One thing I hardly get is why people bother reading articles on the latest diet followed by a seemingly well known celebrity; or about the new fitness routine that is used by another even more famous one; and articles which suggest easy work-outs to follow when time is limited, for example when traveling. I even less get those who spend big money to go to all inclusive resorts to then do the exact same things they do at home, like diet, follow a strict schedule of yoga, pilates, massages, manicures (I actually bite my nails, and although I know it is gross, there is hardly anything that I can do to stop myself).
I am also quite weary of blog posts that target the other end of the traveling chain – the budget backpackers traveling on a shoestring and hippies wanna-be – that state what, to me, is the obvious: carrying a heavy backpack is a good workout. Perhaps, the issue I have with that is that to me it is not a workout at all, something done with a clear purpose in mind, but rather a hellish task best followed when trying to score the cheapest room in Panama City, possibly under the blistering sun, when the heat and humidity make it all the more strenuous.
Backpackers jump to stay fit – or so they say
In fact, for as careful to what I eat and drink and how much I exercise when I am at home, a variety of reasons lead me to be the opposite when I travel. When home, I am the one person to follow as a model of a moderate life. I eat lots of fruits and vegetables, drink plenty of water, avoid carbonated drinks and only have the odd glass of red wine or small bottle of icy cold beer (great after a hike, to refill my body with all the salts and minerals I lost through sweat); I walk around, train in the swimming pool, hike, bike and generally stay active. The only one thing I do not do, and will never do, is jogging. I really can’t see the point of running, unless I am in a rush! But, to be extra clear: I am almost a health freak, so much so that my family thinks I have a slight obsession.
Biking is a GREAT way to keep fit. I confess even I biked the Death Road in Bolivia!
But, as soon as I get on a plane that takes me away from home, I indulge. So much so than whenever I get back home I have to start again on my kind-of strict routine to shed the few kilos that happily sit on my belly post-trip. And if, after my first long term trip, I could actually find a benefit for the pain I felt after the surgery to remove my tonsils (I cried from the pain, and was unable to eat solid food for 2 over two weeks) in shedding the extra weight that I carried back from South America, the second time around I have had to actually find a more traditional way of getting back in shape.
I used the word “indulge” with reason. Because I can pin point all the things I do wrong when I travel, that lead me to gain weight and lose shape. Yet, I keep doing them – because they are fun, they are relaxing, and they are part of the experience of traveling. And the best is that, even though I have figured out what I do wrong, I have no intention to change it. In fact, not only I will keep having fun when I travel, but I have also put together a list of excuses to justify the weight I gain when I travel (and no, I do not mean the souvenirs which I buy). Feel free to mix and match them to justify your belly in front of surprised stares.
Seven ways to justify weight gain when traveling
Eating local food is part of the cultural experience of travel (it is, isn’t it?)
I insist that a great deal of the culture of a country is found in its food, in the local produce and national dishes. So obviously if I spend 3 weeks in Mexico I will do my best to learn about the culture of the country by trying all the local specialties – quesadillas, pozole, Oaxacan cheese, enchiladas, tacos, tlayudas… name it. And while I’m at it, let me add a margarita to that. You know, after all tequila and mezcal are typically Mexican, right?
Eating a good asado at Mercado del Puerto of Montevideo IS a cultural experience
I am poor (or “I could not be bothered to eat healthy food”)
I like backpacking, and I generally try to stretch my budget and I like street food and local eateries. It’s not even so much for the food (which actually tastes better and fresher, because constantly prepared rather than being preserved for who knows how long), or the prices which are way more convenient. I just like the scene, the atmosphere. I enjoy the mixture of locals who look a bit puzzled when seeing me, and of other travelers who feel like I have just broken into their best kept secret. But street food, aside from being tasty, is also oily and packed in carbs. Mind you, there are some nice street food and market stalls that do sell healthier options – corn on the cob, fresh fruit, smoothies etc. But then I see the plantains chips or the rice and beans and I opt for that. Just because.
Is there anything better than street food in Mexico?
I can’t find the right om tune (or, I don’t do yoga)
In a world where people support their wanderlust by teaching English and yoga, or practice their yoga wherever they are – either independently or by signing up for yoga classes, which are so very common all over Central America – I can’t be bothered to wake up at dawn to hear someone say that I should breathe out my inner stress. I can’t take new age music. Give me some gypsy punk and I will dance to it. Take me on a hike, take me biking, rafting, kayaking, snorkeling, whatever – and give me a beer when we arrive.
Why should I yoga it, when I can raft it?
I can swim (and need a pool for that)
In Europe, every city, village, resort has a pool. A good size pool. A paradise for swimmers. I can subscribe for a month, or a year. Or just pay a daily fee and enjoy a great workout. Now, try to find a pool in a developing country. Try to explain to the receptionist of a hostel in Copan Ruinas that has gladly found out that there is a pool in town which you can use that a 12 meters one is really tiny to you, that all a swimmer can do there is flip. I have a 25 meters minimum rule, and I won’t break it. Ever.
You run. You yoga. I swim.
I can’t run without running shoes (or better, I can’t run. At all)
In an ideal world, people should wear the appropriate shoes to match the kind of training they intend to do. My sister, who is as much of a fitness fanatics as I am, is into running. She owns some 5 pairs of different shoes, each for a different kind of performance. She has even explained how they are different from one another. You see, all I need to swim is a swimming suit, a pair of good goggles and a swimming cup.
Yes, I am on the picky side when it comes to choosing the right pair of goggles. But if I really really want to swim (which I do all the time), I use whatever I can find. I really really do not want to run. Running isn’t my thing when I am home, so why on earth would I do that when I am meant to be having fun? So, the excuse of not having the right pair of shoes is really handy. One would not expect anybody to jog wearing their hiking shoes, right? And someone who travels light isn’t expected to carry around 3 or 4 different pairs of shoes, surely?
Nobody would be expected to run in this shoes, right?
I have finally learned to pack light
Except, who am I kidding? I manage to cram 18 kg of weight in a 65 liters backpack, which becomes so bulky and heavy that I bend under its weight, to the point that other backpackers have nicknamed me Turtle Tavani, because if, for whatever reason, I fall flat on my back, I may never be able to stand up again. One may think that all that weight is good exercise. Except when my backpack is so heavy (possibly because filled with bottles of mezcal and wine which I bought at a local mezcal factory in Mexico or at a winery in Argentina – get back to my point on the cultural experience of food when traveling), I refuse to walk and rely on buses and taxis to get wherever I have to go.
