About Megan McDonough
Megan Eileen McDonough is writer, blogger and social media specialist based in New York City. She also runs Bohemian Trails, a lifestyle blog designed for the savvy and stylish traveler. Bohemian Trails aims to feature must-see places around the world, covering everything from revamped neighborhoods and vibrant street art to innovative tech hubs and everything in between. Her cultural escapades have taken her to Latin America, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.
Megan is also a freelance writer and social media specialist based in New York City. She contributes to various online and print publications in the travel and fashion industries and is an international correspondent for both Jetsetter and Northstar Travel Media.
Latest Posts by Megan McDonough
Let’s face it — half the beauty of any country is in its people. Vietnam is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful countries in the world. The people are genuine, kind and present. They live for today, and hold their communities tight. Vietnam’s in the midst of an exciting and historic time, with one of the fastest growing economies in East Asia and plans to be a developed country by 2020.
As a woman, I take special note of the role women play in societies I visit. After returning from Vietnam earlier this year, it was clear that the women are driving much of this financial change and globalization, but continue to face serious economic and social inequalities themselves.
This woman breaks for a few moments in a small alley to escape the harsh sun and busy streets of Hanoi.
About 60km southwest of Hanoi, a young woman was rowing myself and five other travelers in a rowboat down Yen River to Perfume Pagoda. Motorboats passed us frequently driven by men, while the rowboats keeping our pace were only rowed by women. Our tour guide confirmed that, in Vietnam, it is customary for women to row boats, while men drive boats powered by motors. There was no further thought or explanation. This is, simply, how it is.
A women rows down Yen River to pick up travelers from Perfume Pagoda.
I noticed this again during harvest time. Women occupied the fields, often with children at their side. They manually harvested the rice with large machetes and filled bags that, when full, were nearly equal to their weight. Once a group of women had harvested a few bags full of rice, a man would drive over on a motorbike with a flat wooden board attached to the back. Two women would heave the bags onto the board, and then secure it, for the man to tote away.
Harvest time in Phong Nha. Often communities harvest through the night and early morning to avoid the strong sun. This woman continues to harvest mid-day while other’s break.
Mothers were running hotels without daycare. They served as head chef for the eat-in meals that were provided to guests, and their children helped them prepare the vegetables and meat. Women sorted, cleaned and sold seafood at the fish markets. Women were messengers and tailors. They were entrepreneurs, and ran the afternoon markets. They were holding a smiling child in one arm, while offering passerbys a betel nut sample with the other. Women were running Vietnam.
Women sorting clothes in Hanoi’s Dong Xuan Market.
After leaving the country, my curiosity about the female dynamic there continued to grow. Through some research, this is what I found:
- According to the International Labour Organization (ILO) about 72 percent of women are in Vietnam’s labor force, far more than most countries around the globe.
- According to the United Nations, women earn up to 50 percent less than men, often despite no significant differences in working hours, education level and seniority.
- Female jobs are frequently more labor intensive than men’s, with a much higher proportion working outdoors.
- Vietnamese men and women spend about the same amount of time on income-generating activities, but women spend twice as much time as men on household work. Consequently, the total number of hours worked by women is consistently greater than that of men, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN.
The woman pictured had just harvested the two bags of rice behind her.
It’s no secret that gender equality is at the top of the global agenda. The UN is currently defining its Sustainable Development Goals, including achieving gender equality & empowering all women and girls, set to launch this September. As the global community continues to visit Vietnam, it is important that we recognize the country’s greatest contributors.
It’s rare to see a woman smoke in Vietnam, and is looked down upon. Those who do smoke are generally older women.
*This is a guest post by professional photographer Angela Altus.
As thrilling as Hong Kong Island is, don’t underestimate the natural beauty of the New Territories. About two weeks ago, I left the comfort of my Central apartment and went on an all day adventure to Tai Long Wan and wow, did it blow me out of the water (pun intended!) Getting there isn’t easy but it’s worth the hassle. In fact, by the end of the day, my friends and I had taken just about every type of transportation: the MTR (subway), a taxi, a boat and a bus. Oh, and we did quite a lot on our own two feet as well. More on that later.
Here’s everything you need to know about trekking in Tai Long Wan.
Where is Tai Long Wan and how do I get there?
