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Gap Year Recap (Month 2): Guatemala, Costa Rica & Panama

Gap Year Recap (Month 2): Guatemala, Costa Rica & Panama

It has been a month since we set off on our second adventure of our gap year and our first month of full backpacking type travels. (You can read last month’s recap here if you missed it.)

In the past 30 days we have been to Guatemala for almost 3 weeks, a short 4 days in Costa Rica to meet up with Paul and 1 week in Panama.

Overall I have to say it’s been amazing and all I had dreamed it could be. We have had so much fun, seen so much, learned so much and just enjoyed being together.

Cian really is an amazing travel partner. He keeps me grounded when I’m losing it, is always happy go lucky and ready for an adventure which helps me muddle through when I’m feeling negative about something and he just LOVES it all. It has been an absolute pleasure to show him some of my old backpacking towns.

We have made mistakes and are slowly figuring things out, but overall, I can’t imagine ever going back to our regular day to day life! Of course we will have to I guess.. 🙂

Antigua, Guatemala

Our first stop on our Central American adventure was to Antigua Guatemala. We absolutely loved Guatemala and Antigua was the perfect starting point. I had been 16 years prior but didn’t remember much except for the blurry film prints I have.

But, it should be high on everyone’s travel list. It’s may not be the easiest country to travel in, but there is so much culture easily accessible that it makes for a wonderful transformative and educational travel destination.

We rented a cute villa in Antigua that we loved. It wasn’t as close as we had hoped but it just meant we walked a ton. We averaged 7 miles a day while in Antigua! I’m sort of missing all that walking now that we are staying in the center of town!

Antigua felt the most like home. Maybe because we were there for almost 10 full days, or because we just got into a groove. We had our favorite breakfast place we ate at each day, knew our way around town and were busy every day with so many things to see/do. I could definitely see going back there for another stint of Spanish school.

We went to on a day trip to Chichicastenango. We went to a chocolate museum which was amazing. We hiked and spent the night on an active volcano, we hiked around town, took chicken buses, visited old ruins, learned how to make tortillas and just enjoyed ourselves. I was worried that my nature obsessed child wouldn’t love Antigua but he did.

Lake Atitlan

Next we moved on to Lake Atitlan where we spent one night in Panajachel before taking a boat across the lake to the backpacker hub of San Pedro for another week of Spanish classes.

Right off the bat, we didn’t like the school we choose for Cian. They were pretty unorganized and when we had an issue the first day with the teacher they were not receptive. I should have trusted my gut and changed schools right away. But we were staying in one of the employees apartment above their home, so I felt like we couldn’t move schools. Lesson learned. Move on and just deal with the consequences instead of suffering through.

The apartment was great ($125 a week!) and even though it was not in the center of town, it meant more walking and just getting to feel like we were part of the community. It really gave Cian a sense of what it was like for locals who lived there.

We quickly found our groove and Cian even found his favorite local bar, the Blue Parrot! We didn’t always love the food, but he loved the people there and just feeling like it was a familiar place.

We had so much fun in this town. We hiked another volcano, took a natural dye class, a weaving class and took boats across to other villages. Scary enough, we were on the water the day another boat sunk killing 4 people. Luckily we didn’t know about this until halfway through our return boat ride when an older Israeli lady decided to tell us. You can imagine that made us feel comfortable for the rest of the boat ride!

Tikal

From San Pedro, a true adventure began. We took a rickshaw to a boat, to a rickshaw to a shuttle bus, to another shuttle bus, to a overnight sleeper coach to a collectivo (public bus) all to reach Tikal! It was about 20 hours door to door. But we rocked it. Even with no snacks because I hadn’t packed any!

Tikal was amazing and worth the effort. I don’t remember loving it as much on my previous visit except for the people I met and hung out with. One is a friend I’m still friends with today! But taking a child was amazing. Cian was amazed by it all. Loved climbing the structures, learning the history and looking for animals. We even did a 4 am sunrise hike which was super cool even though there was no actual sunrise to speak of. We stayed in the park which was a bit above our budget but it was worth it to have open access to the park.

Luxury in Nature

Next we headed to a luxury hotel outside of Flores for a few days of chill time. I had wanted to keep on rolling to other towns, but also felt it was time we relaxed a bit and this hotel agreed to give us a free stay, so that helped make our decision! This was the perfect call and the perfect place.

We kayaked on the lagoon with crocodiles, we visited rescued monkeys on their private island, we hiked through the jungle running from mosquitos (literally!), and soaked in our private hot tub in our room. It was the most amazing 3 days!

And then we were off again…on a 10.5 hour bus in the day to Guatemala City. Guate City was not a happy place 16 years ago and now it’s named the murder Capitol of the world. I didn’t like arriving at night, but we managed and got an uber to our hotel for a short night of sleep before our 5:30 departure.