You may call me Turtle Tavani
I suddenly became sociable
I am a bit of a hermit. I travel alone, I can spend days at end without communicating to anybody aside for the strict necessities. But then there are times when I like hanging out with other people, and that usually involves eating and/or drinking. So, when I get to a new hostel and find out a bunch of other backpackers are going out for drinks or for a meal, I don’t question. I forget about my latest resolution to never drink alcohol again while traveling (or ever) and just go, promising myself to only have one beer and knowing I am likely to have more than that (hangover attached). Besides, I am from Sardinia and in my culture it is rude to refuse a drink.
This is not drinking. This is being sociable. Really.
There are some travelers who manage to actually shed a pound or two when traveling. I actually lost a whopping two kilos my first time in Peru out of not eating for being too busy exploring the amazing place; and eating rotten tacos in Mexico has also proved to be an efficient way of not gaining any weight – but I do recommend to make sure that you have a private room with a private bathroom for at least two days after that.
My overall policy is to relax and enjoy my trip: I travel to have a good time, so I can see no reason to be as tough on myself as I would be on a daily basis.
A lot of travel bloggers enjoy bragging. They are all about the number of countries they have visited (hint: often times, they have just gone through a country during a bus ride on their way to a different once, but since they got a stamp on their passport they still think it’s ok to tick it off their list). They talk about the epic trips they have taken. They show off their ability to pack light and to travel on an extreme shoestring, to go local, to get off the beaten path and what not. If this is what it takes to become a good travel blogger, then I may well be in the wrong place and will soon have start working on a different project, because I don’t think I can fit in with any of that.
Get that passport stamped! – courtesy of roadjunky.com
Am I a lousy backpacker?
I may well be the lamest traveller in the blogging community because I can’t nearly top the 70+ countries that many others claim to have visited. I have “only” visited 40. Although granted, I have been to most of those 40 two or three times. I have lived in 4 of them for longer than 3 months. And I can actually give directions to a taxi driver to take me to my hostel in Granada, Nicaragua, from Managua international airport.
You may call me Turtle
Besides, despite my best efforts I haven’t mastered the art of packing light and during my last trip across South America my big backpack weighted a full 16 kg (that’s when I actually wore all the heaviest clothes) and my small one was around 10. Fine, I got carried away in Argentina and bought 3 bottles of wine that I carried around for months (no, I didn’t want to drink them because they were presents, and yes, I broke the rule of all budget backpackers – I did buy presents!) and I even had a whole pharmacy with me because I am really, truly, tremendously afraid of being sick on the road and not having any medication, just in case I can’t get in touch with my health insurance company (ok, I am sounding lamer by the minute – did I just admit that I travel with an insurance?).
But hey, at least I can prove that despite being small I am tough and strong, right? Besides, what would you say if I told you that it was a technique I carefully devised to meet the locals? I got many bemused stares, a few of them congratulated me on being so strong, others offered their help (which started a conversation!) and some simply laughed (and helped me) when they saw that I could not pick up the pack of tissues I accidentally dropped on the floor, because I could not really bend under the weight and if I did I risked falling on my back and looking much like an upside down turtle. Not too bad, huh?
Blogger girl who quit her job to travel, actually travelled and spent all her money on it
Ok, I am mocking some of the most sensationalist media title here… But, check this out! Instead of travelling with no money at all, I have managed to spend all my savings on travel. Yup. Quite shameful considering that there apparently are millions of ways to travel for (almost) free, to get free accommodation and to even make money while travelling. There even are ways to hitch boat rides that go through amazing places, such as the San Blas islands in Panama. All it takes to catch those rides is patience.
Did you say “patience”?
But, did I mention I am the most inpatient person you may meet? Seriously. Even the hyperactive globetrotter Diana – master of shoestring travel, incredible travel writer (she actually gets promoted from being a “just a blogger” because she’s won prizes with her short stories, plus she is a journalist) and amazing friend – who’s not really a champion at patience, managed to score a free ride that took her from Panama to Colombia. She may have spent 2 full weeks in Portobelo, she may have become the subject of a few jokes at the hostel, but who cares, when she managed to save the $550 USD that the ride normally costs?
Why ride a car, if you can go by horse? – photo courtesy of George Kenyon
All of this, when I was the good student to begin with. I did all the homework: researching the best boat companies that crossed from Panama to Colombia, enquiring on dates, routes, and discounts, reading all the online reviews, checking the recommendations to get a decent boat and stocking up on motion sickness pills “just in case” I may unexpectedly get seasick. I studied so hard that then, when I had to sit the exams, I was so nervous that I failed: I happily boarded a boat that was a whopping $110 USD cheaper than the rest. “Blimey”, you may say, “that is actually quite good saving!”
Doing my homework looking for good deals online
Ha, I say. Wait till you hear the rest of the story. Because you see, on top of being over 1/5 cheaper, the boat was also smaller and more crowded – understandable, considering that there were 10 passengers, including the 3 backpackers who had actually managed to score a free ride (how did I miss on that?). The crowd, combined with the worst case of seasickness ever (you can read about it here) led me to abandon the boat after 24 hours of suffering (even back then I knew I was lame, and proudly so!), having to wave farewells at my $440 USD, to arrange my return to Panama City and eventually find a flight to take me to Cartagena.
So, just to give you a rough overview of my expenses: something that normally costs around $500 USD, and that a few good backpackers manage to do for free ended up costing me around $800 USD, including the one night accommodation in Isla Porvenir, the extra meals, the fast boat and 4X4 ride back to Panama City, the extra night at the hostel in Panama City and the flight.
A sunrise worth $800 USD
Call me lazy
Yay me, I am the champion of going over the budget! Now, don’t come to me and say: “Oh Claudia, that’s ok – you didn’t really know that you could travel on a budget, and get freebies in exchange for a little bit of work!” Errrrr… actually? I knew. All those beautiful programmes that allow backpackers to get in touch with farms, hostels and to do homestays, housesitting, and “volunteer” were known to me. I even subscribed to one – and paid my subscription.