As mentioned above, Tai Long Wan is in what’s known as the New Territories and while it’s technically part of Hong Kong, it feels world’s apart. That leads me into the next bit. Getting there isn’t too painful but it does take some patience. I suggest you take the MTR to Po Lam and from there hop in a taxi to Sai Wan Pavilion, which is the same spot where the bus stops if you opt for that instead. Normally I don’t recommend taxis but they are crazy cheap in Hong Kong (especially if split among several people) and it will save you loads of time. That said, busses are pretty efficient in HK and not a bad option if you’re strapped for cash.
Hitting the trail
From Sai Wan Pavilion, there’s a mild hike to the beach and the trail is very well-marked. We walked at a brisk pace but we certainly weren’t rushing and it took us between 30-40 minutes from the start of the trail to the beach. For the most part, the trail is even level but there is one minor hill about mid-way through. The picture below is the view you’ll see from trail. Like with any hike, make sure to bring plenty of water and sunscreen. We got lucky with sunny weather during our visit but that also made it feel even hotter than it normally does this time of year in Hong Kong. There are some really nice view points along the way so don’t forget your camera!
Off to the waterfalls
Once you hit the beach, you can either stay there or trek a little further to a somewhat hidden waterfall. We did the latter. We used Traveler’s Digest as a reference and they do a pretty good job of breaking down all the who, what, where, when, why and how. I’m a visual person so I’ll give directions based on what you’ll see. When you hit the beach, keep walking along the path as if you’re walking away and toward the greenery. From there, you’ll start to see signs directing you to the falls. Keep an eye out for a small stream as a marker and follow it to the west. About 10 minutes later, you’ll see a rock path that leads to the natural rock pool. Definitely wear sneakers.
After hiking through a serious of rocks, I was thrilled when we finally reached the waterfall. I barely snapped this photo before getting into the water to cool off. Since we visited during the week, it wasn’t too crowded but there were two or three other groups of tourists there. If you’re feeling super daring, you can climb even more rocks and jump from the top cliffs. If I wasn’t wearing my contacts and too lazy to climb more rocks, I would have done it. That said, I’m sure it looked a lot less threatening from the water below than from the top. The water is warm but the rocks are slippery so I suggest using your hands for grip when entering and exiting the pool.
Back to the beach
By about noon, our stomachs began growling which can only mean one thing. Lunch! We retraced our steps from the waterfall to the beach and ate at one of two local restaurants on or beside the beach. As you can see from the photo below, there were practically no people here and based on other Hong Kong beaches I’ve visited, this is a rarely. Again, though, it was likely due to us visiting on a weekday and getting a relatively early start. This particular beach had very tame waves but some of the other three are rougher. That’s why so many surfers love it here. You can rent sports gear from one of the restaurants but for the most part you’re on your own, supplies-wise.
Instead of returning to Hong Kong Island the exact way we came (via Sai Wan Pavilion), we took a local boat to Sai Kung, where were then caught a bus back to Po Lam. The boat, when available, leaves around 4:30pm, although I’ve read that it can leave as late as 5:30pm. I’m not going to lie, that boat ride was a bumpy one but it was pretty fun and I found myself giddy like I was on a roller coaster. Plus, it’s not a long boat journey and the views of the nearby beaches and islands are stunning. From there, we took the MTR back to our designated stops. If you miss the boat, you can still catch a bus from the pavilion. Just make sure to check the schedule.
What’s your favorite hidden gem in your city? Tell me in the comments below!
While most people head to the Island of Palawan for the sand and surf, there’s quite a bit of culture beyond the beach as well. On our first full day in San Rafael, Puerto Princesa, swapped the seashore with jaunt in nature. Our half-day excursion consisted of a hike to and from the Batak village where we stopped for lunch and a tour. The Batak are the indigenous people of the Philippines and are mostly located in the northeastern areas of Palawan. Incredibly, there are only about 500 Batak people living today, making this quite a small set of communities. Once a nomadic people, the Batak now reside in small villages. Here are my first impressions:
Despite the sun beating down on our backs, the hike was far less challenging than I anticipated, which I was happy about. We walked at a leisurely pace, crossing through streams (some dried and some flowing). It took us about 1.5 hours each way and I’m being generous with that estimation. Once in the village, we had a look around before sharing a meal with some of the community members. We had a local guide with us the whole time, in addition to our Intrepid Guide and this was helpful not only in learning about the inner workings of the tribe but communicating with the members, as most members speak their own dialect rather than Filipino.
