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Escape to Carenero | Bocas Day Trip: Beach, Paddle Board, Kayak, Snorkel…

Posted by | February 25th, 2013

This is the third post of a series of 10 things to do in Bocas del Toro, Panama for less than $25. So let’s get straight into it!

You wake up and it is a beautiful Bocas day. Sun shining, not a cloud in the sky, already hot at 8AM, you know, the perfect beach day!

Hey, you're in the Caribbean: get out there and explore all of Bocas del Toro's stunning beaches
Hey, you're in the Caribbean: get out there and explore all of Bocas del Toro's stunning beaches

But as you get ready, you think to yourself “Where do I want to go? I have already been to Bluff beach a couple times and Starfish beach, what now?”

Well, I have a perfect solution, escape to Isla Carenero!

Isla Carenero is less than 5 min by boat and is the perfect way to get off Isla Colon without wasting travel time or money (only $3 round trip to get there by boat).
Isla Carenero is less than 5 min by boat and is the perfect way to get off Isla Colon without wasting travel time or money (only $3 round trip to get there by boat).

Just go to any of the boat docks along the water and say “Bibi’s”. All the boat drivers will know what you are talking about.

They will drop you off right near Bibi’s on the Beach and Escuela del Mar, and here is where the fun begins.

Bibi's on the beach, one of the best restaurants in Bocas del Toro, certainly has one of the best locations
Bibi's on the beach, one of the best restaurants in Bocas del Toro, certainly has one of the best locations

I would recommend starting the day off with a little workout. One word, stand up paddle boarding! Ok, 4 words, but you get what I am saying.

Fun and easy, it will take you a few minutes to get used to how to balance yourself, but once you get the feel for it, you will be gliding along the water in no time! Take a trip to the point and maybe you will even catch some waves (a whole new challenge if you have already mastered the paddle board itself).

Now, if you are like me, you have seen people stand up paddle boarding around the different islands in Bocas del Toro, and thought, wow, that looks pretty fun! And you would be right!
Now, if you are like me, you have seen people stand up paddle boarding around the different islands in Bocas del Toro, and thought, wow, that looks pretty fun! And you would be right!

But you don’t have to know how to surf in order to enjoy stand up paddle boarding. The first time I tried it, I had only gone surfing 2 times, and it is not necessary to be a good surfer to do this activity. You just need a positive attitude and the desire to try something new =)

I will tell you, it is definitely a good workout and by the time you finish with the paddle board, you will be ready for some food!

So, drop your board off and head up to Bibi’s. With everything from platters of shrimp, to ceviche that is to die for, to juicy burgers, your palate will not be disappointed. Not to mention they offer drinks that are simply delicious. My favorite is the passion fruit blended margarita!!

Fresh seafood with coconut flavored rice and fried plantains, simply DELICIOUS!
Fresh seafood with coconut flavored rice and fried plantains, simply DELICIOUS!

After lunch, I would recommend relaxing off your food coma on the beach next to Bibi’s. There are lounge chairs if you prefer or just throw your towel right on the sand and soak up that blazin’ Caribbean sun! There is even a great little spot off the beach where the water is gentle and perfect for swimming.

Once you are feeling well rested and ready for another adventure, grab a kayak and some snorkel gear from Bibi’s and head back out to the water. If you head up and to the left out of the beach by Bibi’s you will be at black rock. If the waves are not too big, there is some great snorkeling to be had in this area.

What a better way to explore Bocas del Toro then by kayaking and snorkeling?
What a better way to explore Bocas del Toro then by kayaking and snorkeling?

If the waves are small, it is possible to tether your kayak to the buoys that are near black rock or the point (the far end of the island). Both of these areas have some beautiful coral.

Or if you would rather not tether the kayak, you can just leave it on the beach by Bibi’s while you snorkel out around by black rock.

Bocas' underwater world awaits to be explored... get out there!
Bocas' underwater world awaits to be explored... get out there!

If you need any suggestions on where to paddle board, kayak or snorkel, just ask the staff at Escuela del Mar. Luis, Manuel or any of the other guys are experts on all the spots around the island and would love you help you (or maybe even go paddle with you! :)

When you are ready to head home, just have the staff at Bibi’s call you a boat and have one of their fresh fruit juices while you wait (all of them are excellent!)