Costa Rica

Off to Costa Rica! It was Thanksgiving week in America so we had planned to meet Paul in Costa Rica to celebrate and spend time together. We splurged on a nice hotel in Manuel Antonio where we hadn’t visited on our previous trip. It was a great break for me and fun for Cian to play in a pool for hours on end with his dad. We went on a mangrove boat tour, Paul and Cian took a night walk (I was feeling sick from MSG from the Pringle’s I ate) and we did a tour at Manuel Antonio. It went by way too quickly though and in a flash Cian and I were off to Panama!

Boquete, Panama

Next we headed off on another bus across the border to Boquete Panama which is a small mountain town a few hours from the border with Costa Rica. I had high expectations here because it is billed as the outdoor lovers paradise. Initially I didn’t like it at all, but by the end of the week it had grown on me.

Since our accommodation was so far away in Antigua and San Pedro, I decided to find an apartment more in the center of town. I found one almost next door to Cians school. This was good and bad. The good was it was so close I didn’t waste any work time walking back and forth. The bad was it was SO loud and right in the middle of the tourist area. I think this has sort of made me not like Boquete as much as I might have.

Our cheap apartment is cheap. Plastic furniture, not super clean and just blah. I’ve learned my lesson that it is better to be out a ways with a nicer place than right in the center of town. Cian isn’t so convinced of this as he loves being right in the middle of it all!

There was a huge holiday on Wednesday where there was a parade for 15 hours! Marching band after marching band. It was insane! He thankfully slept through it. It was nice to be in the thick of it with front row seats, and ended up being OK since Cian could sleep through the noise.

Spanish Schools

Cian so far loves Habla ya, his school in Panama the most. It has an actual curriculum and feels more like school with down time to play games etc. He really enjoys going every day. His teacher doesn’t speak any English which funny enough he also prefers.

The second best was in Antigua. He loved the teacher there and had fun everyday. Again, she spoke no English!

The worst was in San Pedro. We would definitely not recommend that place at all! She spoke too much English to him, turned on cartoons during lessons and took selfies of herself all class period. Cian didn’t like her from the first minute he met her and it never got better unfortunately.

Homeschool

School work with a view!

We have done terrible on the homeschool front this month. Cian has managed to read 3 Dogman books and several from his homeschool app. He has also managed a bit of online math, but overall we have failed at the daily journal writing and sending postcards and letters to people. After 3-4 hours of Spanish classes it’s hard for his brain to focus on even more work.

There just isn’t enough time in the day! I think we will have to start taking the journal with us for meals and write while waiting for dinner or lunch to arrive! Internet isn’t always great either which makes it hard to keep up on all the online apps.

Budget

I felt like we had done an amazing job on budgets, but then I sat down to add it up. The plan was $130 a day which totals up to what we would normally spend on private school, after school activities and eating out, gas, shopping etc in LA.

I’ve taken out the few days in Costa Rica with Paul because we ate much better and spent way more than we would normally on our budget travels!

In total it looks like for month 1 we spent $3403, which if you divide by 27 days (not including the 3 we were 100% with Paul in CR), it comes out to $126 per day, which is just under budget. This is totally depressing though because I thought we did AMAZING and were going to come in several hundred under the budget. Nope. This doesn’t even include our flights that we purchased in advance of the trip.

We spent approximately $855 on accommodation, with much of the rest on food and activities and getting around. Honestly I don’t think we could go any lower on accomodation. We got a few nights comped at the Las Lagunas Boutique Hotel and one week was only $125! If anything, I think we need to spend a bit more on accomodation, or look to other types of accommodation other than Airbnb. We are investigating hostels with private bathrooms and shared kitchens.

Anecdotally I would say most of our money goes to doing things and eating out. We really have done a ton of stuff and none of it has been very cheap to be honest. In just the past week, we went horseback riding, which for 2 was $80 and took a guided tour at the bee house which was $40. Basically if we do any activity, it makes us go over our budget. Also eating out hasn’t been cheap. In Panama so far most meals tend to be $20-30 for the two of us.

Getting around has been mostly by our own two feet or shuttle buses between cities. I’m not sure we can trim much off our budget there. I think the biggest places we can cut costs is cooking at home. I’m just not so great at that. I think we will have to get better about that in coming months.

Anyway, that’s the recap! It’s been amazing. I really think everyone should take even just a month out of their lives at some point and do this. It’s been super eye opening for Cian in so many ways. Seeing towns perpetually under construction because of finances, living in local accommodation, eating like locals (sometimes!) and just learning how other people live is great for him.

Cian has been working so hard on his photography too which is so amazing to see. I’ve not had time to really look through his photos but he definitely has a great eye. I can’t wait to see how this progresses. He loves learning Spanish. He has even taken to watching his TV shows in Spanish! I really hope his excitement for this sticks and we can try out more schools in the coming years to continue helping him get practice.

And now we set off again, this time, to islands on the Caribbean side of Panama for another week of Spanish classes with the same school Habla Ya.

I’m sure I’ve made the same mistake by booking a cheap apartment in town, but the cute options would mean commuting by boat every morning which sounds awesome until you have to do it every day! Crossing my fingers it’s better than our place in Boquete.

That’s it for now. Two more weeks and then we will be in the US for a month.. not necessarily home, but on US soil!

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