People are Kind
Because this Batak village is somewhat remote or at least the members have to be smart about survival and sometimes that is easier said than done. Men are often the ones in the fields harvesting honey and a few other crops while woman do less strenuous work like weaving. While there are ample coconut trees along the trail leading to the village, our local guide explained that growing vegetables and other nutritious crops is difficult here. Therefore, many of the members suffer from lack of nutrition. This also became apparent during our communal meal when I saw several men and women piling their plates with enormous amounts of rice, chicken and vegetables.
Life Focus: Family, Friends, Fun
Still, the people here seem utterly content with their lives and why shouldn’t they be? According to the chieftain, there are 48 families in this community and in total, there are roughly 200 people. I saw many young children and newborns and it was tough to tell whether the young-looking girls or the slightly older women were the mothers. Regardless, family ties are very strong here and it was comforting to watch kids holding hands and shooting hoops in the basketball court…yes, there is a basketball court here. After all, this is the Philippines and they LOVE basketball. Besides the court, the village consists of a school, church, bathroom, outdoor eating areas and homes.
Learn About Survival
One thing I noticed was that the majority of people were dressed in typical clothes I’d see on any given day in the states: t-shirts, jeans, dresses and flip flops. Some of the older woman wore more traditional garb and walked around topless but for the most part, modern clothes were worn. I asked the chieftain when people (in this case, men) stopped wearing loin cloths everyday and opted for Western wear. He explained that his began when tourists started visiting. He didn’t really divulge more than that but I have mixed feelings about it. On one hand, I don’t think they should change their culture to make tourists feel more at ease but on the other, I see modernity as a plus.
Technology & Tradition Can Work Together
Another new aspect of life for the Batak community is electricity. They also rely on solar power. Our guide pointed out a few of the recent developments, including toilets, during our tour. It was encouraging to see these advancements, especially considering that the Batak are what some people refer to as a “disappearing people.” Malnourishment, low birth rates and high infant mortality contribute to their low numbers. As a result of illness a few years ago, the tribe relocated closer to the main city so that medical care was more accessible. That being said, I’m hopeful that technology will better the community while not taking away from the traditions that make them unique.
You’ll Break a Sweat
There’s nothing wrong with a little exercise and even though this is an easy trek by my standards, you’ll undoubtedly swelter under the sun. Be prepared and bring plenty of water and sunscreen. For those who end up booking this trip, the Batak Tribe Trek is one of the highlights of the tour. Just as a bit of background, most, if not all of Intrepid Travel tours incorporate some aspect of local culture into the itinerary. I know this from first hand experience, as I participated on a tour before my travel writing days. For that reason, I wasn’t surprised at all that this was part of our itinerary. In fact, I looked forward to it and so should you!
What was the most memorable trek you’ve taken? Tell me in the comments below!
This trip was hosted by Intrepid Travel. All opinions are my own.
Before ever arriving to the Island of Palawan, I knew two things: that it is part of the Philippines and that several travel magazines have coined it the “most beautiful island in the world.” That’s a lot to live up to but as soon as I landed in the Puerto Princesa airport, I knew that Palawan would be every bit as special for me as I’d hoped. In fact, after braving the extreme heat of Manila, the first thing I noticed was the air. It was clearer, lighter, and as I breathed it in, I knew that despite still being in the airport parking lot, I was officially on island time.
The laid-back vibe wafted through the air like it wanted to play. Looking back on it now, Palawan is like a meaning-packed book. When you re-read it, you discover little secrets you didn’t notice the first time. I’d love to return and get that chance.
Then I Went to El Nido and Everything Changed
For the better! As gorgeous as Puerto Princesa is, El Nido was a major highlight on this Philippines Island Getaway trip. Known for gorgeous sunsets (just skip to the last photo in this post for further proof) and a great snorkeling and diving destination for all experience levels, it was hard to find any fault with Palawan’s northernmost tip. I quickly learned that El Nido can be anything you want it to be. If you’re looking for outdoor adventure, it has plenty of that and if you’re more interested in lounging on the beach without a care in the world, finding a spot in the sun is a breeze (pun intended). I did a little of both, paring a few hours of rigorous exercise with leisurely pool time and beach reading. The combination proved the perfect balance for this bohemian traveler.