What a better way to say goodbye to Carenero then by experiencing this view from inside Bibi's on the Beach
What a better way to say goodbye to Carenero then by experiencing this view from inside Bibi's on the Beach

So, don’t forget your sunscreen and bug spray and enjoy your escape into another piece of paradise!!

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Posted in Beaches, Bocas del Toro, Carenero, Experience, Habla Ya, Panama Destinations, Panama Travel

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Take Panama back home: Spanish, “Tranquilo” & Adventure

Posted by | January 28th, 2013

After a year in Panama, I have arrived back in the USA. It is a strange feeling.

Though I would love to stay in Bocas, my life is moving me in a different direction right now (a very exciting direction), which will have me in the States for a little while.

So, I started asking myself the question, how did my experience in Panama affect and change me and how can I keep moving forward in that experience here in the States.

The snowstorm that welcomed me back home the day after I landed was of course a big shock (this is a photo of my parent's back yard), and even though I can't bring Panama's sun to Nebraska, there are other things that I did bring back home with me and plan on keeping!
The snowstorm that welcomed me back home the day after I landed was of course a big shock (this is a photo of my parent's back yard), and even though I can't bring Panama's sun to Nebraska, there are other things that I did bring back home with me and plan on keeping!

Here is what I came up with, and I think this can apply to everyone who visits Panama, whether it be for a week, months, or years:

1. Keep the Spanish Going

True, you will no longer be surrounded by people who speak Spanish 24/7 but this doesn’t mean that your time studying Spanish with Habla Ya has to go to waste. Listen to music in Spanish! There are lots of great tunes out there and if you partied in Panama as much as I did, the music will certainly bring back very nice memories. I work 8 hours a day in English, but the whole time, I listen to music in Spanish. You will be amazed how much you will pick up on in pronunciation and honing your ear for the language.

Find a TV show in Spanish that you like, my fav is Mexico’s Next Top Model. Laugh all you want, it is a great way to keep up your listening and comprehension proficiency!

You can look up the episodes of Mexico's Top Model on YouTube or directly on Sony Entertainment's website
You can look up the episodes of Mexico's Top Model on YouTube or check them out by clicking here...

Another great way is reading in Spanish. I already bought my next book in Spanish (during my time in Bocas I read a few) and plan to start it soon. Start simple, get a kids book at your local library or order one online, it is a great way to learn new vocabulary.

Finally, find a friend to speak with! There are very few people in the US who do not know someone who speaks Spanish (which is quite bizarre), and usually, the Spanish speakers are looking to improve their English, perfect!! It never hurts to ask, even just an hour of speaking a couple times a week will be better than nothing. Try not to make excuses, there is never perfect timing, just keeping moving forward in your learning. A little bit each day is the best approach!

And of course, if you can afford it, nothing beats continuing learning with an Habla Ya Spanish teacher. They offer online Spanish lessons with flexible schedules.

2. Carrying on the Caribbean Vibes

Probably the first thing that hit me when I landed back in the States was the change of pace, life pace (even more than the snowstorm). If you have spent any time in the Caribbean, you know what I am talking about. Life is slower in Bocas and Panama in general.

When I am in the States, I feel a constant pull to be going 24/7. If it is not work, it is stressing about work, or being late, or forgetting an appointment, and so goes the days. When I was in Bocas, I had to learn how to relax and just be OK with a slower pace of life. And guess what, once I got used to it, I LOVED it.

The minute I landed in the States, I immediately felt the pull to be back into the “go go go” mode, and I thought, NO! My time in Bocas taught me that I can take a step back, prioritize, and enjoy a slower, less stressful life, and that is not only OK, but even better!

