So, I was lost in Panama. Sounds frightening, right? It was. And this isn’t me being dramatic, I was genuinely afraid.
Let me start from the beginning: I was travelling around central America, after flying more than 5,000 miles to escape the smog-filled bubble that is London.
I was used to travelling alone and honestly enjoyed the freedom. Don’t get me wrong, I am a sociable person, but to have the ability to go where you want, whenever you want, without having someone by your side, is all I have wanted in life.
After two weeks of sunbathing (burning) on the beach and drinking too much (alcohol) in Costa Rica, it was time to cross the border into Panama.
A few people had recommended a remote hostel, aptly named ‘Lost and Found’, that was hidden in the western hills.
It’s a steep stretch to reach the hostel, but the view from the top is so worth the mid-morning hike in the sweltering sun. I dared to lie in the swinging hammocks, overlooking the stunning mountains. It was breathtaking.
A while later, I started to feel peckish and headed out on my own in search for food. ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ – *sighs* Aaaah, I’m glad I can now look back and laugh at that thought now.
The nearest store was a 10-minute walk away once you reach the bottom of the hill, and after a 15 minute walk, it was clear, that I walked in the wrong direction. Or the shop had moved. Either or, I guessed.
So, I had no idea where I was, I was tired, my feet were aching and I had no water or food on me. It was only late in the afternoon but I was scared. More than scared. Where was I?
I was out of my depth, with no idea what to do, I slumped down not the ground, and all the confidence I had previously felt about ‘travelling alone’ was starting to fade away. After what seemed like an eternity, I saw a glimmer of hope driving towards me in a white van. I held out my thumb, and closed my eyes in fear it wouldn’t stop, or worse still, in fear it would stop.
A short man with the biggest smile on his face, stepped out of the van, took one look at me and we stood there in silence.
He gestured me into the van, and so I took a chance. I breathed a sigh of relief as I sat in the passengers seat, with the cool breeze of the air conditioning and smiling family pictures posted all around. I told him where I wanted to go, and he just handed me bottle of cold water and turned the engine on.
I was starting to feel better when I heard the Spice Girls singing on the radio. Viva forever? Oh yes. I was going to be ok.
The Philippines has never been high on my long list of countries to visit, but when a friend asked if I wanted to spend to escape the bitter January weather and spend two weeks in a foreign country, I jumped at the chance.
There are more than 7,000 islands across the Philippines, and I had a mere fortnight to try and see as much of them as possible. We travelled a lot more than I thought we would, and looking back I am glad we saw as much we did.
However, a two week break isn’t a very long time, and worrying over which bus to take at what time, isn’t worth it. After all, a holiday should be relaxing and stress-free time.
So, here is my guide of what to see, where to go when travelling across the Philippines.
It was a long 13-hour flight to Manila, and the hot muggy weather infused with the traffic noise hits you right away.
All I wanted to do was meet my friend at the condo we had booked, and go to bed.
Taxis queue right outside the departure terminal and most drivers are willing to haggle on the price, but of the very little advice I did read, the pound to PESO ratio was good, and 150 PESO for one person is less than £3 each and was enough for journeys that taken more than 10 minutes.
Skyscrapers, Starbucks and McDonalds’ restaurants were around every corner, but the streets were dirty, full of rubbish, cable leads were hanging from poles, crowds of people barged past you on the sidewalk, and trying to cross the road at anytime of day was no easy task.
It was hard to escape the crime stories plastered all over the local newspapers, sharing news of gun and knife crimes, and local drug dealers being shot by police.
Manila at night
View of Manila for our condo
After spending 20 minutes walking around the city’s two green parks, situated right near the main roads, we found the nearest seven eleven store.
We had barely walked through the door when a group of children barefoot and wearing very little came running in, throwing their arms up, poking us, yelling at us and begging us for food, pointing at the sweets on the shelves and rubbing their stomachs.
I have travelled to poor parts of Thailand and Panama before, and have often travelled alone, but despite walking arm in arm with a close friend, I have never felt so uncomfortable and unsafe in one place.
From Manila we flew to Cebu, another busy town, with a great big bus terminal, that will take you to all the main ports across the island.