But really, is it not my fault that all those gorgeous farms were infested with cockroaches and I really really have a phobia for them so when I got to the third one in a month and the (very green, tree hugging) owner told me I should just tell them to go away I thought I’d had it. It is not my fault if I like to eat real food and all those very green and very environmentally friendly farmers think they can save the world by eating (and feeding others) just mango and papaya. And truth be told, as a former human rights lawyer, I cringe at the thought that people consider working all day in exchange for a bed at a farm or at an hostel (aka actual businesses making profits) as “volunteering” when in actual legal terms it should be considered slavery. Never mind the lawyer in me! Call me a lazy ass, but quite frankly I could not be bothered to work while travelling after having spent years and years working hard and saving to be able to backpack across Latin America. Not my idea of fun! Besides, I may be picky but I really am not interested in the oh-so-cultural experience of dealing with a bunch of 20-something western drunk and often stinky backpackers; and I have already done my good share of toilet scrubbing, dish washing, glasses filling, plates serving, fruit picking, animal rescuing which is enough for 3 lifetimes (and, shame on me!, I did not even do that to support my travel addiction but to actually pay my tuition fees while at university). Read more about my opinion on voluntourism on my post “Is voluntourism really worth the time and money?”
I voluntarily spent all my money on travel
It’s not that I have anything against 20-something western backpackers (I have also been 20, you know), but although a good portion of the travel media industry tries to perpetuate the idea that age doesn’t matter, to me it does – I am 40, for Christ’s sake! (thank you, thank you, I do get told that I look younger!) I do get tired, I do get back pains, I can’t be bothered to binge drink and party all night (been there, done that), I need a good meal at least once a day, I value my beauty sleep and my idea of getting to know a local culture has evolved into a more sophisticated, quieter and introspective one that sometimes required taking part in a guided tour (and paying for that). Mind you, I am not against the concept of working while travelling, when one doesn’t otherwise have money. But yaaaaawn – been there, done that, end of story. Read more about my opinion on guided tours on this post.
What’s wrong with being a tourist, anyways?
I also confess that I don’t get the big frenzy about going to off the beaten path places. Wait a second, what did you just say? “Going local, silly!” Oh, ok. “Getting to know the culture of a place, darling!” Mmmm. True. Granted. Then forgive me, but I truly must be less than intelligent. Because I actually do enjoy touristic destinations, so much so that I even pay the entrance fees without trying to find a way to sneak in for free, and on top of that, I even go to the same place three times!
Tourist x 3 – I have actually been to Machu Picchu 3 times!
The Colosseum in Rome is touristy? Call me a tourist then, fine by me! Everyone goes to Chichen Itza and Machu Picchu? I am one of those everyone. There are better sites than Tulum? Matter of opinion, I say – but, come to think of it, I really have been to pretty much all Mayan sites in Yucatan and I have yet to find one as beautiful as Tulum. Besides, I think some locals must take a real pity on me because even if I find myself in the middle of tourist-landia Cartagena, or right at the market in crowded Cusco, I eventually get to talk to the them. They really must feel bad for me that they eventually start spilling little local secrets about the city. Oh no, I swear they were not trying to rip me off! Unless being offered a whole bunch of eucalyptus leaves to cure my sore throat is an attempt at poisoning. Mind you, I don’t have anything against going off the beaten path. I actually end up off the beaten path – because I get lost, or stuck. Or both. Like the time I went to the insanely beautiful Marcahuasi, in Peru, and realised there was no bus going back to Chosica, where I could catch the bus to Lima. So I did the only thing to do: spend the night in the lovely, quiet (aka isolated) village of San Pedro de Casta, listening to the village donkeys bray, do like the locals, and wait around. Some bus would come. Eventually. Just in time to catch my plane from Lima to Cusco.
Getting off the beaten path in Peru: my only company was a dog!
One thing I do well when I travel, though. “Finally!”, I hear you say. “Ha, you see?!”, I answer. Yes. I do eat street food. I really do. Except when I do get a terrible stomach infection from eating tacos in Palenque and end up having to stay in bed for 2 full days (well, not really just in bed, but you get what I mean). And except the times when I really, really want to read a menu and sit at a table and eat whatever I am served in more than the 5 minutes it takes to gorge down street food.
Mmmmmm, street food! – photo courtesy of Bill Walsh (flickr)
Why am I telling you all of this? Why am I spilling the dirtiest travelling secrets I have? It is not like my opinion matters more than that of anybody else, or that I am more authoritative on the subject. Not at all. But I am tired of reading article after article that try to give the definitive and right idea of what travel should be, and since I am at it, and I write a travel blog, I may as well give my very humble opinion. What I want you to understand is that it is ok to make budgeting mistakes (ahem, it is, isn’t it?). We are not all accountants who walk around with an in-built spread sheet to tick off expenses as we go. I am not even good at math – in fact, I am so bad at it that my sister keeps saying I am a perfect target to rip offs, although with time I managed to master the art of haggling.
I also think it is ok to be attracted by touristic destinations and major attractions. Because seriously, for as crowded as it is, for as expensive at it may be, Venice is an incredible place to visit (and you’d be surprised, even I managed to do good there). And, more than anything else, it is ok to travel and spend money, because money comes and goes and there will always be a chance to make some and ultimately, travel is a huge revenue and a great source of income in many countries (even the ones where it is possible to travel on a shoestring, such as Nicaragua) and we may as well show a little support for the local economy.
Do whatever makes you happy!
So no, I do not feel like a loser and I don’t feel less than amazing for having spent all my money on travel (except when I don’t have money to buy a new fancy camera, that is). The truth is that travelling already is epic enough and already brings us outside of our comfort zones for having to deal with places we don’t know, cultures we are not familiar with, and languages we may not understand. We are free to enjoy it in whichever form we want – an all inclusive luxury resort were we splurge and pamper ourselves, or a bed in the cheapest hostel in town. That’s the beauty of travelling: there is something for anybody.
We’ve all spent at least one nightmare night in a hostel during our backpacking years, haven’t we? Well, I can count at least 3 that have been less than memorable in terms of getting proper rest, but which somehow managed to stick to my memory for the hilarity and absurdity of what happened.