My time in Panama really helped me step outside the box, escape the rat race and appreciate life. I'm a much more laid back person now and don't let stress get into my routine
My time in Panama really helped me step outside the box, escape the rat race and appreciate life. I'm a much more laid back person now and don't let stress get into my routine

So, my encouragement to you when you leave Panama. Instead of just going blindly back into your old routine, take a minute and simplify your life. You will be surprised how much of the pressure we feel day to day is not even from our responsibilities, but from the culture itself, saying we have to “be” a certain way. Letting this go, and moving forward in what I really want for my life, and not what society wants, was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

3. Embrace Adventure

About a week before I left Bocas, I was talking to some friends about how much I have done in the past year in Panama. Everything from learning a new language, to learning to surf, to conquering my fear of heights by rapelling down a 40 ft rock face, it has been a year of new experiences and embracing life!

Now, I know you are saying to yourself, sure, great, but we have to work and we have responsibilities when we get home. Yes, true, so do I, however, I do not think this means that we cannot keep seeking adventure. One shouldn't even have to wait until the weekends: we should seek some adventure in our lives every single day.

Whether it be planning your next trip or something as small as finally training for that 5K run you have had on your to do list, don’t stop being open to new experiences just because you are back in your comfort zone. Keep challenging yourself and don’t put limits on the possibilities that lie before you.

So, although it is with a sad heart that I say good-bye to Bocas and Panama (hasta luego, not adiós!), it is with great expectation and excitement that I look forward to the future. We can’t always control our lives, but we can control the attitude that we have towards it. I intend to move forward with an open mind and heart, always cherishing the memories of my year in Paradise. I wish the same for you.

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The Learning Curve | Learning how to Surf in Panama’s Caribbean

Posted by | October 1st, 2012

The swell builds, the wave forms, lifting my board under me as it passes through and breaks towards the shore. Nope, not the one, wait for the next, the one behind. I look over, and give a little smile to my friends in the water. Yes, this is it. I begin paddling and feel the rush of being moved by the power of the water, and within seconds I am up, gliding across the glassy surface as it tumbles into white water.

There are few natural highs that compare to the adrenaline rush of surfing. Though once a skeptic, I can now vouch first hand, it is addicting. But of course, as the saying goes, "anything in life worth having is worth working for" (Andrew Carnegie), and surfing is no exception. The learning curve for this awesome sport is often as long as some of the waves at the best breaks on Isla Colon and surrounding islands. When I first started seriously wanting to learn to surf, I knew I would have to be patient, with myself, my body and my progress.


Some photos and video footage of surf lessons in Bocas del Toro with Mono Loco Surf School

I began with a few surf lessons at Black Rock (by Carenero Island), but my skills really started to improve when I began going out in the early mornings with the instructors from Mono Loco Surf School (or as I like to call them, my surfing buddies). It was in these wee hours of the morning, while the island was still fast asleep, that I learned how to read the waves. To watch and know which waves to paddle for and where to wait at the breaks for the best waves. To fine tune my pop-up and understand the importance of positioning on the board (rear down, shoulders square, knees bent), where to put my weight (slightly back for the drop, forward for speed), and most importantly the "essentialness" of strong paddling (REMA DURO!!!!).

I have also learned to not see any of my experiences with surfing as failures, even on days where I spend 2 hours on the water and catch nothing, coming out exhausted with what appears to be nothing to show for it. This too, is a victory in surfing. This is because in order to really read and understand the waves, you have to commit to them without fear. And sometimes this means a glorious ride, but others it means taking a beating by the wave.

Nowadays, when there are waves in Bocas, I'll be right there in the lineup every morning
Nowadays, when there are waves in Bocas, I'll be right there in the lineup every morning

In my beginning months of surfing, I could have (and still could be) the featured person in what Mono Loco calls their "Wipe Out Wednesdays". Each Wednesday they post an article explaining common mistakes made in surfing and how to improve your surfing to avoid these mistakes. Everything from nose diving (catching the wave too late and going face first into the water), to slipping off your board, to getting distracted, I have done it all (countless times). But like it says on every Wipe-out Wednesday posting on Mono Loco's website, "every wipe out brings you closer to perfection and makes you a better surfer". Such true words.

I remember one day, after a particularly "bad" session, I said to my surfing buddies, "I really don’t think I can do it". And they said to me, "Emily, this is exactly the point where all the girls quit, and we won't let you. You have to keep going, and just take the frustrating days, because we will come and drag you out to the water if you stop coming".

