At only 9 years since it’s independence from Serbia and the former Yougoslavia, but with known civilizations dating back to the 6th century, Montenegro is the (second) newest old country in Europe. This blend of old and new could be felt in the historic Old Town fortresses that now housed trendy hotels and restaurants. It could also be seen in the pop-up stands along the roads where locals sold their homemade olive oils and fruits to beach-goers from all over Europe. In spite of (or perhaps because of?) a long history of political and boarder changes, the people we meet seemed rather unfazed by the latest developments.
Our decision to visit was initially spurred by Schengen visa regulations — since Montenegro has not yet joined the majority of Europe under Schengen it meant we could spend our time exploring the country without the anxiety of knowing our 90-day clock was counting down. It also checked an important box for me: visit a country that we didn’t know existed before we started out on our trip.
Korčula was the perfect antidote to yet another week of gluttony and back-to-back sightseeing in Ireland. A 2ish hour ferry ride from the port town of Dubrovnik in Croatia, Korčula is one of the quieter islands in Croatia’s Dalmatian coast. The old town resembled a mini Dubrovnik with white stone houses crowded together in the ancient city walls, their bright coral red tops standing out against the picturesque green mountains beyond.
Once inside the walls, the town could be a bit overwhelming at first. It was, like most beaches in Europe, packed full of tourists off of the ferry boats and private yachts. Happily, the apartment we rented through a local travel agency was a short 10 minute walk outside the city’s walls – close enough for easy grocery shopping, but far enough from the all-night partying in town.
Ica, Peru is a small-ish town about 4-6 hours south of Lima, making it a popular weekend getaway from the city. The climate is dry and desert-like, and it’s perhaps best known for its wine and pisco Bodegas outside of town. Ica is Peru’s primary wine and pisco producing region, and we were excited to both check out the local wine culture and taste the national beverages!
We splurged on our hotel and booked Villa Jazmin (pronounced: veeya yasmeen), a cute boutique hotel in a gated community just outside of town. Our room had an amazingly comfortable king-sized bed, modern furnishings, and a private balcony. It even included a welcome Pisco Sour that we enjoyed next to one of the two pools. Compared to the last few weeks this was top-tier luxury!
Our last stop in Peru was Cusco, homebase for our 5-day trek to Manchu Picchu via the Salkantay Trail. We booked 4 nights in Cusco so that we would have time to find and book our tour and adjust to the altitude before we needed to start hiking. It also gave us a much needed chance to recover from the Grape Incident of Ica.
Cusco ended up being a really cute destination in itself and quickly earned a spot as our favorite little city in South America. The picturesque cobblestone streets and colonial architecture are situated in the middle of a valley surrounded by the lush, green Andes Mountains. The two main squares are great for relaxing and people watching: parks surrounded by ornate churches, shops, and restaurants.
Lima was a last minute addition to our itinerary after Carnival interrupted our original plans to stick around Ecuador, and it turned out to be a great decision. Kyle found a Spanish school with great reviews in the Miraflores neighborhood (Peruwayna), and we arranged to spend a week there taking classes and exploring the city.
We arrived in Lima on Sunday afternoon after about 30 hours on busses and happily settled in. Upon arriving at the bus terminal we said goodbye to our new Argentinian friend and hopped a cab over to the homestay we had booked through our school. Willie, our host, greeted us at the door (in Spanish) and showed us to our room where we unpacked before taking a quick tour of the neighborhood. We were on a quiet street in Miraflores, a safe, nice area with a young vibe from the local universities. Everything we needed was within a few blocks – the bank, a real supermarket (the first we had seen in weeks!), and tons of restaurants. It was nice to be back in the familiar landscape of a modern city.
The next morning we started our classes. After months off from work it was nice to have a regular routine again, if only for a week: classes were 9am – 1pm every day with a coffee/snack break mid-way through. When we arrived at the school we waited with the other new students and each had a short 1:1 interview with one of the instructors to determine class placement. Nothing like a test on a subject you haven’t studied in 12 years, on the first day of class! 😉
It all worked out though, and we both ended up in classes where we learned a lot. Kyle was in basic survival Spanish where he got a crash course on grammar and learned a long list of new words. I was in pre-intermediate 1, which ended up being more conversational. We had a lesson each day, but also spent a good majority of the class talking as a group, which improved my speaking skills and, more importantly, my confidence in my ability to speak in Spanish. In the end we were really happy with our decision to take the class. We’re certainly not fluent, but we can now at least get by without constantly having to ask “habla ingles?”
Our class schedule left us with the afternoons free for long almuerzos, exploring our neighborhood, and generally catching up on life. On our first day out we tried the local drink (pisco sour!) from one of the outdoor restaurants overlooking the ocean. We also booked a city tour on the double-decker Mira Bus where we got to see downtown Lima and the San Francisco Cathedral and Catacombs. Other highlights included hanging with the cats at Parque Kennedy and checking on pre-Incan ruins in the middle of the city.
