Seasoned British traveler Anya shares her tips for traveling Colombia and Panama, and talks about making lasting friendships along the way.
My name is Anya, I’m from Nottingham, England and I work in marketing & social media. After finishing university in Manchester, I decided to go travelling for 7 months around South and Central America. I have always loved to travel, doing multiple gap years prior and post school, exploring Southeast Asia, Canada, North America and Europe prior to this trip.
I decided to visit Costa Rica partly because I was such a huge fan of Jurassic Park growing up… lol. But also just the idea of visiting lush jungles with a huge variety of wildlife really excited me. ONDA was my first stop in Costa Rica. After visiting Panama and Colombia, we arrived in San Jose. We got a very dodgy taxi from the airport (which was also very expensive, but equally very much our own fault) and a bus to get to Tamarindo. Once we arrived in Tamarindo, one of the lovely ONDA staff members, René, picked us up and drove us to Playa Grande.
I had loved travelling through Latin America so far, having partied in Bocas Del Toro, slept under the stars in Tayrona National Park, and fully immersed myself in the culture in Cartagena. I was excited for my next adventure in Playa Grande.
Tips for Colombia:
- Make use of the motorbike taxis (‘motos’) – they are super cheap and can usually take you to places that cars can’t fit (for example: secret waterfalls!!!).
- If you’re on a budget but Colombia is one of your stops, do EVERY excursion you can there. Your money will go a lot further in Colombia, and you’ll be able to do a lot of things there that you would usually spend 10x to do in other Latin American countries.
- Avoid booking any Pablo Escobar themed tours, as this can be disrespectful to the locals, especially as they are being so kind to let you explore their beautiful country. There’s so much more to see and do!
- Visit the old town square in Cartagena at night. Most nights they have local schools and clubs putting on shows, singing and dancing. You can sit on the steps, enjoy some local drinks and food and make friends!
Tips for Panama:
- If you are planning to visit Bocas Del Toro (you should!), make sure you book your stay over a Friday night. On Fridays, they have a great party event between the different islands, called Filthy Friday. You’re not allowed to bring your phone, but honestly that just adds to the experience!
- Staying in Boquete? Book a night or two in the Bambuda Castle hostel. It is one of the best hostels I have ever stayed in, and like the name suggests, yes it is an actual castle!
- Public transport in Panama is not always the best, so expect to have to pay for transfers between places. Most hostels know this and are always happy to help to arrange one for you.
- Visit the San Blas Islands!!! They are a collection of tiny islands that are just off the Panama coast. White sands, palm trees and most of them are uninhibited. When I went I saw reef sharks whilst paddleboarding– core memory made.
Playa Grande is such a special place. It is a small surf beach town, with a beach that stretches all the way to Tamarindo. It has some of the best sunsets, waves and local places to eat. In the 5 weeks I was there, my days were spent in a variety of ways. ONDA has some great weekly events – I was able to enjoy them and also try out all the other local places.
My days usually started with a walk to the small Brazilian bakery to pick up a coffee and some pastries. On my days off, I would usually spend my day time on the beach, watching the surfers and reading a book. In the afternoon, as I was there during the rainy season (and this is when the downpour would often occur) I would head back to ONDA for a little nap. After the rain had stopped, I would nearly always grab some friends and head back to the beach with a beer or a cocktail to watch the infamous sunsets. If ONDA didn’t have an event on one night, or it was quiet, more often than not, myself and a few of the other ONDA staff would head to Tamarindo for a night out.
Getting to Tamarindo can be tricky if you don’t know someone with a car, but the locals in Playa Grande are so friendly they would always offer to bring us if they were heading out to Tama too. If we ever were in the mood for a bit of a walk, we could get to Tamarindo via the estuary. This involved walking the stretch of the beach and paying 1000 colones to take the boat over to the otherside (only available in the daytime).
ONDA is such a great environment for meeting people on all kinds of journeys, as Playa Grande has a big ExPat population, it was easy to chat with local residents as well as fellow travellers. Working and living at ONDA gives you the opportunity to really connect with the staff and create great bonds fast.
Making friends travelling can be daunting sometimes but you just have to remember everyone is in the same boat, looking for a good time and a new adventure. Being able to experience such incredible activities in such beautiful places, makes memories that will last a lifetime, even if it is with someone you’ve known less than a day!
Tips for making friends whilst travelling:
- Get involved in any events your hostel is running – these events are literally made to get guests together and mixing!
- Be confident. Having breakfast and all the tables are taken? Ask to join a group that’s seated, pull up a chair and get chatting!
- Volunteer! It’s the best way to get to know not just fellow travellers, but locals too. If you’re someone that takes awhile to come out of your shell, being fixed in one place with people for a little longer than a couple of nights can be a really great way to make bonds.
- Ask for recommendations. Looking for somewhere for dinner? Ask a dorm mate for a recommendation, more often than not they will invite you along with them.
Since having such a great experience at ONDA, I went on to volunteer in Manuel Antonio, which was a completely different vibe than Playa Grande. I swapped beach life for waterfalls and hikes, but still kept ONDA and all the friends I made in my heart.
I have since returned home to the UK, to continue my career in Marketing and Social Media. I currently work for a US-based company, so I am often flying to the States for work events. Being a remote worker allows me to work from pretty much anywhere, so my hope is that I can continue furthering my career whilst indulging in my hobby of travelling. My plan is to save for two years in the UK, then hopefully travel for a year, and eventually move to Vancouver Canada… However, I am not sure I will last two years waiting to travel. :’)
I look back on all the life changing memories I made in Costa Rica– I loved the slower pace of life and the general satisfaction you would have from every day. I know I will be back.