Awesome, raw, visceral, exciting travel experiences are more accessible to us all than most realize. Using some simple travel hacking techniques you can place yourself in some of the most beautiful places in the world without breaking the bank. Bocas Del Toro is one of those places.
Situated on the North-West tip of Panama, right next to Costa Rica, Bocas Del Toro is a series of islands in the Caribbean with stunning crystal clear blue water, white sand beaches, mangrove patches, and jungle landscape. The town has the full spectrum of travelers mingling throughout – from the millionaire yacht owner with private villa on the island to the hippie traveler volunteering at a tent community, sleeping on the couch while fishing an foraging for their food. Beers range from $0.50 to $2, and I had one of the best dinners of my life for $13, including appetizer, entree and desert (If you come to Bocas Del Toro do not miss Natural Mystic restaurant near Casa Verde hostel, every dish is stunning). Bocas has a little bit of everything for everyone – there is always a party to be had but it is also easy enough to escape to an island and rehab for a few days while surfing, chilling, reading and chatting with interesting, adventurous, beautiful people. There are hostels built on the water where you can get a dorm style room with air-conditioning for $12 a night.
Using the following six techniques you could spend a week in this paradise for less than $500. Please note all numbers are estimates based on my recent visit to Bocas.
1. Getting There ($50-$1000, one time cost)
Use frequent flyer miles. Click this link for a detailed walkthrough of how to use frequent flyer miles. It’s a tangled mess of credit cards, mileage programs and airline alliances, but it is probably the most underutilized travel hack in existence.
Many travel bloggers write about it and swear by it and it is true – racking up massive amounts of frequent flyer miles is easy, achievable, and worth your time and effort. I flew to Panama from San Francisco for a grand total of $80 in fees, and it could have been as low as $7 had I booked at least three weeks in advance.
Personally over the last year I have used AMEX SPG, Chase Sapphire, Chase United and US Airways MasterCard to rack up over 150,000 frequent flyer miles. If you are someone who is not good with debt than I do not recommend you use this particular hack but for those of you that can pay your credit cards off every month you are missing out on a great travel opportunity by not spending with purpose. For example, with the Chase Sapphire card I had to spend $3k in 3 months and was rewarded with 50,000 united miles. My flight to Panama city cost 17,500 miles, and that flight is typically $500 one-way.
Once in Panama city you will have two options to get to Bocas – bus or air. The flight costs $120 one way and takes about 45 minutes, the bus costs $35 and takes 10 hours (overnight). Depending on your situation – how long you are traveling for, what your budget is like, etc., either option is fine. I flew there and took the bus back to Panama City. Be warned that the bus is heavily air conditioned so you’ll want a jacket or blanket if you’re going to ride. They serve Nacho Cheese Doritos and free beer or wine on the plane, which was a nice change from peanuts and pretzels.
2. Finding a Room ($0 if you volunteer, up to $60 for a private room on the water x 7 days = $0-$410 per week)
It’s common for travelers to arrive in Bocas and in exchange for a free place to stay they will volunteer their time and work at one of the hostels. There are hostels of all types – party hostels, quiet, secluded hostels, hostels on the beach, tent hostels, etc. Typical responsibilities for a hostel volunteer include doing some cooking, a little cleaning, helping the guests, manning the front desk, setting up excursions, etc. You’re free to come and go as you please when there is another volunteer there, so you can meet up with people and explore just like all the other travelers. This is a great option for budget travelers and a cool part about this is that if you don’t like the hostel you’re volunteering at you can go try out another place whenever you want. And if you wanted to just relax you could pay $12 a night to be a guest.
3. Eating ($5-$30 per day x 7 days = $35-$210 per week)
You can eat like a king for $30 a day or like a pauper for $5 a day, its up to your budget. My guess is most people I know would eat out almost every meal and I would say $20/day for this is reasonable. Really high quality meals can be had for $9, medium range meals can be had for $4, and you could cook for yourself for $1-2 per meal.
