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.

Continue reading “Panama/Costa Rica/Guatemala trip, finally!”


Central America packing list!

So…what do you bring with you on a trip that will include medical volunteering in a quasi-unknown location, and hang time by rainforest, beach, mountains, and the odd active volcano and hot springs?

RAW conversion with Nikon Capture NX.

People know me as a fairly light packer and this trip is a good challenge of my skills.

And yes, I promise I’ll get around to finishing up my other travelogues on Turkey soon, followed by my trip to Spain, road trip last summer to Spokane WA and back, and of course my upcoming Central America trip!

Details are below since I know all y’all really just want to see the list first:

  • Jansport backpack


  • Brown zip up jacket (has thin fleece lining)
  • Rei convertible pants
  • Light brown skinny pants-jeans? (wearing)
  • Lowa hikers
  • Teva-ish sandals
  • T shirts- black, floral longer one
  • White 3/4 sleeve shirt (viscose)
  • LS cotton shirt (green print)
  • Light green w/plant prints dress (poly blend)
  • Swim suit (top is sports bra which doubles as, a bra [duh])
  • 7 panties
  • Nude color bra
  • Scarf
  • Waterproof watch
  • Sunglasses
  • 2 pair of socks, for hiking, cold buses/planes, etc.


  • Erasable colored pencils and sharpener
  • Mechanical pencils
  • Acid-free paper
  • Wax paper
  • (hopefully) Guide book or two
  • Acer netbook computer + charger
  • Tape (fabric tape, not cellophane)
  • Small envelopes
  • Glue


  • Pocket trumpet
  • iPod w/USB charger (for pics and music) + headphones
  • Blood pressure cuff (it’s nothing but a sphygmomenon), other “doctor”ing stuff
  • Lightweight hammock
  • Mosquito net
  • Headlamp
  • A couple plastic bags, from ziplock size to trash bag (keep things out of water)
  • Travel towels
  • Shampoo, conditioner, soap, razor
  • Natural first aid kit
  • Sleep sheet
  • Passport
  • Copies of travel plans, IDs, etc


I’ve been using a Jansport Cordillera 33 for at least the last 10 years as a daily pack.  This IS my second pack, but this isn’t the bag’s fault- bag #1 was used to steal my computer and most of my CD collection and mini-disc recorder back in grad school (side note- this totally SUCKED since it was 2 days after my first “for real” public recital, which my teacher couldn’t get to, and one week before a research paper I had due, which I did all the research and writing all over for, but was a page short, for which my teacher felt necessary to give me a big fat zero for, and then go onto insult a few of my musical heroes, Bartok, Shostakovich, etc.  Anyway, I’ve moved on…or something?  Funny thing is that I think the thief started to realize my collection of obscure classical trumpet CDs and Renaissance cornetto music weren’t going to be the hottest sellers on the black market)

I had to find version two on ebay Indonesia a few years back.  Once you factored in shipping, it was around the same price I paid for it originally, $40ish.


Not my actual pack, obiviously.

It is a little larger and longer than a regular bookpack.  It apparently was designed for winter climbing and has an “ice axe” loop.  Always handy.  I haven’t really used that particular strap, but the ones at the bottom are nice for attaching a sleeping roll (or handwoven Oaxacan rug).  There are both a padded hip belt and chest strap, as well as a few, but not TOO many pockets to stash your stuff.  The seams are currently coming loose on one of the shoulder straps, so I need to get to fixing that soon.  All in all, not bad for this current version, which I’ve been using a few times a week, if not daily, since summer 2008.


This trip is going to be fairly minimal.  I ordered a pair of the ubiquitous “trekker” pant from REI- they are ripstop and turn into shorts.  This is the first pair of these I’ve ever bought.  I’m not a slave to fashion with these, but I’m hoping they will be useful later in the year (at the very least when I go wandering around Thailand, Cambodia, Laos or Vietnam (still figuring this out), and New Zealand).  I found a discounted gift card that made everything I bought with it about 20% off, so it ended up costing a little over $15.  Score!  Unfortunately they are a little small, so I have to roll them down.  They come with a belt though.  I actually like that the shorts are longish, I never have been into shorty shorts.

