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About Evelyne Meyer

Evelyne moved to Panama in 2009, after she decided that life had so much more to offer than just sitting in an office for 12 hours a day. She decided that having 4 weeks of vacation per year just wasn't enough, and that life itself should be a vacation all year round. She has joined the Habla Ya family 6 years ago, and lives "happily ever after" with her husband in Bocas del Toro, where she can enjoy paradisaical beaches whenever she feels like it and hang out with her 4 cats and dog. She has encouraged others to do the same ever since.

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Total Spanish Immersion Programs – Will I Speak English?

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Today, I would like to address a recurring source of anxiety among future Habla Ya students. I am noting that lots of students are concerned about whether their Spanish teachers and host family will be able to speak English to them (at least a bit!). You may find this counter intuitive, as the goal of taking a full immersion Spanish course is to avoid English (or any other language besides Spanish). Yet, on many occasions, people ask for this "additional safety net", as if they were already anticipating total (communication) failure. It's natural to feel afraid of not being understood or not understanding, but that's exactly the fear that as an immersion student you have to overcome, as that's exactly what makes a true Spanish immersion so effective.

In reality there is nothing to fear! Hundreds of Habla Ya students go through this experience each year and the end result is Spanish fluency. So grab the bull by the horns, and tell yourself that you can do this! Not knowing the language is the very reason why you are coming to study Spanish with us in Panama in the first place. If you needed a bilingual teacher who speaks your language, you could easily just take a Spanish course in the USA, Canada, Europe or anywhere else ( click here to learn more about how we teach Spanish at Habla Ya...)

Don't be afraid: having your Spanish classes in Spanish is a very good thing. If your brain hurts, it's working.
Don't be afraid: having your Spanish classes in Spanish is a very good thing. If your brain hurts, it's working.

But in order to achieve your goal, you have to push your limits and get out of your comfort zone. Just compare it to physical exercise. You really can’t have a good workout session without breaking a sweat. Well, it’s the same thing when learning a new language. First you have to "shock your brain" (just like a muscle), your head will get “sore”, and finally you will reap the benefits of your efforts.

You can’t just sit in the gym, and expect to look like this without suffering a little:

I would like to reassure that you will be fine. And I mean that in all honesty. You would be surprised at how you can actually make yourself understood with just a few words or gestures. You will laugh at it, get frustrated, and eventually learn how to say what you want to say. That's just how our brains work!

When I was in middle school in Luxembourg, it was mandatory for us to learn French. None of us spoke the language at the time, but regardless, our teacher only spoke French to us. We didn’t understand anything at first, but since we had no choice, we learned quite fast. One day I heard her speak Luxembourgeois in the hallway to another teacher, and I couldn’t believe that she had fooled us all this time in making us believe that she didn’t speak it (we all thought she was French). That’s when I realized how awesome she was!

It is the same here at Habla Ya. You will be much better off learning how to ask your questions in Spanish, rather than taking the easy way out. Here are some examples for you to get you prepared: “How do you say XXX in Spanish?” (“Como se dice XXX en español?”). Or “I don’t understand” ("no entiendo"), or “can you repeat please?” ("Puede repetir por favor?"). Click here for even more tips and advice to prepare for your Spanish immersion program...

So please stop asking whether your teacher will be bilingual so that you can keep asking questions in English - The answer is no, because it is simply not in your best interest.

The same goes for your host family. I am often asked to select a family who knows “at least basic English”, and you can believe me that even if they existed, they would only speak Spanish to you. Our families know how important it is for you to learn their language, and are specifically instructed not to use any other language but Spanish at home.

I already see you frowning, and wonder: “But what happens if there is an emergency, or if I need to ask something really, really important?”

Don’t worry, you have a really caring team of consultants and front desk staff at your disposal to help you with anything you need. In English also, even though we try to avoid it. If you see me in the hallway, I will greet you in Spanish. You will find that weird (I am a Caucasian European, and always get mistaken for a student), but I am not doing it to sound cool. I am just doing you a favor =)

And at the end of the day you will reap the benefits: you will end up speaking Spanish, just as hundreds of Habla Ya students have done before you.

