This month marked the end of my Latin America adventures and the start of an extended period back to the US, a bittersweet page turn to a next chapter in my travels. After some emotionally tumultuous times in South America I felt like I had finally gotten my groove back, Stella-style, when we hit Panama — and so it felt like a shame to leave on such a high. But at the same time I was overwhelmed with excitement at the prospect of all the hello hugs, Chipotle dates, and serious quality time ahead with my nearest and dearest.
Overall, it was a very happy and celebratory month punctuated by some incredibly stressful events. Some were the usual minor trials of a traveling lifestyle, and others were truly devastating — like a major financial loss, and saying a heartbreaking goodbye.
Where I’ve Been
• Twelve days in Bocas del Toro / Panama
• Four days in Puerto Viejo / Costa Rica
• Three days in San Jose / Costa Rica
• Ten days in New Orleans / USA
• Our time at Casa Verde in Bocas Town. It was the perfect guesthouse to relax and enjoy this colorful Caribbean town in. Just being in Bocas itself was a highlight for us, and I know I’ll be back.
• Our second coral surfing attempt. The first was a nightmare (again, see below) but the second was a crazy fun — and unique! — experience.
• Attending an acro-yoga workshop –– this time with my own partner in tow! I fell in like with the practice after my first attempt in Ubud but didn’t love getting so sweaty with a stranger. This time, I had no hang ups holding me back, and it was one of my favorite activities of the month.
• A sweet but low-key Valentine’s Day. We splurged on a lovely dinner at a dockside restaurant, Anders gave me a cheesy heart-shaped box of chocolates, and we snarfed them down watching Law and Order before bed. Perfection.
• Some fabulous meals. Nabbing the top seats at Bocas Blended, an adorable wrap-and-smoothie joint that was charming, cheerful, and served up healthy lunches with a view. Lunching at La Loma — Not only was my body crying with happiness at the healthy food on the plate, but I loved getting to know more about this truly community-minded lodge and I picked up some amazing handmade gifts for friends back home, too! And homemade meals at Bocas Bound. We loved this little hostel on Bastimientos, mostly for its hilltop outdoor kitchen where we happily cooked our own meals (and good thing, because the onsite restaurant was pretty gross.)
• Playing at Aqua Lounge. The sun finally came for us during our couple days at Aqua Lounge, and we used every minute to enjoy this aquatic playground.
• Our horseback ride down the beach in Costa Rica. Bucket list item fulfilled! (And it was one of my most popular posts from this period!)
• Staying at Rockin J’s in Puerto Viejo (not often that three hostels make the highlights list and yes, I paid my own way for all of them!) This super funky retreat is an institution among backpackers in Central America and we loved everything about it, from the funky mosaics to the $5 per day bike rentals. I’ll totally be back.
• A blast from the past. Meeting up with Dani and Mary, my old high-school exchange hosts, was such a treat. Though it’s been six years since I last saw them their hospitality and warmth hasn’t changed a bit. These girls, and that trip to Costa Rica my senior year, did so much to shape me into the person I am today — it meant a lot to be able to revisit that.
• Landing at MSY. Hard as it was to say goodbye, touching down in New Orleans felt right. Within seconds of getting in the car with Olivia we were gossiping away like only sisters can. That night she gave me a huge hug and said simply, “I am so happy you’re here.” Pure joy.
• Getting a peek at my sister’s life. I really cherished getting to spend a day in her classroom, meet her friends, co-workers, and boyfriend, check out her fave bagel place, and generally see how happy she is in her new home. I am so proud of her.
• Le duh… Mardi Gras! There were a lot of ups and downs over these six days of revelry, but some of my favorite moments were watching the Knights of Chaos and Krewe of Muses on Thursday night, scoring a front row spot to Endymion on Saturday, sissy brunch and partying on Bourbon Street on Sunday, catching coconuts at Zulu and partying in the streets on Fat Tuesday. And we kept the party hopping a few days extra with our cocktail tour of New Orleans!
• Score! I found $127 on the ground at Mardi Gras. If that’s not an unexpected highlight I don’t know what is.
Lessons & Lowlights
• No vacancy. Panama had us in such a trance of relaxation that we just rocked up in Bocas del Toro with nothing more than excitement and a sticky note of hotel recommendations. When we found zero availability at any of the places on our A, B, or C lists, we reluctantly spent the night in a horrible hostel (it wouldn’t have been so bad if they hadn’t gotten greedy and shoved an extra bunk bed into the room, meaning I could have reached my arm out and slapped the face of the stranger sleeping next to me) — oh, and the power went out. All night. Needless to say, we were out of there first thing the next morning. We ended up doing quite a bit of bed hopping in our brief time in Bocas out of necessity — not exactly the laid back twelve days we originally imagined, but we got to check out some cool places we might not have otherwise.
• Bad customer service. I was so frustrated by our first coral surfing experience I even took to Tripadvisor to moan about it! Lesson learned: don’t promise a blogger pictures and not give them to her.
• Camera crap outs. I was pretty bummed when my Canon s100 went to camera heaven (it just mysteriously began malfunctioning and then died within a day) but we had a good long run — so good I replaced it with the exact same model when I got home.