Fighting the drunk hordes in The Terrace, Antigua (Guatemala)
I had only been in Guatemala for four days. This was meant to be the beginning of my 6 months adventure across Latin America. I was sure I had everything under control and I would be able to face any bad experience that may occur along the way. After the first three nights in Antigua, I decided to spend an extra night before making my way to Lake Atitlan. Unfortunately, the lovely hostel where I had been sleeping was all booked up, so I decided to make online reservations for another one. As a backpacker on a tight budget, I was looking for something cheap. The Terrace, at $ 8 per night, breakfast included, in a 4 beds dorm, looked good on the pictures and it had good reviews on hostelworld. One of the most popular hostels in Antigua, indeed: there must be a reason for this, I thought!
Another church in Antigua – as many others, it has been destroyed by an earthquake
I made my way there in the morning, wanting to drop my backpack and have time to browse around town more. I missed the front door a couple of times before actually finding the place – it was hardly visible. When I finally found the place, I walked in to be welcomed by a 20-something American receptionist (and her lovely dog). She seemed nice enough. The hostel seemed a bit old and in need of refurbishment but I did not think too much of it. I would only be staying here for one night after all. When I was shown to my dorm, I realised it would be worse than what I had expected. A dressed guy was sleeping in his bunk – considering it was around 12 pm, it was a bit odd to me. The dorm was tiny, to say the least. The only window faced an internal covered patio and hardly any natural light or fresh air would come in. You can imagine the stench. The toilet and bathroom in front of the dorm had the mouldiest rug and shower curtain I have ever seen. The wooden door was so rotten that I thought it would fall apart if I pulled it too hard. The electric shower had wires coming out – I thought I might get electrocuted if I did not pay attention (or even if I did).
After a day of walking around and a lovely dinner, still a bit jet legged, I wanted to have an early night and went back to the hotel. I then realised I had accidentally booked at a party hostel, were all the other backpackers except me were in their early twenties. Noise travelled easily in the badly organised place: young boys and girls were all getting ready to spend a night out and party. I thought that, as soon as they would leave, I could finally fall asleep. Wanting to be extra safe I even put my earplugs on. I jumped on the bed to find out that I could feel the wires – this was by far one of the least comfortable beds I had ever slept on. I thought of sleeping on the floor, but there was not enough room to do that. The synthetic sheets on my bed were so old that they would come off the matress, revealing stains. I kept my clothes on, in an attempt not to catch bed bugs (luckly, it worked).
Worried but exhausted I fell asleep but my rest only lasted two hours: that’s when the other guests started making their way back to the hostel. Completely drunk, they kept laughing loudly, screaming, opening doors (which I kept on closing). To top this off, despite my earplugs I could hear them gagging and vomiting (and then laughing about it). The entire affair must have lasted about one hour, without anybody from the reception intervening to stop the noise. When the drunken crew finally collapsed, I sighted and thought I could finally rest a bit more. Or not. One hour later, somebody entered the room, pointing a flashlight at my face, calling for a girl named Myra. I told him off, and said there was no Myra in that room: I was the only girl there and I definitely wasn’t Myra. He then asked if I knew where she was, as he had to wake her up for her bus. I told him to go away, I did not know who this Myra was and I had no idea where she may be.
That was the end of my attempts to rest – I decided to get up, shower, and wait for my ride to Lake Atitlan – where I found a super cool hostel and finally rested my sore bones. However, the cherry on the cake was finding out that The Terrace was actually meant to be the hostel where I was supposed to volunteer in Antigua – I had talked to the owner several times over skype, but I had forgotten the name and despite being offered the position I decided I did not want to work on my first week of travelling.
The lesson I have learned? Always always always check Tripadvisor for reviews, and also check the age of the reviewer. Always read the bad comments – they are usually honest comments. Try not to book online, as you may end up having to pay for a terrible room and thus get stuck. It is better to walk around a bit, check the rooms, the bathrooms, and the overall vibe of the place. And, more than anything else, stay away from The Terrace, in Antigua.
I was happy to find Mama Waldy when checking for places to stay in Cartagena, Colombia. Conveniently located in the heart of Getsemani, a cool area undergoing constant restoration, popular among backpackers and with a lovely relaxed feel to it. I soon discovered that the location was just about the only positive thing about this hostel.
Tiny streets of Getsemani
Upon checking in, I knew I had made a mistake. This is possibly one of the worst hostels I found in my entire life. It used to be an old colonial house. By the look of it, this had never been restored nor properly cleaned. I arrived there at night, after a day of travelling, to find there was a party going on. My dorm was just on the main lobby, and since there were no keys to the dorms, people could walk in and out as they liked – and by people I mean people, not just guests. In fact, while I was there, somebody who was at the party just did. All the guests belongings were left around for people to grab them if they liked. The room was so dirty (paper, food, clothes, shoes and what not on the floor, under the bed, etc; no bins to place garbage), the bathroom so cramped, small and filthy, that I did not even consider using the toilet. I just locked my stuff away and ran out to eat and breathe.
As I got back past midnight, it was finally quiet. But the dorm was so hot and suffocating (there were no windows in any of the room, just a door to the lobby) that I soon realised I would be unable to sleep there. I walked out and I must have looked so disheartened that one of the owners saw me and asked what was wrong, and I plainly said that my dorm was filthy, hot, and I could not sleep there. He eagerly explained that they cleaned the rooms regularly but there was little they could do against messy backpackers. Possibly, what would help would be putting less beds in a dorm and maybe a hanger and a basket to throw away stuff? Anyways, he thankfully offered to put me in a private room, which was only slightly better – yet, no shower curtain, tiny bathroom, and covered in an inch of dust.
Breakfast was supposedly included, and surely paid for, but consisted of 2 slices of toasted bread (with, I guess, cream cheese or butter), and coffee. Not even served on plates. After all, the kitchen hardly seemed equipped. There was a laundry service. That’s if you fancy your clothes being hung to dry on the roof of the hostel. By which I do not mean hanging lines in the roof, but actual tiles.
What really bothered me the most about Mama Waldy was the music and noise. It only stopped past midnight and was really so loud that, if one is up for an early night and feel tired, one won’t be able to sleep. It felt like being in a disco, really. And since noise travelled really easily and by 6 am people would start waking up, my sleep would be cut short every day.
