Travel has many problems yet budgeting isn’t one

We’re asked on a not so regular basis how we manage to control and check our travel budget. It’s a fair enough question and one that I’m always more than happy to answer.

I’ll preface this post by saying that, a) I’m a project manager by profession which meant that, b) from the outset of deciding to travel I knew I’d have that whole budget thing hanging over me constantly if I didn’t plan on how I could monitor and control it. 

By controlling and monitoring the budget in a simple way I could then put it to the back of my mind and focus on the important things like lobster meals, snorkelling with sea turtles, mountain hiking in Peru, finding lost cities, driving through deserts, etc, etc…

Here’s how we’ve put our travel budget to the back of our mind:

1) How Much Dollar Do We Need?

We decided on our approximate daily budget range and decided on how long we wanted to travel for. We then simply multiplied x by y to give us the golden number of dollars we’d need to save up before heading to Nicaragua on March 12th 2015. Yes, the harder part was saving and, for us, this happened over many a moon.

2) Find A Tool To Rule Them All

The project manager in me thought, “there must be a simple application or online tool that someone else smarter than me has built to make my job easier by removing all the arduous admin work involved in keeping track of expenses and our budget.” Or something to that effect.

Thankfully, the answer was a resounding “Yes Matt, there is.” And there was much rejoicing. By me. Quietly. On my own. 

Cynthia by this point had delegated this entire budget monitoring project to me to ensure she could focus properly on googling “how long is too long to spend at a beach in the sun?” Followed closely by “Is there ever a ‘too long’ to spend at a beach?” She’s yet to find the answer.

Anyhow, THE tool. We use the incredibly easy to use Trail Wallet. It’s an app created by travelers for travelers and I cannot recommend this enough. 

3) Learn To Use And Set Up Trail Wallet

This step is pretty straightforward because, well, the app is just so perfectly easy to use.

  • First, watch the helpful video on the Voyager Apps website to get to know all the features of Trail Wallet.
  • Then, go to your newly installed app and add a new trip and give it a name!
  • Then, if you have your magic budget number already you can enter in a start and end date and then enter in your total trip budget. Don’t worry, you can edit all these at any time so if your trip goes on further then you can extend that end date. If you win the lottery and your budget increases, you can increase it!
  • You can then enter in currencies. We started with Nicaraguan Cordobas and then added new currencies as we moved onto different countries. We also used Canadian Dollars as this is our home currency. (p.s. When you’re connected to WiFi, you can update the exchange rates.)
  • Exit out of there to your home screen and then click on your trip. The next screen is where you’ll have all your information handy to you.

Once we completed all this, we were trained up and ready to start tracking expenses and therefore ready to begin monitoring and controlling our year-long travel budget! Waahooo!

4) Start Tracking Those Expenses

Yes, for this gem of an app to work and for you to end those sleepless nights wondering how much money you have to spend per day today and how much you have left in the piggy bank… You do need to enter in EVERY expense.

Just simply go to your trip homepage, click the plus sign, enter in the amount, ensure its the correct currency (hint: don’t mix up those Colombian Pesos for Chilean Pesos!) and, if you like, select a category (see below) of expense and add a note. 

That’s it. It’s quicker than writing it down on putting it in your notes. Plus, the app will subtract the amount from your trip and daily budget and it will tell you what your “adjusted budget” (see below) is now. 

So, so easy yet nice and effective.

5) Keep On Repeating Step 4 So You Can Monitor at your Leisure!

That’s right, we enter every expense so that now we can still see our daily budget as it was at the start of the trip yet now we can also see our adjusted daily budget (if you tap on your budget that appears on your trip home screen) to see how it’s increased over time because of all those days that have come under budget, again, waahoooo!

In settings you can add, edit and remove categories. We like categories because we can use the apps built in charts function to see precisely where our money has been going. We use big catch all categories like “accomodation” and “food/groceries/water”. We’re up to 12 categories now and it’s no surprise that accomodation and food is where most of that money has gone.

——————–

So, that’s how we do it. We found and downloaded an app and we use it on a daily basis. 

The project manager in me is content because I can monitor and control our budget very very easily. And Cynthia and I can always sleep without worrying about unanswered questions surrounding money when traveling. We’ve always got the answers in our Trail Wallet

— Matt

Almost Paradise [Video] – Our Trip to Franklin’s Island in San Blas, Panama

Our boat slowed. We could hear the waves gently crashing on the white sandy shore. The smell of saltwater and paradise was in the air. We looked at each other excitedly, expectantly, anxiously. 

Here we were. We’d made it to San Blas!