We took a four hour coach journey from Cebu at midday – never again. Temperatures reached 28/29 ºC most days, and despite the air-conditioning and plastic covered seats, it was an uncomfortable journey and looking at the blue ocean and the green fields, just weren’t the same from behind glass windows.
On a tricycle in Moalboal
To our relief, Moalboal was only a 2 hour bus ride away and, avoiding the bigger restaurants, we found a small local cafe, run by a Philippine family, who served a delicious helping of fresh fish and rice, for as little as £3-4 each.
Tricycles lined the main roads, and most relied on pedal power alone, with no engine what so ever.
One person can sit comfortably in the front seat next to the driver, but two people sat in the back is a tight squeeze. But a one way trip will cost you as little as 100P each, (less than £2), and is the cheapest way to travel through the town.
I was excited to visit this tiny town, and if you’re a big fan of sea life, like I am, it’s definitely worth a visit.
Do not miss out on the chance to swim with whale sharks, the town of Oslob is famous for it, and for just 3,000P each, just over £50, you’ll be glad you did it.
Not my pic (from creative commons) as it was hard to take photos on the sea, but this is what we saw when whale shark watching^
Despite a 6am wake up call and just a slice of left over pizza for breakfast, we headed for the beach, and arrived in time to watch the orange sunrise over the sea.
This alone would have been a good enough reason to wake up at silly o’clock, but with our life-jackets zipped up and snorkels on, we headed for the choppy waters.
The sheer size of the creatures doesn’t hit you until you’ve jumped in the water and you realise you really just feet away. Fortunately, they don’t spot you, and they’re more than happy to float around, eating fish and minding their own business.
This experience is definitely worth the price and early start, and as you’re done by 8.30am, you can always go back to bed.
Named the Isla del Fuego or the island of fire, Siquijor is famous for its witchcraft and known healers, and was the first green lush area with a lot less tourists than we had expected.
We booked a small wooden hut, complete with a huge double bed and mosquito net, and a tiny bathroom with one toilet, sink and a shower head. This was a typical Philippine style bathroom, and hot water was a rarity.
With help from friendly locals, we found the island’s 400-year-old tree. It was an impressive size but we were pointed in the direction of the island’s stunning waterfalls. After a ten minute walk downhill on rickety wooden steps, we discovered four stunning waterfalls, and spent the afternoon swimming around in its clear blue waters- the best way to cool down.
After a week and a half of travelling around, staying just one or two nights in small hostels, we finally arrived at the stunning island of Boracay. Now, I do not use the word ‘paradise’ lightly, but I can’t think of another word to describe how I felt when I saw the 4km stretch of white sand at the White beach in Boracay.
The area was an obvious tourist spot and if you want to avoid overcrowded beaches, the typical souvenir shops, small cafes and chain-restaurants, this is not the place for you.
Fortunately what we had planned to do was to spend out last few days relaxing. We did as little as sunbathing, swimming and eating too much Italian ice-cream. Im so glad we went Island hopping (boat pic below), I think it was the best way to see Boracay. Guides will take you to secret caves and stop at beaches to swim or snorkel along the way.
^Island hopping with my friend, Fran
^Delicious ice-cream at an Italian cafe in Boracay
^Sunset on the last night
If I could change anything about my time in the Philippines, it would be to travel a lot less and to research all the places we had planned to visit beforehand. It’s a beautiful country and I would fly back there tomorrow – but on my own terms.
It’s hard to pack everything into a two-week holiday, and experience has taught me to prioritise what you want to do and where to avoid, and if that means travelling a group or venturing on your own path, then so be it.
I’m baaaack! After 56 days of new experiences, new people and a few surprises here and there, I landed in London with a beautiful view of the sunrise from the plane! So nice to see the UK again.
Above: The clear blue sea when we went snorkelling. One of my favourite days spent in Isla Bastimentos, Panama.
I cannot believe how fast my time here has gone. I remember thinking that this day was so far away when I first arrived in Costa Rica. Throughout my travels I made a list of what I have noticed/realised about myself and my surroundings. I actually wrote a lot more but cut it down as not to bore you!