We arrived at the Guayaquil bus station early Saturday morning to the biggest mess of people we’ve seen at a transportation hub. And having flown through major US airports during snowstorms, hurricanes, and holidays, that’s saying a lot! We had to push, squeeze and shove our way back to the Cifa ticket window to pay our 50 cent exit tax amongst crowds of holiday-ing Ecuadorians and a number of loud chickens. Luckily, the guy behind the counter remembered us from the day before and we were able to squeeze in when the window opened and get our stamp in plenty of time to catch the bus.
We encountered the second mob of the day later, at the Ecuador-Peru border. It was our first boarder crossing on a bus and we didn’t quite know what to expect, but we definitely were not prepared for the 2-hour long line outside the customs office. It took so long for everyone on our bus to get through that we ended up ditching the bus and hopping a cab with a guy from Argentina that we had made friends with earlier, just so we could make our next bus to Lima. Hooray for friends that speak fluent Spanish! Happily, it all worked out and we made our bus, which ended up exceeding our hopes with full cama (180 degree reclining) seats, 3 decent meals a day, and personal TVs at every seat. Go Civa!
We opted for a homestay through our Spanish school, and it turned out to be a great way to experience the neighborhood. Willie, our host was patient with our (lack of) Spanish skills, and it was nice to have the use of a kitchen again.
Do / See
The Catacombs and San Francisco Monastery are a must-see. The history in both is astounding: a library with books dating back thousands of years, huge intricate paintings and tapestries, and underground caverns filled 20 meters deep with bones.
The Mira Bus tour itself we had mixed feelings on. It was a great way to see the important areas of the city without the effort of trying to figure out cabs or busses. However, it was pretty expensive, and with traffic in Lima being the worst we’ve seen yet we spent a lot of time inching along smog-filled streets.
We also missed out on the Plaza del Armas, because there was a demonstration going on and the police power to keep people (including tour busses) away was intense with machine-gun armed guards and tanks blocking surrounding streets. In summary, I would probably skip Mira Bus in favor of a private tour, or take cabs directly to the sites we wanted to see.
In Miraflores alone there was a lot to do and this was where we spent the rest of our time. One of the coolest spots (in our opinion) was the ruins from the pre-Incan city of Huaca Pucllana.
It was a quick walk from the place we were staying, and admission included a guided tour of the ruins, an archeological site that’s still being explored. If you’re looking for a treat they also have an on-site restaurant that’s highly rated. The dining area overlooks the ruins which are lit up at night, and the dinner reservation includes an after-hours tour.
For cat lovers, Parque Kennedy is not to be missed. It’s one of the main parks in Miraflores and home to about 150 stray cats and kittens. It’s unclear exactly how they got here (some claim that a nearby church brought the first cats in to deal with rats in the ’80s), but they are now a staple in the neighborhood. Locals come to pet them on their lunch breaks, and there’s a group of residents that come twice a day to lay down food and water. After our first trip here we bought a bag of cat food from the supermarket and returned the next couple days, sneaking food to our new furry friends while park security looked the other way.
Another favorite place was the coast in Miraflores, with amazing views from the shops and restaurants built into the cliffs, and tourists paragliding overhead.
Once again, we were big fans of the menu del dias. Most of the restaurants in Miraflores offered a set lunch menu for a decent price. Barranco Beer Company was one of our favorites, with a 2-course meal and local beer. It was a long walk from Miraflores, but absolutely worth it for the food and the ocean views along the way.
We had our first Peruvian Pisco Sours here and were instantly hooked. It’s the national drink made with Pisco (of course), lime juice, sugar, and egg whites. Yum! We also tried out the local beers – pretty standard for a cheap local brew. The beer at Barranco was much better. For wine, we grabbed a bottle of Peruvian Blanco de Blancos, a white blend from Taberno at the supermarket. It was surprisingly sweet, but perfect for desert.
Lessons & Tips
Beware Carnival. All countries have their own version on different dates, and it effects everything. While I’m sure the parties can be fun, don’t count on getting anywhere on time unless you’ve booked far in advance.
Taking the time to (start to) learn the local language was absolutely worth it. It helped us feel more comfortable going to less touristy restaurants and less like self-centered Americans that expected everyone else to learn English. And it feels great to be able to do basic things like direct a cab driver, or check in at a hostel without expecting the other person to speak English. I’m continuously amazed by all of the Europeans we meet that speak 3 or more languages.
I am very grateful for California’s smog regulations on vehicles. The exhaust from the Collectivos (mini buses) was intense and left me with a perpetual sore throat.
Hello again! Apologies to everyone following along — it’s been a crazy-awesome-fun last month, and in all of that we’ve fallen quite a bit behind in our posts. We’ll try our best to catch you up quickly!
Isla Isabela was the largest, yet most undeveloped of the 3 Galápagos Islands that we visited. The streets were all unpaved – for the moment anyway – and the town was small enough to walk anywhere in a few minutes. It also had the laid-back vibe of a beach town that can run on island time. We still have no idea what the hours were at our favorite bakery, only that they (usually) weren’t open in the mornings, and occasionally were o pen on our way home for dinner. Even the church embraced island life with a floor-to-ceiling mural depicting Jesus rising over a beach and stained glass windows of giant tortoises and blue-footed boobies.