I’ve wanted to visit the San Blas islands ever since I heard about them. More islands than days in a year. Only the Kuna people could live there — and they did, managing to essentially preserve their traditional way of life. The people and islands seemed mysterious and promising. A step back in time, and a step into my dreams. 

These islands seemed almost too good to be true and I didn’t think we’d actually go there.

But here we were. We’d finally made it to the far flung place that doesn’t even make it onto a world map.

As you could probably see, Franklin’s Island was small. It would take about 2 minutes to jog around. About 5 seconds to walk across. But you don’t need a lot of ground space when there’s an entire underwater world to explore.

The island is actually divided down the middle: half Franklin’s, half Senidup’s. All the travellers use both sides of the island, and it isn’t a problem. For the Kuna people, it’s a different story. The two families do not cross the line down the middle of the island. They haven’t spoken to each other in 7 years.

The island was almost beautiful. It was dotted with palm trees, and rimmed with turquoise water and coral. The thatched huts with sand floors were charming and authentic. The Kuna people sleep with the sand on their feet and live each day with the sand beneath. So too would we.

 
I say it was almost beautiful because there were hideous bits. Garbage left behind on the beach by a group of selfish girls. Cigarette butts buried shallowly in the sand. The constant unce-unce-uncing of music blasting from a group of obnoxious arseholes. 

And the toilets, oh god the toilets. It wasn’t the half finished nature of them, or the lack of toilet seat on the bowl, or even the fact that you had to use a pail of sea water to flush. The latter reminded me of Thailand and I thought it was endearing. It was the fact that people didn’t bother with the pail of sea water. Big turds from obnoxious arseholes were left in there, covered with gobs of toilet paper. Who did they think would have to flush it!? The toilets improved immensely when the arseholes left.

It was the blatant disrespect for the Kuna people and their home from other tourists that made me sadly hate paradise. And made me embarassed to be a traveller. 

When we were looking at reviews of islands to go to, there was a common complaint amongst visitors: the hosts were not friendly. 

Now I know why! Some people are just so disrespectful. I’d be unfriendly too!

Maybe you’re thinking that I should’ve just ignored them, looked past their antics. But I couldn’t. I can’t. Because how they acted was wrong, disgusting.

I believe that you need to travel with respect for the land, the people, and for other travellers. Do no harm. Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints…that kind of thing. And when you’re on a tiny desert island and people don’t have the same beliefs as you, it’s frustrating to have their selfish ways thrust in your face. It’s a stark reminder of what the world is up against when young travellers are littering on a beautiful desert island.

 
– Cyn

To read about how we got to Franklin’s from Panama City, click here.

Panama City’s Urban Forest: Every City Should Have One

Amidst the high rises, the traffic, and the slums lies a gem in Panama City. It is in fact, the lung of the city.


A few days ago, Matt and I went to the Metropolitan Natural Park / Parque Natural Metropolitano de Panama for a short hike. The fact that you can hike in the city was pretty awesome. Even more awesome though?

The animals that we saw!

When we first entered the park, there was a pond to our left full of very curious turtles. If you know me, then you’ll know that I just LOVE turtles. Basically, my love affair started on a cruise through the Eastern Carribean when my mom, sister and I went snorkling. I think we were off the coast of St. Thomas but I was a total tourist for that week and I can’t remember where we actually were. Anyway, during our snorkling adventure, I came across a magestic sea turtle who was eating sea lettuce all alone.

It was love at first sight – and my love for the sea lettuce eating sea turtle has expanded to a love for every turtle. Even normal pond turtles.

Which is what I think that the turtles at Metropolitan Natural Park were. Possibly they were red ear sliders because they had some red on their ears. But to be honest, I’m probably making up the name of them.
Anyway, these guys were awesome! They were so curious. They poked their wise old faces out of the water when we were near, and swam-shuffled up to us! It still makes me smile and laugh thinking about them!

I’m not totally naive, and realize that there is the possibility that they’re frequently fed by humans and have thus become accostumed to humans…and associate us with food. Still, I like to think they’re simply curious.

One animal that we saw was definitely not fed by humans. At least judging by how scared one of them looked when we were near.

Matt and I had been walking through the park for about 2 minutes after we hung out with the turtles (and missed a sloth in the tree above, whoops), when we heard this sort of chirping noice. We both thought it was a bird. What the heck else chirps?!

Geoffroy’s tamarin, that’s what!

These little tiny monkeys were up in the trees, chirping and chitter-chattering away.

