2016 was another year full of adventures. I quit my job at the end of 2015 to travel. But this time I wanted it to be open-end without any commitments. The only thing I knew was that I would be flying to Rio de Janeiro on January 2nd 2016 and travel for 3 weeks with my sister. I didn’t know if I would return back home after that or continue traveling by myself.
Of course I didn’t go home after three weeks and what followed was the time of my life: I visited Brazil, Peru and Bolivia in South America and returned to Central America for the 3rd time to travel in Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
It was such a liberating experience to not have any obligations and just live day by day. I spent most of my time at different beaches all over Latin America learning how to surf. When I was bored with beach life and needed a change I went to the mountains to hike or did a tour in breathtaking nature. Although I don’t particularly like cities I visited some of the major ones too if they were on my way.
Sometimes I stayed for a day and sometimes for two months.
Sometimes I was looking for adventure and sometimes for everyday life.
The only thing I was concerned about was the moment and my guts told me if I should stay longer or if it was time to move on.
And after 10 months I had enough. I never imagined that my desire to travel would end before I run out of money but that was the case. I reached Nicaragua and knew that it was time to go home. The signs were clear: I didn’t enjoy moving around anymore, couldn’t stand another night in a dorm, and preferred to drink sunset-beers by myself on the terrace while a party was going on downstairs. It was time to go home. And then I booked a flight and returned to Switzerland.
Many people have asked me what my favorite experience was or which place I liked the most during my journey. It is hard to choose from such a huge rage of different experiences but I did my best to narrow it down for you.
Here is the countdown of my three favorite destinations of 2016:
1st Place: Playa Venao, Panama
It’s incredible that it took me three trips to Panama to find the amazing Playa Venao. The first time was 2005, when I went to Bocas del Torro, Panama City and David. In 2015, I spent a few days in Santa Catalina and then did the San Blas tour to Colombia. I knew it would be worth going back to Panama a third time, but I didn’t think I would find my favorite destination in 2016 there. It was another one of those random and spontaneous choices and I embarked upon the journey without any expectations.
How to get to Playa Venao from Panama City
The bus system in Panama is good, but it takes time to travel from place to place. To travel from Panama City to Playa Venao, you have to take the bus from the Albrook Bus Terminal to Las Tablas early in the morning. This busride takes around 4.5 hours. Once in Las Tablas, you need to take a taxi to another bus stop to hop on the next bus. I was told that there is a direct bus from Las Tablas to Playa Venao but that it doesn’t run on a regular basis. Therefore, I took a bus to Pedasi (40 minutes). In Pedasi the bus driver advised me to wait for the bus to Playa Venao by the side of the road. Unfortunately, no one really knew when this bus would come or if it would even come at all. I was lucky and after about half an hour I was on my way to Playa Venao.
In short: Panama City-Las Tablas-(Pedasi)-Playa Venao
Travel time: 8 hours
Here are five reasons why Playa Venao comes in 1st place of my favorite destinations in 2016:
I cannot stress enough how important the hostel is when travelling as a backpacker. In this case, it was the main part of what made my experience there so special. The Selina Hostel Playa Venao is located directly on the beach. It has hut shaped colorful houses with different types of rooms from budget 12-bed dorms to double rooms with bathrooms. All of them come with air conditioner. It is suitable for different types of travellers such as backpackers or short-term travellers who are looking for a few days to relax. It has a kitchen for guests to use as well as a restaurant and bar. The restaurant and bar area is open and facing the beach. It is equipped with tables, sofas, hammocks and a pool table. Further, there is a swimming pool, hangout area, surf shop and a lot more. Everything together is stylish and cozy and perfectly suits the beach environment without looking like a hotel complex that’s out of place.
Every evening there is a different type of entertainment program for the guests and whoever else wants to come. For example, there is a weekly pool tournament and an open mic night. On Saturdays, the hostel fills up with guests from all over Panama who come there for the party. Usually the place is packed and there is a good mix between locals and tourists.
My favorite moments at the hostel were the mornings though. Breakfast is included in the room prices and it is served at the restaurant. I loved that time of the day, sitting at the table right at the beach, checking out the surf and chatting with my friends while chilled music was playing in the back. It was the perfect start to the day and made me feel very comfortable and relaxed.
The amazing part about Selina Hostel Playa Venao is, that it is located in the middle of nowhere. Playa Venao does have a few other hostels and hotels but it is still a very chilled and uncrowded beach. It is not a place where you would expect to find this kind of hip and modern hostel. I loved that it was quiet and peaceful most of the time but then sometimes there was a party and it got crowded.
The fact that Hostel Selina Playa Venao has so many different facets, without being too much of anything, makes this hostel one of my favorite that I have ever stayed at.
I took my first surf lesson in 2014 in Portugal. After three days I was hooked and it changed my life. I went to a few surf camps during my vacations but then quit my job and set upon a journey through Latin America, which I mostly dedicated to learning how to surf. Although I am pretty athletic, this mission has been a very hard one. I have invested a lot of time but I am improving very slowly.
I had been surfing for many months before coming to Panama and I was frustrated about not progressing faster. In Playa Venao everything was finally coming together. Since the waves were soft and small, I went back to riding a bigger board. I got over my wave-fright and after a short time, I wasn’t catching 4 or 5 waves a day anymore but 20 or 30. It finally felt like I was actually surfing!
The wave right in front of the hostel is usually a bit smaller and softer and is suitable for beginners while there is a faster and bigger wave down towards the other end of the beach. It is therefore a place where beginners as well as advanced surfers can have a good time.
The fact that the hostel is located directly at the beach and you can check out the waves from the breakfast table, makes this place simply perfect.
I love the tropical climate of Central America. Countries like Panama and Costa Rica turn incredibly green during the rainy season and everything is covered in thick, moist plants. Playa Venao is a fairly long beach surrounded by hills and a few houses in the middle of this beautiful landscape. Anywhere else in the world this beach would be full of tourists sunbathing under their umbrellas and swimming in the ocean. Not here. There are very few people and most of them are in the water surfing. If you get lucky you can see whales jumping out of the water or turtles wandering around.
It is nature in its purest form, a calm and peaceful place. If you don’t surf, you might get bored. If you do, you found paradise.
There is something about Panama. It is neither the most interesting nor the most exciting country in Latin America but I feel good when I am there. It is a country where I could live and stay for a while. I like the mixture between the modernity of Panama City and the remoteness of the rural areas and the beaches. The people are friendly, open and welcoming and it is pretty safe. Although there is a big community of expats, Panama is not overcrowded by tourists and foreigners. All of this is reflected in Playa Venao.
Just like the accommodation, the people around you are decisive in the life of a backpacker. You experience destinations completely differently depending on the people you hang out with. The crowd in Playa Venao was a very special one. It is a social place where it is easy to meet all sorts of people of different cultural backgrounds and of all ages. Most of the people I was surrounded by were backpackers like me. They came from everywhere in the world and all of them were there for two reasons: surfing and relaxing. We cooked together, ate together, partied together and surfed together. New people came and old ones left but there was always a sense of community. I made new friends and met old ones again. I was happy in Playa Venao and a big part of it was due to the people around me.
My priority during this 10 months trip was to find a suitable place for surfing and this was definitely it. Tropical climate, no need for a wetsuits, hostel directly on the beach and a great beginner wave. On top of that it is a fairly uncrowded surfspot with a social and beautiful hostel.
I cannot imagine a place that would suit my needs more than this one and I would go back there any day. Preferably for a few months and with a job. Offers are welcome 🙂