Panama/Costa Rica/Guatemala trip, finally!

I was following up on a post I made on a travel forum, and decided, uh, I should *probably* update my blog.  Before I go on yet another trip that I will be behind in posting about.  So this is a less-detailed-but-hopefully-informative account of my trip.  Phew!  This being the first day I’ve not been at school (NOT a joke) since my trip, it’s a pretty appropriate day to do this.

The purpose of my trip was to go volunteer with Floating Doctors.  They are an amazing medical volunteer group led by an amazing guy named Dr. Ben LaBrot.  Their base of operations is in Bocas Del Toro, Panama.  In order to get there, I booked a late evening flight to Panama City (couldn’t take an earlier one since I was busy taking my last final of the semester at Yo San U, haha), and then planned to take the overnight bus ($27) to Bocas (flights are available for $100 something.  I’m always game to save money, and sleep well on buses, so no problem for me to take the bus).


Day 1 started with my buddies Lana and Erin taking me to the airport for my late-night flight, where I promptly volunteered to go on a flight the next day for $500 in future flight credit with United.  The hotel they put me up at for the night had a live bed bug in the first room.  Awesome.  I stayed in a different room on a different floor, but obviously did not sleep well, and left as soon as possible the next morning.  I used my food voucher to get me a nice burrito salad (whatever you call those things) for breakfast in terminal 6 and met up with a fellow Yo Sanner, Sabrina!  I got into PC late and had to take a taxi, there’s not really a better way to get to town late at night.  Chicken buses run, but you have to walk a bit and it was dark, and I had no idea where I was going.  Fare is like $25-30, suck it up.  Panama is often expensive!

The hostel I was recommended to stay at, Luna’s Castle, was full, so I went to a nearby one they suggested, Magnolia Inn.  This was a great move.  This place is probably the cleanest hostel I’ve ever stayed in.  There were only 6 beds in a room, each bed had a nice mattress, sheets/blanket, AND its own desk light thing and set of outlets to charge your stuff.  I think it was the same price as Luna’s or maybe $1 more/night.  A/C in the dorms too, I generally hate A/C, but it’s really sweltering down there, trust me, you’ll appreciate it.  At $15, you’re not going to get much cheaper in PC and clean/nice.  ALSO, all the fancypants hotels are not in Casco Viejo, the old city with all the historic sites.  Your ONLY option is to stay at a hostel in that part of town.

At the hostel I met a really nice lady who works for KLM airline co in the Netherlands.  We went to a local square for some dinner/drinks.  There were some kids playing music, dancers, and even a fire juggler busking for money!  It was pretty cool.  Again, PC is pretty expensive, I think a cheap drink was $5, dinner at the cheapest sit-down place on the square was $10/up.  They fed us twice on the plane so I was fine (the meals were almost all GF which was cool, rice/chicken/beans).

Next day I went on a (free!) walking tour of Casco Viejo I found out about on tripadvisor.  This nice gentleman Steve takes people out on tours.  He and his wife moved there 7 years ago I think, they are retired and have lived in several Spanish-speaking countries.  Very cool guy and you get a local/expat’s perspective.  Sweet notes: he lives in the building next door to Reuben Blades!!  I saw Reuben’s house, whoa! (Reuben Blades is a killer salsa musician).  He refused to take any payment, I tried to buy him a drink or glass of water or meal, but he wouldn’t take it.

Then I took a taxi ($4) to the Albrook bus station to buy my ticket.  Glad I did, I got seat 44 out of 50 for the bus.  I was there at 2pm to buy my ticket, bus left at 8p.  Got a ride to the Miraflores tourist center to visit the Panama Canal in the meantime with a taxi ($10, more than I wanted).  I wanted to take the chicken bus  (like 50 cents) but they were trying to tell me it wasn’t running often on Sunday, and refused to take my money to buy a card for the bus (you have to load the card with money to get through the turnstile).  I later saw the bus on the way back, so who knows.  The tourist center is actually really nice, a lot of exhibits both about the history of the canal, current usage, and even some environmental exhibits.  They have a little movie theater where you see a short film (with A/C- it’s super hot outside, very nice!)  I saw TWO boats pass through the canal later on, and relaxed with a cup of coffee, before getting a ride back to Albrook (note- late in the day it’s harder to get a ride, especially on a Sunday.  If you are travelling by yourself, and don’t want to get price gouged, just ignore the guys who say, $15, $20 back to Albrook.  I had to stand around awkwardly for 10 minutes or so, but finally there was a guy running tours who had a minivan, and he took me for $8.  It’s a 20 minute ride and wasn’t a problem at all.  Even $8 is too much, but I was willing to compromise).

