Johanna Read of TravelEater is a Canadian travel writer and photographer who swapped her life as a Government of Canada executive for a nomadic lifestyle, and now travels the world sharing the good things she finds. She has been to 38 countries and counting; she’s been above the Arctic Circle, crossed the Atlantic on the world’s largest sailing ship, and flown over the equator (but not yet crossed it by land or sea). Please enjoy this week-in-the-life of Johanna on a solo trip through Panama!
This post was originally published in 2013. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content.
Where and why:
I’m spending five weeks in Panama to relax and test my packing for a solo six-month Oceania / Southeast Asia trip starting in October 2013. This is another test too. I haven’t done a long solo trip before – I need to make sure I like it as much as I think I will!
Bocas Del Toro, Panama.
Sunny with clouds, a slight breeze, “feels-like” temperature of 35.
I’m glad I decided on tomorrow to go back to Panama City. Bocas has been great, and I certainly ate better than I did on quiet Isla Contadora in the Pearl Islands, on the Pacific side. Lots more English too.
But two weeks in Bocas is enough for me. The highlight was catamaran sailing with Bocas Sailing. I snorkeled with a nurse shark and a few hundred starfish, and watched dolphins in Dolphin Bay. While I’m rested, I need some culture and history.
10:30 a.m. – My last Bocas day trip — Red Frog Beach. Before I head out, I update Facebook : “Hoping I see red frogs today at Red Frog Beach!” I want people to know where to start looking if I don’t report back.
In the water taxi there is another solo traveller. I learn Jason is an English teacher, which, in my book, makes him both interesting and un-scary. I suggest we hang out so we can each swim without worrying someone will nab our beach bags.
Red Frog Beach is nice, but I’m not sure what all the fuss is about, particularly for a beach that needs a $7 taxi ride and a $3 admission fee. But the company is good, and I’m glad I’ve seen it to judge for myself.
7:30 p.m. – It turns out it is Jason’s 40th birthday. We have dinner together and, with our passionfruit margaritas, toast the joys of solo travel, and of meeting nice people.
Bocas Del Toro, Panama.
Rain, 31 degrees.
10:55 a.m. – My flight to Panama City is this afternoon at 4:00, but my check-out time is 11:00. At 10:55 I’m down by the front office with my bag. The owner of the condo has been a little weird and so I want to make sure he has absolutely no excuse not to refund my deposit.
I pass the time sending pitches for articles, researching logistics in Panama City, and reading.
2:00 p.m. – The manager doesn’t show up, so I wait for a break in the rain and then bring the key across the street to her apartment. I guess I could have stayed in the comfort of my room.
I walk the three blocks to the airport with an eye on the sky. In two weeks in Bocas, there have been a few rainstorms, but never a full day of rain. Is a backpack rain cover worth the weight and space?
I also curse my carry-on bag.
I love my backpack, a simple Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) duffle bag with tuckable shoulder straps. It is the perfect size (40 L) and doesn’t have dangly conveyer-belt snagging parts. I like my carry-on, a 15 L super light-weight unstructured backpack, too, EXCEPT when I am also carrying my duffle. Do I put the small bag in the big one? Wear it on my front? Balance it on one shoulder? I’m shopping for a messenger style bag when I get home.
5:45 p.m. – Arrive in Panama City, Albrook airport. As with my other flights in Panama, luggage is, strangely, put through an X-ray as you leave the secure area of the airport.
I make my way to the taxi stand, telling the car touts “no thanks, I’ll take a marked taxi”. After some negotiation, I climb in the backseat with my two bags (still cursing the small one). It is ok to put your bags in the trunk of a taxi when you’re not traveling solo and one person can watch them get safely shut in the trunk while the other person makes sure the taxi doesn’t drive off with bags, but without you. Solo travelers should keep their stuff with them.
My hotel’s neighbourhood, Calidonia, is a bit on the seedy side, but just fine for daytime. But I know this is not the neighbourhood to walk outside alone at night.
7:30 p.m. – My room check-in is smooth, but getting internet access is not easy. I want to tell people I’ve arrived safely before I do anything else. But now it is too dark to search out dinner. I resolve to eat in the hotel restaurant, which turns out to be well-priced and surprisingly good. I try not to drip anything on my iPad while I research how to get a bus pass.
Early to bed. I want to get an early start and beat the heat tomorrow.
Panama City, Panama.
Sunny, feels-like temperature of 44.
8:00 a.m. – I plan to explore Casco Viejo today. I like UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and chose this hotel because it is: a) $280 US for the week and, b) about a 25 minute walk from Casco Viejo (at tropical pace), mostly along the breezier waterfront.
Over breakfast, I check Google maps for the ideal route and write down a few restaurants I’ve heard are good. I search in vain for more bus advice.
Suddenly I hear some English. I look over my shoulder and see a couple in, perhaps, their 70s with a woman in her 50s. I stop at their table on my way out. “Hi, sorry to interrupt, but I heard you speaking English. I just got here yesterday. I’m trying to figure out how to get a bus pass, do you know how?”