Running water in Suchitoto (El Salvador)
I arrived in Suchitoto after a very long day of travelling from Leon, Nicaragua, during which I took a bus to the village of Potosi, where I did my immigration formalities; waited on the beach for 3 hours without having the possibility to go back to the village in search of shade, water or food (by then I was legally already out of Nicaragua!), as the Nicaraguan marina would not allow the boat to leave due to the rough sea conditions; eventually, 2 hours on the speed boat along the challenging Gulf of Fonseca during which I got completely soaked due to the bumping and the waves, and various more hours on a bus from La Union to Suchitoto.
By the time I reached my final destination, I was grateful that my hostel room at El Gringo had not been given away, since it was so late. The owner drove me to the hostel, on the other side of town from where he lives. His wife showed me to my room and explained how the keys worked. They immediately left and there was no staff on site.
The reality of the hostel was not hard to spot. My room was below a restaurant, the only window was on a living room which faced an internal living rooom (mind you, that is a big word). The bathroom, which was shared with another room, was no more than a sink in the patio, a wall to separate a toilet and the cold water only shower. And for as hot as it is in Suchitoto, I was not ready to have a cold shower that late at night, and went to bed with my hair full of salt from the Gulf. The room was so humid that it was covered in mould stains and paint was coming off the walls. The sheets so small and so acrylic that they would slide off the bed, so that despite all my efforts to arrange them, I ended up sleeping on the matress. The floor below the bed was so dirty and full of dust, hair, and garbage, that I wondered if it had ever been cleaned. I was so tired anyhow, that I could hardly be bothered with any of this.
This 97 year old lady keeps on rolling her cigars on a daily basis. What’s her youth secret?
A refreshing shower the morning after and a lovely day in Suchitoto almost made me forget about the terrible hostel. That was, until the new Canadian guest came in. Hard to avoid him since my window gave into the living room where he was relaxing on a rocking chair. So, we chatted along for a few moments, until eventually he decided it was bed time and he’d brush his teeth, and I laid on my bed to do some emailing. That’t when I heard a crushing noise, like that of porcelain plates being broken, and the poor Canadian kid screaming “what the heck!”. I ran out to check what had happened. Water was splashing all over and he was completely wet. The remains of the sink were scattered on the floor: apparently, the guy decided he’d lean on the sink with his hand while brushing his teeth, but despite being a fit guy the sink did not hold his weight and collapsed! You can imagine the hilarity of such a scene. We took pictures, we laughed and eventually we decided that if we did not want to flood the entire place, we had to close all the pipes. It worked, but it meant that we were not even able to flush the toilet.
Los Tercios waterfalls look a bit like the Giant Causeway
The morning after I was glad to have an early start and having to leave at 6:00 am, leaving the other guest alone to explain to the owner what had happened, and that perhaps restoration and refurbishing was much needed in the hostel!
A tiny – uninhabited – island of the San Blas archipelago
Yes, it was THAT beautiful!
Sunrise in San Blas
Portobelo bay – other (nicer) boats
My tent – palm trees and sand. Could it be more lonely?
Michu – cat on board!
Having a hell of a time in Panama
On the morning of February 8, eager for adventure, Max (my travel partner) and I meet at the bus station in Panama City with Ian, a Canadian who has a sailboat and that will take us to Colombia via the San Blas archipelago. Anyone who knows me, knows that for a few years now this was one of my dreams, and one of the highlights of my travels, to see the crystal clear waters of the archipelago, learn about the Kuna Yala, the indigenous people of the archipelago, and well… live this adventure. Too bad it was a misadventure, almost entirely.
At the bus station, we met Michelle and Gavin, Londoners, who will embark with us, and together with them and Ian go up on a rickety bus to Colon – so rickety that every time a passenger has to get off and the bus stops, it fails to gear into first and leave again. So rickety that one arrived in Colon it drops us off in the suburbs and not downtown, because it dies altogether. Anyways. Quick lunch at Colon, for me based on sauteed vegetables (I have eaten so much chicken in less than 3 months that I am about to grow wings on my back!) and then jump into a taxi which in theory should take us to the central station, in practice ends up driving us to Portobelo (about an hour’s journey, 4 of us are seating in the back and the road is bumpy) . Arrived in Portobelo – small town that has been called like that by Cristopher Columbus, the ruins of which remain after it was completely razed to the ground by pirates – we see the rest of the crew : two boys of Belgium and a girl from Germany, and the other two people who will embark with us – two Dutch girls. We then decide to go leave our stuff on the sailboat. First surprise: we are sailing with a cat ! A big cat about a year old, which is called Mici black and white, just rubs on me and Max. Then we get into the boat, below, and we wonder how we’re going to be able to stay there for 5 days. A HOLE perhaps would be more spacious. We are given the sleeping arrangements. Massimo and I are given the place of honor at the bow, a kind of triangular bed with a porthole above out heads and the water tank right below. The result is obvious: because it always rains, water falls from the porthole and since the tank is loaded, the mattress gets wet. In the evening we sleep being “nicely” wet. The bathroom consists of a toilet where the chain is not nothing but a pump that pulls water out of the sea, and there is a mini-sink to wash your hands – had it not been that there is not running water. Forget about the shower. We are told that in order to shower, we have to wet ourselves in the sea, leather up and then we would get rinsed with a hose. Max is horrified, thinking his beautiful curly hair. I am horrified thinking that since I am a worthy Tavani, I got my period just in time for the crossing. Anyways, we say that in the end will be worth it, definitely worth it, and it will be worth the $ 440 (compared to the average of 500 or 550 that are required to take the same route, and always under similar conditions in terms of size and number of people). I also ask myself how I will deal with my introversion and my need to be alone, while being in such a restricted space.
After putting our stuff on the sailboat, we go back to land to do the shopping: drinks are not included and we have to buy water and all that we need during the crossing. Luckily ( I say now ) we have been not bought too much compared to the rest of the guests. After the usual caribeñan rain, at 8 o’clock we are back on the boat, carrying with us large amounts of water, beer, snacks etc. I wonder where we are going to put all the stuff. The crew begin to prepare dinner, which ultimately consists mashed potatoes with carrots, and scrambled eggs with onion and tomato, a slice of bread, all served in bowls, to eat with a spoon, and without a table on which to lean – impossible to have one as there would be no room for cramping in so many people. After dinner, I get the first hint of nausea. I run to lie down on the deck, look at the stars, I chew one of my motion sickness pills and then decide to lay down in my “beautifully and delightfully” wet bed, fully dressed ( shorts, tank top ) . Shortly after, one by one the rest also go to sleep, cat included . Massimo collapses dressed, just like me.