From what I’ve seen of a particular hiking group I hope to go with in Costa Rica, and from various Floating Doctor’s videos, I’m going to bring both a pair of sturdy hikers while I’m on solid ground and teva-type sandals for boating about.  Last year I decided to finally get a decent pair, and ones that actually fit.  With my annoying 10.5-11 size feet in women’s, that are flat, and size AAA/AA narrow, this means the only shoes that could possibly fit were a pair by LOWA that were over $200.  At that price, this means these shoes ARE going to last me for the rest of my life, goshdarnit!  I do accredit these shoes for saving my life on a hiking date gone very very wrong last summer, I would have very VERY seriously injured myself without them (as it is I still have a scar on my knee…anyhoots.  Another long story!)

The sandals, luckily, were super cheap on REI ($12.50), have good traction, sturdy velcro, and fit great.  They are not the #1 stylish thing, but they ARE bright pink.  And if Teva’s work for my teacher at school, Dr. Jin, in basically any sort of situation (I’m pretty sure she is the most badass teacher at school…she runs marathons…shows up to clinic wearing drifit T’s…I would not mess with her) I think they’ll be okay for me while touring around.  These are by a company called Rafters.


I actually think I won’t look too bad in the other stuff I’m bringing, which is always nice.  The dress, picked up at goodwill, is a poly blend that won’t wrinkle.  It has prints of ferns and leaves on it which makes me feel like the Magic Schoolbus teacher, Mrs Frizzle.  Side note: I want to cop her style.  Cool lady, right?  Right?  Anyway I think it’s always good to have something to look nice in, just in case.  And dresses are always really comfortable when hanging at the beach.

I am toying with bringing a spare pair of sandals for hostel showers/etc.  I think it might be a good idea.  They look nice enough to wear out even to a nice place.

The brown jean-pant jobbies I picked up at goodwill.  I decided, what the hell, I’ll take them, they were $5 and it’s not the end of the world if they are stained or something.  If they survive in decent condition, I can wear them in clinic.  I figure cotton and breathable fabrics in general will be best if it’s hot.  IF I have time I’ll try to make a lookbook of my oh-s0-fashionable stuff.  Yeah.


A hammock (generously donated for this trip by my FROmate, Masha) (*FRO stands for Free Range Orkestar, LA’s most awesome and organic chicken-infused Balkan band) and mosquito net are a must and actually really lightweight.

I’ll be heading downtown soon to pick up some silk for cheap to make a sleep sheet.  I’ve been advised to bring a sleeping bag potentially and maybe a pad.  I will see if I can borrow something lightweight since I will likely be using it a lot, both while in Bocas del Toro, and in Costa Rica (you can crash at a hostel that way for around $2-5 a night!)

A headlamp is looking like it will be essential for me, both at the clinic and hanging out in Costa Rican rainforests.


Things really have been left up to me on this one.  I will bring- mechanical and colored pencils for drawing, a pencil sharpener, notepad (pencils, besides being erasable, also are good for humid environments- they don’t smear like pens!), roll of wax paper (can press plant samples between books), and ziplock bags with a permanent marker to label.  I will also bring a netbook I bought for $75 off of someone via craigslist.  It’s very small, 1/2 the size and weight of my macbook.  It also runs half as fast, but since I probably will only use it to type and reference saved materials, I think it’ll be okay.  I used it in Spain and thought it was a good purchase.  I miss being able to take a pocket knife by 5 days. (They are allowing this again, and it’s about time)

I audited a few classes of “Western Physical Assessment” last fall where I learned to do some “doctor” things.  I figured it would be helpful to know some of this stuff since I would be dealing with a lot of Western practitioners.  I’ll bring a couple small things like a blood pressure cuff to help if they need me.

I’m still compiling a few things for my little first aid kit that I generally take with me.  Generally it contains:

  • Little roll of tape
  • Gauze
  • Bandaids
  • Yunnan Baiyao powder for cuts
  • Chinese burn cream (this stuff is amazing, even if it makes you smell like a stir-fry)
  • Roll-on of Zi Cao oil (can use for bugbites, rash or itching, even bruises)
  • Lavender and tea tree oil
  • Some acupuncture needles

I still am not sure if I will bring the needles.  I am toying with bringing some other herbs- for instance, Qing Hao (alleviates, and may possibly cure, malaria.  Also good for parasites) or Yin Chen Hao (good for jaundice and symptoms which mimic it- including things like typhoid, yellow fever, and hepatitis, depending on presentation.  Interesting that both these plants come from the same genus, Artemisia!)