After our busy week on San Cristobal, the slower pace of Isla Isabela was welcome, and we took the opportunity to slow down too. The wildlife here was similar to San Cristobal — with the exception of the elusive Galapagos penguins — so we didn’t feel the need to push ourselves to do lots of snorkeling and tours. Instead, we spent time swimming at the beach and walking around.
Since all ferries originate from Santa Cruz we had to take two separate boats over to Islabela: the first from San Cristobal to Santa Cruz, and the second from Santa Cruz to Isabela. Normally the boat rides are pretty smooth, but we managed to time our transfer with a big rainstorm, and ended up soaked on the first leg of our journey. We passed the time between boats in a small coffee and fro-yo shop on Santa Cruz that we remembered from our first stay on the island. Talking with the guy working there we learned that it’s rare for this much rain to come through — most houses aren’t built to deal with it and a lot ended up flooded. Our wet boatride didn’t seem so bad by comparison!
Do / See
Volcan Sierra Negra
We only did one official tour on Isabela — a hike up and around the rim of one of the island’s volcanos. At 19 kilometers round-trip it was one of the longer hikes we had done, but the views made it worth it. We were the first tour group on the trail so we had it to ourselves for the most part.
It was also clear weather up until the very end, so we were able to see all the way across the crater, and had views all the way to the ocean from our lunch time vantage spot.
Wall of Tears
The day before the volcano hike we did another long trek, out to the Wall of Tears. Left over from Isabela’s earlier days as a penal colony, the massive wall built by prisoners for no real purpose was a striking reminder that the islands hadn’t always been a protected oasis. Along the road to the wall were beaches, lava tunnels, and a few giant tortoises making their way slowly.
Tortoise Center and Flamingo Lagoon
Near the main beach is a short trail through the marshes to the island’s Tortoise breeding center. Similar to the center on San Cristobal Tortoise eggs are gathered, hatched, and raised in captivity until the animals’ shells have developed enough to withstand threats of the outside world, some of which include introduced species like dogs, cats, and even cars and motorbikes. On the way to the breeding center we passed a lagoon filled with bright pink flamingos.
Isabela had the best beaches of any of the islands with warm water and white sand. Our only regret was that we didn’t rent a boogie board for the waves!
By the time we got to Isabela we were pretty snorkeled out. We passed on the snorkel tours and instead opted to check out the small lagoon just outside of town on our own. We passed a couple snoozing sealions on the way, and there were a handful of fish in the lagoon itself, but compared to the spots we had been on San Cristobal it wasn’t overly impressive.
On our last day we came back here and tried to rent a kayak to paddle out to the nearby cove and try to see some of the island’s famed penguins. Unfortunately, the main kayak stand was closed the whole time we were there (lunch? siesta? who knows!) and the only other guy renting kayaks on the beach was selling tours for more cash than we had on us. Frustrated, and sad about missing out on the penguins, we finally admitted defeat and headed to the beach.
We went back and forth on whether to book a hostel before we arrived and ended up doing so at the last minute, through Booking.com. Our planning paid off when we were greeted by a free pickup from the dock, saving us the long-ish walk with heavy packs and Dramamine-induced grogginess. Sula Sula, our hostel, ended up being decent with clean, comfortable beds, A/C and breakfast included.
We had most of our dinners at the touristy restaurants around the main square. The fixed-price ‘cenas’ were a good deal and the food was pretty decent. We did hear rumors of cockroaches from other travellers we met, but chose to ignore the warnings and try our luck. Happily our gamble paid off and there were no crunchy surprises in our soup.
A couple other stand-out spots for us were the bakery a couple blocks away from Sula Sula, and the small juice shop on the main square. The woman that ran the shop was friendly and made fresh-to-order juices from local fruits like pineapple, papaya, and watermelon.
One last staple in our daily meals — Ecuadorian ice cream popsicles. They were sold at every corner store with flavors ranging from standard blackberry (mora) and coconut to more obscure native fruits like taxo, and were the perfect match for a warm day at the beach.
Along one of our hikes we met a couple from San Francisco who we continued to run into over the next couple days. On one of our last nights we ended up checking out the beach-side bars together. The first bar had tables on the beach, a pretty low-key atmosphere, and decent drinks. Kyle opted for a Cuba Libre, and I had a Caprinarah — a sugary, fruity cocktail we’d been seeing on local drink menus. It was delicious!
Our next stop, Bar de Beto, was attached to the hostel our friends were staying at. We had stopped by earlier in the day and it was packed with a group from a cruise ship hanging out on the hammocks. When we tried to go back after dinner it was closed up and all the lights were off, but by the time we finished drinks at the first bar it was back in full swing — this time with a disco ball, salsa dancing and some intense flashing lights. Again with the completely random island hours! Anyway, fun little bar with really strong drinks served up in coconuts.
Lessons & Tips
Keeping a balanced budget means hard choices. And deciding how much you really want to do something and what you are (or aren’t) willing to sacrifice for it. For us, it meant no penguins. But, this helped keep us on budget enough to say yes to a more expensive trek with friends a few weeks later.