Until about 5 minutes ago when I was reseraching for this blog post, I’d never even heard of a Geoffroy’s tamarin. It’s such a cool feeling when you see an animal that you don’t know the name of. It instills a sense of awe and wonder. It’s basically what I imagine children feel like every single day until they grow up and get bored with the norm. That’s why I think it’s important to travel!

This first-hand realization that the world is still a mysterious and intriguing place is pretty powerful. Do I sound like a mad-man right now?

Anyway, as we continued our hike, a little 4 legged creature ran across the path behind us. It was about the size of a little pigglet. I don’t know what it was, but maybe it was a capybara or a lowland paca. It was a quick little guy and had no intenion of being seen by humans. I didn’t get a picture of it, so no, you’re not overlooking it in the picture below!

 

Besides the benefit of giving city dwellers a break from the concret jungle, the forest in the middle of the city is home to so many animals, and types of plants, and the trees help clean the air and give oxygen. Every city should have one!

— Cyn

To get to Metropolitan Natural Park / Parque Natural Metropolitano de Panama, we took a taxi for about 15 minutes from the Marbella neighbourhood and it cost us $4 one way.

Getting to San Blas Islands – The Awesome and Awful

San Blas…archipelago of more islands than days in the year, hidden off the east coast of Panama. A place where desert island is more than a saying, it’s a way of life. White sand, turquoise water, thatched huts with sand floors…

It’s a dream come true and we wanted to go there. 

But we didn’t want to tour paradise. We wanted to love it. 

Also…we didn’t want to pay $199 or $299 for a tour for a few days. If you’re in the same boat (ha no pun intended!), fear not. We managed to do it a little bit cheaper with the help of our awesome hostel, Posada 1914.

First of all, you’ll have to decide what island to go to. We went to Franklin’s. Basically, we chose Franklin’s because it’s the only name I could remember when the Posada receptionist asked us which island we wanted to go to. Also because somewhere deep in my mind was the memory of reading about someone’s experience at Franklin’s and it seemed to be positive. 

Because we didn’t go to any other island, I can’t recommend anything else. However, after hearing stories from another traveller as well as from a guide from Barefoot Panama, I would say to stay far away from Starfish Island. It has horrible sandflies!

Honestly, every island has both glowing and negative reviews online…

San Blas is kind of like that: awesome but awful in the same breath. I’ll tell you more about in another post.

Once we decided on our island, it was time to make arrangements — all of this was done 2 days out. It’s low season now, so there was loads of space on every island. But in high season, it’s best to make arrangements as soon as you can to avoid disappointment, or worse, be forced to sleep with the sandflies.

To get to San Blas — Guna Yala / Kuna Yala — we had to take a jeep and then a boat. I’d read so much about how you MUST take a 4X4 and I basically thought it was BS. People are overly cautious and/or need way too much comfort. 

I believe that a little danger keeps the old heart pumping longer and that everything is uncomfortable when it’s 1000 degrees and humid so who cares. I’d rather save the money than pretend to be comfortable.  

After making the journey both ways, I’m now in the you-must-take-a-4X4-camp. The road on the mountain isn’t fantastic. It’s steep in places. Chunks of road are washed out and there’s potholes deep enough to get you to the other side of the world. 

Anyway, on the way there, it was evident that the 4X4 wasn’t for comfort or luxury.

The speedometer didn’t work. 

Neither did the suspension.

We could feel it every time the driver put his foot on the gas, even just a little. And we could feel practically every pebble that we drove over.

So really, the 4X4 isn’t for comfort, it’s to make the journey possible.

I hope I didn’t lose you. That was a ridicilous but necessary aside.

The jeep cost us $60 each. A stupid high price, yes. I agree with you! But, it’s the going rate and the $60 was return. So really, it’s $30 a trip. If that’s still too high…The drive itself is about 3 hours, so you could think of it like $10 an hour. 

Plus, the driver stops at a grocery store so you can buy water and food to take to San Blas, and go to the bathroom, get a coffee, and stretch the old pins a bit. 

Make sure you buy water. There is no water on the island! The shower is salt water. Coffee was made with boiled rain water. 

How much water do you bring for 2 people for 2 days? That question weighed heavily on my mind the days leading up to San Blas. 

We brought 12 litres of water for 2 days. I drink abnormal amounts of water so that was a perfect amount for us – we had exactly 1 litre left for the journey home. 

I’m getting ahead of myself here. Back to getting picked up. 

Our driver was extremely professional. He got to Posada 1914 (our hostel, remember) early to pick us up. Let it be known that early is a freakin miracle here, and also considering that we were meant to get picked up at 5:30am. That’s what time everyone going to San Blas gets picked up at. 