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Will it Rain During my Vacation in Bocas del Toro, Panama

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That's a question for the weather fairy, and yet I hear it over and over again. Sometimes in January, from students studying Spanish with us several months later. At times, these weather questions get very specific, like: "I am coming from April 22nd until April 28th next year. Will it rain?" It makes me wonder if weather forecasts in the USA or Europe are accurate several months in advance. Last time I checked they are sort of reliable up to 5 days or something like that.

You may as well ask me if you will win the lottery someday (probably not), or whether the world will end in the near future (considering climate change and how we treat our planet, probably yes, at least for us humans).

Ladies and gentlemen, I really hate to disappoint you, but as much as I wish I had clairvoyance superpowers, I am just a regular human being and rely on online weather forecasts, just like everyone else.

The good news is that, having lived in Bocas del Toro for almost 5 years now, I was able to gather accurate quantitative data about the weather in Bocas del Toro, which will allow me to better inform future students about this hot topic.

Today, I don’t really need to check my crystal ball anymore, and I promise you that I REALLY CAN predict the future. Weather-wise I mean! I have summarized the statistical data in the below table with its interpretation, for your information:

Climatological information based on monthly averages for the 30-year period 1971-2000

Rainfall and temperature charts for Bocas del Toro, Panama
Click here for temperatures in °F

So, what does the above chart mean? Here's my interpretation:

My interpretation of the rainfall and temperature charts for Bocas del Toro, Panama
My interpretation of the rainfall and temperature charts for Bocas del Toro, Panama

When I share this information over the phone, it's usually followed by an awkward moment of silence, which I admittedly enjoy quite a lot. Not because I am a sadist, but because it is followed by good news on my part. Some students even call me sobbing on the phone (OK, I am exaggerating a bit!), while telling me that the online weather forecast for Bocas predicts rain every day, and now their whole vacation is totally ruined!

But for Christ sakes please don’t worry, it usually only rains at night, or early in the morning! Why do you think that we schedule your group lessons in Bocas from 8.00 am to 12.00 pm? Not because we don’t want you to party the night before...NO! It’s because of the weather. We know that you like to go in the beach, so why not do it when the sun is out!

Group of friends enjoying Red Frog Beach in Bocas del Toro
Group of friends enjoying Red Frog Beach in Bocas del Toro

I can almost hear you sigh in relief=).

Now you don’t have to ask your travel agency for a refund after all, and can proceed with packing your tanning lotion, that itsy-bitsy bikini you bought on sale last winter season, and all those cute little summer outfits you planned on wearing.

That being said, we DO have seasons in Bocas del Toro, and some months that are rainier than others. If you ask me which months are BETTER however, my answer is IT DEPENDS.

Do you surf or plan on learning? Then by all means come during the rainier months, as rain equals good waves in Bocas. The best surfing months are January, February, March, June, July and December.

Do you like swimming, sailing, snorkeling or scuba diving? Then it’s best to visit during the drier months, as visibility underwater is at its highest in April, May, August, September, October and the beginning of November.

Whatever your preference is, please keep in mind that rain does not mean that your vacation is a waste. You are in the tropics, not in London!

The sun always comes out eventually during the day (I am checking my crystal ball as I am writing this), and you will definitely get a nice tan before you return home (just make sure to not over do it!).

Also please remember that I love you all, and that I always welcome your questions, no matter how ridiculous in nature (=sarcasm)

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Posted in Bocas del Toro, Experience, Panama Destinations, Panama Travel, Vacations

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6 Ways to Avoid Embarrassing Yourself During Your Panama Vacation

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If you're traveling to Panama, these other two blog posts will help you learn more about the Panamanian culture: Top 10 Things to Know About Panamanian Culture and Integration – Learn the Spanish Language, then the Culture!