They’re in a similar situation. The younger woman speaks Spanish, and is travelling with her parents for two weeks. We share plans for the day, and then they invite me to join them: first a taxi to the Albrook bus terminal for the Metro Pass hunt and then to the Panama Canal.
This is a gift to a solo traveler. I can share taxis, info and company, and, bonus, with someone who speaks the local language! Plus, they’re obviously very nice and normal people, and the risks of going off for the day with a couple in their 70s are slim. I’m in.
11:30 a.m. – The Canal is touristy but indeed an engineering marvel, and the Canal museum is, surprisingly, interesting. I then happily join my companions in a taxi to the top of Ancon Hill, the highest hill (654 feet) in the city. We take in the views, and a slight breeze, and then walk down the hill along a shady road through jungly trees. Another gift to a solo traveller. I would never walk such a secluded route alone.
It is, however, hot. But my clothing choices seem to be standing up to the heat, humidity and sweat. They’re on the yes list for my Southeast Asia bag.
4:30 p.m. – After a quick stop in Casco Viejo, my original destination today, we walk back to the hotel, searching for a place to buy a Metro Pass. Another gift — with my extremely limited Spanish, I could only have figured out this overly complicated process with dumb luck.
We finally get back to the hotel, I thank the family profusely for their company and help, and wish them fun on their canal transit tomorrow.
I take a cooling shower then get dressed to find dinner. My feet are tired. Two blocks from my hotel I find a place that serves pollo — roast chicken — which, as I only learned upon arrival in Panama, is pronounced poy-o, not polo like the sport. I order with confidence (and yes, with some pointing to the rice and veg).
7:30 p.m. – I have an email from the Globe and Mail, a newspaper that published my Pursued by Police in Phnom Penh story a month ago. They need me to fill out an electronic form. Oh oh — one of the few functions iPads suck at. The Globe agrees to be patient and wait for my return to Canada.
I again weigh the pros and cons about bringing a laptop for long term travel. I still think the cons outweigh the pros, pun intended.
More online research about how to get to another of my must-visit sites, the Summit Botanical Gardens and Zoo (an animal rescue centre). This would be a fairly costly taxi ride, and now that I have a Metro Pass, I want to use it.
Panama City, Panama.
Cloudy, feels-like temperature of 41.
8:00 a.m. – Getting to Albrook bus station is easy, and I’m feeling very proud of myself. The rest of the trip, however, is not. In my head I start drafting a “how to take the bus in Panama City if you don’t speak Spanish” article so that no one else will have the same struggle.
Summit turns out to be an awesome way to spend a few hours. This isn’t a western zoo — while most of the animal enclosures are decent in size, most are made of chain-link fence; not great for photos. But the animals, even the jaguar, puma and ocelot, are surprisingly active. I guess they’re used to the heat!
12:30 p.m. – I find another benefit of solo travel. As I wander around one of the buildings, a Summit employee invites me in.
First she shows me a one-week old rescued baby sloth, in a box on a table. He’s cuddling a teddy bear. She feeds him by eye-dropper. They expect him to survive.
Then she directs me to sit on a tree stump in one of the cages. Two six-month old foxes greet her, then sniff me and my camera. One even puts his paws on my knees to sniff my face! I’m enthralled. Zoo visitors walk by, clearly wondering why the tourist is in the cage. I snap their photo.
8:00 p.m. – An evening hunched over the iPad. I’ve let slide some other travel planning longer than I should have. I send off a few messages to friends I’ll be visiting in NYC, Ottawa, New Zealand and Australia.
While I like trips to be flexible, it is harder when you’re relying on friends’ guest rooms. I’ll be able to fly by the seat of my pants more when I arrive in Southeast Asia in November. But having some sense of where I’ll be when also has benefits — once I finalize dates I can start lining up some Australian hotels for my new partnership with LuxuryAndBoutiqueHotels.com.
Panama City, Panama.
Hot and sunny, feels-like temperature of 45.
The sun is blazing today. I’m heading to the pool. I need a rest day. Travelling can quickly become exhausting if you are on the go every day, and I’ve spent too much time on my feet in too much heat.
I finish Game of Thrones, take a nap in the shade, and swim laps. I take some notes for my how to take the bus article, and transfer my photos to DropBox. I’ll need to go back to Albrook to get a few more shots. Then I lose hours on Twitter: a few plugs for my own work, but mostly being a good social citizen and gaining lots of tips for my Oceania / Southeast Asia trip, including a possible new carry-on bag.
Johanna has already trail-blazed her way through Australia and New Zealand, and is currently in Malaysia, before heading to Chiang Mai, Thailand. To find out how she is faring (and give her tips on what she should eat), follow her on Twitter @TravelEater, find her on Facebook, and check out her writing and photographs at her website TravelEater.