As in, FIVE THIRTY IN THE MORNING. I don’t care where in the world you are, that’s just so early. There’s no way roosters would be cockadoodle-doing at that hour and neither should we.

It was still pitch black out for heaven’s sake.

Luckily or amazingly, we were ready a little early.

After we pretend drank our too-hot coffee that the overnight (probably a vampire) receptionist made for us, we piled into the jeep. We were pretty surprised to find an extra row of seats in the back. 

There was no leg room, and there was no way all of my 5’1 self was going back there. No way no how. We were here first!

Besides it didn’t matter. We were the only ones in the car.

For 5 minutes. 

Of course, having a giant jeep all to ourselves would be way too good to be true (kind of like having a working speedometer in Central America) so our driver went around to pick up lost souls/additional travellers.

There were too many people to fit properly in the jeep. This being not Canada, I figured we’d all be expected to cram ourselves and all our luggage/groceries into the jeep. As I was cursing the fact that I wore my new dress (which was a stupid decision), I was preparing myself to sit on Matt’s lap for 3+ hours…and was mentally apologizing to him in advance for crushing his legs. I was also praying to the air conditioning gods because there is hardly anything grosser than random person sweat touching you. 

Amiright!?

But none of that happened, thankfully! In Panama, stuff like that hasn’t happened to us. Even most cars have seat belts that work (mostly, kind of, at least more so than Nicaragua).

Remember when I said our driver was professional? Well, upon realizing that there was more people than seats, he called another jeep. And he (and we) waited all through sunrise for the other jeep at arrive. Longest “5 minutes” of my life.

During this 40 minute period, I fought the urge to get out of the car. I didn’t want to lose my spot and be forced to sit in the crammed back seat.

I was able to hold down the fort and watched as the tallest guy in the group break his femurs in half then contort his body to fit in the comically small back seat. 

Once he was snuggly packed in there, I casually stretched my legs out completely vertically. 

Just joking. I didn’t do that.

There was a part of me that felt bad for the guy. He was at least 8 feet tall and not at all suited for such a small environment. And being the small person that I am and have always been, I really should have taken my rightful place in the most undesirable seat in the car. 

That’s how it works for short people.

But screw that. I was going to be selfish. I was rather enjoying having 2 extra feet of leg room.

So with everyone piled into the jeeps and no (hu)man left behind, it was time to take off.

The drive was uneventful so I spent most of my time trying to work out:

  • how you drive with a speedometer that doesn’t work
  • how you know when you need to get gas when your gas gague that doesn’t function
  • what the conversation would be like if you got pulled over for speeding, “No, I don’t know how fast I was going, officer. My speedometer always says 0km.”  And if that’s a legitimate excuse for speeding.
  • and wondering if it’s legal to drive a car in that condition in Canada

I also spent alot of time worrying that at any point, the tall dude in the back was going to ask me to switch seats with him. I obviously would have even though I didn’t want to.

Before we got to Isla Franklin, we incurred two more fees, adding up to $22 a person, which we handed over to our driver and he delt with. I assume. I never saw the money exchange hands.

The first was a $20 fee to enter Guna Yala. This is a semi-automous region in Panama that is, you guessed it, run by the indigenous Guna people. Sometimes it’s referred to as Kuna Yala and the people as Kunas. I think that’s because the G and K sound in Spanish are so freakishly similar no one can tell the difference.

The second fee was a $2 port fee. I really don’t understand that one because there wasn’t much of a port. It was more just boats lined up along the river bank. I suppose the fee covered the use of the toilets — by which I mean solely the porcelain bowl. Toilet seats are overrated anyway.

After getting attacked by tiny biting flies, and noticing that one of the boats was flying a flag with a swastika, we borded our boat to paradise.

First, let me tell you about the flag, which wikipedia so helpfully explained to me. It’s got nothing to do with the Nazis and was used by the Guna people before the Nazis usurped and ruined the symbol. The flag the boat was flying was the flag of the Guna revolution.

To see their flag and to learn more about the history of the symbol and why they changed it, visit Earthcircuit.

The 40 minute boat ride to Franklin’s cost $20 per person for a round trip. I don’t know if it’s worth it. It seemed expensive and greedy because how else would we get there? There wasn’t exactly a second option.

But alas, you must’n forget that all of these things — toilet bowls, and well organized boat rides through turquoise water — have been set up so that visitors can experience the idillyc islands that are San Blas. We demanded it.

There were 6 tourists on our boat including Matt and I – everyone was paired off. In front of us was a couple who spoke a load of different languages to each other. And behind us was a German couple. 

