I have never been afraid to do anything on my own. As a child I always joined clubs or wandered off on my own as I was determined the thought of going it alone wouldn’t stop me. I had lived away from home in foreign countries for a few months before, but all the while surrounded by people I knew. Five months ago, I booked a return ticket for one person. ToPanama. A foreign place to me. And I couldn’t have been more excited!
People described me as ‘brave’, told me that what I was doing was ‘admirable’, and I heard the phrase ‘but it’s different for me because I’m a man’ more times than I cared for. Yes it was scary and there were times where perhaps being there with a familiar face would have made me feel a little more at ease, but I had to be realistic. I was on my own and chose to be. I was a grown woman in Panama, Panama! “Pull yourself together,” I said.
A simple walk over the dusty, rickety old railroad bridge…
I had heard how difficult border crossings in Central America could be, but this particular one wasn’t as bad as I feared. The sky was grey and the clouds showed no sign of sunshine trying to peek its way through. I stepped off the bus and followed the crowd towards the crossing and my heart sank. I had heard it was an old rail road bridge and an unsteady one at that, but I had thought some of the comments seemed a little exaggerated! I was pushed into a small office building where my passport was barely checked and stamped before being ushered outside again. And before I knew it, it was time to cross the dreaded bridge.
I stayed on the left hand side, gripping my bag and taking it step by step. I looked to see some people stopping half way looking nervous about continuing their journey and others rushing by wanting to reach the other side as quickly as possible. There weren’t many times on this trip where I wished I’d had a friend with me, but on this particular occasion a good friend to hold my hand would have made the crossing a little easier. I then made the stupid mistake of looking down. Now, I’m not afraid of heights but what put me off was the lack of wooden slats running through the middle and dirty green water floating just below us. Just keep your head up, walk on and don’t look down again! Somehow I didn’t fall through and I was in! Welcome to Panama!
Having said all this, the procedure was pretty simple, if you know where you are going of course, so I have written a little guide.
Go to the first little white office building on your right hand side to show your passport and fill in a short form. Cross the bridge quickly, take some pictures if you want, and then make sure you don’t miss the other small building on your left hand side to pay the $7 entrance fee and receive your entry stamp (pic right). Most people miss this and have to go back, so keep your eyes peeled! The immigration queues at the next building are always long but you won’t have to wait for long. Make sure to have proof of onward travel with you, they are very picky about this when entering Panama. However, I met many people who know of ways around this including booking cheap flights with a sneaky 24 hour cancellation policy. Not a bad idea at all.
Bocas, you beauty!
I spent my first week on the beautiful islands of Bocas del Toro. To many the main island, Isla Colon, is known as Party Central. I wasn’t quite in the mood just then so I hopped on a boat to Isla Bastimentos, one of the bigger islands nearby. It really is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to. No exaggeration.
The clear blue waters, the tropical fish, the food, the drinks, the sun, the sea – I was in heaven. Unlike Isla Colon, this island was full of local people and one or two hostels that had been built in their neighbourhood. I was noticeably a tourist with my burnt red skin and flip flops, yet I never felt out of place there.
I was lucky and unlucky with the hostel I found. The people I met were fantastic, other solo travellers full of stories and helpful tips of where to go and avoid in Panama. Unfortunately, there was a water situation at the hostel- there was no water. After only one day and too much dry shampoo, I grabbed my soap and headed to the sea! Being salty clean was good enough for me!
A group of us explored the island together, went hiking, relaxed at the local Wizard beach and even caught a ride with a local guide and spent a beautiful day snorkelling miles from the coast.
We swam in deep blue waters with the sun glaring down upon our bare backs as we stared at the colourful fish swimming by. Our guide took us to several spots where no other boats were around, and we spent the last few hours on a remote and even smaller island taking in the views and re-living our wonderful day. I was pleased I found such a nice group of people to share my first snorkelling experience with, as I had always wanted to snorkel and heard these islands were great for doing so. As happy as I was travelling alone, the snorkelling, exploring, hiking, or just sitting with a cup of coffee was better with company.
Stranger – Danger?
The only moment I felt lost was during my second week. After arriving at a bus stop and asking a guard where I had to go (in the very little Spanish I knew, I know, I was very well prepared for my trip). He muttered something and gestured to where I presumed my stop was. And so I waited for my bus. Half an hour passed, no bus. I soon realised that this was not my stop. And in an hour or so it would be dark. Panic started to set in.
Before I thought of possible ways out, a chirpy young man appeared right beside with a big smile and stuck his hand out to me. I politely smiled back, shook his hand and before I knew it he was showing me pictures of the pottery he had been making all day with his mother. I nodded and kept smiling, all the while wondering why this man had chosen to sit by the only foreigner in the bus station and where my damn bus was.
I was weary at first to tell him what bus I needed to catch, but I am so glad I did! He jumped up, told me I was at the wrong stop and to follow him to the right one. I was very weary as to where he was actually leading me. Turns out it was to the correct bus station and I breathed a sigh of relief.
He quickly scribbled his name and email address on a piece of paper before wishing me a safe journey, and asked me to add him on Facebook as he didn’t have any friends from Europe, before meeting me. I felt like the world’s worst person as I had given him a fake name, and kept my bag close to my chest. Note to self: Most people are friendly and kind, don’t be so quick to judge.One travel website I wish I’d heard of earlier – Travel central America.
All good things come to an end…
After a long yet unforgettable journey it was time to go home. I always feel ready to go when the time is near, and I couldn’t help but wonder where the time had gone. The past eight weeks had been full of new experiences and given me a lot of time to reflect on who I was and what I wanted. I was surprised at how friendly strangers were, and after my incident at the bus station I felt more at ease, and even hitchhiked alone once or twice… Mum, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry!
Would I travel alone again? Yes – if a friend couldn’t come with. Panama was extraordinary and I can’t say I’m not already thinking about going back! I didn’t even venture to Panama City! There is something about Central America that calls to me, and having made it back to London safe and sound all on my own, it has given me a confidence to realise I can go it alone as can anyone. If anyone is thinking about it I urge you to stop thinking about it and do it!