In the morning, despite the slight rocking of the boat, I seem to feel good. I am excited as we will finally leave! Breakfast consists, for me, in a banana. Max, for some reason, decides he wants two beers – although he later regrets it, obviously. The others celebrate with coffee, fruit, cereals etc. At 10 o’clock in the morning we start the engine and the boat goes. Just outside the bay of Portobelo, surprise: WAVES and RAIN. Unable to stay inside unless willing to die of nausea, we must all stand out. I chew my motion sickness pill and try to relax. In all this mayhem, I have not brushed my teeth, washed my face of changed my sanitary pad: thank goodness I have light periods. Max sees the weather conditions (sometimes there are the usual downpours) and gets back inside to wear his bathing suit: the cat, placed at the foot of his backpack, does not make a move (he also feels sick, poor thing). Shortly after, he resurfaces, yellow face because of nausea. Anyways. The boat goes, we’re just going by motor as we are currently sailing against wind. Speed is about 3.8 knots. We are tight on that damn bridge. Things drop inside, out of their places, as the sea is so rough. But I finally manage to find a position that, although not the best, allows me to lay my head. I can’t turn my head, or even tilt it, unless I want to vomit. I shall stay as put as possible. Too bad that after a few hours I have to pee. I wonder if I can jump in the water to do it – better than under the deck, in the sweltering heat. I can’s, says the captain, but he suggests that if everyone turns to avoid looking at me, I can pee in the hole where water passes that cools down the engine. Ok – I say – I pee in the hole. After several maneuvers, including almost falling into the water and attempting not to vomit while moving, I set to pee. Peeing while trying to maintain balance requires a huge effort , also because I have the teller between my legs ! But I’m a tough girl, I will not give up, and shortly after I lifted myself, happy, ready to sit down and go back feeling nauseous. The others are all more or less ok. They put on sunscreen ( the smell of which does nothing but increase my nausea) and happily eat tuna mayo sandwiches, the smell of which makes me even more sick. I can not even say “no thanks!” when they offer: I can only lift a hand to block anyone who wants to talk to me, ’cause I do not have the strength to answer. NB : Max does not speak English and the only one who knows how to put together (badly and with a horrible accent of Quebec ) two words of Spanish is the captain. So if I do not translate, Max is practically isolated, which, introvert as he also is, does not bother him much.
After another eternity the captain informs us we are through about one third of the journey. Then I start worrying: does this mean I have to feel so sick for 8 more hours? Well … I do swallow another seasickness pill, seems to be working this time and I’m pretty optimistic. Yes – I say – it will be worth the money, I will see the paradise of San Blas, the Kuna Yala and the eat lobster on the boat.
The relief lasts about half an hour, after which I am again forced to take another pill for seasickness. The others (except Max ) , meanwhile, are starting to play dice, laugh, read, move around. Yet another eternity and finally the wind rises: we pull up the sail and just go for a little sail, to hear the silence of the sea. I admit that the view of the sea ( waves, deep blue ) is magnificent, fascinating: just us, water, and wind. But if I turn around to admire the view, I get more sick. I give up. We restart the engine, the others are hungry again: again tuna mayo sandwiches and this time Max also has one. And here they begin questioning: you do not eat anything? (Not only did I not eat, but I do not drink either, and despite everything I have to pee, a sign that I’m completely dehydrating which bothers me more than a little). Another question: you have not taken anything for seasickness? (Just 4 tablets but hold on, I will now take the fifth). And then just ’cause my face (says Max) says it all, they stop talking to me (they just stare, as if to make sure I am still alive). After a few more hours of torture, the captain announces that “in about three hours,” we will arrive. Not having a watch at hand, the three hours seem to me … 20 or is it because I feel so sick? I wonder: 3 more hours? Well, between the motor and sailing, our speed is now 7 knots, or about 12 km per hour. Imagine what it means to sails 90 km WITH WAVES at a speed of 12 km per hour on a boat of 12 meters. 11 hours for 90 km – and with this I have said it all. I think it would be definitely faster for me to swim the distance. No kidding.
I decided that no, it’s not worth it, and I prefer to throw $ 440 and as soon as we get to San Blas I have to get off and go to the ground and to hell with San Blas, the sailboat, the Kuna Yala and all of Panama: I am sick of it! We have been trapped in Panama since ever, being sick and all… I speak to Max, for as much as I can, and tell him that I am going to get off, but that he may stay on, because he does not suffer like me, and we’ll meet again in Cartagena. He says not to even mention that, and that in any case there is nothing to do for him with a group of people with whom he cannot even speak. I’m am about to cry from being so sick and frustrated, and he convinces me to stay calm, soothing me and saying that as soon as we get to San Blas we will land, he tries to distract me and make me laugh (I have not even the strength to do that).
Once docked, after maneuvering to drop the anchor, comes the big question: Claudia, how are you feeling? And then I confess that I’m too sick, I want to get off. The captain does not make a fuss, he tells me that maybe we can make sure that I always sleep on the ground, and go from island to island by boat, as he wants me to enjoy San Blas archipelago and that the sea will not be as bad again, and that there will be only the final stretch for Colombia – or 12 more hours of torture – but by then I ‘ll be used to the sea. He says we’ll camp, we’ll play music, eat lobster, etc. . I tell him I do not think so, I’m too sick, but if he takes me to land we’ll talk about it the next day – they will spend the night anchored there. So, he prepares the dingy. Meanwhile, Max goes in to pick up our stuff (the cat finally re-emerged too), and we put all our heavy backpacks etc on the dingy. The sea is rough, but we only have to row a short distance and we should manage. Uploaded the stuff, Max must get on the dingy. He places his precious saxophone, and then slips on the slimy ladder, slams the arm, leg and almost looses a tooth, and falls almost entirely in the water. I panic. I also go up in the dingy, Belgian guy jumps in to help rowing. Super loaded, in the pitch darkness illuminated only by flashlight, the two begin to row – Massimo and I terrified try not to move so as not to disrupt the really precarious balance, but we note that water keeps getting in the dingy. Once on land there are a good 10 cm of water there! The dingy says a lot about the real capacity of the sailboat: maximum of 6 people. But ALL the companies load more passengers than they should ( a bit ‘ like the famous chicken buses of which I already wrote) .
