a while, so you’ll see around the same amount of coverage here on the blog, and I will continue writing for their site as I have been. You probably will notice more mentions on my social media, and I might just talk them into another great Viator giveaway like we did in October.

For me, this means a little bit more stability and the ability to bring you more fun travel ideas.

Damnoen Saduak Floating Markets

What’s Next

Coming up in the next month, you’ll be reading about Viator tours I experienced in New Orleans and California. And before you know it, I’ll be back on the road — while I haven’t confirmed anything just yet, I’m excitedly looking through Viator’s offerings for my upcoming trips to Europe and Southeast Asia.

Two top contenders? An overnight trip to the cliff-top monasteries of Meteora in Greece and ringside VIP seats to a Muay Thai match at Rajdamnoen Stadium in Thailand. I can’t wait for all the awesomeness that is ahead. As always, thanks for coming along for the ride.Grand Canyon West Rim

Have you ever taken a Viator tour? Let me know if there are any you recommend!

Note: I am being compensated by Viator for taking part in the Ambassador Program. As always, you receive my thorough and honest opinions regardless of who is footing the bill.

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Three Good Reasons to Get Your Bum to Bastimentos http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/04/21/isla-bastimientos-bocas-del-toro/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/04/21/isla-bastimientos-bocas-del-toro/#comments Mon, 21 Apr 2014 14:50:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=23184 We arrived in Bocas del Toro with high expectations and no reservations — literally. And so while we had planned to base ourselves on Isla Colon and explore the rest of the archipelago via day trips, lack of desirable accommodation availability meant island hopping would not be optional.

And that was a beautiful thing, really, because had we not spent three nights on Isla Bastimentos, we might not have discovered so many lovely sides of it. The day we were set to head over, the sky was threatening to unleash a torrent of rain any moment, so we scrambled to gather any groceries we may need. While only a ten minute boat ride away, we had been warned that heading to Bastimentos was like going back in time. Our hostel was up in the hills and even in the main town, Old Bank, supplies would be hard to come by. By the time we found a boat driver and the engine fired up, we were in the middle of a downpour.

Bocas Bound Hostel

While our private room at Bocas Bound hostel was one of the tiniest I’ve come across, we were won over by the hilltop location and the open-air kitchen where we could cook our own meals and get to know our fellow travelers. Over the next three days, the rain would be our regular companion, providing me with plenty guilt-free work hours. But we did manage a few moments of clear-sky exploring, and each one convinced me that this island is worthy of some serious love from Bocas-bound travelers. And thus, I present, my three top reasons for getting your bum to Bastimentos.

1. AcroYoga with Soyela Yoga

On our first night on Bastimentos, we found ourselves in the outdoor kitchen chopping and dicing alongside a yoga instructor, Soyela. She enthusiastically told us about her AcroYoga workshop at the nearby Palmar Tent Lodge, which I enthusiastically agreed to attend and which Anders not-so-enthusiastically had no choice but to agree to. The next day, we took the fifteen minute jungle trail down to Red Frog Beach, and made our way to the yoga sala set just a few yards back from it.

Acro Yoga in Bocas del Toro

Acro Yoga in Panama

The class began with a basic vinyasa flow to warm up and ease into the partner portion of the class. Soyela and her demonstration partner wowed us with some beautiful moves that brought me back to my first time trying AcroYoga in Ubud, Bali.

That time, I went to class alone and had to deal with the awkwardness of touching strangers pretty intimately moments after meeting them. This time, I brought my own partner, but we had a new problem. In AcroYoga, ideally you are matched with someone around your own size. With me clocking in at 5’1″ and Anders topping 6’6″, we were not exactly an AcroYoga match made in heaven.

Acro Yoga

Acro Yoga on Isla Bastimientos

Still, we made it work and had a lot of fun doing it. AcroYoga is all about stacking your body correctly so that you aren’t using muscle to support the other person — meaning in theory Anders could be the flyer and I could be the base. We were skeptical (and giggly) but with the support of a spotter we actually made it happen!

A beautiful setting, a lovely group of people, a fun workout and a clear mind — this class is one of my favorite memories from Bocas.

Acro Yoga in Bocas del Toro

Acro Yoga Retreat

Acro Yoga Retreat

2. Diving with Scuba 6

After our four days of hardcore diving on the Pacific side of Panama, we were eager to try out the Caribbean coast for comparison. One one hand, diving in Bocas is a popular activity and I know plenty of people who have done certifications and in the area. On the other hand, experienced divers warned us we’d be completely spoiled after our experience in Coiba National Park.

Scuba 6 in Bocas del Toro

Diving in Bocas del Toro

While most dive shops in Bocas del Toro are centered on Isla Colon, there is one that strays from the pack — Scuba 6 is proudly located in the Old Bank community of Bastimentos. Old Bank has a completely different feel than its counterpart on Isla Colon, Bocas Town. While Bocas Town is bustling and cleaned up for tourists, Old Bank is still a very poor, very authentic, and very laid back Caribbean town.

At the far end of the dirt footpath that effectively makes up Main Street in Old Bank sits Scuba 6, perhaps the most scenic dive shop I’ve ever had the pleasure to visit. There, new owners Arron and Iza have been working overtime to integrate themselves onto the island, and bring a beautiful diving business back to life on Bastimentos in the process. On sunny morning, we hopped a boat down to Old Bank to join them on a little exploration of the reefs around Bocas.