Along those lines…no matter how long the trip is, you’re never going to see everything. And everyone you meet or talk to is going to have one more “must-do” to share. And if you try to do it all you’re going to end up exhausted with a half finished checklist. Our POV: It’s much better to pick a few must-do’s and leave time to really enjoy where you are and what you’re doing.
For boat rides in rough water always grab a seat near the back. Especially if you’re prone to motion sickness…
Ok, maybe “Tropical Paradise” is stretching it a bit. But Guayaquil has such a bad rap that I felt I owed it to this not-so-bad city to help boost it’s ratings.
Before arriving in Guayaquil we did our usual internet research and everything we read seemed to arrive at the same conclusion: spend as little time as possible in Guayaquil. Portrayed as a crime-ridden city with lackluster food and little in the way of entertainment it seemed to fall short on all levels. The consensus was so strong that I was certain we’d be lucky to make it out of the city without getting robbed, mugged, or at the very least coming down with a severe case of boredom.
Maybe we set the bar so low that it was impossible for Guayaquil not to exceed our expectations, but we were actually pleasantly surprised by the city.
When we arrived at the airport customs / immigration was fast and efficient. We were pulling our bags from the conveyor belt and heading outside to the clearly marked taxi area in no time. Moreover, there was a giant sign and airport official directing people to the taxis to ensure that passengers were taking official, licensed cabs. No sign of the sketchy fake cabs that were all over the internet.
Things continued to look promising as we got into our cab and headed for our hostel. A giant monkey sculpture greeted us as our cab drove through the tunnel to downtown Guayaquil. The city itself was pretty drab, aside from the colorful houses that dotted the Santa Ana and El Carmen Hills. However, our hostel was in a great location, right on the Malecon, a pedestrian pathway decorated with trees, flowers, restaurants and street vendors, which stretched a few kilometers along the Guayas River.
We only had a few days total in Guayaquil, and much of it was spent catching up on email, blog posts, photos, and dealing with some issues back home. In the time that we did have free, we tried to take in the sights and explore the neighborhoods surrounding our hostel.
One thing that struck me about Guayaquil — it was the first city we had been to where tourism wasn’t a central pillar in the economy. There are pros and cons to this, of course. On the plus side, you can experience what it’s like to actually be a part of this city, outside of the glitzy facade that tourist-centric areas put on; this is one of my favorite aspects of traveling. On the other hand though, we definitely stuck out everywhere we went, and both sightseeing and food options were pretty slim.
In Kyle’s words “It was a city like any other”.
Getting There (and Away)
It was a quick flight from Panama City into Guayaquil, only a couple hours with no layovers. We were a bit anxious on the way to the airport when our taxidriver decided mid-route to drop a friend off at her home and got us stuck in the worst traffic jam, but all turned out alright. Much easier than when we tried to leave…
While in the Galapagos we learned that Carnival is a national holiday in Ecuador and goes from approximately Feb. 13 – 18. Most businesses are closed Monday and Tuesday as Ecuadorians escape to the local beaches for the long weekend. This threw a bit of a wrench in our plans as we had hoped to take Spanish classes in Cuenca, Ecuador that week. When we found out the school was closed for carnival we reassessed our plans and instead decided to head to Peru early to escape the chaos and take classes there instead.
We landed back in Guayaquil from the Galapagos on Thursday 2/17 and immediately hopped a cab to the bus terminal to purchase our tickets for Friday’s overnight bus to Lima. The bus terminal was part of a giant 4-story mall and it took us awhile to find the ticket windows. When we did, we quickly realized that Carnival was going to be a bigger problem than we thought — all direct buses to Lima were booked solid until Sunday afternoon. It takes 22 – 26 hours to get to Lima which meant missing our first day of classes.
Refusing to accept that Carnival once again ruined our plans, we continued asking around and were eventually pointed in the direction of the CIVA ticket window, a company we hadn’t heard of, but at this point we were desperate. After sharing our story with the guy at the ticket window (Necesitamos ir a Lima para clases de espanol en lunes a las ocho de la manana!) he confirmed that all of their buses from Guayaquil to Lima were also full, however if we could get ourselves to Tumbes, Peru they did have a bus that left Tumbes at 4pm on Friday, arriving in Lima around 11am Saturday. Finally! Hopeful, we hurried over to the Cifa (another bus company) ticket window and purchased two tickets to Tumbes, leaving at 7am the following morning.
Back at the CIVA window, feeling extremely proud of ourselves for figuring this all out (in a foreign language nonetheless), we presented our tickets to the guy that helped us concoct this plan only to find out that the Friday bus from Tumbes to Lima was full. Apparently it didn’t occur to him to check this before directing us to purchase our tickets for that day. Luckily there were still a couple seats left for Saturday and we were able to shuffle everything around to make this work. We would have one extra night in Guayaquil, but still make it in to Lima for our classes on Monday.
Manso Boutique Guesthouse
This cute hostel is located right on the Malecon (waterfront). They have spacious rooms for all types of travelers, from low-cost dorms, to comfortable rooms with a private bathroom and TV. They even offer complementary sea salt scrubs with their bath products, and ear plugs (not that you need them here). Add to that A/C, free filtered water, and great shared spaces with hammocks and it makes for a more than sufficient place to crash for a few days. Breakfast is included and they usually serve lunch and dinner a la carte from their mostly vegan menu.