What I have learnt from this trip:
1. The sunrise and sunsets here are both worth waitin for.
2. Playa Grande beach (below) could be my favourite place in Costa Rica, and yet it was unknown by many travellers I spoke to. It is beautiful.
3. People are kind
4. You can never put on enough mosquito spray. Those demons are everywhere.
5. Howler monkeys/roosters/Tucans will wake you up most mornings and not stop until they know you can’t go back to sleep.
6. Other Solo travellers will be happy you started talking to them first.
7. Unlike the UK everyone says hello to you here. Everyone.
8. Couples are just as easy to talk to as solo travellers. And just as nice
9. I have missed people back home more than I thought I would
10. Ecuador coffee tasted a little better but I am still taking some home with me.
11. So much can be done by 10am
12. I prefer the bottom bunk (unless I go back to Lost and Found lodge, I will cross my fingers for the highest bed!)
13. Some people will steal your stuff, even where you think it’s safe 😦
14. Cold showers are so good.
15. You never know what the day will throw at you. Expect suprises
16. Being ill abroad sucks, but it’s made so much better when strangers you met the same day stay by your side to help.
Above: Panamas pacific coast.
I love seeing different parts of the world, and will definitely return to Panama and explore more of it and the other beautiful countries surrounding it. Costa Rica was fantastic and I will always remember by time there fondly buy there are too many other countries in this world to see!
I’m glad I did this trip and I’m happy that I did it alone, I feel proud almost. A few years back I would not have even considered going to a foreign country on my own. It’s not half as scary/dangerous/lonely as people think. I’m already planning where to go next, so many places to see out there… No idea where to go next, but I can’t wait!
Since I began planning my trip to Costa Rica way back in 2013 (all those years ago), I read so much about these small islands off of Panama, each with a different name but known collectively as Bocas del toro. Every blog and guide book raved about these islands so I was determined to check it out and now I’m here I can finally see what all the fuss is about!
My week began in Cahuita, a small town North of Puerto Viejo, boasting a beatiful national park full of wildlife and amazing views. And it es exactly that. I walked the 8km trail and was thankful it was all flat and partly along the beach, given the hills I dreaded back and forth to the farm the previous week!
Below: Cahuita National park. 8km trek in the sun wasnt easy but the views made it worthwhile
And on Tuesday morning I took the 8am bus to the border. I got talking to a friendly Canadian couple who were headed the same way, so it was nice to be with others who were new to the process!
Having read so many tips and hints on where to go and what to do while crossing the border, I was weary as to how it would go, but it took only half hour to get an exit stamp cross the bridge and get an entry stamp to Panama! Not bad at all.
Don’t look down: the old railroad bridge is now the crossing to Panama!
The one thing bloggers were spot on about was the old wooden railroad bridge (pic above) I kept to one side as so many slats in the middle had disappeared and even the sturdier looking ones I walked on were creaking! I still managed to take some pics, but the Canadian woman I was walking with was so suprised to see me snapping away, she gasped “Oh! Don’t show those pictures to your mom!”
Left to right: A little windswept on the boat, the view from my hostel on isla bastimentos, bocas town dock and the bridge picture I was told not to share!
My hostel ‘Yemanja’ was on Isla Bastimentos, about 10 mins and $3 dollars away from the mainland. This place has been described as anotherworld compared to Bocas town, and they got that spot on! There are only a handful of hostels dotted around this island, and the rest of the colourful buildings are houses of locals who have lived here for years.
One path leads through Bastimentos, with a few mini supermarkets and the odd bar. That’s about it. It’s so anti Bocas, it was great to be living in amongst the locals and really getting a feel of how they live. Everyone smiled at you and the kids said hello as you passed, I can’t say I felt out of place here at all.
Stunning: our view after snorkelling, the $0.50 delcious coconut water and some of the fish we passed.
Woke up to a beautiful day, and after meeting two other travellers ( and rench lady and an American guy at the hostel) we all decided to take a snorkling trip together. We tracked down a local and after some negotiating, he took us to Coral Cay reef almost an hour away by boat. Our trip to the reef was bumpy as the waves were choppy that morning, and the views of the other islands and the Panama mountains were amazing!
