Gap Year Recap (Month 3): Panama, SLO CAL & Home

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Our third month of Gap Year travel was a bit different than what most people would do while taking a year off. We started off the month in Panama and then came home for 3 days to then set off again on a quick media visit to San Luis Obispo County a few hours north of Los Angeles. Finally, a few days before Christmas we were home for the holidays!

Cian had always said he was fine to miss school and fine to go away for the year as long as he could be home for two of his favorite holidays – Halloween and Christmas! So we made sure to make that happen. As much as I would have loved to keep on traveling from Panama all the way down to South America, I knew that he needed to be home for the holidays even if we couldn’t participate in all the holiday activities he normally likes.

So, here we go for our recap!

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Gap Year Month 3 recap - Bocas del ToroLast month we started our stay in Panama in the small mountain town of Boquete. At the turn of the month, we had moved on from Boquete to the islands of Bocas del Toro which are about 4 hours from the mountainous town we started in.

Just as what happened to me in Boquete, I did not initially love (or even like!) Bocas. Since Cian was taking Spanish classes, we had to stay in the town, whereas I think most visitors who come to this area escape to one of the many picturesque islands. Instead, we were dropped off by our boat transfer to a small, colorful but very dirty town. You could feel the hippy vibe here, but also there was a sense of poverty that we didn’t feel in Boquete.

And it was a party town. We arrived on a Saturday afternoon and the parties were already in full swing with people lazing about on the porches with beers in hand and foreigners vomiting all over restaurants at lunch.

Add to this, a dumpy Airbnb without a fully functioning AC and you can understand how I was wondering what I had gotten us into! Meanwhile Cian in all his positiveness tried to cheer me up by pointing out all the colorful buildings of the town and the fish swimming in the gutters!

After cruising around for the afternoon in a state of ‘urgh’, we booked a full day tour for the following day hoping that it would give me a different view of the islands. Afterall, everyone raves about Bocas, so there must be something here to love.


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Our day tour was good, but I still wasn’t totally sold. We saw jellyfish and dolphins on our way to a small island called Zapatilla. This is basically where all the tours go to drop passengers off for a day of chilling out on a beach island. Which means it was packed!

But, we had fun cruising the island, playing in the water and pretending we were on Naked and Afraid. After this we headed to lunch and out to snorkel.

Cian loves to tell people this dramatic story.

So here we are in the middle of the ocean on our little speedboat. I asked the driver “Do you have a ladder to get back on the boat? I can’t get back on this boat without one!” He assured me that yes he had a ladder. SO off we jumped. My snorkel gear was leaking, but our boat didn’t have an extra. Instead our driver got me one from a nearby boat. Meanwhile, the water was murky and quite rough so we decided we would go back to where we had lunch as it was much clearer there.

And here is where the problems began… One guy helped push his wife up the tiny flimsy ladder. He went up. I helped push Cian up. And then here I was alone in the water with no one to help push me up the ladder. I didn’t have enough arm strength fo pull myself up. I tried and tried. The guys all came over to the side of the boat to help but quickly realized there was too much weight there and it would flip.

So I panicked and just started crying. I didn’t know how I was going to muster the strength to get up the ladder. I don’t know why I didn’t think to tell the other guy to hop out and just push me up like he did his wife. That would have worked I’m sure.

Instead the boat captain also panicked and called across to another boat nearby who had a better ladder. Whew. Cian’s favorite part of this story is that the other ladder was a homemade ladder made out of PVC pipe!  Yep, the fancy store bought one was terrible and the homemade one was strong and got me up the boat in a flash.

It was a bit traumatic to be honest, stuck in the middle of the ocean wondering how I would get back up. It’s never happened to me before and has definitely made me much more weary about what type of boat I take snorkeling. It also made Cian ask Santa for good snorkel masks since ours were terrible on that tour!

After that hectic day, we found a good pizza place and chilled out before Cian’s first day of school.

School was luckily nearby, but he didn’t love his teacher. She was way more academic than the previous one, but like life he had to power through!

Our routine for the week was to head to school where I would work and he would study. Then we would have a quick lunch before hopping into a bus or boat taxi to head to a beach or island.

Starfish Beach in Boca del ToroOne day we went to Starfish beach. One day we went to Red Frog Beach. Another we headed to Cartero Island. As the week wore on I found I was starting to see the appeal of Bocas. The islands are beautiful, the people are friendly and there is great food around. It also didn’t hurt that we moved to a different room at our apartment complex where we had a COLD AC and a warm shower. I was much much happier. And so Bocas grew on me.

Would I recommend someone to stay in Bocas Town? No. But the other islands are great. And the one redeeming quality about bocas town is the food. The restaurants were so good. One random weird observation.. there seemed to be more grocery stores than people in the town! And they were all owned by Chinese immigrants. Definitely an interesting place to check out.