“Clear blue water, high tide came and brought you in”
I wonder if Taylor Swift has visited the Island of Palawan because this line from “The Love” perfectly describes my feelings El Nido. We embarked on a full-day snorkeling and sailing trip and it was every bit as amazing as you might imagine. Starting the day around 9am, we slathered ourselves with sunscreen and prepared for a fun-filled day of sand, surf, snorkeling and thanks to our precaution, no sunburns. The ride to the lagoons was a bumpy one but that didn’t (or should I say, couldn’t) stop me from taking photos like a mad woman. I wanted to capture every image and freeze it in time. After awhile though, I resigned and allowed myself to simply enjoy my surroundings. After all, perfection was all around me. I just needed to look.
“Life is the bubbles. Under the sea.”
Sorry, I couldn’t resist quoting Sebastian from The Little Mermaid and can you blame me? I’ve been snorkeling before but never like this. We made a couple stops throughout the day including two lagoons—cleverly named Small Lagoon and Big Lagoon. We then slowed things down with a trip to a secluded beach for a freshly prepared lunch (literally, the crew was grilling fish at the back of the boat). It was amazing to take a breather and simply look at the stunningly dramatic island scenery that almost looked too good to be true. Hands down the best part of this day? Spotting a pod of dolphins swimming by our boat on our way back to the hotel. It’s so funny how every one of us immediately regressed to our five-year old selves upon seeing those curved fins break the surface.
The sun went down but our eyes shone bright
One of the great things about El Nido is that there’s a lively downtown area with bars, restaurants and even a few karaoke clubs. We stayed at the quiet and eco-centric El Nido Cove Resort but usually the trip opts for a budget hotel in the heart of downtown, making it easy to explore the nightlife scene without worrying about hitching a ride home. If you’re used to the US dollar, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the beer and cocktail prices in Palawan. If looking for a lunch spot, I highly recommend El Nido Boutique & Artcafe. The space is spread out over two levels and faces the shore. For a nightcap, I’d suggest Pukka Bar for a great outdoor setting and lively crowd. There are several bars on either side of Pukka, so take your pick.
What tropical island brought you peace and perspective? Tell me in the comments below!
This trip was hosted by Intrepid Travel. All opinions are my own.
The post Basking in the El Nido Sun appeared first on Bohemian Trails.
While I usually plan my trips a few months ahead of time, I couldn’t really refuse a trip to the Palawan, often coined the “most beautiful island in the world.” So there I was, still jet-lagged and sweating under the Manila sun, ready to start an adventure-packed tour. Each day was filled was filled to the brim with activities and yet, I never really felt tired because I had so much adrenaline running through my body the whole time. It was tough to narrow down this list, but here are my favorite highlights from the tour.
A Walking Tour of Manila (and Add-on)
Normally, their Philippines Island Getaway starts in Puerto Princesa on the Island of Palawan but our group arrived a day early to do a brief walking tour of Manila. As the capital city of the Philippines, I was expecting a bustling urban setting and there’s definitely a lot of that. Yet, there’s also a lot of history imbedded into the culture. I particularly enjoyed our walk through the walled city, where we visited Fort Santiago, the San Agustin Church and Casa Manila. While I wouldn’t necessarily encourage you to extend your trip just to tour Manila, it’s definitely worth a visit if you have a long layover on route to Palawan or if you just really like cities like me. There’s definitely a different vibe here and on the island and I appreciated being able to experience both.
Subterranean River Tour in Sabang
After reading through the trip’s itinerary, this listing made my eyes pop. The Puerto Princesa Subterranean River is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the top natural wonders of the world. At nearly five-miles in length, Puerto Princesa is the second longest subterranean river in the world. We’ll glide through a subterranean cave system exploring large chambers, stalactites and stalagmites.