All in all, PC was expensive, a cool place for a day or two, but I could see running out of stuff to do there.


Overnight bus was uneventful except for my first cup of Cafe Dura coffee, impulsively bought at around 2:30 am for about 60 cents.  THAT was amazing.  I was warned that the bus was insanely cold, but it was okay.  I had everything on just in case, but I wasn’t cold.  Still, a fleece blanket is something I’m probably going to keep with me on most of my travels from now on.

When you get to Almirante, the drop-off point if you are going to Bocas, get on one of the taxis that will take you to the docks for $1.  It wasn’t entirely clear what was going on with these taxi trucks pulling up and loading up locals (I was the only gringa), but since I researched it, I knew there would be taxis for $1 to the docks, so I put 2 and 2 together, yes, even at 4am when we got dropped off, 2 hrs early!

We didn’t leave until the sun came up.  Had to sit around the Taxi 52 pier for a while, but eventually it started to get light, and we loaded up.  It was $3 for the 40 minute or so ride to the main island of Bocas.  I tried to follow the directions to walk to the Floating Docs headquarters (I didn’t see the guy who was supposed to meet me) but got a little tied up at first.  Eventually I found it, and waited.  The volunteer Adam apologized for not getting to meet me, but it wasn’t his fault!  The bus and boat were both really early, a rarity in Latin America!

It began to rain an hour or two after I got there, so we weren’t sure if we were going to go out on clinic or not.  Eventually it cleared up and we did a typical day’s schedule of loading up all the supplies on the boat and heading out to one of the local Ngobe villages on a nearby island to do a mobile clinic.  Because I’m not a licensed acupuncturist, there is only so much I could do.  I did have the opportunity to practice taking vitals which was really good and something we might not get to do a ton of in Chinese medical school (shout out to Redmond for letting me crash his Western Phys Assessment course @ Emperor’s last fall!).  There was one woman with a tooth that needed to be pulled that I was able to show LI-4 acupressure point on her hand to relieve pain.  I was also able to talk with both some locals and our great Cruz Roja helpers about some local medical plants.  No, I still haven’t finished the write-up on that, ugh!  I am so behind! There are a LOT of commonalities between the herbal practices.  Are they just way more in tune with nature than us, or did it some how come from a common source?  Questions, questions.

The kids were really cool.  We went back to that first site a few days later and brought a bunch of toys, and had a great time playing softball, football, and soccer.  I brought a bunch of markers and they liked those too (especially the girls, who in the 1st village decided to “tattoo” the crap out of my pasty white arms!).

The Friday of that week we had a rather interesting hike up to a remote Ngobe village called La Sabana.  You can get a taste of it by watching this video, that was filmed while I was in my site the week after.  I had an opportunity to observe the TB child patient the week before.  A really friendly kid and he seemed to be doing a lot better.  It was interesting for me because the local medicine men had attempted a primitive form of acupuncture.  It was a nail that had been heated up and pushed in (but not breaking the surface) locally.  The Floating Docs will be heading up to the village every week for the next few months to check on the patient and refill his medications.  I was able to listen with the steth which was a very good opportunity we don’t often have in the Western acupuncture clinic.

Another child was recovering from meningitis.  Apparently before I was there, Ben had given him many shots (his parents would not let him go down the mountain, because they were afraid he would not come back alive.  That’s actually quite common in the villages, and one reason is because of Western care, but the more prevalent reason in many cases is that by the time they go, it’s too late).  He was so far out of consciousness the week before that he didn’t remember any shots!  He had eventually gotten care and was out of the danger zone, doing well.