It was time to move on and so we loaded up on our 11 hour night bus to Panama City. Cian had been so excited to go to PC for the entire trip. He could not wait to see the Panama Canal in person and to learn all about it. After a long bus ride, we arrived super early to our hotel that would not let us check in without paying for another night. I of course refused to pay the equivalent of a full night. Instead we camped out in the lobby and took naps on the sofa! Finally after 2 hours they decided to give us a room. Seriously, why do hotels have these ridiculous rules? If you have rooms available and you KNOW that we are booked in for 4 nights, why not just give us a room? This definitely left a sour taste in my mouth so I won’t be booking with that American chain again anytime soon!


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Panama City was all about the Panama Canal for Cian. We visited on our first full day there and spent a good 5 hours hanging out watching the boats, chatting to the employees and soaking it up all.

The following day after a bike ride and a morning a visit to the biodiversity museum, Cian begged to return to the Panama Canal so we did. Another several hours and leaving only at closing, he was still enamored.

GAP YEAR Month 3
One of the photos from our Photography Tour with 9 North Panama

The following day we headed to our last stay of the trip in Gamboa which is on the lake that was formed by the canal. Here we went on boat tours to see the wildlife as well as a team ride. But the best part of it all was a 3.5 hour photography safari boat ride where we got to use amazing cameras and see amazing wildlife. It was the perfect End to an amazing trip in Central America.


After a few days break, we headed up to Pismo Beach where we stayed at the beautiful luxury hotel, The Cliffs Resort. We were given the Christmas suite which was a total surprise. We fell in love and never wanted to leave! It was so beautiful and festive that it really got us into the spirit.

During our few days here we went sailing with Captain Mark which was AMAZING and we also got to test my nerves by going in sand dune buggies at Ocean State Vehicular Recreation Area. This has been on our list for years, so it was great to finally do it! It was so so fun. I cannot wait to go again someday soon, where I hopefully am not such a scaredy cat.

This trip was the perfect end to our adventures for the month. After so long Away, we were ready to get back home and get our Christmas to do list sorted!


Safari with 9 North Panama in GamboaHomeschool has been tough again this month. Technically we only had to do schooling until the 14th of December, but since Cian was in Spanish school we didn’t do much until we go to Panama City and then we still didn’t’ do as much as we needed to.

I have been moaning on social media about this all. Homeschool is my biggest pain. As much as I love to be so involved in Cian’s learning, I just constantly feel like a failure. I feel like we aren’t doing enough. I’m not doing a good enough job of keeping him on track. Of reminding him to read each day, etc. We just are SO busy every day that it’s difficult to fit in reading and school work!

I have to get better at it though. And I need to get away from the worksheets a bit more so that I can incorporate his lessons into our daily travels. I think he would enjoy that more and it would be easier on both of us.

I read a post today about another homeschool family and she said the worst part for them was springing the homeschool work on the kids. Instead she suggested making it a daily habit. Easier said than done when you are on the road and have other obligations. But I think on our next leg we can be more like this since we don’t have classes we will be doing each day. Let’s see.

I have to find a better way or else Cian is going to hate school by the time I am finished with him!

My time at home in December has been met with lots of reflection of our school routine, many tears and consultations with our homeschool advisor. His homeschool advisor has been so supportive of me through all of this. Seeing my struggles and frustrations and working to find ways to allay my fears of Cian progressing as well as helping us move into a more organic form of learning. I’ve instituted some changes so let’s see how it goes in January.


Little car, Little Cian on our Gap Year Month 3Honestly I don’t think we did very well on our budget considering we were only on the road for 13 days in Panama for the month and then a week on a press trip. It probably evens out, but between all my Christmas shopping when I got home and our splurges, I’m sure we went above our budget.

For the 13 days in Panama we spent a total of $1628 which worked out to $125 a day. I’m in shock to see that we actually didn’t go above our budget. I will say that I used miles from our credit card to pay for a few nights of hotel in Panama City which definitely helped us stay in a nicer place and didn’t run up our budget.

Overall, I am struggling with the budget. I don’t enjoy budget travel anymore. When I was younger it was fun to see how cheaply you could get by in each destination. How much you could rough it. But now as a 40 something with a child, it is not fun. I don’t want to have to watch each penny we spend. I don’t want to book the cheapest places ever. I want to have a nice place to enjoy little luxuries. So this is my current challenge I am trying to overcome. We can’t do this trip unless we are on a budget, so I have to continually remind myself that we are lucky to be able to do it at all!

Hopeful the next leg will prove to be easier to keep on budget since we know people and it just is generally cheaper to travel in SE Asia.

Onward and upward. We are definitely learning a lot on this trip which is a positive. We are learning about ourselves, education norms and of course the world!

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