4. Drinking ($0 if you don’t, up to $30 a day if you hate your liver = $0-210 per week)
Beers are $0.50 in the supermarket and $2 at the most expensive bars. It’s cheap to drink here. Split a bottle of local Abuelo Rum with a friend or drink wine from a box to save some extra cash. The parties are really awesome here, everyone is in a great mood drinking, jumping in the water, lounging on couches and dancing in the rain. You will fall in and out of love over and over again.
5. Exploring the Area a.k.a. doing the Touristy Stuff ($0-$50 per day = $0-350 per week)
The most expensive part of your trip next to the alcohol will be exploration of the local sights. There are wonderful beaches to relax on, caves to explore, dolphins to play, waves to catch and reef habitats to snorkel. Almost everything you do will require that you hire a water taxi so getting a big group together can really drop the cost of the trip and will provide for a more entertaining experience. Of course some days you’ll just want to sit at the local beach and do absolutely nothing and it’s still totally free to do this. Most hostels have free book exchanges so you may find something you want to read, or you could sit around and talk to the hostel manager about rainwater harvesting systems and solar power, or use the ubiquitous free Wi-Fi to update your twitter feed.
6. Don’t Get Robbed – Do Your Safety Recon and Rely on Safety in Numbers ($0 or negative $ if you do get robbed)
Do your recon. Ask the people that run the hostel, ask other travelers. Find the cool spots to explore and understand the danger level. Bocas is full of thieves – modern pirates. The heart of the pirate is alive and well, thriving in Bocas Town and the surrounding areas. The good thing is that they only want your valuables, not your life. So if you have no valuables on you, they will take nothing from you.
It’s very safe to leave your stuff in your room at the hostel with the door locked. As an extra measure of safety most hostels have lockers in the rooms as well where you can leave your passport, camera, credit cards, cash, etc. (bring a padlock). You’ll find the populated areas very safe at all hours but stray to far out of the tourist zone and thieves exist. One of the most common crimes is backpack theft from the beach or armed (usually with machete) robbery on the jungle trails. But this is common knowledge – it’s almost an unspoken understanding between travelers and local thieves – if you catch me with valuables in an area that is known to have pirates then you deserve to take my stuff.
The funny thing is that these thieves are actually in a way very considerate. A fellow American traveling in Bocas told me that he and his three friends left their backpacks on Wizard Beach (this beach and the path to it are known to be dangerous areas where you should not travel with anything more than your clothes and a little money) while two of them went for a swim and one went for a walk. As the third one was headed back to the bags he noticed a Panamanian Pirate rummaging through their things. He shouted and gave chase but the brilliant rascal scooped all three bags and disappeared into the jungle. The three friends were distraught at their misfortune and disappointed with themselves for their lack of vigilance. However, on the way back they noticed one of their bags sitting on the side of the path. Upon investigation, the other two bags were inside of this one, one inside of the other like a Matryoshka Doll. The bags had had a few beers in them- 2 Coronas and 3 Panama beers. The Coronas were left in the bags and the Panama beers were gone! So worry enough to do your diligence then forget about it and have a good time in paradise.
7. Enjoy Yourself – Forget Your Worries and Allow Yourself to Be Present in the Moment
If you follow the steps above you might just be lucky enough to have one of those moments that leaves you with goose bumps, giddy like a like a five year old on Christmas Morning, trembling with excitement and joy. For me this moment happened at 3AM last Wednesday night.
A group of us were walking out of the lounge area at the front of the Pal Mar tent hostel on Red Frog Beach when we noticed the density of stars in the sky. From our vantage point the jungle canopy above limited our visibility so we decided to walk 50 yards out to the beach where we could get a clear shot of the night sky. As we emerged from the foliage onto the beach the stunning beauty in front of us silenced the entire group. A mile out from shore, above the ocean, a thunderhead grew, sparking and crackling with energy. Above the cloud and for 120 degrees behind us the rest of the sky was completely cloudless, fully exposing the moon and all stars in that portion of the hemisphere. I never felt closer to the universe – it was as if the veil of the atmosphere was briefly removed from the sky and one less barrier existed between the cosmos and myself. What was a boisterous, talkative group of 10 travelers was absolutely silenced by the natural beauty in front of us, and we split up to lay in the sand and stare at the sky and soak in the moment. I hope you can find time like this in your life.