My surf buddies: Joan and Juan David, surf instructors and owners of Mono Loco Surf School
My surf buddies: Joan and Juan David, surf instructors and owners of Mono Loco Surf School

And soon, I realized how right they were.

Time on the board and in the water is the key. And it doesn't matter if you catch the wave, but that you paddle for it, commit to it, and try. Because the more tries you make in the beginning, the more waves you will be catching later on. And once you start catching waves, your body automatically learns how to stay balanced so that you can stay on the board. There is no other way to learn than by doing: it's the only way your body will learn!

I am proud to say that I now catch and stay up on more, or just as many waves, as I get eaten by. And I have gone from surfing on long starter boards, to owning and using my own 6'8'' board. I have also graduated from just getting comments from my buddies about catching the wave, to pointers about turning, trying to catch the wave at an angle so as not to end up in the white water, and to use my arms as a guide to the ride.

In the end, the learning may take time, but the beauty is in the process, as my buddies with Mono Loco have taught me. Letting go of control and letting the waves, your body and the ocean teach you. This is what surfing is all about.

Me and my girlfriends getting ready to go for a surf session in Bocas del Toro
Me and my girlfriends getting ready to go for a surf session in Bocas del Toro

So, what are you waiting for, grab a board and join the curve....

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Livin’ the Life of a Jedi: come to Panama & let the Force be with you!

Posted by | August 27th, 2012

Recently, my colleague, Evelyne, wrote a blog about unplugging from the system, not letting your life be controlled or dictated by what society says, and I have to be honest, when I read it, I thought she wrote it just for me.

A year ago, I reached a moment in my life where I knew I wanted to do something different, something “outside of the box.”

At this point, I was working steady at a job that was in my field of study (check), renting a house with a friend (check), had recently purchased a new car (check), and I had applied and been accepted to a Master’s degree program in Social Work (checky check). Done and done.

All my ducks in a row, my image was set, and all the boxes on the checklist for being a 26 year-old, single, female in the "real" world were marked as complete.

I had achieved everything I was supposed to achieve but I still felt there was something missing
I had achieved everything I was supposed to achieve but I still felt there was something missing...

So why was I still questioning myself everyday about whether it was what I really wanted to do with my life? And why, at the end of the day, when I was alone with my thoughts, was discontentment the last thing that I felt?

I can assure you, it had nothing to do with questioning whether or not I would be successful, as I was already excelling at my job and had no doubt that I could thrive in graduate school. It was more a knowing, deep down, that I wasn't prepared to live the life that others had chosen for me. I wasn't willing to be "locked in" to a life that I could see stretched out in front of me like a story that has been repeated too many times. And I knew that I was doing it because it was the life that was expected of me (minus the husband and kids, a point of "lacking" that I got reminded of often).

And what have I done instead, you might be asking yourself...well, I became a Jedi.

Although it does look cool, no, I did not become that type of Jedi... and yes, girls can be Jedis too!
Although it does look cool, no, I did not become that type of Jedi... and yes, girls can be Jedis too!

So, no, not the robe wearing, Yoda speaking, light-saber wielding type of Jedi (though we are still considering petitioning for the light sabers), but a Jedi who helps people experience the treasure that is the Panamanian culture and language through studying with Habla Ya. If you're wondering why "Jedi"? Well it's just an internal term that is given to anyone who has passed the 3 month probation period and officially has become part of the team of Language Travel Consultants here at Habla Ya Spanish Schools.

Now, when Evelyne first told me about the job as a language consultant and that I would be working on the computer all day, I was skeptical. Been there, done that, not my thing. However, within a week of starting, I realized that this job was different.

First, I get to talk with people from all over the world and encourage them to do something that I am passionate about, travel and learn a language. Having taken Spanish classes myself with Habla Ya, I believe in what I am offering and know that it is an experience worth having.

But the language is more than just about learning the verbs, nouns, etc., it is getting to know the culture and context of these words. Being a language consultant has taught me so much about this culture, and how much Panama has to offer as a Spanish learning & vacation destination.