A vet, Dan, came along with us and had a few meds with him.  There was a really cute puppy with fleas and he gave him some meds to relieve that.  Word got out quickly and soon everyone was bringing their animals in for evaluation!

We got a late start up the mountain so had to crash that night in the schoolhouse.  My hammock, generously borrowed from a friend, broke as soon as I got in!  Glad my foam mat was there to break my bony-butt fall from a meter up in the air.  Whoops.  I ended up sleeping on a desk (luckily I’d the mat) and two of the volunteers tucked my mosquito net in around me [Side note- it looked like some sort of crazy S&M rig, but it was rather necessary.  There was a poisonous scorpion hanging out near the cooking fire earlier in the evening, and Ben made a point of shining a light up at the thatch roof saying, hey, look at all those spiders!  Some of these could be dangerous, isn’t that cool!  (Sweet dreams after that, sucka)]

Here’s a live link to the Floating Doctors vid, by the way (featuring my fellow volunteers!  Speaking of which, they were all super cool, amazing people.  Just really really impressed with the level of dedication and at the same time easy-goingness of the volunteers):

Floating Doctors- yahoo news video


So now, for what you’ve been waiting for.  Week two I went out with “Doctor Benjamin” to the remote community of Playa Vista.  I’ll update with a map later (gotta leave soon for 4th July fireworks, arrgh!).  It’s a penninsula off the mainland, but it may as well be an island, since there aren’t any roads anywhere near it.  We took a boat out for a 1.5 hr ride across clear calm water (luckily, since apparently it can get feisty on occasion).  I stayed for the week with Evan, the local peace corps worker.  Very cool guy.

We talked with Evan and his “family” at the site, before Ben set off.  I was a little nervous, honestly, just because my Spanish is so sucky.  The curandero, or medicine man, ended up meeting us very soon after we got there, but unfortunately the meeting didn’t happen until later in the week!  Evan and I were able to make some video of his “family” showing me how to make a chakra, the local woven bags the Ngobe in that village make.  It is a rite of passage for women there traditionally, though the younger generation has little to no interest in learning the skill.  It’s hard (she made me do it!).  Evan had some guests during the week so we weren’t able to get done as much as I’d hoped.  However, things run on a different schedule there, so it wasn’t 100% of a surprise for me, even if I was a little frustrated.  IF my Spanish was better I think I would have gotten a lot more info.  We did meet with the curandero later in the week and went on an herb walk and learned some about the medicine.  I will write more later!

One highlight of the week was watching the Panama world series in one of the family’s houses.  In a place with no electricity or running water, they had still managed to get a generator, a solar panel, and a TV from somewhere to watch the game.  Surreal.

I ended up staying a little longer at my volunteer program in Bocas Del Toro than originally planned, for some fun stuff! The day I got back Ben and Adam were returning from the weekly trip up to La Sabana, this time with the yahoo film crew in tow (see video above).  The day after they were supposed to go out on another shoot on the water.  A couple of us were going to go out with them, but by the time they got back, the water had gotten rough, so we just hung out for the most part.  Later in the evening we went to the high school where a local boxing club founded by one of the dads in Bocas was playing Chiapas.  We were there to provide first aid, but it wasn’t really needed.  But, you never know.  Meantime, the local drum corps was outside, so I decided to sit in with them!  It was fun for a while!

The 2nd to last day was really fun.  We were invited to one of the annual “Ngobe Assemblies” in recognition for some of Floating Doctors’ work.  We were thinking some traditional tribal ceremony.  So, we headed out at 5am for the 4-5 hour boat ride to the penninsula I stayed at, this time on the ocean side.  Again, a potentially treacherous ride, but we lucked out!  Ben put the fishing lines out to try to catch some lunch.  Imogen, one of the volunteers, lost the first fish, but I was lucky enough to hold onto the second, a big barracuda!  We had it boiled for lunch.

So, about that assembly.  Yeah, it was an “assembly of God”.  Apparently the Jehovah’s witnesses were very big among some of the Ngobe.  Oops.  Anyway, we had a great boat ride out, and also got to survey a potential outpost for the Floating Docs.