Scuba 6 in Bocas del Toro

Scuba 6 Isla Bastimientos

After being treated to a dolphin show en route, we moored up at Hospital Point, a popular dive site off Isla Solarte. After the crazy diving conditions in Coiba, I was looking forward to the lack of currents and warmer waters brought on by the archipelago’s sheltered bays. Unfortunately, there was one factor working against us. The heavy rains that had been dousing the area were also producing serious runoff, reducing the bay’s visibility to almost nothing. Only a few minutes into our exploration of the site’s sloping wall, we decided to call the dive due — we could barely see each others’ hand signals.

Lobster, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Diving in Bocas del Toro

Next, we headed to an area less affected by runoff and found the conditions slightly more agreeable. While the area is still reeling (pun fun!) from a severe overfishing problem, there is still a decent diversity of corals and sealife to explore.

Diving in Panama

Scuba diving, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Diving in Panama

What I like about Scuba 6 is they don’t rush you — while I heard complaints that other dive shops in the area call their dives at forty minutes, regardless of air consumption, we were able to dive for a full hour and take our time really getting the shots we wanted.

Diving in Bocas del Toro

Scuba diving, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Unfortunately, considering the storms in the area, our timing was quite poor for diving in Bocas. And it’s true — after diving in Coiba, Bocas didn’t have much of a chance to stack up. However, Coiba is really only an option for the most experienced of scuba enthusiasts. So, considering the shallow sites, warm water, lack of currents, and, usually, the decent visibility, I think Bocas del Toro is a great location for newer divers to explore Panama’s underwater scene. And regardless of the number of dives under one’s weight belt, I highly recommend checking out Scuba 6 for both their personal service and the chance to experience the Old Banks way of doing business.

Diving with Scuba 6, Bocas del Toro

3. Lunch and a Farm Tour with La Loma

On our final day in Bastimentos, we hopped a boat towards the mangrove-covered remote South coast to learn about the special things happening at La Loma Jungle Lodge and Chocolate Farm. With only four ranchos, the popular property is almost perpetually booked up, however cheerful owners Margaret and Henry invited us to join them for lunch and a tour of their organic gardens and chocolate farm.

If I hadn’t already been planning to return to Panama someday, our arrival at La Loma would have cemented that decision for me. The open-air lodge, built from nat­ur­ally fallen trees and sus­tain­ably har­ves­ted lum­ber, was the perfect blend of noticeably chic and inconspicuously blended into the jungle. I almost inhaled the lovely lunch that was set out for us, which my body confirmed was both the healthiest and most delicious thing I’d consumed in several weeks.

La Loma, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Lunch at La Loma

Lunch at La Loma

But even more impressive than the innovative architecture or the gourmet meals is the way that La Loma is supporting and celebrating the local community they are so deeply ingrained in. The lodge is located in the Bahia Honda community, a population of about 30 Ngobe families. From talking to Margaret, I realized this was not an example of a business throwing around buzzwords like “sustainability” and “social responsibility.” There is a deep and profound mutual respect between La Loma and the Bahia Honda community that should be a model to tourism development everywhere. Just look at this list of amazing goals they have achieved!

One of my favorite initiatives was one to work with local artisans to produce jewelry made from old bike tire inner tubes — materials that would normally be tossed to a landfill. The designs were so fabulous and the story behind them so beautiful I couldn’t help but snapping up several pieces as gifts.

Jewelry at La Loma

After lunch — and delicious organic brownies — we stretched our legs with a tour of the farm by the main chocolate man, Mr. Kelly. At times I had a hard time concentrating on what he was saying, transfixed as I was by his amazing accent. Our walk ended with the ultimate discovery, one of the tiny red frogs that the island is known for, yet had been alluding us for our entire stay. It was the perfect ending to a beautiful island exploration.

La Loma, Bocas del Toro, Panama

La Loma, Bocas del Toro, Panama

In three days we really only brushed the surface of what Bastimentos has to offer, from beaches to hiking to ziplining, to a few fantastic restaurants (I’m still bummed we missed out on Roots and Firefly!). But what we absolutely experienced was the pride in local people and local businesses of being part of the special Bastimentos community, an attitude I truly adored. In the end I’m not too worried about all we missed — I know I’ll be back someday.

Practical Info

Where I stayed: Bocas Bound, where we paid $16.50 each for a small private room. We also considered Palmar Tent Lodge, but decided against it due to lack of wifi.
Where I ate: We mostly took advantage of the open-air kitchen at Bocas Bound and cooked for ourselves. We were not fans of the Bocas Bound restaurant and otherwise ate at Palmar Tent Lodge, which had fantastic family-style dinners for $7-10 (sign up by 5pm).
How I got there: Red Frog Beach Marina (the access point for Bocas Bound Hostel) is a $5 one way boat ride from Bocas Town. It is possible to negotiate round-trip for $7.
Bonus Tip: It is possible to drink the tap water at Bocas Bound, unlike much of the archipelago. Bring as many supplies as you need as groceries are limited and pricier even in Old Bank (which is also a boat ride away from Bocas Bound).

Many thanks to Soyela Yoga, Scuba 6, and La Loma for their hospitality. As always, you receive my thorough and honest opinions regardless of who is footing the bill.

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Photo of the Week 149: Easter Edition http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/04/20/photo-of-the-week-148/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/04/20/photo-of-the-week-148/#comments Sun, 20 Apr 2014 19:35:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=22245 Remember that time Photo of the Week was just a bunch of photos of Easter-related crafts I did in the past seven days? Oh right that was NOW. You guys may have caught on that I’m an enthusiastic crafter, baker, and all around holiday-celebrator — hobbies that are often neglected when I’m living out of a backpack. So, let’s just say I was making up for lost time. Considering this is the first Easter I’ve spent in the USA since the advent of Pinterest, eggs all over America were quaking in fear of my bedazzling gun.