• Financial fury. I spent so much time this month fighting with Citibank, and in the end it was such a waste. I still feel a rise of anger when I think about the whole situation — even more so now that I’ve read the messages, comments and Tweets of so many others who have been in the exact same position!
• Sticker shock. Damn was Costa Rica expensive! I love this country but I was glad we didn’t spend more than a week there in the end. After months of feeling like I could more or less afford whatever I wanted — within reason — I suddenly realized I wouldn’t be able to enjoy eating dinner out as I’d be stressing over the final bill.
• Connection confusion. Somehow, not for the first time, I had my flights information incorrect and set off some serious confusion when I realized the flight to New Orleans that I was convinced was on Wednesday was actually on Thursday. Drama ensued, and I ended up having to rebook for Tuesday to avoid a work conflict, which meant apologetically rescheduling plans on both ends as well as spend serious time Skyping my airline. Whoops.
• Flight freak outs. I think Anders was on the brink of tranquilizing me while I was booking my summer flights around Europe. I had calenders out, price comparison Excel sheets up, and a billion tabs of flight searches open, and I almost went crazy trying to hit the perfect balance of price, convenience, and time in each destination. One day I was sick of the torture and told myself I couldn’t go to bed until all four flights were booked. I collapsed that night in exhaustion, and, I’m not afraid to admit, a few tears — and woke up to the realization that I had promised my mom I’d spend the Forth of July with her in Martha’s Vineyard. Thank goodness for Priceline’s 24 hour cancellation policy! So I fired up Skype and did it all over again. It was super stressful, but now it’s done — and I’m planning on writing a whole post about what great deals I got!
• Unprepared for Mardi Gras madness. I was pretty behind on work by the time I arrived in New Orleans, and it only reached a fever pitch as I ignored my inbox throughout Mardi Gras. I hadn’t anticipated how (fabulously) draining the whole thing would be, and I was so bummed when I had to skip out on the Monday Lundi Gras festivities in order to keep my head above water.
• Mixed expectations. While I loved getting the local experience for Mardi Gras, there were times when I was craving the touristy one too. I felt guilty dragging my sister to Bourbon Street when it was the last place she wanted to be, and worried I was a burden when I kept asking when we were going to the French Quarter. Luckily I’m fairly independent and so I was happy to go check out parades solo or join her roommates for a night of dancing when she was spent.
• Bayou blues. Our bayou tour had so much potential to be amazing… but the weather just wouldn’t cooperate. Bummer.
• Web designer disaster. Guys, this was a big one. I lost over a thousand dollars to a scam artist of a web designer — and I wasn’t the only one. I plan to write about this in more detail someday, but suffice it to say that it was a painful waste of time and money and it all came to a head when I arrived in New Orleans. I was so grateful to both the other bloggers who were scammed for their emotional support and to my sister’s boyfriend for his legal advice and helping me get out of a contract that would have had me throwing more money into a black hole. I realize that for some people, losing a thousand dollars would not be so crippling, but for someone who lives as frugally as I do and on as little income as I do this was a devastating financial loss. Quite frankly I still want to cry when I think about all the other ways I could have spent that money.
• Heartbreak. Far and away the most devastating lowlight of the month was saying goodbye to Anders. I was sick to my stomach for days leading up to it and felt physically wrecked when it was really time to watch him disappear in a cab. Goodbyes are never easy, but this one was awful.
• Conversation with Anders while standing in front of the mirror at our hostel in Costa Rica.
Me: I think I lost a few pounds in Panama.Anders: (Silence)
Me: Do you think I lost a few pounds in Pana…
Anders: (No pause) Definitely.
• My sister’s students were basically a nonstop LOLfest. So. Much. Laughter.
I spent $1,600 in Month 33. Despite the fact that this total covers a week in the Switzerland of Central America as well as my return to the US, I spent less than I did in Month 32. Yeehaw!
I’m almost embarrassed to write how much I spent on my biggest expense of the month, food — I dropped $680 big ones! Some of that had to do with the high cost of groceries and eating out in Costa Rica, but mostly it was Mardi Gras related revelry. The Baackes sisters do brunch big!
Next up was entertainment at $369, which apart from our flop of a $49 tour in Bocas was basically booze at Mardi Gras. Accommodation clocked in at $255, a low figure thanks to the ten days spent crashing with my baby sis, while miscellaneous weighed in at $117, made up mostly of gifts, business fees, and toiletries. Transportation totaled $125, thanks in majority to the expensive tourist shuttles we took in and out of Bocas del Toro and the boats we took within it. My biggest score of the month? Spending just $54 (and 15,000 Aadvantage miles) on flights that took me from Costa Rica to New Orleans — with half of that being the San Jose airport exit tax.
Month 33 was a busy one work-wise and I turned a profit for the fourth month in a row. Obviously I am still reeling from the financial hit I took from the web design disaster, but at least I’m saving up again to correct it.
Ugh. Not much to report here, other than the same destructive pattern that I’d been in since first touching down in Peru — putting unhealthy food in my body and not moving it nearly enough.
After leaving New Orleans, I flew west for a two week California adventure!
This journey wouldn’t be the same with you guys! Hope you are ready for some serious stateside dispatches…
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.