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.
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.
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...
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.
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.
People get ready! Itâ€™s Carnival time in Panama! If youâ€™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 â€śCarnavalesâ€ť 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!
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, Panamaâ€™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
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
But unlike Carnival in some European countries, not everybody dresses up to parade. Here in Bocas del Toro, the men will dress up as â€śdiablitosâ€ť 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 dayâ€™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.
â€śCarnavalesâ€ť 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, 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, donâ€™t worry. You donâ€™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 wonâ€™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.
They listen to their clientsâ€™ wishes and preferences, and will make objective recommendations regarding language schools and destinations all over the globe. Habla Ya Spanish Schools acts as a partner school for them, and we are always happy to meet and welcome our partners who work so hard to bring us students from all over Europe. For them, visiting partner schools is also very helpful, because they will get to experience the goods first hand before offering it to others. There is no better way to advise a student to visit a certain destination, than by having been there yourself.
From our side, it is always important to hear feedback, and even more so when coming from a colleague who works in the same industry. ESL works with many Spanish schools all over the world, and their opinion is crucial for us, because they help us understand what is essential to our clients. Every business has room for improvement, and Habla Ya is no different. Feedback is always welcome, whether it is positive or negative, so it is needless to say that we wanted to impress Giovanni and Sonia, or at the very least not disappoint them. But most of all, we wanted them to truly experience what it is like to be an student at Habla Ya in Panama, so that they can accurately describe it to their potential Italian customers.
Sonia, Giovanni, Carlos and I hanging out one evening in Bocas
Significant to us is also knowing what really matters to an Italian student, compared to a German or North American student for example. Sometimes cultural differences will surprise you, and it is very interesting to look at how our Spanish programs will be perceived by different nationalities.
Hence, after 2 weeks, I asked Giovanni to spill the beans and tell me his honest opinion about us. I wanted to hear the good, the bad and the ugly without any sugar coating. So here are the questions I asked him with his honest/unedited answers.
Giovanni, what was your primary objective during your trip to Panama?
I had two main objectives. First of all I wanted to discover the country by trying as many things as possible: visit different places, meet local people to see their lifestyle and culture, taste new meals...anything! The 2nd objective was more personal, since I wanted to help the local community by doing some volunteering activities.
Sonia, you took 2 weeks of Spanish lessons with us. Can you tell us a bit more about what you thought about the class structure, your teacher, and most of all your progress in Spanish?
I enjoyed my 2 week course a lot! Before taking it I was able to read and understand Spanish, but I could speak it only a little. Now I am much more confident and I can speak more fluently, and I made this progress thanks to the small class size and the ability of our teacher! The small number of students (2-3) was ideal for learning, as the teacher could give a lot of attention to all of us. During the lessons the conversation was focused on the Panamanian culture, traditions, food, etc.. and on our personal interests and everyday life. These topics were very interesting and they stimulated the discussion: we found out differences but also a lot of similarities between our countries Even if the primary focus was on conversational Spanish, we did a lot of grammar too, and I'm impressed by the number of rules we learned in just 2 weeks! In a few words, I would absolutely recommend a Spanish course at Habla Ya!
Sonia with fellow Habla Ya students.
Is there an aspect of Panama that you werenâ€™t aware of before traveling, and that it's important to tell your clients while telling them about the destination?
We can't say that we weren't aware of something: we have friends living here, some others have been here on vacation, and then we read many useful things thanks to the feedback sent by our ESL students. The reality might be slightly different from our expectations, but we believe that this is the beautiful aspect of traveling with curious eyes: we knew something before our departure but then our eyes judge and live it. After 3 weeks spent here, we can say that our knowledge of the destination is now good enough to advise the clients adequately, or we hope so at least
What is, according to you, the most important aspect of this program for an Italian student from Milan? For instance, a French student may give more importance to the food, while a North American may insist on having air conditioning. What do Italians insist on the most?
Generally speaking Italians do insist on the accommodation, which is often the key topic of our counseling activity. Is it the same for Bocas? We believe it's not. In our opinion the most important aspect of this program is the atmosphere: our students have to feel it through our words, understanding that Bocas is something special and different... a new experience in their travel portfolio. Then all the questions on courses, activities and accommodation will be considered differently.
What did you particularly like about the school, and what do you think needs improvement from our side?
We liked the atmosphere a lot: it's a smiling school! Teachers and staff were always friendly and very helpful, we felt a positive vibe and everything was easy-going. Then the courses: I (Giovanni) didn't take any course, but I saw how much Sonia progressed during the 2 weeks, thanks to the great teacher she had and the mini group classes. Some improvements can be done and these are our suggestions: limit the use of English during social activities as much as possible, even if we understand that there are many A1-A2 students; have a person taking part in the activities, because his or her presence would encourage the use of Spanish between the students; and maybe more focus on the volunteering projects which are very useful for the local community. You're already doing a great job, and we saw how difficult can be to deal with some realities of the organization.