The snorkelling was so much fun,the waters were so clear and with the sun shining on us we could have swam all day! We saw lots of small and big fish full of colours and coral reef that simply swayed in the ocean. We ended the day on Island Solarte, 5 mins from Bastimentos, taking in the views and relaxing after a great but tiring day! And it cost us $15!
And so it’s now Sunday night, I ventured to the main land two days ago and have already met some great people! I like that wherever you go, there’s always someone to talk and hang out with.
I have one more day to take in this beatiful place and the I’m off to explore more of what Panama has to offer! I cannot wait.
It’s Sunday afternoon and I can finally relax after a week of very early mornings and very dirty fingernails!
I was unlucky enough to catch the virus that was floating around the Carribean coast before my farm week, and so I was happy to move on with the hope that a bit of work would make me feel better!
Below: Cool sign at Outback Jack’s place, view from the volunteer house, our cheese, vagos place sign and our kombucha!
And for 6 days and 7 nights I volunteered at an organic farm called ‘Vago’s place’ about 10mins away from Puerto Viejo, and seen as I was in town already I avoided another crowded (and dreaded) bus journey! And now my whole body is aching! No exaggeration.
3 of us volunteered last week, myself, an American girl and an Australian girl so we had a nice mix and were able to swap and share travel experiences!
We did so much from milking goats to making cheese, to improving pathways, and feeding the chickens to planting herbs and even making our own pesto and kombucha!
The days were hot and we were so thankful when it rained at night as it drowned out the goats moaning and the world’s most annoying rooster who seemed to think it was ok to cock-a-doodle-doo at 2am!
Spotted: 2 teeny tiny hummingbird eggs in the garden.
The farm grows a lot of its own food and it we used most if not all of the vegetables and herbs for our meals each day. We made pesto from the leaves, kombucha from the juices and tea from the herbs. A very healthy and nutritious week I must say.
Saturday was market day, which meant half a day of selling our homemade products.
It was packed full of locals and tourists looking to get some bargains and had so much on sale from fruits to meats and cakes! I tried a slice of homemade carrot cake which was delicious! The best $2 I have spent since I got here!
And for our last dinner we made our own pizzas with their massive pizza oven, leaving us feeling full and happy having craved pizza all week!
WOW surfing is hard work! My arms are still aching!
Playa Grande attracts surfers form all over and it’s easy to see why, I had to give it a go!
I rented a board that was twice the size of me but apparantley it was the best for a beginner! I didn’t manage to stand up but I was thrown around enough by the waves I didn’t realise how forceful they could be! I’m definitely renting another board at the next beach I go to, so determined to stand up even if it is for a few seconds!
Don’t get me wrong, Tamarindo beach was very nice and I met some great people at the hostel. We spent a few days or evenings together, getting food, going to the beach, it was so nice to meet like minded people from all over the world. After 4 nights, I walked the short hike to where the river separates two beautiful but very different beaches.
Pic: Tamarindo to my left and Playa Grande to my right!
When I got to the river (above pic) I thought it was so narrow, surely I could cross that? Turns out the boat was needed as the driver pointed out two crocodiles, and I could just see their head floating around! Definitely a good call on taking the boat!
After a long, somewhat difficult walk along Playa grande beach, luckily I had been given directions from friends at Tamarindo, I was greeted to an open friendly hostel where Pura vida, (meaning pure life, live life to the full) was definitely the way of life here!
Mi Casa hostel was home for longer than expected, as Playa Grande was awesome! The were no tourists, no offers of drugs(!) just people relaxing, having fun and the sunset was beautfiul!
I ate breakfast twice at a nice bar/restaurant which had the world flags on show including the Welsh one, which made me smile!
I spent my days snorkeling, cycling around the island which was great excercise but pretty hard in the heat!
Below: Me looking attractive in my surfing gear!
The most memorable night was when a group of volunteers stayed the night, a mix of people from Mexico, Argentina, Brazil and Panama, and we all sat around a table playing Drunk jenga, where the one who broke the tower had to take shots of barcadi, rum and whiskey!
And now after 2 days and 4 bus journeys later I have arrived at La Fortuna! And I have to say, I already miss the beach…