Once on land, surrounded by darkness, the captain takes us to a small hotel on the island, inhabited by no more than 3 families. The guardian of the hotel leads us to the administrator of the island. The captain, with his poor Spanish (he wants to do the talking) explains that I’m sick and I need to sleep on the ground. Grumpy, the chief tells him that his hotel is full, that it is now allowed to dock on the island without permission. Almost sobbing, I ask humbly for forgiveness, and I tell him that it was all my fault that I felt so bad and I implore him to help us. He sends us another hotel, behind the airport (imagine a single strip of asphalt where only tiny aircrafts can land). There, a similar scene: the boss, obnoxious and grumpy, tells us that the hotel has no room, that it is absolutely forbidden to camp on the island, he can’t do anything to help us and at that hour of the night (more or less 10 pm ) we will never find a boat that will take us to some other island. I’m almost to desperate. I can’t go back on the boat! Meanwhile, the captain convinces the administrator of the island to allow us to camp between the trees, behind the airport: he breaks through when the administrator cites article by article the constitution of the Kuna Yala and he asks if there is no article that says that the Kuna Yala must help those who are ill. The 20 inhabitants of the island within an hour know the whole story of my seasickness.
Armed with courage, captain and the Belgian get back on the dingy to go get our tent. Once they get back, we set to pitch our tent, lit only by flashlight. The tent is for two people, which means that once we put inside the backpacks (’cause it might rain, and there are all of our things), we can only sleep sideways, our feet on the backpacks. As the captain leaves, he tells us to meet again the next day to talk about what to do. While Max takes off his soaking clothes (realizing that jumping into the water he drenched also his wallet and all his money), I fall asleep, dressed, having not eaten anything all day, dirty and half- wet. Shortly after Max also falls asleep. I wonder what else we could ever happen … and a short while later, it starts to rain in the middle of the night and the rain comes in the tent through the air intake. As soon as the sun comes up, I wake up, I go out of the tent and put out the backpacks, so cam rest at least a little better. I take pictures of the beautiful dawn, and when I see a man on a zodiac coming to shore with his dog, I go have a chat with him. He is American, has an Italian wife, and he is also there with his sailboat. He tells me that the stretch of sea between Panama and Colombia is one of the hardest to sail, and that many people will feel bad and give up on sailing. I decide that no, I will never go back on the boat. I will go back to Panama City and take a flight to Colombia, too bad for the money. But I do not want to suffer like the day before. I still feel jolted … As soon as Max wakes up, after an hour or so of also battling with the rain, we gather our things, dismantle the tent, and talk a bit of what to do: and the decision is to spend a night in the hotel on the island, hoping that there is room for us, and return Panama City either by plane or on a speedboat to Carti then a car.
At 8:30 we are at the hotel (we practically slept in their garden) and the old lady who runs it (where was she the night before?) welcomes us willingly, saying she has a room for us, but only for one night. She calls the airport (ie the little house on the corner) and they tell her that the next flight to the city is on Thursday. She then organizes the transport for us on a speed boat (40 minutes) and the 4×4 (the road is very steep) and since in the archipelago there is no internet, she also calls a hostel in Panama City to book us a room. I tell her that she is in my savior, and she smiles satisfied, her toothless smile. After that, leaving our stuff in our super-plain room that to us looks like a mansion, we go eat breakfast. I can only stomach bread. Max happily eats scrambled eggs. I feel better after a shower (cold of course, but I AM FINALLY CLEAN!).
Upon meeting the captain, we announce that we do not want to get back on the boat. He tells me that he will not return my $ 440 (thankfully Max has not paid). Who cares about money, I think: this is what I have to pay for not being seasick again. After all – he explains – to bard me and Max he had to say no to two other people who would otherwise be on the boat. And I should have warned him that I might get seasickness. I tell him that I had never really experienced that, I am accustomed to going on boats, also on this trip I have done it many times and I have NEVER felt bad. But you know what? I do not care. At this point I just want to go back to the room and SLEEP!
Back there, I set to do laundry: the lady wants to charge me10 dollars, evidently sees my astonished face and when I ask again “how much?” she agrees to lower the price to 6. Soon enough I am in bed and fall into a deep sleep for 3 hours. When I wake up , I go to the restaurant (across the runway for airplanes!) and ask if we can have lobster for the dinner. While we are in San Blas, we might as well enjoy it. They say yes, they will go buy it and cook it for us. Hurray! Things are changing to the best finally! ! I happily stroll back to the hotel and announce this to Max, who then starts foretasting the lobster and saying he will buy me dinner. Happy and content, and optimistic, we decide to take the speedboat to go to the nearby island, to the main village, and see if we can find an internet point to search for a flight to Colombia. Once there we realise that the village is no more than – LITERALLY – huts of reeds and wood, with toilets flushing directly into the sea (in fact the Lonely suggests not swim where there are houses) and there is no trace of internet. And there are also the usual piles of garbage typical of the whole country. Waiting for the speedboat to go back to our island, we see a line of children – dirty , filthy , barefoot and in their underwear, lining up for a bowl of cereal and powdered milk. They explain that they do this once a month, like a party (I used to dream of cakes, candies and coca cola as a child!!).
Back on our island, I decide that it might be worth going for a little swim, since we are in San Blas after all. The water does not seem too bad, although the standard of Sardinia are unattainable. I put on my bikini, my swimming goggles, and run out. I jump in the water … looks beautiful, transparent, but all I get to see is algae so I quickly get out, go back to my room and take a shower. Max thought better of it, not getting in the sea. San Blas was meant to be THE tropical paradise … I wonder how that’s possible, with all that garbage, the rain and all…
Post-shower , we decided to make our own the motto of two Italian boys met in the hostel in Panama City: Toda Joia Toda Cerveza (do you remember the song Toda Joia Toda Belleza ?) . In fact, there is nothing to do here. Once you read, you swim (but we do not like the sea here) you get bored and end up drinking beer. We feel a bit better thinking about the lobster that awaits us shortly. At 7 o’clock we step in the restaurant ( which is no more than a couple of wooden tables, cheap garden chairs, loud Scorpions music totally at odds with the setting). We order our lobster and the waiter (well, we call him that!) tells us that there is none. I insist saying that a few hours before I had a specific request, but I am told that they have not found any. In fact, the Italians “Toda Joia Toda Cerveza” had warned us that, although the sea is full of lobsters, locals eat the same things over and over: chicken, patacones and little else. So, chicken and patacones it is again, and cerveza in cans, not even chilled. Yuck. After dinner, Max says he’s still hungry, and back in the hotel at 8 pm, we eat a few cookies and also open a pack of whole wheat crackers. I am asleep by 9 pm – we must wake up early, we have our speed boat at 7:30 am!