While planning your vacation it is very normal to get excited, and it can be very easy to get carried away and overdo it while packing (here for info about what to pack for Boquete and here for what to pack for Bocas del Toro). In addition, if you are visiting a country with a different culture than your own, you're at risk of making a faux-pas or being looked at funny if you don't look the part. After all you don't really know what to expect, or might have a bit of misconception of what life at your destination of choice is like.

In France for instance, not every man wears a beret and eats frog legs, just like not everyone wears the famous Panama hat here in Panama. Panama hats actually come from Ecuador... long story short, they are called Panama hats because back in the 19th century, like many other South American goods, the famous hats were first shipped to the Isthmus of Panama before sailing to their final destinations all over the world, subsequently acquiring a name that reflected their point of international sale, "Panama hats", rather than their place of domestic origin.

Theodore Roosevelt had a Panama hat when the Panama Canal was inaugurated: that might have also popularized calling the hats Panama hats despite they are from Ecuador
Theodore Roosevelt had a Panama hat when the Panama Canal was inaugurated: that might have also popularized calling the hats Panama hats despite they are from Ecuador

Going back to our topic, in order to help you get it right the first time, check out our tips to fit in just fine on your first trip to Panama (some of the advice also applies for travel to other Latin American countries).

1. Mind your wardrobe choices

We know that you are on vacation, but please do not walk around in clothing that scream TOURIST. Avoid Indiana Jones attire, hiking shoes (unless you're on a hike) or sandals with white socks, and/or a flowered shirts. Yes we do live in the tropics, but not in the woods =)

In Bocas del Toro for instance, the local dress code includes flip flops, shorts and a t-shirt or tank top. In Panama City, business casual or street wear. In Boquete any comfortable clothing will do the trick, such as tennis shoes or casual city shoes, jeans and a shirt. If you plan on also hiking in Boquete on one of the many trails (highly recommended), by all means do pack your hiking shoes. Just don't wear them to make a fashion statement (unless that's just you in which case just be yourself!)

Try to blend in with the rest of the people and be a smart traveler. A smart traveler always tries to blend in as much as possible with his/her new environment by living just like the locals do, and will not like to stand out more than absolutely necessary. Attracting attention may be fun, but you may be attracting the wrong kind unintentionally.

Pack smart. Now that we've established that the local dress code is key to blend in, you won't need a huge suit case with many different pairs of shoes. How do I recognize a tourist girl in Bocas del Toro or Boquete? Because she is wearing high heels, which is not very comfortable or convenient at a beach or mountain location. If you are in Panama City however, the opposite rule applies. Pack your heels (specially if you plan on partying... for Bocas' nightlife flip flops are the norm), because in our bustling capital city only tourists wear flip flops =).

2. Don't go topless in Panama, it's illegal

Panama is a rather conservative and religious country, and the "Free the Nipple" movement has not reached our neck of the woods yet. We definitely understand the urge to get rid of those annoying tanning lines, but you will have to restrain yourself in Panama (unless you go to one of Bocas del Toro's many beaches that you can have completely to yourself just like Jessica Perez did for the 2012 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition).

You also can't walk around in your bikini on the busiest main street in Bocas del Toro, or any other town. Panamanians are very laid back, but by "tranquilo", they don't mean that you should walk around half naked (obviously younger generations are more open minded). You could even get a fine for walking around in your bikini, and of course people will look at you funny. Try to respect the local customs, and avoid shocking the friendly old lady next door.

3. Don't tip inadequately

In Panama, the norm is to tip 10% at restaurants and some fancy bars. That's about it. If you are from the US, you may have a tendency to over tip or tip where you are not really expected to, such as taxis, hairdressers, or any other services. It's not a bad thing if you do, but it is always good to know the local customs before you do something that makes you stand out. You also want to avoid projecting the false image that you are loaded. Flashing cash everywhere will just perpetuate the perception that tourists are rich (which can also have the undesired trickling effect of making life more expensive for the locals).