Do / See
Museo Antropologico y de Arte Contemporaneous
A free museum with a surprisingly wide variety of exhibits, this is a great place to spend a few free hours. It’s situated at the end of the Malecon, with a view overlooking the Guayas river. The first exhibit we checked out was a brief overview of Ecuador’s early history, including local artifacts that dated back to pre-Incan times. The second hall featured paintings from an Ecuadorian artist. The entire gallery was dedicated to his work and it was really interesting to see how his style and subject matter changed over time, spanning both local landscapes and everyday life. Next to this were two modern art exhibits, one of which featured work by students and local artists that took shapes and patterns from ancient artifacts and turned them into modern art pieces. All of the exhibits were in Spanish, but we were able to figure out most of it.
It’s obvious that the city put a lot of time into making this a safe, pleasant place to spend time. The gardens were well kept and full of flowers. There were even some land iguanas hanging around! We went for a few walks here and it felt safe day and night.
Being right along the Guaya river you can watch as all the leaves and water plants flow up (and then back down) the river with the tides. At times it was so congested it was hard to tell where the shore ended and the river began.
9 de Octubre
The main avenue in the city, this is a great place to check out if you want to get a feel for what it’s like to actually live / work in the city. This street starts at the Malecon and runs perpendicular into the city. It passes through a couple plazas and a park full of vendors and locals. Along with the usual city park vendors there were (a lot of) clowns, what looked like a school marching band, and photographers with props that included a 3-foot tall lion toy.
Coffee & Sweets
We visited this Starbucks-clone a few times with consistently good results. It’s an Ecuadorian cafe chain with decent coffee and a pastry section that would put Starbucks to shame. Pie, breads, cakes, flan, mouses, all made fresh on-site. Yum!
Menestras del Negro
A popular fast food restaurant with traditional Ecuadorian food: chicken, fish or beef with rice and beans. It was ok for a quick cheap bite, but not outstanding. I would guess this is what most foreigners would say about McDonald’s or Burger King…
This restaurant is located right on the Malecon, near our hostel. Although it was touted in Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor as one of the better restaurants in Guayaquil, we were unimpressed. The prices were on the higher side, our server neglected to bring us one of the drinks we ordered, and Kyle ended up with an upset stomach. On top of that the waiter told us our credit card wouldn’t work so we paid in cash, only to find out later that the charge had gone through. My assumption would be that our waiter justo keyed the cash assuming we’d never notice…not cool.
We found this grill right around the corner from our hostel and it turned out to be our favorite dinner spot in Guayaquil. Most of the meat dishes come out on mini charcoal grills that are delivered right to your table. While it was also the most expensive both the food and the service were excellent.
The areas we explored didn’t seem to have much in the way of stand-alone bars. It seemed that most people either had their drinks with dinner or went out to other neighborhoods after. We did try one local brew though, a beer that was made and sold at our hostel. It turned out to be too metallic for our tastes — which was probably a good thing for our wallets!
Tips and Lessons
Guayaquil was our first introduction to electric shower heads. Instead of turning on the hot and cold water via taps, you select hot, warm or cold on the shower head which uses electricity to regulate the temperature.
Unless you’re going to celebrate Carnival, avoid it like the plague. If you are going to celebrate, book everything ahead of time!
Guidebooks, blogs, etc only go so far in preparing you for a place. While its good to do some research it helps to also approach a new place with an open mind, something we’ll continue to work on.
Our second randevou with Panama City began at 4am when we were unceremoniously dropped off at the bus station. After many confused looks and waking up enough to turn on our cell phones, we confirmed that yea, it was in fact 4am. And we were standing in a bus terminal that wouldn’t open for hours, with all of our luggage. Awesome.
We took a quick inventory of our options:
Go to the hostel we had booked and hope they took pity on us/had a free couch. Nope. Our reservation email confirmed that reception didn’t open til 7.
Find a 24 hour diner and have a looong breakfast. As lovely as this would have been, we didn’t have internet and neither of us trusted ourselves to communicate correctly to a cab driver in Spanish: please take me to a decent 24 hour restaurant in a decent neighborhood.
Were the bars still open?? Wait, right, we have all of our luggage…
Wait it out in the bus terminal. This was where we ended up, in a waiting area that the security guard ushered us to after being told that no, we could not just take a seat on the ground near the taxis.
Once 7am finally rolled around we caught a cab to our hostel in the El Cangrejo neighborhood, one of the trendy areas that bordered the banking district. Luckily, they answered the door and we were able to drop off our heavy packs. Not-so-luckily, we were told to come back at 3pm, the official time of checkin. Sleep-deprived, we stumbled into a near-by diner for some breakfast, before taking a walk through downtown.
After an unsuccessful attempt to go to the mall (opened at 11am) and the movie theater (which was supposedly in the mall), we sat down outside, feeling pretty bummed, and more than a little exhausted. We had barely slept the night before and I was a bit frustrated with myself for pushing us to book our hostel rather than a proper hotel. Granted, the prices were much better, but a hotel would have afforded us an air-conditioned lobby to hang in, and Panama City had some really nice hotels.