In reality, this has been a pretty stressful time where my income is in flux and my future is very much up in the air (more on that soon, I promise). Taking some time this week to bake and craft with friends and fam has been a nice way to come up for air after long hours spent crunching numbers, hunching over business plans, and crying in the fetal position while doing my taxes.

Hope you all are having an egg-celent day, wherever you are. And before I start in on the bunny puns, how about we head right over to these Photo of the Week candidates?

Photo A
Dog Wearing Bunny EarsTucker loves dressing up like the Easter bun! …Until he doesn’t

Photo B
Peeps Easter Flower ArrangementPeeps-inspired flower arranging with Mom

Photo C
Carrot Cupcake DesignIf they look like vegetables do they have less calories?

Photo D
Easter Bunny CraftsCrafting up a storm

Photo E
Easter Egg DecoratingEaster egg love from Alex in Wanderland

Which photo is your favorite? Happy Easter!

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Aquatic Adrenaline Seeking: Coral Surfing in Bocas del Toro http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/04/18/deep-boarding-coral-surfing-bocas-del-toro/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/04/18/deep-boarding-coral-surfing-bocas-del-toro/#comments Fri, 18 Apr 2014 14:00:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=21762 Diving in Iceland, surfing in Oahu, paddleboarding in the Amazon jungle — I like to think I’ve got exotic aquatic adventuring pretty well covered. So you can imagine my intrigue when I heard about a new water sport called deep boarding, or coral surfing, available only one place in the world — Bocas del Toro, Panama. I had to try it. We were so enthusiastic we ended up signing up for two different tours, each with vastly different results.

Our first attempt was with Under Sea, the largest and most well-known company offering deep board tours. After some debate we decided to splurge on a trip to Cayos Zapatillas over a shorter and cheaper option. While similar tours including lunch, snorkeling, and beach time at Zapatillas are advertised all over the island for $35, Under Sea charges $50. But unlike the cheaper versions, this one offered the chance to try deep boarding. We signed up.

Bocas del Toro Under Sea Tour

The woman who signed us up won my heart immediately by promising to put Diet Coke on the boat, and we practically skipped to the tour office the next day. The trip started off really well, with dolphins leaping around the boat in aptly named Dolphin Bay and sloths mugging for us at Solarte Cay. They were nice stops to break up the somewhat long journey out to Zapatilla.

Bocas del Toro Under Sea Tour

Dolphin Spotting in Bocas del Toro

Sloth Spotting in Bocas del Toro

As the boat pulled up towards Zapatilla you could hear the shuffle as every single person on the boat reached for their camera. Yes, that was paradise. The kind of palm-lined island that postcards are made of. I turned to Anders, who was in the Caribbean for the first time, and assured him that it was as good as it gets.

Isla Zapatillas Bocas del Toro

I ignored the cattle-like feeling as we were herded off the boats and into an area to await instructions. Because we were such a large group, it was explained, some would deep board while others snorkeled and others ate lunch. Anders and I practically tripped over ourselves volunteering to go first.

In the simplest terms, deep boarding involves clinging to a custom molded piece of plastic while being dragged by a boat. The setup allowed for three at a time. “So, should you go in the middle with the camera?” I asked our guide. The poster advertising the trip had boasted free underwater photos as a major feature, and I had made a point to ask the saleswoman about it upon sign up — she assured me they’d be uploaded to a special online album where we could download as we pleased. “Oh, we can’t do those today. There are too many people,” the guide shrugged. I tried not to show my annoyance while I explained that we had been promised photos when booking, and that it was a huge selling point of the tour to us, which was met by yet another shrug. Granted, as a blogger photos are more important to me than they may be to the average tourist but I don’t know why the number of guests should mean that an advertised and confirmed feature of the tour should be omitted. Luckily, Anders had his GoPro so he was able to snap a few shots. But we were pretty bummed.

Coral Surfing in Panama

Coral Surfing in Bocas del Toro

Coral Surfing in Panama

We absolutely adored the deep boarding. While there was nothing much to see, it was really fun and exhilarating! When we wanted to go deeper, we tilted the board down and sailed to the sea floor. I was amazed by how long I lasted underwater without craving air, I suppose because I wasn’t using any energy to get there. When it was finally necessary. I simply nudged the board towards the surface and soon broke above the gentle waves.

We were just getting the hang of it when our twelve minutes or so were up. We had a lovely lunch and lazed on the beach for a bit, but we were itching to deep board a bit more. We casually asked one of the employees if it was possible to go for a second round and they replied that usually it was no problem — but today there were too many people.

Well, hey — at least our backup plan was hanging out on the most beautiful beach of all times.

Isla Zapatillas Bocas del Toro

Isla Zapatillas Bocas del Toro

Isla Zapatillas Bocas del Toro

I admit that having worked in the tourism industry, Anders and I both have very high standards especially when it comes to customer service. And that is why I unfortunately cannot recommend using this company based on the customer service and the short amount of time actually spent on the boards. There were so many positives — a fantastic lunch, a lovely sales lady in the town office, a beautiful island, and a unique activity. However, as budget travelers this wasn’t cheap for us and we were disappointed by the false advertising and more importantly, by the lackluster response we received when we noted the discrepancies in what was promised and received. We tried talking to the manager upon return and he offered no compensation or even apology. I was so annoyed I actually left a Tripadvisor review — something I haven’t done in years!

We did have a pretty good laugh over what grinches we had become, sitting around and bitching in paradise.

Isla Zapatillas Bocas del Toro

Isla Zapatillas Bocas del Toro

Isla Zapatillas Bocas del Toro

A few days later, we still had the itch to try the deep boarding again, but we were not in the mood to hand over more cash to Under Sea. So were thrilled when we found Coral Surfing, a small business offering a similar experience with a slightly modified board. This time, wallets still stinging, we went for the $30 “half day” option, though we suspiciously asked many questions about how many other customers there would be and how much time we would get in the water. “As much as you want!,” the saleswoman assured us. “You’ll be the only customers.”