Would you recommend our program to your clients, after living the experience yourself?
Sure, to the right clients! And who are the right clients? The ones traveling to feel a place, not to see it only; the ones looking for something new, not scared to live in a different way or try new things; the ones who know the difference between a tourist and a traveller, because they will come back from Bocas del Toro & Panama as richer persons! And this is how we feel now, grateful to Bocas because we had feelings which will stay forever with us! Thanks!
Well, thank you so much Giovanni and Sonia! We really enjoyed having you =). All the very best back in Italy and we look forward to paying you back the visit one day...
Itâ€™s always interesting to hear about each studentsâ€™ motivations to learn Spanish, hear about their backgrounds, and why they chose Panama specifically as a destination to study Spanish. Since a good amount of our students come from professions where knowing Spanish enables them to do a better job (think teachers, doctors, nurses, social workers, etc.) I though it would be cool to interview a teacher and find out more about her experience.
1. When you started your course, you were pretty much a complete beginner. How do you feel today, at the end of your program?
I canâ€™t get over how much I learned in seven weeks. I had taken two years of required Spanish years ago, but really didnâ€™t remember much at all, save a few words like â€śaguaâ€ť and â€śgraciasâ€ť. At the end of my trip, I stayed a couple of days in Panama City and was able to navigate, get taxis, and communicate with the hostess at my hostel fairly easily.
2. Which course did you choose, and would you recommend it to future students?
I chose group lessons for the time I was in Panama. I added private lessons two weeks while I was there to work on specific language skills for my job. The group lessons were small, so I felt that we were able to practice a lot and ask questions about the language, Panama, or other. Because they were small, the teachers were attentive to my needs as a language learner, and I learned a lot from them. For private lessons, I am a teacher by profession and want to learn Spanish to communicate with my students and their parents (the majority of my school population are immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries). In private lessons, my teacher practiced role-playing parents with me and worked on other skills specific to a school environment, which was very helpful.
3. What are the things that you liked the most of Panama, and what did you like the least?
Panama is beautiful, the people are friendly, and the food is good â€“ what is not to like? I spent time in both school locations, and experienced two different cultures of Panama. I loved the peaceful environment in Boquete, but also enjoyed the laid back feel and the variety of activities in Bocas del Toro (including beaches, hikes, salsa lessons, cacao tour, and trying out Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for the first time). As for what I liked the least, the rainy July in Bocas limited activities sometimes, but thatâ€™s what I get for visiting during rainy season! Plus, the rain is what keeps Panama so lush and gorgeous, so I really liked everything in Panama.
There is never a shortage of things to do in Bocas del Toro. I gave Jiu-Jitsu a go a couple of times. Here's me rolling with a fellow Habla Ya student.
4. What motivated you to study Spanish abroad, and why did you choose Habla Ya?
I wanted to be a non-English speaking environment when I began studying Spanish. Iâ€™m from the States, and in an area where realistically, we donâ€™t need to speak any other language than English. Additionally, in my previous travels, English has been enough. However, in my school community, we often have families that arrive knowing little to no English, and I wanted to experience the ups and downs in order to â€śwalk a mile in their shoesâ€ť, so to speak. This proved to be one of the most valuable parts of the experience for me. It was humbling to start off. I am an educated, independent woman in my country, but was unable to make simple requests without relying heavily on a dictionary and the incredible patience of the other person. Sometimes it was unsettling, sometimes it was embarrassing, and sometimes it was frustrating, but with practice, I improved, and earned a deep appreciation for both the Spanish language and my own language. After a couple of weeks, I could converse with my host family, and enjoyed talking with people that previously I had been unable.
I found Habla Ya by searching for conversational Spanish programs on Google, and then chose it because of the raving reviews and the responsiveness of the Travel Consultants. Mary Beth and Evelyn were overwhelmingly helpful with answering my questions before traveling and the program is well laid out. I also compared it to other programs in Central America, including others in Panama, and felt that it was the best fit for my Spanish goals. For however long you are able to stay, I definitely recommend the Immersion Program. Nowadays there is lots of talk about Spanish immersion programs in the US, but nothing really compares to actually being in a Spanish speaking country. This is true immersion.
5. Did you make friends during your program here?
Yes, from all over the world! There was a group of us that would do activities together and practice Spanish while hanging out. It was a really encouraging environment to practice too because while we were at different speaking levels, we all had the same goal, and we would help each other with what we were learning in our classes.