It's easy to get trapped by the rat race without asking yourself what you want to do with life. Oon't be afraid to be bold in your pursuit of happiness. This is me in Starfish Beach in Bocas del Toro. I have to say that taking the risk to do something different has definitively paid off!
It's easy to get trapped by the rat race without asking yourself what you want to do with life. Don't be afraid to be bold in your pursuit of happiness. This is me in Starfish Beach in Bocas del Toro. I have to say that taking the risk to do something different has definitively paid off!

From amazing eco-adventure tours, including canal and san blas tours from the city, to hiking the Volcan in Boquete, to living with a host family, to offering time and talents to the local NGO's, we, as Jedis, focus on building not only a Spanish language program, but an experience, a Spanish learning experience for our students.

Probably one of my favorite aspects of this job, is getting to know the students. From the first contact until they arrive at one of our locations in Panama, we are the face of Habla Ya for individuals interested in coming to study.

For me, it is cool to see the excitement build as they realize that not only can we make sure they improve their Spanish while they are here, but we can also, through arranging flights, accommodation, tours, etc., make it a simple endeavor to discover a new country.

And of course, there is "mis compañeros".

I can honestly say that I have never worked with a cooler team of people. Not only are my colleagues exceptional at the work that they do, and I consider it a privilege to work alongside of them, but they are genuinely free-spirited people.

My colleagues are my friends... it's been the best job I've ever had specially because of my co-workers
My colleagues are my friends... it's been the best job I've ever had specially because of my co-workers

They remind me everyday why I chose to stay here in Panama, because I have found the freedom to do what I love without the pressure to build a life of image instead of contentment.

There is a quote that I ran across recently that I really like and it goes like this -"The one who follows the crowd will usually get no further than the crowd. The one who walks alone, is likely to find himself in places no one has ever been."- Albert Einstein

Since I've moved to Bocas del Toro, I've learned how to surf and that has definitively been one of the coolest additions to my life... if you surf, you'll understand what I'm talking about...
Since I've moved to Bocas del Toro, I've learned how to surf and that has definitively been one of the coolest additions to my life... if you surf, you'll understand what I'm talking about...

This is the attitude or "force" that I feel like I encourage by working as a "Jedi". To encourage people to continue to branch out away from the ordinary and seek a life where personal growth, learning, and discovery never stops. This is how I want to live my life and I love that my job lets me help other people do the same.

So, whether you might be considering a big life change (living and working in Panama) or a change from the normal routine (vacation & studying), let the "force" be with you and come to Panama, where we are truly livin’ the life of the Jedi.

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When the Sun Goes Down in Bocas del Toro | Nightlife, Partytime & Bars

Posted by | June 25th, 2012

You really can't talk about nightlife in Bocas del Toro with out mentioning Casa Animal and Paradaze Labs' Electronic Music Festivals. Casa Animal is Bocas del Toro's biggest party (normally lasts 2 or 3 days) and takes place on certain holidays such as New Years, Carnivals (February or March), Holy Week (March or April) and the beginning of November. Paradaze Labs organizes between 6 - 8 Electronic Music Festivals every year (head over to their facebook page for dates). The post below was written back in 2012. Since then, the newest place in town to start your nights in Bocas del Toro, is Tunga Bar, on main street, just across the municipality building. At Tunga Bar you will find all sorts of cocktails, beers from all over the world and a nice variety of electronic music. Their happy hours are from 4:20 pm - 8:20 pm.

Since Habla Ya opened in Bocas del Toro last year, my colleagues and I have written a lot about what do do in Bocas during daylight: surfing, biking, ziplining, working out, laying out on the beaches, you know, all that comes with this beautiful Caribbean paradise... but what about when the sun goes down?

Well, if you have ever spent more than a night (or even just one night) in Bocas, you will know that this is when the real fun starts.

After the sun goes down in Bocas del Toro, things get wild...
After the sun goes down in Bocas del Toro, things get wild...

There is a saying in Spanish, "¡sarna con gusto, no pica!" Within Bocas's nightlife context, basically it means, if you go out and have a great time, it doesn't matter what the next day brings (even if it is a grueling hangover or "goma" as we say in Panama) because you had a great time. Here in Bocas, this is our moto ;)

So put your party pants on and lets get started...

Happy Hour at Mondo Taitu

My favorite place to start any night of the week is Mondo Taitu. I mean, who can pass up 50 cent beers, right?