And she wasn’t kidding. A lovely French woman picked us up and brought us out to a remote bay somewhere around Isla Colon. There, she dropped us into the water and explained how to signal to her that we wanted to go faster or slower. These boards were somewhat more advanced — instead of just going up and down, we could also go left and right, or do complete twirls underwater! It was amazing how entertaining it was.

Though the water was deeper in this area than it had been in Zapatilla, there was much more to see. Patches of hard coral were interspersed with row after row after row of starfish — I stopped counting around fifty. And there was no false sales pitch here. We really did stay in the water for as long as we wanted. For me, it was about an hour, though Anders stayed in for an extra thirty minutes or so. When I was in the boat, I couldn’t get over how slow it was moving — it had seemed like we were torpedoing forward when I was being dragged behind it! You can see footage from our tour in this video.

Coral Surfing Bocas del Toro

Coral Surfing Bocas del Toro

Coral Surfing Bocas del Toro

If you’re coming to Bocas del Toro to try this unique new watersport, I’d recommend checking out Coral Surfing – they also do trips to Zapatilla, so you can get the best of both worlds. But regardless of who you book with, I strongly suggest you wear a one piece bathing suit. I spent a decent amount of time on both tours worried I was about to moon all of Bocas del Toro. At least that would be one benefit of the no camera situation.

Have you ever heard of deep boarding/coral surfing? Would you try it?

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The Great Escape: Month 32 Roundup http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/04/17/the-great-escape-month-32-roundup/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/04/17/the-great-escape-month-32-roundup/#comments Thu, 17 Apr 2014 15:55:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=22413 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 TravelMindo

 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 TravelCuenca

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 TravelPanama 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 here!

El Valle TravelEl 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 TravelSanta 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 Sicko (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 TravelIsla 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 TravelBoquete

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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Blissing Out in Bocas del Toro http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/04/15/blissing-bocas-del-toro/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/04/15/blissing-bocas-del-toro/#comments Tue, 15 Apr 2014 17:45:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=21761 Confession: I’ve totally used this post title before. But I can’t really think of a better way to sum up the euphoric twelve days we spent in Panama’s Bocas del Toro archipelago. This laid-back Caribbean getaway is getting plenty of buzz these days thanks to its balance of ramshackle charm — you won’t find any five star chain hotels here — and traditional tourism draws like palm lined beaches, exotic wildlife, and azure waters.

In our twelve days we visited four islands, basing ourselves temporarily on three of them. While we had planned to settle into one spot for the full duration of our stay, we arrived to an endless row of “No Vacancy” signs and scrambled to piece together a Plan B. While our time was a bit more hectic as a result, we ended up with such a comprehensive view of this special part of the world I really think it was a fair trade off.

Bocas del Toro Town, Panama

Bocas del Toro Town, Panama

Super Gourmet in Bocas del Toro Town, Panama

The largest and most developed of the islands is Isla Colon, which is also home to the provincial capital of Bocas Town. For many visitors, this is Bocas del Toro — and it’s not a bad view. Colorful guesthouses, dockside restaurants and bicycle traffic jams make up this traditionally Caribbean town.

After spending one night in an awful hostel (the only accommodation we could find upon arrival) we moved into Casa Verde, which I can’t recommend highly enough. It’s insanely popular, and rightly so. With cute clapboard rooms, a full kitchen, reasonably priced food and drinks, and a dock stocked with innertubes for just $32 a night, I was pretty much ready to move in. I was pretty crushed they only had three nights available for the entirety of our time in Bocas, so learn from my mistake and book ahead if you’re interested!

Casa Verde, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Casa Verde, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Our favorite part about Casa Verde was that we loved it so much we barely left. We just lazed in his-n-her hammocks, practiced Spanish with the sassy receptionist, floated in innertubes, cooked our own meals, and gave ourselves severe food poisoning.

Oh, right. That last one wasn’t the most idyllic of experiences. Once a year or so the universe likes to swoop in and remind me that I am a failure in all things domestic, and that when possible I should leave challenging tasks like cooking and laundry to the professionals. Otherwise I could end up turning an entire load of work uniforms pink, setting off the fire alarms for an entire apartment complex, or frantically researching the severity of undercooked-kidney-bean toxicity at 3am while barely clinging to life, just to cite some totally unspecific and non-personal examples.

Casa Verde, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Casa Verde, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Casa Verde, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Domestic disasters aside, Bocas Town gave us plenty of tempting reasons not to cook our own meals. Our absolute favorite was Bocas Blended, which was notable not just for its deliciously healthy wraps and smoothies but also its, how shall we say, unique presentation. Once we got lucky and nabbed the best seats in the house — ocean views included. Other favorites include Maracuya, where we splurged on an oceanfront dinner for Valentine’s Day (of which I spent the majority trying to explain to Anders the joy that is Galentine’s Day, obviously) and Fat Boy Treats, which is quite accurately named. We also stocked up on all kinds of snacks at Super Gourmet, which had an exciting array of imported goodies from home.

Bocas Bound, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Bocas Bound, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Tours and activities in Bocas are pretty pricey, and so while the Spanish lessons and yoga classes and hiking trips and boating expeditions and chocolate tours were all very loudly calling my name, we had to be picky. While we splurged on some excursions you’ll read about this week, we balanced them out with cheaper ones, like our bike ride out to Boca del Drago.