Once awake I see that Max has a nice bump under his right eye: a beautiful mosquito bite. As he pulls himself up from the bed, he takes a cracker from the package he had left open the night before. Within a second, he turns around and sees the package is COVERED in ants, the biting ants! He runs to the bathroom to spit it out, the ants are also pinching him inside his mouth! I get pinched while I throw the package out of the room … OMG! It was the icing on the cake …
Once the speed boat arrives, I sight out of relief. Within 40 minutes, no sign of seasickness, we are in Carti, where a car awaits us and we are back in Panama City, in our hostel, by 11:20 am. Once in the hostel, we find that the internet is not working in the whole neighborhood. It seems that there has been a great explosion and the lines are off. How do we book a flight to Colombia? Anyways, if we can’t get it to work here, we are set to go to another area to find an internet point. We go eat a sandwich nearby and when we come back internet is up and running again. First thing first, I buy plane tickets to Colombia, so if all goes according to plan (never say never!!) we should be in Cartagena tonight.
Meantime, we decide that there is no way on earth that we will cruise the Amazon river for 3 days. I do not want to risk seasickness again, I do not want to be eaten alive by mosquitos, risk malaria, and sleep on a hammock for 3 nights. We are going to change our route and cross the border to Ecuador, and get to Peru from there.
So… the adventures go on!
Looking for advice on what to do and see in Panama? Click here!
For an inspirational post on a sleepless night, check this post
Are you ever tired of having to travel by bus? Well, I must say I am and each time I get to a place, I need a long time to work up the courage to jump on another bus. Travelling up to Nicaragua was a real adventure, despite being very uncomfortable it was an interesting experience, and very funny – those chicken buses are really filled up to extremes, to the point that due to the heat, the amount of people, the way the drive (insane! Speeding like mad even uphill, overtaking in curves, hills and what not) you really can’t wait to get off. Yet, I enjoyed it as I got to sit next to the locals, chat, ask for information, they would ask about what I am doing, and I got to see a lot of their culture and way of life. There isn’t a real bus timetable. Buses leave when full, which means that you may be lucky and leave almost immediately after boarding, or you may have to wait for hours while the assistant driver/ticket seller calls people around the bus station, yelling the destination (“dale Granada Granada Granada!”). There are no real bus stops either. People just wait along the bus route, and wave at it to stop. Same thing to get off. Whenever somebody wants to get off, he yells at the driver. People get off wherever, so the bus may stop 10 times within 200 meters as people really want to get off in front of their homes!
Traveling by bus in Central America is no joke – photo courtesy of Zhu (flickr)
Buses are a bit more comfortable in Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia, where they may even exceed European standards. On some of them, seats are so comfortable that they can be reclined almost entirely, leaving plenty of room for the legs. So, if you have had a rough night in a terrible hostel, you may actually rest on the bus. The only problem is that, for some reason which I fail to understand, air conditioning is kept so so low that, when it is 35 degrees outside, you may have 18 inside and have to wear a sweater, a jacket, scarf and, if you are travelling a long distance, carry on board a blanket or sleeping bag. I have asked around why they do this, but received no real explanation.
Safety is apparently an issue on certain bus routes in Colombia, at night, and indeed passengers are searched for weapons before boarding, seats are assigned and a security officer gets on board to snap pictures of all passengers before leaving. Sleeping is apparently the best thing one can do, unless willing to get terribly scared. If asleep, you do not enjoy the amazing views, but you may also be spared to experience the bad driving, with drivers overtaking on hills, on curves, overtaking dangerous trucks when really there is no distance to allow it, and speeding-breaking all the time. Drivers behave like they are driving a Ferrari! I should know something about crazy drivers, I am from Italy and we are world (in)famous for being terrible drivers. But it does get really scary in Colombia, to the point that backpackers may get discouraged from going to certain places they would otherwise like to see, because too afraid of the long distance, dangerous road and crazy drivers.
Traveling comfortably is not a thing in Latin America – photo courtesy of John Barie (flickr)
The funny part though is that people are supposed to express an opinion on the drivers. Indeed on each bus, cab, minivan there is a sign asking “como conduzco?” or “how do I drive?”, which refers to an application through which you can judge. I have no taste for apps, but at times I get so scared that I really feel like yelling to the driver “tienen buses super-lindos, pero conducen como locos” or “your buses are amazing, but you drive like crazy!”
Then there are the unexpected incidents – getting a flat tire. While in some places drivers immediately stop and check what the sound is. This happened on my bus from Santiago to Baracoa in Cuba, where we stopped in the middle of nowhere so the tire could be changed – passengers took the chance to walk out, take pictures, and chat along (this is actually how I have met one of my best friends!); and on my ride from Flores to El Florido in Guatemala (where on the other hand we all had to stay on the bus as the tire was being changed, and it was tremendously hot inside). However, at times passengers have to protest and the drivers will keep on driving for kilometers without bothering to check what has happened. In Ecuador, on a 10 hours bus ride from Quito to Guayaquil, we all had to stand and scream, as the assistant driver said we had only hit a can while we all did hear the explosion of the tire and the bus was shaking! Eventually, we stopped and changed that tire.
All in all, I really can’t understand why drivers all over Latin America play with peoples’ lives like that; at times, seeing how there are even children and babies on the bus, I end up thinking that in these countries life is too cheap for them to care at all. Most of all, drivers do behave like real Kamikazes!
Want to know more about travelling by bus in Central America? Read my post on chicken buses!
HELLO, NICE TO MEET YOU!
Hi, my name is Claudia. One day I packed my life and started traveling… except I packed too much. Follow me as I fill my life with dreams, drop the weight and inspire you to live your dreams. View and download my media kit here (updated July 2019). Learn more about me here…