I also plan to take my little vials of mushroom extract and tonic (contains my current favorite herb Jiao Gu Lana aka gynostemma, which has 4x as many active ingredients as ginseng, and WAYYYY cheaper).  I’ve found my energy level has been boosted the last couple weeks on these, and my immune system better.

Well, that’s about it!  The only other thing I’ll bring is a bag with some donations for the clinic- stuff for kids like crayons and pencils, asprin-types, bandages, paper, etc.

How I booked a ticket to Panama, Costa Rica, and Guatemala for under $150

costa rica aerial

Okay, so I cheated a bit.  But, desperate times call for desperate measures!

I was planning on just buying a ticket, and was looking forward to banking all those miles (x3, if you use United’s Award Accelerator, extra fee of about 2.1-2.2 cents a mile, but usually worth it for me) for a trip to SE Asia at the end of the year.  Miles are good, you want to get them since they will help you book flights to places that you would never, ever be able to afford (ex- the upcoming flights to SE Asia are looking like they will be well over $10,000 out of pocket.  I’m planning on paying well under $2000, including the money I spend on things like the award accelerator.  More on that later!)

Then I came back from Spain, and found out that my lucrative $15/hr part-time job I had started recently just disappeared, since they sold the business.  Major fail.  When you are living a life like me, poor person that I am, you have to plan ahead, and the plan for the next 2 month’s wages for that job, about $2000, was supposed to go for my upcoming trip.  So I had to fly for as little as possible.

I like to fly United in the US.  United and US Airways are partners, and these two airlines offer the cheapest flights usually to the main place I fly from LA, Philadelphia.  This is why you should fly United here (or any other one that does this.  I just only have experience with them, it happens probably every 3-4 flights I take with them): they often look for volunteers to go on the next flight.  This is what you NEED to do: volunteer!  I get an extra hundred or couple hundred for doing this, and usually a meal voucher (in this case also a hotel room since I’d have to wait until the next morning to fly).  I had a $300 credit from doing this on my way back from Turkey this year, so I had this money to play with for this trip.

Tickets originally were around $500 a couple months back when I wasn’t sure of my dates, but since I had waited until now to book (bad idea) they had gone up to over $660 for the dates I needed.  Travel tip: be flexible with your dates.  I often can’t be flexible, so if you can’t find a dirt-cheap fare, don’t let that dissuade you from your trip if that’s what you can do.  Be creative, fly somewhere cheaper, look for insane hotel deals, etc. to make up your cost.  Also make sure on kayak you unclick the button for “hide x# longer flights”.  These flights are longer, but might even allow you to go out and have fun on a layover, and maybe even earn extra miles.  Or, just use travel vouchers like I did.

I had an idea at this point- why don’t I fly into one airport and out of another.  By flying out of San Jose, Costa Rica, probably about as far from Bocas del Toro, my volunteer site, as Panama City, I got the price down to $610.  THEN I had an even better idea: why don’t I split the trip into two, use miles for one way, and use the voucher for the other.

I looked up the two one-ways I needed, and found that the cheaper of the two was LAX to Panama City (with a stop in between).  I used my voucher to buy this ticket for $122.  Then I looked for a flight using miles.  Trick: if you want to get a “free flight” to a place you might not otherwise visit, you can do it via a layover that’s under 24 hours.  It won’t count as a stopover that way.

I could explain it but Scott at MileValue does it better.  Basically, you do a multi-city search on award travel for the places you want to go, in my case San Juan, CR, to random Central American countries, to LA.  I tried using a couple of the major airports in the area and found a 23 hour layover possibility going through Guatemala City.  Sweet!  So this ticket cost 17,500 plus $26 in fees.

Total for my trip: $148 + 17,500 miles.  I would have liked to save the miles for another trip, but I really saved a lot of money here (cough, that I didn’t have much more to spend of) and get to visit another place, even if it’s brief.  And I’ll get to earn many of the miles back if I can use the miles accelerator for another $100-150 or so, on the one-way flight (3,149 x 3 = 9447)

If you want better directions, please visit Scott’s site at