Boca del Drago, also known as Starfish Beach, can be reached by water taxi ($25 round trip) or land taxi ($30 round trip). Bikes, on the other hand, were a mere $7 per day — no extra charge for the 20 miles of round-trip cycling workout! The ride was quite a bit more difficult than we expected with plenty of hills, and cut clear across the length of Isla Colon.

Starfish Beach, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Starfish Beach, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Starfish Beach, Bocas del Toro, Panama

The only thing that would have made the day better would have been visiting the La Gruta caves, which we cycled right past. Unfortunately we had forgot our headlamps and gave it a pass. Otherwise it is a very remote and rural ride, and it’s almost a shock to arrive in Boca del Drago and be met with the crowds there. The starfish were a bit scarce and we both agreed we wouldn’t have enjoyed the day half as much had we simply hopped in a taxi. The satisfaction of the sweaty ten mile ride in each direction was what really made it worthwhile.

Starfish Beach, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Starfish Beach, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Starfish Beach, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Can you see yourself vacationing on Isla Colon? Stay tuned for our adventures on Cayos Zapatillas, Isla Bastimientos and Isla Carenero!

Practical Info

Where I stayed: Casa Verde
Where I ate: Bocas Blended, Maracuya, Fat Boy Treats, and Super Gourmet were the standouts.
How I got there: We paid $25 for a shuttle from Boquete to Bocas, including boat transfer, through Mamallena Hostel in Boquete. It took a few hours and saved us several bus transfers.
Bonus Tip: Book ahead in high season, as the quality of accommodation ranges wildly and the good spots are snapped up fast. Bring a reusable water bottle in order to refill at the purifying stations around town — this is one of the few areas of Panama where you can’t drink from the tap, and bottled water is both wasteful and ridiculously expensive.

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Photo of the Week 148 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/04/14/photo-week-148/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/04/14/photo-week-148/#comments Mon, 14 Apr 2014 19:40:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=22244 “What brings you to Vegas?” It was a question we were asked over and over again during our four days in the desert’s sparkliest town. Our answer was simple: Just a getaway with the girls. Kristin is not only my oldest friend after a dozen years of BFF-dom but was also my partner in crime for my first trip to Vegas back around the time we turned 21. We’ve been itching to return ever since and — bonus! — one of our girlfriends from high school recently moved out there, making it the perfect reunion destination.

This was my third trip to Sin City and it was the perfect mix of old favorites (dinner at STK, dancing at Tryst) and new adventures (seeing a Cirque show, hitting the pool parties). As usual, I can’t wait to share more. But in the meantime, here’s some of my favorite snaps from the strip…

Photo A
Las Vegas StripLas Vegas Boulevard in the light of day.

Photo B
Liquid Pool Las VegasLiving it up at Liquid lounge in the Aria.

Photo C
Liquid Pool Las VegasBeach balls and flower balls.

Photo D
STK Las VegasAnother fabulous dinner at STK, my favorite restaurant in Vegas!

Photo E
Mixx Bar Las VegasThe view of the strip from Mix lounge.

Which photo is your favorite?

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Getting our Balance Back in Boquete http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/04/11/boquete/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/04/11/boquete/#comments Fri, 11 Apr 2014 14:00:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=21456 After four days of hardcore diving and internet disconnect, what does this girl need? A highland retreat in which to dry out and catch up on work. Boquete was the next natural step on our Panama itinerary, the perfect link between the two coasts we were hitting up. It’s also, strangely, a hotspot for American expats thanks to the AARP naming it a top retirement hotspot in 2010. Noticeable signs of a geriatric American invasion aside, Boquete reminded me of other cool-aired, tourist-friendly mountain towns I’ve visited throughout my tropical travels — Dalat in Vietnam and Banos in Ecuador both come to mind. Though most backpackers we met warned us we’d be bored after a few nights, we spent six low-key days here, exploring the area in short spurts between long periods of laptop time.

Our time in Boquete was mostly super chill and consisted of long workdays, afternoon jogs, meeting up with some expats we’d met in Panama City, and watching the Super Bowl. However, none of those things make for a very scintillating blog post. Luckily we did some interesting things. One of my must-dos was horseback riding. I had been trying to get in a saddle since arriving in Latin America, but the opportunity has alluded me. After being deposited at a ranch on the outskirts of town, we met up with our two fellow riders for the day, a young couple from California who had recently relocated to Panama City. Between us we spoke a decent amount of Spanish, which was handy as our guide didn’t speak a word English — but hey, what do you expect for thirty-five bucks? He wordlessly matched us up with our rides and off we went.

Horseback Riding in Boquete

Horseback Riding in Boquete

It was Ander’s first time on a horse and I laughed as he quickly fell far behind the group. “I don’t want to hurt it!” he called back when I told him to give his horse a little nudge of encouragement. Finally he gave a gentle tap of the heel and I watched with a mix or horror and amusement as his horse took off in a full canter towards us.

It was our first hint that these were some wild horses.

Horseback Riding in Boquete

Horseback Riding in Boquete

We chatted as we trotted through a deep volcanic valley, and then climbed up one of its steep walls. Thankfully, this wasn’t one of those mane-t0-tail trail rides that I find so boring. Our horses kind of did their thing, rearranging their  order and switching gaits and ambling around as they pleased. I was a little stressed a few times by how little control I clearly had over my horse, like when he started randomly galloping without warning, but I did enjoy the shot of adrenaline.

Horseback Riding in Boquete

Horseback Riding in Boquete

Horseback Riding in Boquete

Horseback Riding in Boquete

Another afternoon, we decided to join one of the many tours put on my our hostel every day. While I would have loved to do every single offering listed on the brightly colored colored chalkboard, prices of activities are higher in Panama and so we chose with care. We eventually settled on the $35 tour to the mini canyon and hot springs.