If you are European on the other hand, you may "forget" to tip, which is frowned upon. Tips are not always automatically included in restaurants, you should really leave your 10% tip if you were happy with your service (if you weren't don't bother... although some restaurants just add it so check your bill). Servers don't make a lot of money, and unlike in Europe, servers count on their tips to make a living.

4. Don't expect sales clerks to understand English by speaking louder

English is not their first language and raising your voice will not make you more understandable, just more annoying. As a courtesy to the people who are hosting you, it is always nice to make a tiny little effort to speak some Spanish in stores or restaurants. Try to memorize some basic Spanish phrases, such as "buenos días" (good morning pronounced ˈbwenos di.as'), "habla usted inglés?" (do you speak English pronounced 'AH-blah oos-TEHD een-GLEHS?'), and "gracias" (pronounced 'GRAH-syahs'). Or even better learn Spanish while you are in Panama at one of our Spanish schools in Boquete, Bocas del Toro or Panama City.

5. Don't complain

Be more positive. Don't be an ass When things don't go your way. YES, things go slower here, YES we know you are not used to it, and YES we know it is different in your country. But we are not in your country, are we? Just sit back and relax, take a deep breath and try not to control everything. Life is about the unexpected. Be tolerant, and also, don't forget to smile. If you get frustrated or rude, you won't get anywhere, that's a promise.

6. Don't compare

People who have traveled a lot, try to learn the good things about other cultures and try to understand why things are they way they are in different countries. This makes you wiser and also a better person. Refrain from comparing your lifestyle back home with how Panamanians live and totally avoid making negative comments about it in public. It simply isn't the same, and remember that you are visiting a developing country. Some aspects may be really modern, like the brand new highrise buildings in Panama City for instance, but other aspects are just different. Customer service will in many instances not be anywhere near what you may be used to (there are exceptions of course so allow me to brag a bit, except at Habla Ya of course!). Be understanding and don't judge. This is the beauty of experiencing a new country and culture. Just take it as an adventure, see the positive instead of the negative, and avoid any comments that may make you come over arrogant. You will be happy to realize how proud Panamanians are to show you everything about their local customs when you show some respect and interest.

For now that's it. Hope this helps you experience a one in a lifetime vacation in Panama!

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A Day at Red Frog Beach in Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

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Many times, students at Habla Ya Spansh Schools have asked me what could be a nice activity to do during the weekend, and besides other options I always recommend a visit to Red Frog Beach on Isla Bastimentos. The reason is simple - the beach is gorgeous, the water is turquoise blue and swimmable (with just some small waves to keep in fun - unless there's a big swell in which case getting in the water is a big no no), plus there are several restaurants with bars close by if you get hungry or thirsty.

In Bocas del Toro there are many amazing beaches. Red Frog Beach is just one of them. View from the sky where you can see Turtle Beach (the first one from left to right), Red Frog Beach and Wizard Beach.
In Bocas del Toro there are many amazing beaches. Red Frog Beach is just one of them. View from the sky where you can see Turtle Beach (the first one from left to right), Red Frog Beach and Wizard Beach.

The beach itself is quite large, which is one of the many reasons I love to go there with my dog, my husband, friends and my frisbee. The soft white sand is just what I need to play, run and have fun.

Part of my family at Red Frog Beach... I also have 4 cats back at home...
Part of my family at Red Frog Beach... I also have 4 cats back at home...

To get there, you can simply take a boat from the center of Bocas town on Isla Colon (the main island) at the Red Frog dock. Boat drivers will charge you $3.50 - $5 one way to get there, and it takes about 10 minutes to arrive at the Marina in Bastimentos. Because it is a natural reserve, there is also a $3 entrance fee when you arrive. A short walk through the park will lead you to the beach. Along the way you may observe lots of tropical birds, caimans and some sloths if you get lucky. There are signs to get there, so you cannot get lost.