Naturally, this is a popular attraction so we opted to start our day early to avoid the crowds. After the two-hour bus ride from downtown Manila, there’s a boat ride to the underwater cave where you can view monkeys and other wildlife in their natural setting before taking another boat into the cave. My pictures didn’t come out so well in the darkness but it was such a surreal experience. Our guide pointed out different natural cave formations and gave funny little anecdotes about some. The best and arguably worst part was the last two minutes when we sailed underneath hundreds of sleeping bats hanging upside down. It was both amazing and creepy at the same time.
Tasting Local Food
The food in the Philippines is divine and I had absolutely no intention of holding back. Pictured below is an ice-cream snack I had after our cave tour. With every meal I became more and more adventurous, eventually trying chicken butt (literally) and crocodile. The one thing I couldn’t get myself to eat was the woodworm but some people in our group found the courage. In general, though, I found the cuisine in the Philippines to be very healthy and yet still flavorful. There are a lot of dishes with vegetables and meat and sauces that ranged from super spicy to tart and sweet. The spiciness really came in handy I must say, especially because it was so hot and I was often dehydrated.
Mangrove Boat Tour & Firefly Sightings
I’m combining two activities into one section because they both revolve around Mangrove trees. After spotting an absurd amount of bats in a darkly lit cave, I didn’t expect the Mangrove Boat Tour to compare. To my surprise, the relaxing boat journey was filled with wildlife like the seemingly innocent snake pictured below. This little guy might look harmless just catching some shut eye in a tree but he packs a punch in the form of poison. I also learned a lot about Mangrove trees like the fact that they can survive in salt water.
The second part of this highlight took place on our last night in Palawan. The firefly experience on the Iwahig River is about a 30-minute or so bus ride from Puerto Princesa. This is an evening attraction and unfortunately, my camera didn’t capture anything worth posting so you’ll have to use your imagination. It’s really a fantastic sight to see. Sailing along the Iwahig River, the only lights you see are the fireflies glistening amongst the mangroves by the river. In a word, I was enchanted. The only other light came in the form of a laser that our boat guide used to point out constellations, Jupiter and the norther star. That was unexpected so I was over the moon (pun intended).
A Day Snorkeling in El Nido
Palawan is among the best snorkeling and diving sites in the world so this is a must for anyone who remotely loves the ocean, which I’m guessing is most people. We started bright and early in the morning for a full day snorkeling trip. We made a few stops along the way, including two lagoons cleverly named Small Lagoon and Big Lagoon before indulging on a freshly prepared lunch of grilled squid, fruit and veggies.
Island hopping in El Nido is a photographer’s dream and yet, I couldn’t manage to capture on film what I was seeing with my naked eye: jagged limestone islands, rocky coves, virgin rainforest and of course white sandy beaches. Under the sea was just as colorful, with beautiful coral and hundreds of species of tropical fish, and three species of endangered sea turtles although I didn’t see those. El Nido’s forests are host to more than 100 species of birds, a large number of which are endemic to Palawan. The area around El Nido is a protected marine park, and is believed to be the real location that inspired Alex Garland’s The Beach. We also saw a pod of dolphins!
Riding in Style
Instead of staying in downtown El Nido, we spent two nights in El Nido Cove Resort overlooking the water and offering a very laid-back vibe. That said, we weren’t walking distance to the downtown area which only meant one thing: tricycles. You have no idea how excited I was about this. Actually, I managed to surprise myself with my enthusiasm. I couldn’t wait to ride in style to dinner.
In my opinion these tricycles are a stroke of genius. They aren’t too bulky like regular buses and yet they’re big enough to fit two-three passengers (probably more if you don’t mind being a little squished). There also happened to be a gorgeous sunset that night, as there is nearly every night in El Nido as I’ve been told. Bumping along in the tricycle with the wind whipping through my hair and the neon sky lighting our way, I felt free. Intrepid likes to showcase different types of transportation on their trips, from tricycles to public buses. If I had an extra day on my own, I would have hopped one of the many vibrant jeepneys strolling through town.
Nature Trek to the Batak Community
I’m also dedicating an entire post on this experience but for now, I’ll give you a brief overview of what to expect. The Batak are one of about 70 indigenous peoples of the Philippines and there are only about 500 Batak people alive today. Once a nomadic people, they’ve since settled in small villages and we had the privilege of visiting one of these communities and learning about their culture and how they keep tradition alive in everyday life.