Our first stop, the mini canyon, was a hit among locals and tourists alike as we took turns leaping off the cliff and into the deep waters below. While the local kids would then scale the rock walls back to their original spots, we chose the tamer route of swimming out to the water-level access point downstream. One girl in our group was absolutely terrified to jump, but after a bit of peer pressure finally took the plunge. I was turning to swim my way to the exit when I heard her start panicking and screaming that she couldn’t swim — great! So I turned around and towed her the entire way out. It was absolutely exhausting but it was nice to brush off those ‘ol rescue diver skills.

Canyon Jumping in Boquete

Canyon Jumping in Boquete

Next we made our way down a long, bumpy dirt road to the area’s hidden hot springs. I was enjoying a nice soak in one of them when I looked up to see two incredibly sickly looking children sitting forlornly across from me, covered in unidentified lesions. I crossed by fingers that whatever they had wasn’t contagious, discreetly excused myself, and made a beeline for the river, where I scrubbed my skin raw. Isn’t travel glamorous?

Hot Springs in Boquete

Hot Springs in Boquete

Hot Springs in Boquete

Suddenly it was our last day in town and we realized that while we have loved our low key days of working from Mamallena’s back deck and making home-cooked meals in the communal kitchen, we did have a few more things we wanted to explore beyond the hostel doors. So we forked over $20 each for a motorbike rental and zipped out of town.

Countryside of Boquete, Panama

Wild Cala Lillies in Boquete, Panama

Motorbiking in Boquete

We spent a fair amount of time just getting lost on the winding mountain roads that swirl around Boquete, which is not a bad way to spend a day. Eventually though, we honed in on finding The Lost Waterfall. Which, surprisingly, was not the easiest to locate.

Finally we found the way, and parked the bike to do some foot-based exploring. Turns out the Lost Waterfall is actually three waterfalls, which made us feel better about the $5 entrance fee we paid at a dilapidated hut by the road.

Waterfalls in Boquete, Panama

Waterfalls in Boquete, Panama

Hiking in Boquete, Panama

The first two waterfalls were easy to reach, though the third was more of a challenge due to the drizzle that just wouldn’t quit, the slippery trail that resulted and muscle fatigue that had started to set in. But they were each stunning in their own way and we pretty much had the entire place to ourselves.

Waterfalls in Boquete, Panama

Cala Lillies in Boquete, Panama

Back on the bike, we agreed to head back — we were soaked from hours of consistent drizzle and the evening chill was starting to set in. But as we turned a corner I yelled to Anders to slam on the breaks — a bright rainbow was arching over the mountain. And so we set off chasing it.

Rainbow in Boquete, Panama

Countryside of Boquete, Panama

Church in Boquete, Panama

Our pursuit wound us through the quaint outskirts of Boquete town, weaving from one technicolor view to the next.

Rainbow in Boquete, Panama

Wild Flowers in Boquete, Panama

Rainbow in Boquete, Panama

Eventually we truly did drive straight into that rainbow — one second, it was so close I felt I could reach out to touch the shimmers of color and the next moment we were actually inside of the dewy haze. It was the perfect goodbye to peaceful Boquete.

Practical Info

Where I stayed: Mamallena
Where I ate: Sugar and Spice was a fantastic sandwich spot for lunch, Big Daddy’s Grill was a good dinner bet, Rock was a fun splurge with friends, and El Sabroson was our absolute favorite for local specialties at bargain prices.
How I got there: We paid $15 for a tourist shuttle from Santa Catalina to Santiago, where we caught a bus to David for $9. From there we squeezed into an old school bus for a $2 ride to Boquete. In total it took about nine hours.
Bonus Tip: If you’re planning to rent a motorcycle, pay more for on of higher quality. We had originally planned to rent from a cheaper shop but they were all rented out. Once we got out on the roads we saw other travelers struggling to get those cheaper, lower-powered mopeds up the hills!

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A Presidential Showdown: Isla de Coiba Part IV http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/04/10/diving-isla-de-coiba-part-iv/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/04/10/diving-isla-de-coiba-part-iv/#comments Thu, 10 Apr 2014 14:00:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=22242 Start Here: Part I, Part II and Part III of my dive trip to Isla de Coiba.

I woke up on our fourth and final day in Coiba National Park feeling a mixture of sadness and excitement. These forced off-the-grid experiences are good for me, and I felt a twinge of heaviness at the thought of returning to the machines that run my life (as in, my Macbook and my iPhone). I mean, I had spent the last four days writing with — get this — a pen and paper.

Isla de Coiba, Panama

Isla de Coiba, Panama

Vulture in Coiba National Park

Yup, life on that island was a nice escape for a while. But I didn’t have much time to reflect because as usual, we were late for a dive. This day would be structured a bit differently than the others. Our first dive would be at a site close to the ranger station so we could return back immediately after to pack up and clear off the island. Next, we’d head back to Wahoo, a dive site between Coiba and Santa Catalina most notorious for whale sharks. We unanimously voted to double dive the site, increasing our chances of spotting the giant fish. Between those two dives we’d have lunch in one of the coves, and after the third we’d head back to Santa Catalina.

So for our first dive of the day we returned to Iglesia, a nice calm dive site with plenty of fish to play with.

Lobster in Coiba National Park

Eel in Coiba National Park

Diving Santa Catalina, Panama

While the turtle, eels and lobster we saw on the first half of the dive were excellent, the second half kind of blew it away with sightings of some feisty harlequin shrimp and, though I was unable to get a photograph that did it justice, a juvenile frogfish hiding in some bright yellow coral. You could feel the energy in the water — we had high hopes that this was our lucky day.