I voiced my frustrations to Kyle, and his response was “why not?”. 10 minutes later we were relaxing on the big purple couches at the hotel across the street, checking our email on the free wifi, and enjoying the A/C. Thus began the more luxurious side of our trip, which included a day of lounging at one of the nicest pools in the city, followed by a nine-course tasting menu and a bottle of Argentinian Malbec at one of the top restaurants in the city. A much needed vacation from our vacation!
We booked the full transfer from Bocas del Toro to Panama City at our hostel, assuming it would be both faster, and easier. Well, we were right on one account, we realized as the bus sped up and down the winding mountain roads. The bus also ended up being two busses, the first which dropped us and all of our luggage at a one-window bus station down a sketchy-looking road in David at 10:30pm. Thankfully, we were with about 20 other backpacking tourists as well, and one guy helped translate for us, confirming that the bus driver said another bus would be along within the hour.
The next bus arrived and it was definitely a step down from the public bus we took from Panama City to David. They had also double booked our tickets, or so they said after a brief conversation with the exceptionally grumpy looking people sitting in the ones listed on our ticket. So, we ended up stuck in the very back, with the toilet. Overall, not our favorite bussing experience, but we made it!
Our hostel, Autograph Lodge, came highly recommended on a bunch of booking sites. After the great time we had at Bubba’s we were excited to check it out and meet some of the other guests. We had the back room off of the garden, and while it was quiet and the room was clean, we were a bit bummed to find that the hostel wasn’t really set up with any social areas. The neighborhood was good, but we both agreed that next time we would splurge on one of the nice hotels downtown.
See / Do
Walk or jog along Cinta Costa at high tide. Great views of the skyline from this park that follows along the water’s edge. Make sure you catch it when the water is high though, otherwise the smell can overwhelm the skyline views.
Hang at one of Panama City’s many high-end hotels. If you can splurge on a room, most are still a much better deal than in the US, and the rooftop pools are the perfect antidote to the heat. If not, most still have bars and restaurants where you can enjoy the atmosphere (and if you’ve packed proper clothes no one needs to know you’re actually staying at the hostel down the street).
Eat / Drink
La Rana Dorada
I believe there are two or three in the city — we ate at the one in El Cangrejo. It’s a brewpub that also does food and we were more than happy with both. We had an enormous plate of nachos and two of their signature beers. It was a cute location with tables outside and seemed to be a popular spot with local 20 and 30-somethings.
We went back and forth on this for awhile on whether to go here because it would be our most expensive meal of the trip at $41/pp, plus taxes, tip, and drinks. However, where else could we get a 9-course menu prepared by one of the city’s top chefs, for that price? We finally decided to go for it and were not disappointed. The food was inspired by traditional Panamanian cuisine, and made with local ingredients. I could go on about the flavors, but I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves…
Tips & Lessons
Always ask what time the over night bus arrives, and if there are any middle of the night transfers.
Always pack some nice clothes – you never know when you’ll need them, and you don’t want to be caught at a nice restaurant with hiking pants!
Even happy budget travelers need a bit of luxury now and the
Our first night in Bocas del Toro it finally hit me — we’re really doing this. We had reached the one week mark on our trip, and instead of getting ready to head home, we were settling in.
I was a bit anxious heading out to Bocas. This was going to be our first stay at a hostel, ever, and there was a small part of me that was nervous that I’d hate it. That it would be crowded, dirty, and filled with 20-year-olds partying all night while making me feel way too old for this. So much of our trip (the experience, as well as the budget) was banking on staying in hostels, and yet neither of us had ever done so before. Eek.
Happily, my fears were completely unfounded and we had such an amazing time. Emy and Laura, our hosts, were super sweet and laid back. Our room was clean with a comfortable bed and windows overlooking the ocean. It was small and sparse in terms of furniture, but it was perfect for what we needed. I’d take the hammocks on the over-water deck over an in-room desk any day.
The other guests were equally great, and we quickly realized that we are definitely not too old for this. Most everyone staying there was around our age or older and had travelled pretty extensively. We met some really cool people from Wales, Chile, Portugal, and the US, and had fun sharing stories over the family-style dinner and $1.50 beers. One of our first nights there I asked about yoga classes on the island and got the response:
“They used to have yoga classes over by Red Frog Beach, but the yoga instructor ran off with the surf instructor awhile ago. They took the paddle boards with them….”
This was followed by a lengthy debate about what day of the week it was. We finally agreed on Friday. Yep, I could get used to this island life…
We were happy with our choice to book transport all the way to Bocas with one of the hostels in Boquete. Though it was a few dollars more than taking the local busses it was also a few hours shorter. The scenery was beautiful, with the road winding through the jungle. We saw mountains, waterfalls, and a lot of small houses on stilts. I also got to experience The Worst Bathroom. After that my standards were lowered and any bathroom not literally covered in poop is “not so bad!”.
Our van dropped us off in the small, run-down port town of Almirante, where we caught the first water taxi over to Bocas Town. It reminded me of similar towns in Belize and I was happy to not have to navigate it on our own. Once in Bocas it was easy to catch a quick water taxi to the island we were staying on — Bastimentos (or, Basti, as the locals referred to it).