This is an easy day trip from Puerto Princesa and it really only takes a few hours, leaving the rest of the day to relax at leisure. The hike takes about 1.5 hours each way depending on how fast or slow you walk. I’d suggest wearing sneakers or shoes with grip because there are several streams you need to cross and the rocks can be slippery at times. Once we arrived in the village, we took a brief tour of the facilities: a school, church, a bathroom, family homes and even a basketball court before sharing our meal with members of the tribe. The Batak people often suffer from malnutrition because vegetables are scarce on their land but do what they can to stay healthy.
Animals on Every Corner
I couldn’t help but smile when I landed on these two pictures. One if of an incredibly friendly dog we saw at a budget hotel and the other is of a monkey that lives in Sabang right where the underground cave is located. For wild animals, it’s smart to keep some distance so as not to send them into defense mode.
As a city girl, the only animals I’m used to seeing are the ones I don’t want to see like mice or even worse, rats. Now that I’m in Hong Kong, I’ve been seeing way to many creepy crawling insects for my taste. But in the Philippines I saw friendly dogs who loved being photographed and monkeys that didn’t mind me invading their space. Then there were the crocodiles and the snakes and all the fireflies that flickered in the night sky along the Iwahig River. It was almost as if I was on an eco-centric tour and yet, this is just how things are in the Philippines. Nature is all around: from white sandy beaches to larger-than-life jellyfish that strike both fear and awe.
What trip made the biggest impression on you? Tell me in the comments below!
This trip was hosted by Intrepid Travel. All opinions are my own.
I had been travelling in Vietnam for just over a week – faced the wonderfully chaotic streets of Hanoi, taken the “less traveled” hiking rout through Cat Ba National Park, crawled through the mud-filled Dark Cave of Phong Nha in a bathing suit and hard hat, weathered what I thought at the time was a monsoon in a hut on Nam Cat island. And there, in South Central Vietnam off the coast of the South China Sea, I arrived at a magical town called Hoi An – a city whose name literally translates into “peaceful meeting place.”
It’s a modern-day paradise in the wrapper of an ancient city. Hoi An was a trading port during the 15th through 19th centuries and is one of few places in Vietnam that have been preserved since that time. The street plans and architecture are a beautiful fusion of Japanese, Chinese and European influence that has been maintained over the years. As a visitor, your job here is to rise early and get lost in the magic…
Tailoring is a long-standing industry in Hoi An. People from all over the world visit to get dresses and suits custom made by tailors whose skills have been passed down through many generations. Manikins line the storefronts decorated in bright silk ensembles. The store walls are draped with rolls of vibrant fabrics. The most popular shop in town is be be. I had the pleasure of sitting with the owner and founder, whom the shop is named after (pictured above), to learn a bit about the business. Be be had been raised by three generations of tailors. She grew up in a low-income family down the street and built this mini empire from the ground. She now has three locations scattered across Hoi An and spends time in each store daily. She is a kind and generous woman who talked about the importance of love and acceptance of everyone.
There are no cars allowed on the Old Town streets of Hoi An – which is where all of the shops, markets and restaurants are located – and the motorbike activity is kept to a minimum. This is very different than Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City where just crossing the street can feel like the day’s accomplishment. Hoi An is very walk-able, and those who opt for a ride take a bicycle-powered Tuk Tuk. The ancient streets are lined with bright lanterns, lush trees and flowers. The city will offer you endless choices of clothing, jewelry, leather and furniture shops for a fraction of what the items cost in the west. Come to Hoi An with an empty suitcase.
The food in Hoi An is fresh and delicious, and there are cooking classes available at many of the restaurants. While the trading port is no longer active, fishing and agriculture are still big industries for the city. The morning fish market is quite a spectacle – get there around 6AM to see the locals sort, clean and sell the fish to restaurants and other local distributors.
The morning routine is similar for other agricultures. These women (above) rise early to prep and organize their vegetables to sell at the market.
Japanese merchants first constructed the beautiful Japanese covered bridge in the 1590s to connect them with the Chinese shopping district across the river. Today, the bridge is emblematic of Hoi An. It’s guarded by weathered statues – dogs at one end and monkeys at the other.
The Hoai River is a favorite meeting spot for both travelers and locals. In the evening, it’s lined with night market stands and activities, and every full moon the city releases lanterns at the river in celebration. For a small fee you can rent a boat during the day to explore the river and it’s canals with one of the locals.