Kate and fellow students during a hike in Bastimentos
6. You mentioned to us that you needed Spanish for work, because you have many Hispanic families in your region. Do you feel more confident speaking to them now?
While my grammar and vocabulary are still a work in progress, I definitely have a lot more confidence. I used my schoolâ€™s summer break to study Spanish, so I was able to be in Panama for seven weeks. Iâ€™ve been back to work the past two weeks and have communicated with all of our Spanish-speaking staff members â€“ all of whom were impressed, because they knew how little Spanish I spoke before the summer and were thrilled by how much I learned. Additionally, Iâ€™ve spoken in Spanish with some of my students from last year and also with some parents.
Even though my language isnâ€™t perfect, the result has been the same every time â€“ their faces light up, because I am able to speak to them in their native language. With the parents, I sense relief; many times, the language barrier leaves these parents timid in the school environment. Iâ€™m looking forward to the ability to connect with my studentsâ€™ families more in the coming school year.
Me having salsa lessons with my Spanish teacher and fellow students
If you would like to see your own story featured on our blog page, please donâ€™t hesitate to let us know! I am sure that your experience too is worth the read, and we are always happy to share it with our readers =)
Tally is our newest family member and now the official Habla Ya Bocas mascot. She is also the cutest thing I have seen in a long time, and since she shares most of my work days on or under my desk nibbling at my feet, I felt it would be cool sharing her story (at least for me!). I also want my personal heroes Tammy and Molly (former Habla Ya students) to be able to follow what has become of their little rescue kitten, since they have now finished their Spanish program and already left the country.
Only 9 weeks ago, kitten Tally somehow got separated from her mother, and was left to survive on her own. She was only 3 weeks old then, and unable to hunt for food yet. At that age, not having a mother is a certain death sentence for a kitten, and when she was found she was only skin and bones, had infected wounds, was flea infested, full of parasites, and was barely breathing. Flies started to circle her, just waiting for her to pass away... and had anyone waited only one day longer, she would most certainly not have made it.
But fortunately for Tally, two Habla Ya students with a big heart passed by just in time and saved her. Tammy and Molly were on their way to their 8 am Group 4 class, and when they saw her lying in the dirt, they picked her up and brought this little kitten to the school. Not knowing what to do with her, they handed her over to Gilberto, their Spanish teacher.
If you think Tally the cat looks bad in these photos, you should have seen her in real life... poor little thing!
Gilberto always wanted to have a cat, so he was happy that his students had found this little critter. Gilberto had never had a cat before, and didnâ€™t know how to properly care for this undernourished, wounded rescue. For some reason, he must have heard of my Brigitte Bardot reputation (only the animal activist part!!!), and so he gave her to me and I somehow became her â€śbaby-sitterâ€ť . I have 4 cats myself, two of which are rescues, and my friends call me the crazy cat lady (I am married and in my thirties, but I just happen to really, really love cats). Since I couldnâ€™t take her home with me (5 would be slightly above my own limit), the only solution was to keep her in my office during the day.
We took her to the vet more than once, and treated her eye infection and wounds. Now she is clean and her fur is fluffy. She has no parasites and is well nourished, and full of energy. Sheâ€™s got some serious meat on her bones now! Over here we nicknamed her â€śTalibanâ€™ because she became a little terrorist. Working with her is a challenge. She loves to bite cables and feet, unplug the router while I am working, sleeping on my keyboard, and sometimes chatting gibberish to my colleagues in our internal chat system.
Gilberto has decided that the school would be a better home for her, so she became an official Habla Ya resident and family member. Soon she will be old enough to run around the school property on her own, however I am a bit scared that she will run to the street and get hit by a car. I guess that is a risk that we will have to take if we want her to be free and happy.
Here are some pictures of healthy Tally, happy and full of energy.
Here is happy Tally harassing me while I try to work!
Sharing stories like that always make me happy, and when I see that people care about animals as much as I do, it gives me hope that more adorable creatures like this one get their happy ending.
The community of Boquete (where our other school is) is currently leading the way with their Amigos de Animales volunteer program, which operates a monthly spay clinic sponsored by donations. They catch strays, sterilize/castrate them, and then release them again. Pet owners can also bring their animals and get them fixed for $5. Hopefully in Bocas del Toro we'll follow their lead soon. There is a huge need for a spay clinic on our island, to prevent stray dogs and cats from endlessly reproducing, only to die young hit by cars or by starvation and disease.
Iâ€™ve heard rumors that such a spay clinic may be something a local veterinarian wants to launch in the near future, and if/when that happens, Habla Ya would be more than happy to recruit volunteers to help. Of course I include myself in this.