We found our hostel, Bubba’s House, on Airbnb and I can’t recommend it enough. Good rooms, great atmosphere, nice hosts. The hammocks were perfect for reading or napping, and they had paddle boards we rented, as well as tubing and wakeboarding from their boat.
The town took some warming up, but we got there. It’s a pretty poor community, with standoffish residents, and quite a bit of trash. After a couple days though, we realized that it’s actually a pretty safe place. And while no one is going to go out of their way to say hi to you on the “street” (there are no cars on Basti, the main street is really a small sidewalk), why should they? For most residents, their families have been here for generations. We are just part of the weekly turnover of tourists passing through.
Do / See
Our first night in town a couple from Montreal dropped by our hostel inquiring about the Zapatillas tour that was listed. Upon finding out that it was a 4-person minimum to do the tour, we decided to jump on board. This ended up being the only actual tour we did in Bocas and it was perfect. Though it was little more expensive at $35/pp, we definitely felt that it was worth it.
The boat picked us up at 10am-ish, and headed out to this area where the water was filled with starfish, large and small. From there, the boat circled a couple inlets at “sloth island”. Hanging out with sloths was one of my “must-do’s” on the trip so I was pretty excited for this part. For a short time we had actually looked into adding French Guiana to the itinerary just for their awesome sloth rescue reserve but ended up passing due to costly flights, rabies vaccines, and malaria meds.
When we got to the island it was pretty hot out so most of the sloths were taking cover in-land. But we did see a few hanging from the trees!
Next stop was snorkeling where we saw bright coral and a bunch of fish. Then lunch at a nearby restaurant that clearly catered to all of the snorkel tours.
The last part of our day was spent on Zapatillas, a small island with a walkways that allowed tourists to explore the swampy mangrove landscape without harming the environment, and ended at a gorgeous white sand beach. By the time we arrived it was about 2pm and we were the only boat there, which meant that our tour group had the island to ourselves. We swam in the warm water and got some great photos of the island with a storm rolling just past us. Overall, a fantastic day.
Another somewhat impromptu trip — we met a girl from Denmark over breakfast who was looking for a budget beach day. She corralled a group of Germans as well, and Emy agreed to take us all out to coral cove for snorkeling, for less than half the cost of a tour. The coral wasn’t quite up to the spot the other day, but we had the small beach completely to ourselves, and the water was warm and clear. The highlight for me though, was finding and opening my own coconut with only a found tree branch and a broken knife. Yum. Maybe I wouldn’t be totally useless in a shipwreck situation?
Emy took us out fishing on his boat one night. Kyle brought back 3 fish; one became a ceviche app for the next night’s dinner. He also caught a terrifying 2-foot long needlefish with lots of teeth. Huge thanks to Emy’s fisherman friend for returning that one to the sea without any injuries! I didn’t catch anything, but after seeing the needlefish I didn’t mind.
While exploring is fun, arguably the best part of Bocas was the lazy days spent in a hammock over the water, napping, reading, and getting to know other guests.
We ate literally every breakfast and dinner at our hostel. The food on their rotating family-style menu was just that good, and reasonably priced.
A delicious, laid-back lunch spot a short walk away. It’s run by locals, with an over-water dining area, and really good fried chicken.
A cute little vegetarian restaurant at the top of the island. Luckily there was no rain the day we went because the only path there is up hill through the jungle and can become impossible to navigate in the mud. We split a bean salsa trio with homemade tortilla chips and a pumpkin quesadilla – both were delicious.
Up in the Hill
Another 7-minute jungle trek past Coco Hill is the most unique coffee shop I’ve ever been to (take note, San Francisco). The whole space is outside, a combination of bohemian decor and nature. And you share it with Basti’s famed red frogs, some nesting chickens, and an adorable cat.
Then there’s the coffee/food. They roast their own coffee beans, and make their own organic chocolate from cocoa that grows on the farm. I wish we had room for for a few more pieces of the banana bread in our packs…
Since the night-life scene on Basti was non-existen partiers would hop a water taxi to Bocas Town. We opted instead to hang out at our hostel with local beers (Panama and Balboa) and our new friends. We also splurged on a couple of Laura’s delicious piña coladas!
Tips & Lessons
Paddle boarding is hard work. Especially in the rain, and when you get a bit too far out to sea. Those ocean currents are no joke…
Don’t over-schedule. Our favorite memories came from having an open schedule that allowed us to say yes to an impromptu boat trip, sing along with our guitar-playing hostel-mates, and watch dolphins play in the bay.
Current Location: Puerto Arroyo, Isla Santa Cruz, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador; Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, Isla San Cristobal, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador; Puerto Villamil, Isla IIsabela, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador *
* This one took awhile. Internet has been slow, and the WordPress iPad app doesn’t quite have formatting down yet. Lots of writing my own html!
Panama City was a great starting point for our adventures into South America — I’d definitely recommend it to anyone heading to South or Central America. It was much bigger than any cities we passed through in our previous travels to Costa Rica and Belize. And way more modern, but with a distinctly Central American feel. The juxtaposition of everything made this an especially interesting stop: tourists and locals, poverty and wealth, old colonial ruins and brand new skyscrapers.