The city’s pace quickens in the evening with full restaurants, clusters of people enjoying small street shows and an illuminated night market. At night, many of the merchants dress their children in costumes to sit behind the market stalls.
When you think you’ve seen it all, you find that the most beautiful beach in Vietnam is minutes away from Hoi An’s city center. An Bang Beach is a quiet little paradise. The aqua water is decorated with coconut shaped fishing boats, and in the distance you can see the shadows of limestone mountains.
There’s a good chance this little girl will approach you with a menu and a smile. Her aunt serves beachside meals prepared in her own kitchen just off An Bang, but the girl is responsible for taking the orders and settling the bill.
This is a contributed post by photographer Angela Altus.
Like many cities in Latin America, Panama City is full of contrasts. From the varied styles of architecture to the gritty graffiti boldly covering building walls, a walk through the cobbled streets of Casco Viejo is anything but boring. Yet, as much as I enjoyed learning about Panama’s past, I found myself easily more fascinated with its present. In particular, I gravitated toward a program called Esperanza San Felipe, that both rids the streets of crime and fosters entrepreneurship. I never really put the two together but now it makes perfect sense. Still, this is no easy feat, which makes the program’s success even more noteworthy.
I touched on this in an earlier post but Esperanza has a truly unique story and an incredible vision. In a nutshell, the program takes gang members off the Panama City streets and helps immerse them into more standard jobs. After an intensive 10-week intervention process, Esperanza’s graduates go on to work in the neighborhood’s supporting restaurants and hotels.
Like any challenge, the road wasn’t always easy. In fact, of the 23 gang members (all male and between the ages of 15-30) that entered the first program, only 12 graduated. Still, the transformation was evident and soon, the other competing gangs wanted the same opportunity. They wanted a chance to get off the streets and pursue more traditional careers and they got one.
Another surprising thing that happened was that a small handful of graduates didn’t want to work for other businesses but rather, they wanted to be their own boss. Thus, several start-ups were born, one of these being Fortaleza Tours. Esperanza funds these micro-businesses with investor seed capital and three of them will be inviting us along for an “internship” for the afternoon.
While there are many modern aspects to Panama City, our immersive Fortaleza Tour took us beyond the pretty buildings and historic monuments and deep into the lesser-visited parts of town. This might not sound appealing at first but since the ex-gang members are the ones giving the tour, it really makes the most sense and as a result, the whole experience feels more authentic. At least, it did for me.
Their local tour is operated in Spanish, as that’s their native language but we had several translators there to make sure things went smoothly. Worth noting is that anyone who books this tour will also have a translator so don’t stress out if you don’t speak Spanish. We walked through many of the city’s historic landmarks but instead of focusing on the buildings architectural history, we learned about how crime affected the neighborhoods and even what boundaries were off limits for gang-members or a competing gang.
I have to say, it was pretty impressive when our tour leaders could point to a bullet in the wall and know exactly when and who fired it. It was also pretty eye-opening to spend five minutes learning about an abandoned building instead of walking by it and pretending it’s not there (as often happens on city tours). I really appreciated the fact that they weren’t ashamed of their past and that they were and are continuing to learn from their mistakes.
Some of the former gang hubs feel abandoned now. It almost felt like I was traveling back through time. My experience in Panama City was one where I felt very safe and where I felt comfortable asking locals for directions. It was hard for me to imagine a time when this wasn’t the case and yet, just a few years ago, gang violence was still very much a part of everyday life.
Another highlight for me was learning about some of the local murals displayed on buildings and walls. The mural below is one created by Rolo De Sedas, a Panamanian visual artist who uses various mediums. She’s been quoted as saying ”La mujer y la naturaleza tienen la misma esencia” (“Women and nature have the same essence”) and I’m pretty sure this piece nails that concept perfectly. I love everything about this mural: the bright colors, the contrasting shapes, the personality and the motion. Rolo De Sedas is one of the more recognizable artists but there are plenty more murals scattered across the old town.
Curious about a few more of the start-ups created through the Esperanza program? Check out these three below:
1) Hope Seafood: A seafood distribution service that connects family fishermen with local Casco Viejo restaurants. Visitors in this group will meet Juan and see how the attributes of a life of crime can actually be leveraged in a pro-social way to…well…sell fish!