Harlequin Shrimp in Panama

Diving Santa Catalina, Panama

Diving in Coiba

Baby Frogfish in Panama

Back on Isla de Coiba, we said a sad farewell to the island that had so generously hosted us for the past few days. She’s kind of a beauty, right? As we pulled away from the shore, we waved to another group of divers pulling in. They had just been to Wahoo. There were whale sharks.

Windstar in Panama

Coiba National Park Beach

And we were off to find them ourselves. Or so we thought.

As we approached the dive site, I heard our dive guide Sebastian mutter “Uh oh…” and I followed his eyes out onto the horizon. There I saw two boats — one, one of the largest and flashiest yachts I’ve ever laid eyes on, and two, a military boat full of unsmiling soldiers heading straight for us. We slowed as they approached. “No diving here today,” they called out in Spanish. “But why?,” asked Sebastian, though he never got an answer. The confrontation went on for a tense five minutes or so. While I was dying to take a photo, something told me to hold back. While we were asking completely logical and fair questions, I looked at the soldiers’ faces and saw that no amount of reasoning or logic would get us onto that dive site. No amount of pleading, no amount of explaining that the customers in our boat had paid almost $900 to be here and tourism is kind of an important industry in Panama, no amount of showing permits that stated we were licensed to dive this site, none of it was going to work. “Do you understand Spanish?,” one of the uniforms sneered at Sebastian. “No puede, no puede, NO PUEDE.”

When we finally admitted defeat and pulled off the site, I looked up and saw tears in the eyes of a few of my fellow divers. It was pretty awful, knowing whale sharks were lurking below us but being barred from entering the water without explanation. Sebastian tried to cheer us up as we scrambled to make a Plan B, but it was a tough crowd. We half-heartedly entered the water at Faro, a nearby dive site, and it would have been funny if it wasn’t so tragic — it was the worst dive of the trip. No whale sharks to be seen — or anything else, really. I didn’t take a single photo, and later one of the women on the trip told me she was so bored she was considering signaling low on air just so it would end! And then, yet another comical-in-retrospect-but-not-at-the-time turn of events: as our boat came to pick us up, they excitedly showed us cell phone photos of the whale shark they had seen from the surface while we were underwater. Great.

We headed to a nearby cove for a surface interval and lunch and we were just about the crankiest, most deflated group you’ll ever find on a paradisaical tropical island. While we ate, the crew filled us in on the gossip they’d picked up over the radio — the mega-yacht that was on top of the dive site? It belonged to Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli, and his son was using it that day to spearfish on top of a dive site within a national marine park. The military boat that had approached us was the equivalent to the secret service. My jaw dropped. I tried to imagine this scenario playing out in the US — Sasha and Malia Obama picking off wild bald eagles with shotguns from within Yosemite National Park while the secret service shooed away hikers. Yeah, I’m pretty sure we’d hear about that.

We decided to give Wahoo one more try — we couldn’t not. We held our breath as we pulled around the corner to the dive site, and let out a cheer when we saw on open buoy line. I’ve never seen a group gear up faster — we were determined to get underwater before we were chased off again.

Mobula Rays in Panama

The dive was shaping up to be another bummer one. Other than a school of mobula rays in the distance, we hadn’t seen a single thing through the murky water. After fifty minutes, Sebastian turned around and gave us a signal — time for a safety stop. And then I saw it.

Out of the blue behind him emerged a school of small white dots — what kind of fish were those? And then my heart started pounding as my brain started to comprehend what was happening. It was a whale shark, coming to save our dive at the last dramatic moment! After all the drama and tension of the day, I don’t think I’ve ever cheered so loudly into my regulator. Thank you, thank you, thank you, I told the whale shark, as he passed so close our fins could touch.

Whale Shark in Panama

Whale Shark in Coiba

We could not have asked for a better conclusion to our amazing four days in Coiba.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Media coverage and travel information about Coiba is still scarce — you’ll receive a lot of curious looks even from other hardcore divers when you mention its name. Yet this very unexplored area is part of the same Pacific chain that links diving bucket list destinations like the Galapagos and the Cocos Islands! Now, since there is so little practical information out there about diving in Coiba National Park, I want to provide some insight for those hoping to join a multi-day expedition themselves. All trips into the park depart from Santa Catalina, where dive operations are based.

Cost

The cost of a four-day diving trip with Scuba Coiba is $860 plus 7% tax and includes twelve dives, three nights of accommodation, and all very delicious meals (minus breakfast on the first day and dinner on the last) including wine at dinner. There is a national park fee of $20, and rental gear is an additional $15 per day. You can add on a day of non-diving guided tours (kayaking, hiking, etc.) for $195 per person, or additional days of diving for $210 per person. One, two, and three day trips are also available.

Note that there will be a significant surcharge for credit cards — it is best to arrive in Santa Catalina with enough cash to pay off your balance, as there are no ATMs in town. Also bring enough for a decent tip. In our group there were two chefs, a dive guide and two boat boys. We tipped $80 each in total — I actually wish I had tipped a bit more once I realized how large the crew was, but I was almost out of cash.

Tips

• Bring dive gloves. My hands were sliced open by rocks we were told to cling to in the currents on a few different divers, and the cuts were very painful.

• I would prefer a briefing and instructions to be done the night before the trip rather than the morning of departure. Be sure to ask the dive ship for details on what and how to pack ahead of time so you’re prepared for the first day’s early call time.

• This is my own fault for not researching better, but I didn’t realize that we wouldn’t see Isla de Coiba’s penal colony on the trip. It is possible to do, but you need to request it ahead of time and pay a separate fee. There is also an option to hike or kayak for a full or half day, which I think would be a nice way to break up all the diving. If you’re interested in any of those options, be sure to discuss it with your dive shop when booking.