You can't miss it if you walk away from the central part of town towards Bluff Beach. It is the big yellow house on the corner across from Rum Runner & Mama Pizzeria.

Shots at Mondo Taitu
Lunch Break during Shots at Mondo Taitu

7 - 8pm, be there! Like I said, 50 cent beers, $1.50 mixed drinks, and they always have special drinks of the night (coconut shots, jungle juice, etc.)

The staff is awesome, the music is vibin', and did I mention 50 cent beers?

Barco Hundido (Monday, Fridays & Saturdays)

You wouldn't think much passing it during the day, in fact, you might just walk by and not even notice it... but at night it transforms into a jammin' hub

To get there walk through the central park towards the water, until the road T's, hang a left and follow the music.

Habla Ya Spanish students dancing and partying at the Barco Hundido Bar in Bocas del Toro, Panama
Habla Ya Spanish students dancing and partying at the Barco Hundido Bar in Bocas del Toro, Panama

There are often drink specials for both ladies AND men (yup, they actually have "men's night") and you can either enjoy your favorite beverage at the bamboo crafted bar or head outside around the swimming hole and on the docks.

Being one of the favorite spots among locals, the music is a killer mix of Latin, reggae, & popular pop/rock.

If you want to work on your "1, 2" merengue hip action, there are plenty of willing partners (and most of them are good dancers/teachers of the Latin moves).

Feeling hot after burning it up on the dance floor? Why not take a swim! Speaking from personal experience, there is nothing more refreshing after a couple hours of festivities then jumping straight into the Caribbean Sea). Just don't forget to entrust your cell phone, money, purse, etc., to a friend (outside of the water) ;).

La Iguana (Monday, Thursday & Friday)

One word, Ladies Night!!! (ok, two words)

That's right, free drinks for the beauties! It's rum and coke all the way for me, but they have other choices too, and usually this free drink giveaway goes until around 12 a.m.

Party at La Iguana Bar in Bocas del Toro, Panama
Party at La Iguana Bar in Bocas del Toro, Panama

Iguana is all the way down the Main Street (3rd Street) across from Natural Mystic Restaurant and if you arrive between 10:45-11:30pm you will be right on time to see “la gente” start pouring in.

This bar is the ultimate experience of the Bocas Rasta vibes. You will have a hard time not moving to the smooth reggae rhythms of legends like Gondwana, Los Cafres and many others.

So grab your drink, head to the floor with your peeps, and get your groove on...

Aqua Lounge (Wednesday & Saturday)

On a Saturday night, you would be hard pressed to find someone NOT going to Aqua (though Wednesday night is a close second to getting all the people out of Bocas Town).

That's right, for this party house you have to take a boat to Isla Carenero. But don't worry if your Spanish is not yet perfected, just go to the dock (any along the water will do, but I recommend the one next to Barco Hundido as it's closest) and say "aqua", they will do the rest.

It is $1 for the boat (one way) and the boats run all night long, so no worries of getting stranded on the island.

A favorite among the tourists, Aqua has the feeling of a downtown nightclub gone Bocas wild.

It can get quite crazy at Aqua Lounge on Wednesdays and Saturdays
It can get quite crazy at Aqua Lounge on Wednesdays and Saturdays

And for the ladies, the shirtless, Panamanian, hard-bodied bartenders do nothing but enhance this experience. And don't worry boys, there is plenty of eye candy for you as well, especially if they are running a certain "drink special" for the girls... sorry, but I cannot give more detail here, you will just have to go to find out!

The music is generally more "gringo" in style, Flow Rider, Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, etc., all make regular (and repeated) appearances, making the energy level contagious.

And, if you have gotten used to a nightly dip in the water, Aqua will not disappoint. In fact, it is the only place where you can literally swing into the ocean. Or if you are like me, and just like the swinging part, you can do that too without swimming. :)

During the day many people also hang out at Aqua Lounge
During the day many people also hang out at Aqua Lounge

So there you have it, Bocas at its finest after the sun goes down... just be careful and don't over do it... after all, you're here to study Spanish...

And remember, "sarna con gusto, no pica!" ¡Salud!

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