2) El Mana: A creole Panamanian chef at heart, visitors to this group will meet Yves who sells affordable lunch specialties to Casco Viejo’s government offices five days a week.
3) Delivery del Casco: Samuel has created pop-up convenient stores as a child, while in jail, and in the closet of his family home. Now, he’s wheeling and dealing sodas, snacks, and dry cleaning with his mobile mini-mart. Visitors will tag along on some of his daily tasks.
What’s the best walking tour you’ve ever taken? Tell me in the comments below!
This trip was hosted by Panama Vacations / NAMU Travel Group. All opinions are my own.
The great thing about Panama is that city and country are never too far apart. Our drive from Panama City to the starting point of our San Blas islands adventure was only a two-hour car ride. That goes by pretty fast, making this an ideal day-trip or even a weekend getaway if you crave more quality time in the great outdoors.
What are the San Blas Islands?
Home to the native Guna Yala tribe, this archipelago is made up of small islands stretching towards Panama’s border with Colombia. We only visited one of these islands and as small as it appeared from shore, it was surprisingly large once we docked. Each island is set up like a mini city, with homes, schools and even a church all centrally located and easily explored on foot. Getting to and from the islands for the locals is as easy as a paddle boat ride. In total, there are 390 islands. This means that you could spend an entire year exploring an island a day and still not see them all. Don’t let that little factoid discourage you though. One is still better than none. Our group ultimately decided to visit the village called Carti Sugdup on Isla Cangrejo.
What to Expect
Many travelers head to San Blas to experience nature at its finest and for a glimpse into the life of the Kuna tribe. Life on the island is simple so don’t expect any luxuries. Electric power is limited by day and by night, the only light illuminating the sky is the moon and the stars. Many members of the tribe are used to tourists taking photos of them but they do generally expect a donation of about $1. If you don’t feel comfortable with that, it’s best to just take general shots of the scenery rather than the people. Like most islanders, the tribe primarily lives off the land, which means lots and lots of seafood. Lobsters are a particularly popular dish. You can even go snorkeling and see them underneath the surface before being caught and consumed.
Probably the biggest travel tip for San Blas is to trust the experts. Sure, you can book a trip to the islands last-minute or with a large tour group but if this is the highlight of your trip, it’s best to leave it to the professionals. Panama Vacations opted to leave early in the morning to beat the crowds and to also allow time for unexpected delays for boat transfers to and from the islands. Our leader also knew the islands well enough to decide which beach to visit for our afternoon picnic. As a result, we enjoyed a packed picnic mostly to ourselves, save for a few other tourists and a 360 degree view of the sand and surf. Our group did San Blas as a day trip but you can certainly spend an entire weekend here or longer, whether focusing on water sports or visiting villages.
What You’ll See
When visiting the villages, you’ll see a mix of Western clothes like t-shirts and jeans and more traditional garb. The women wear hand-stitched molas, scarves, and even beadwork worn on their arms and legs. Men tend to dress a little less traditionally, usually opting for polo shirts, baseball caps and the like. You’ll also see a bit of garbage strewn about but hopefully, with trash cans now dispersed throughout the islands, they will be put to good use. Nature-wise, the landscapes are just as diverse. Expect crystal, clear water, gentle waves (if any) and soft sand. Under the surface, you’ll see coral reefs of every size and color. In fact, coral reefs surround nearly every island here, so snorkeling is a must for any water-sport enthusiast. The beach island pictured here is Isla Agujas.
When to Go
For many people, when to go greatly depends on when you can get time off from work and that in and of itself, can be a challenge. That said, from December to March is the windy season so just be prepared for high waves and a likely rocky boat ride to the islands. The San Blas islands themselves are generally calm, as they are protected by the reef. I visited in late April and I will say that our boat ride to and from the different islands was pretty bumpy but not at all uncomfortable. I like roller coasters though, so I may not be the best judge! Other than the wine, I found April to be a great time to visit. The weather was picturesque with sunny skies, and the water temperature was not too warm and not too cold. In a nutshell? Perfection.
Have you ever island hopped? If so, where? Tell me in the comments below!
This trip was hosted by Panama Vacations / NAMU Travel Group. All opinions are my own.