Our first few days in Panama City were a mix of relaxation and exploring. And trying to remember / learn key phrases in Spanish. I quickly realized that much of what I learned in high school was either forgotten or not incredibly useful. While I could conjugate an irregular verb I was at a complete loss to understand directions to the bathroom. It’s something that I’ve noticed with a lot of U.S. schools (maybe elsewhere too?) — everything is taught to pass a test, not necessarily learn in a way that can be applied to real life. But, we’re working on it!
The first time I successfully haggled our taxi fare down in Spanish was one of my proudest moments.
We had booked the first few nights at The Country Inn and Suites by the Panama Canal at the recommendation of one of Kyle’s coworkers who was originally from Panama. A bit outside of the noise of downtown and with all the comforts of a US hotel chain it was an easy transition into our travels. The hotel was clean, and modern with comfortable beds, air conditioning, and a pool with views of the canal. Plus it included free breakfast and cookies!
The only downsides were the over-priced taxis and the on-site TGI Friday’s. I suppose with a captive audience of mostly tourists both were to be expected.
See / Do
This old colonial part of the city is a must-see. It’s incredible to see the transformation happening here. Crumbling colonial buildings completely overgrown with vegetation are side-by-side with newly restored bars, restaurants, hotels, and condos. The squares with their old churches and outdoor restaurants are also fun to check out.
We didn’t have a chance to wander too much this time — by the time we got to Casco Viejo it was only a couple hours before dark, and the heavy military/police presence and warnings from shop owners not to go past 11th Street put us a bit on edge. We had seen the slums that boarder the town on our taxi ride in and the warnings did not appear to be exaggerated. Though we did later learn that the military presence is partially attributed to the presidential palace being in Casco Viejo.
The Miraflores Locks are the prime viewing spot for ships going through the canal. You can watch cargo ships and gigantic cruise ships come in and get ushered from Lago Miraflores out into the open ocean.
There’s also a multi-level museum that details the history of the locks, as well as a film that we unfortunately missed due to poor timing (the locks close at 5:30 and it was already 4:30 by the time we arrived). We did get to watch a ship pass through the first set of locks – so cool!
We had also pre-arranged with our cab driver to pick us up when the locks closed so getting back to our hotel was easy (our Spanish was improving…a little!).
Avenida Balboa Park
A nice urban park, worth a stroll for some good pictures of the Panama City skyline after lunch at the Mercado de Mariscos.
We opted to walk the mile to the Causeway from our hotel along the canal path, and then about 3 miles further down the Causeway. It was nice to get some exercise in and overall felt really safe. However the heat and construction made it just OK. I’d suggest checking it out in the early morning (before it gets too hot), and only after the construction is done, since the view of the city is almost entirely obscured by temporary walls.
Mercado de Mariscos
Our first stop on Day 1 was this local fish market just outside of Casco Viejo. It was cool to go inside and see all of the fresh fish for sale, but the highlight was definitely the ceviche from the vendors outside.
We skipped the restaurant in the market and instead spent a few hours sampling the $1.50 – $3.50 cups of ceviche and $1.50 local beers. It was fun trying to translate the menus to figure out what we were ordering. We did have a couple mistranslations, but everything was so good that we really didn’t mind!
We were here on a Saturday and it was apparent from the crowds of locals that this was more a locals spot than a tourist hangout.
Yacht Club restaurant near our hotel
I don’t know the official name of the restaurant, but it was just on the other side of the TGI Friday’s at our hotel and WAY better. The food and beer were decently priced — my fish tacos restored my hopefulness that we would actually be able to get good food in Panama. And the open air patio was a great place to catch the sunset over the canal.
Red Lion Pub in Casco Viejo
A fairly standard pub with slightly overpriced beer. I wasn’t overly impressed, but they did have a nice outdoor patio for people watching and, most importantly, a bathroom! (see below on our bathroom challenges…)
Gatto Blanco in Casco Viejo
We had the lovely rooftop lounge almost to ourselves at sunset. Once again the drinks were overpriced ($5.25 for a Heinikkan, yikes), but the views made it well worth it. We were much less impressed with the restaurant downstairs. The food was quite good, but expensive and small portions: we split a baked chicken entree and 2 sodas for $23. Not ideal for budget travelers.
Tips & Lessons
Tipping is 10% in restaurants. And often included in the bill. We found this out after leaving our waiter at TGI Friday’s a VERY nice (and completely undeserved) tip. It is also not standard to tip taxi drivers.
Public bathrooms are not standard. After walking around for a half hour trying to find the elusive public restroom referenced on all of the tourist signs near the Mercado de Mariscos, we finally paid a woman 25 cents for Kyle to use a small trough.
Brush up on Spanish. While you can get by with English in most places you will constantly feel like a tourist and haggling with locals is MUCH easier when you can speak the language.
We’ll be stopping back in Panama City for a couple days on our way to Ecuador, this time staying at a hostel in El Cangrejo. More on that area and downtown to come!
Current location: Isla Bastimientos, Bocas del Toro, Panama