The last day we took off and it was also really amazing, went to the “Bat Cave” (ask around and locals should know)- lots of bat and a waterfall you can swim in at this cave on an island close to Bocas. Then later to Bastimentos to sample the beaches- Red Frog Beach, then Playa Wizzard, a totally deserted and gorgeous beach, and back through the island to Bastimentos to meet our ride (I managed to break my toe on that last bit, my sandal was slipping from all the mud).


Next day took the Caribe Shuttle service to Puerto Viejo. At $32 it is well worth it. Left at 8:30 am on the Bocas Marine Tours boat and was in Puerto Viejo a little after 10am (note: CR is an hour behind Panama). Very easy, the boat is met by a minivan, you take this to the border, pay $3 and they stamp you out, you walk over the bridge where you are met with another minivan that brings you to PV.

Chilled on the beach day one and sampled some food at the local cafs. Jammed at one of the hostels where they had a session going on upstairs. Later I had an interesting jam with my couch surfing host who was a quite lovely fellow who played the “box” (this synthesizer/mixer/sampler thing). Next day I did a combo tour to a chocolate shop and herbal walk, and a waterfall. It was expensive because I was by myself, it was low season and the regular tours weren’t being offered. I tried all the tour shops in town and finally found one who would do it, for $60. It was chill and fun. Bring your swimsuit for the waterfall and you can swim if you like (I couldn’t since I broke my toe anyway).

Took the bus to San Jose (I think like $7?) instead of an expensive shuttle ($55) to Arenal. Planned to crash there and early bus to Arenal. Unfortunately, my GI tract had other plans. Rather curious since I had the same exact meal as my CS host at this nicer place in PV, but oh well. Spent day 3 by/on the flushable circular file.

By this point I only had 2 days left in Costa Rica! While nursing a broken toe, I wasn’t up for crazy hiking. I also happened to be under budget for my trip, so figured, what the hell. I booked 2 days’ worth of tours from Expediciones Tropicales. 1st day was up to Arenal, visited the volcano lookout (cleared JUST in time for us to see everything clearly, when we were leaving it clouded up again), went for the gold with Tabacon. It started to rain after a while which is the absolute best way to enjoy hot springs, with cold rain from above causing mist. That place is so beautiful, touristy, but pretty worth it!

I stayed at a hostel called Casa del Parque, it was very nice inside, not a ton to do nearby, but definitely not the worst place to crash for a night, especially if you just want some sleep. Very quiet, not a lot of beds so book early!

Next day I went to the Doka coffee estate which was cool, then to Poas Volcano. Again it was super misty, started to rain a little (I was the only one with a raincoat, lol!) but again it cleared up before we left and was beautiful. Later we went to La Paz waterfall gardens which again was touristy, but really really cool! Lots of animals around, the waterfalls are stunning, gardens really nice. Definitely recommend a visit. I got the tour company to drop me off directly at the airport which saved time and money, it was right on the way anyhow.


Last day I had a flight booked with a free 23hr layover in Guatemala City. On arrival I negotiated a ride with a guy already going to Antigua (the regular shuttle stopped by the time I got there) for the same shuttle price. Took less than an hour, I paid 80 quetzales (~$10 USD). Hostel was La Terraza, cool vibe, $8/night.
I managed to snag a spot on the van to Pacaya volcano, again 80 quetzal I believe. It’s 50 quetzal to get into the park. The tour guide is 65 I believe, he was super fun, worth it!

Hiked the volcano (toe was taped well and I had my heavy-duty boots on), we had marshmallows at the top, and were greeted with a little explosion of boulders and ash at the top. Skipped the hot springs I wanted to go to, and chilled in Antigua’s main square, and the big Sunday market down the street from the hostel until my ride to the airport. The market was really cool, had some amazing ceviche, which I really should have known better than to do, but I had no adverse effects other than wanting more.  Great day.

Okay, it’s 9pm and I’ve got fireworks to catch and a friend’s bday to celebrate.  See ya in Serbia!


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