My favorite restaurant there is the Palmar Tent Lodge, and the reason why I love it is because it has seats and hammocks directly on the beach. Servers will come to you, and you can enjoy a varied menu which lists their meal of the day, as well as fish and chips or ceviche among many other things. The owner of the place is from the United States, but he offers some traditional Panamanian dishes such as patacones instead of French fries, and filete al ajillo.

Palmar's location is great for me, because Chomsky, my dog, can just hang around or play with his other canine buddies while my friends and I enjoy a nice cold beer.
Palmar's location is great for me, because Chomsky, my dog, can just hang around or play with his other canine buddies while my friends and I enjoy a nice cold beer.

If you like adventure, you will not be disappointed. There is a great Zipline tour on Red Frog beach for only $55; adrenaline rush guaranteed! You can read a blog post about this experience here... And if that’s not for you, you can choose to visit the Island Resort and Spa instead. I highly recommend the foot reflexology treatment (check out my spa experience here), which has left me very relaxed and rejuvenated. Careful though - it may hurt! But it’s just your toxins leaving your body.

I usually start heading back around 5.30pm to get some rest before dinner, but of course you can also spend your evening there and have dinner if you wish to. Just keep in mind that the boat fares may go up after sunset.

Red Frog Beach is just one of many beautiful beaches on Isla Bastimentos and Bocas del Toro, so if you are studying with us for more than one week, you should definitely visit a different one every weekend. There are also plenty of beaches on Isla Colon and Carenero that you can visit during the week after or before your Spanish lessons.
Red Frog Beach is just one of many beautiful beaches on Isla Bastimentos and Bocas del Toro, so if you are studying with us for more than one week, you should definitely visit a different one every weekend. There are also plenty of beaches on Isla Colon and Carenero that you can visit during the week after or before your Spanish lessons.

FIND OUT MORE ABOUT BOCAS DEL TORO, THE PERFECT ISLAND TO LEARN SPANISH BY THE BEACH... »


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Posted in Bastimentos, Beaches, Bocas del Toro, Experience, Habla Ya, Panama Destinations, Panama Travel, Red Frog Beach

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Your Guide to Carnivals in Bocas del Toro, Panama

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People get ready! It’s Carnival time in Panama! If you’ve never participated in these festivities before, let me tell you a bit more about them!

Every February (or sometimes in March), during the 4 days leading up to Ash Wednesday (well, in all honesty they start on Friday evening), the whole country prepares itself for the wildest and most famous celebrations of the year: Carnivals, or “Carnavales” as they call it here. This is probably the most anticipated celebration right after "Fiestas Patrias" in November (a bunch of parties and events around Independence and Separation Days from Spain and Colombia) and New Years.

Carnival is the time when the routine as we know it comes to an end, the whole country closes down, and everyone switches to full party mode (and most Panamanians, full drinking mode). People joke a lot over here and say that the only thing that Panamanians take seriously is a good party. And for many Panamanians it's true. People party loads over here and are always looking for any excuse to party. So being Carnivals the mother of all parties, you can just imagine how "seriously" everyone takes it. I've even seen people who don't normally party, go wild during these days. It's a very Panamanian thing as if it was part of their genes.

Carnivals are Panama's craziest and wildest party!
Carnivals are Panama's craziest and wildest party!

I once read that Panama holds the second place right after Brazil when it comes to the importance and grandeur of the celebration of Carnival. Whether that is true or not, Panama’s Carnival is definitely one of the biggest and craziest festivals I've been to, and also a superb cultural experience if you are visiting or studying Spanish in Panama. If you want to get the most out of the cultural aspect, I highly recommend also staying with a local host family, as they will without a doubt make you live the true Panamanian carnival experience.