• Prepare to be exhausted! Three challenging dives per day are exhausting and our land time consisted almost exclusively of sleeping, napping, and dozing on the sand. I wish I had pushed myself a bit more to take more photos of the island, and of our group (I so regret not having a single one of our crew!)

• Prepare to be guided. I was kind of surprised at first by how strict our dive guide was considering how experienced our group was (among eight customers there were two instructors and two divemasters!) but once I experienced how rough the conditions could be I understood. Experienced divers, you may not be used to having a dive guide chastise you for straying from your buddy — but in this case there is a good reason.

• Come ready. Obviously, being an uninhabited island, there are not going to be any gift shops on Isla de Coiba. My underwater camera was on its last legs on this trip (in fact, it died about two weeks later) and I was so nervous about having no backup if it gave out mid trip! Stock up on batteries, snacks, and whatever else you might need while going off the grid.

What’s the Accommodation Like?

You’ll sleep at the ANAM station on Isla de Coiba. There are eight beds to a room with a single shared bathroom and a cold water shower. Rooms are basic but you won’t be spending any time in them. Electricity is turned on only at night Surpringly, air conditioning is available though our group elected to turn it off as it was truly freezing.

About Scuba Coiba

When the founder of Scuba Coiba, Herbie Sunk, first arrived in Santa Catalina in 2003, there were no paved roads and boats needed almost three hours to get to Coiba. They were the very first dive shop to open — in fact, the other dive shops now in operation in Santa Catalina are run by former employees or customers of Scuba Coiba.

Why dive with them? They focus on multi-lingual and international instructors to match their diverse clientele — our group of eight was from five different countries! And they have a long time, loyal local staff — their main captain has been there since 2005.

Though we were unable to experience it ourselves as it was out of the water for repairs, Scuba Coiba’s Orca is the only boat in Santa Catalina with a cabin in front. Having done the trip in a small open boat (the type the other dive shops use) I can attest to how nice it would have been to have a center rack for tanks and a place to shelter ourselves from the sun!

We had a great experience with Scuba Coiba (did I mention the food was really good?) and I highly recommend them.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

And to sign off on this journey, I’m sharing another one of Ander’s fantastic videos. These were super tough conditions for a GoPro so kudos to him for making it work. Whale shark footage within!

Thanks for coming to Coiba with me, guys! Do you think you’d ever go yourselves?

Many thanks to Scuba Coiba for their hospitality. As always, you receive my thorough and honest opinions regardless of who is footing the bill.

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At Home in Eden: Isla de Coiba Part III http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/04/08/diving-isla-de-coiba-part-iii/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/04/08/diving-isla-de-coiba-part-iii/#comments Tue, 08 Apr 2014 14:00:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=21455 Start Here: Part I and Part II of my dive trip to Isla de Coiba.

With limited electricity on Isla de Coiba, we soon returned to the rhythm of the land — dozing off no long after sunset and rising naturally before sunrise. On our third day in Coiba National Park, we made the short walk over to the abandoned pier to catch front row seats to the show. The sky showed off a brilliant array of hues while eagle rays leapt out of the water, competing for our attention — and tempting Anders to futilely attempt to film them.

Sunrise on Isla de Coiba

Sunrise on Isla de Coiba

Sunrise on Isla de Coiba

Sunrise on Isla de Coiba

It was a beautiful start to a stunning day. Our first dive of the day was at Suena de Pescador. I was somewhat apprehensive after the previous afternoon’s incident, and the deep ocean moorings and the promise of bad visibility and strong current didn’t help. But I eased back in — I requested to be one of the last few to enter the water so I wouldn’t tire myself out waiting for the others to get in, I de-fogged my mask with care and asked the dive guide to bring a spare, and I told my dive buddy to stick close.

It was worth it. A giant stingray, an awe-inspiring school of jacks, and several snappy morays kept me smiling into my regulator throughout the dive.

Diving in Coiba National Park, Panama

Diving in Coiba National Park, Panama

Moray Eel in Panama

Schooling Fish in Panama

Another day, another abandoned beach safety stop. This time we found one with dramatic dark sand — and, unfortunately, a cove filled to the brim with plastic waste washed in by the tides. It was a sad reminder that while completely undeveloped, even Coiba National Park is not safe from the influence of man.

Hermit Crabs in Coiba National Park

Beach in Coiba National Park

Our second dive was at Sombrero de Pelo, a dive site known for great visibility and a resident colony of garden eels — the latter being notoriously difficult to photograph. So instead I turned my camera on more cooperative subjects, such as a gaping frogfish, an aggressive eel, and some of my fellow divers.

Scuba Diving in Panama

Scuba Diving in Panama

Underwater World in Panama

Our final dive of the day was at Mali Mali, which I quickly mentally renamed as Mucho Sharkies. While white-tip reef sharks had been present on pretty much every single one of our dives, on this one in particular they swarmed and swirled curiously around us. We had heard this dive site was a cleaning and feeding station for large pelagics and kept our eyes peeled through our masks for some manta rays — they, along with whale sharks, continued to allude us — but we had no luck in that particular department. There was, however, a whole ocean-worth of other fish to keep us busy.

White tip reef shark in Panama

Scuba Diving in Panama

White Tip Reef Shark in Coiba

Diving in Coiba

White Tip in Coiba National Park

Diving in Coiba National Park

That night we toasted to our final night on the island — and to the hope of seeing whale sharks. Among our group, as among most divers, they were almost an obsession, and we wouldn’t leave fully satisfied without seeing one.

Stay tuned for the final installment of posts about our expedition into Coiba National Park!

Many thanks to Scuba Coiba for their hospitality. As always, you receive my thorough and honest opinions regardless of who is footing the bill.

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