Video that gives you an idea about what Carnivals are like during the day

Bocas del Toro may be small compared to other cities (the archipelago has a local population of about 8,000 inhabitants - which during Carnivals might double), but don’t let that fool you. You don't have to go to Rio de Janeiro to experience an awesome Carnival. While the largest and most culturally rich Carnival celebrations in Panama take place in the Azuero Peninsula (Las Tablas, Pedasi, Chitre, Penonome, etc. - for guides on Carnivals in these parts of Panama click here and here), Carnivals are a huge deal here on Isla Colon, and the level of craziness and "anything goes" party vibe during these 5 days are 100% guaranteed. Most people will agree that Panama's wildest, most authentic and free spirited nightlife takes place here in Bocas del Toro, so obviously Carnivals are also very special here.

Carnivals with a bunch of party people over the waters of the Caribbean? For sure!
Carnivals with a bunch of party people over the waters of the Caribbean? For sure!

Like in many other places around the world, Carnival in Bocas del Toro typically involves a public parade gathering musicians and masked dancers, fomenting a lively public street party with fire works. Here in Bocas, we have the "comparsas" or groups of dancers from different parts of the archipelago, who will perform and dance in a synchronized fashion while parading one after another. The "murga" will be a band, generally accompanying the queen of the Carnaval, providing live music to the festivities. One of the traditions also consists in spraying each other with water canons in the process (better to know this beforehand and avoid surprises). The "culecos" or "mojadera", usually takes place in the central park or plaza of each town and large cistern trucks will be spraying water over everyone while they dance. I really don't know how this last tradition was born, but it totally makes sense to soak people wet otherwise how would you be able to dance all day under the sun in the tropics and then be expected to continue partying in the evening? Another great place to hang out during the day is Aqua Lounge.

People take the streets and dance all day long, while getting soaked by huge trucks throwing water
People take the streets and dance all day long, while getting soaked by huge trucks throwing water

But unlike Carnival in some European countries, not everybody dresses up to parade. Here in Bocas del Toro, the men will dress up as “diablitos” or little devils with whips, and dance to the afro-inspired rhythms of drums and percussion during the parade, while spectators are watching and dancing along the sidewalks. The diablos in fact, start dressing up and doing dances in the streets several weeks prior to Carnivals. You might not be prepared for what I'm going to say as it's a bit savage, but if you're a guy and get close to the diablitos before or during Carnival, you are in danger of getting whipped! Yeah, whipped! And it's totally acceptable so consider yourself warned!!! Woman are not left out of course! On the Friday prior to the celebrations, a Carnival Queen and her accompanying attendants are selected, and are featured during the day’s parade or "desfile".

If you were to ask us, the real party takes place at night. Here in Bocas there are many bars, events and clubs that you can go to. This year I started my night with friends at Tunga Bar, a small and intimate bar, who each evening had a live DJ, loads of cocktails and international beers. Then, depending on which type of music you prefered, you could go to Selina Hostels for some EDM, Iguana for lots of latin and pop music, Barco Hundido for the real Panamanian flavor, or the Reggae Party at Bocas Bambu. This year we really missed Casa Animal which is the hugest party that normally takes place in Bocas during the most popular holidays in Panama.

“Carnavales” are popular, and are famous nationally as well as internationally. Panamanians in the entire country reserve their hotels several months in advance, just to make sure not to miss out. It is not uncommon to hear people ask you in September, what you will do during Carnavales. At our partner hostel, Hostal Tungara, we are receiving reservations up to 6 months in advance!

If you are coming to study Spanish with us by the beach and also like a good party, meaning that you don’t mind the unavoidable noise that goes with it, then Carnivals is definitely a great time to visit Bocas del Toro.

If, on the other hand, you are more of a quiet type and prefer to avoid crowds and loud music all day long for 5 days in a row, don’t worry. You don’t need to change your dates. Not all the cities in Panama are celebrating carnivals as described above. You can totally enjoy the holidays in the mountains of Boquete, in the highlands of Panama, where there won’t be any parades. Boquete in fact attracts all those Panamanians who are looking to skip Carnivals. Just remember to make all your reservations far enough in advance, as you may not be the only one planning a quiet getaway during "Carnavales". Panama City also has its own Carnivals, though as mentioned above, the most authentic Carnivals take place in the Azuero Peninsula.

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