Being the anti-social gem that I am, I didn’t talk to anyone but Matt. To be fair, no one talked to anyone.

We all just sat there in complete horror as the boat pulled up to the first island. Oh my god, please don’t let this be my island, we all thought.

The island was shocking.

Look, I’m sure some people — maybe even you — are going to think I’m a horrible person for what I’m about to say. But hear me out.

We were greeted with a view of homes that edged the water, homes that looked like the inside of a ripped open garbage bag. 

Homes that were made of a mixture of plastic sheets, tin, and palm leaves. They were falling apart – or maybe they were never really together. There was NO SPACE in between the homes. They were practically touching each other. 

And there was garbage everywhere!

At one point after Matt had been looking down into the crystal clear turquoise water, he learned over to me and said “there’s a garbage reef below us” in a sad and horrified whisper.

But really, these islands are literally in the middle of nowhere so where would garbage go?! I mean, sewage went into the ocean…you could see the toilets hanging off the end of docks so why wouldn’t garbage go there too?

Every one of us on that boat was hoping the same thing: please don’t let this be my island!

Thankfully it wasn’t any of ours. Matt and I and the very nice German couple carried on to Franklin’s and the multi-language couple went somewhere else.

The boat ride started off beautifully. Then it got super wet and I couldn’t see out my eyes anymore. However, the ride back to the mainland a few days later was dry and sunny so I’ll use that experience to describe what I would’ve saw and would’ve thought.

There was a vast expanse of turquoise sea as far as the eye could see. Off in the distance, you can make out the outline of mountains. 

Peppered through out the sea are tiny islands.

Some with white sand. Some with seemly endless supplies of coconuts.

Some inhabited. Some not.

All in paradise.

******

Recap getting to San Blas Island

1) Choose your island. We picked Franklin. 

2) Take a 4×4 jeep for $60 round trip to Guna Yala (Carti dock)

3) Pay the $20 entrance fee to the territory and the $2 port fee

4) Fight off biting flies while you wait for your boat 

5) Sit back and enjoy your $20+ (round trip) boat trip

Total for getting there (and away): $102+*

*Some islands are further away and thus coat more to get to. 

Living In A Volcano Crater – [Video] El Valle de Anton

What do you think it’d be like to live in a volcano crater? If someone would’ve have asked me that a few weeks ago, I’d have responded with impossible!

It’s hot, like rock-melting-hot…or if the volcano has already blown it’s top, the crater is a lake! So unless you’re a fish, there’s not much for ya. Surely it’s impossible?

You know where this is going, don’t you?

It’s going all the way to Panama, about 2 hours outside Panama City to a very small town called El Valle de Anton. Or affectionately, El Valle.

This teeny town is located in the second largest inhabited dormant volcano in the world. Can we just remind ourselves what a dormant volcano actually is? 

A dormant volcano would then be one that hasn’t erupted in the past 10,000 years, but which is expected to erupt again – Thank you Oregon State University for that definition. 

EXPECTED TO ERUPT. WHEN!?! That’s what I want to know.

Okay so I’m actually unclear as to whether this is an extinct or dormant volcano because different sources say different things. The Smithsonian Institute says there’s currently “a geothermal exploration program…underway to evaluate the energy potential of the caldera.” (Read more here.) That doesn’t mean much to me, but maybe it means something to you? 

Who cares, it’s still freaking cool and the entire time we were there, I was hoping El Valle wouldn’t blow it’s top — and us — into the heavens.

When Matt and I were there, we stayed in the belly of the beast, by which I mean in town but in the outskirts at Kare Lodge in a safari tent that was imported from South Africa. Oh ya, Glamping in a freaking volcano in Panama!

  
It was AMAZING! In fact, I really think that staying at Kare Lodge made our experience in El Valle even better.

It was pretty special waking up in the morning, stepping outside, having a teapot of coffee on the deck and looking up at the caldera of the volcano. We felt a deep connection to nature.

When we arrived, we didn’t really know that much about El Valle or what there was to do so we followed Conrad’s advice about things to do. (Conrad owned and operated the lodge.) 

He suggested hiking India Dormida (The Sleeping Indian) — we did that and loved it.

  
   It was about 1.5 hours up and 1 hour down, steep at times but thankfully never too muddy. The view at the top was incredible of course, but even better were the sounds.
On one side of the path you overlooked nothing but forest and it was completely silent. On the other side of the path,you overlook the town and you can hear trucks and dogs barking. I found that really incredible — one path, two completely different worlds. 

Matt managed to catch our hike and our dip in the hot springs on film. Here they are!

Other things that are totally worth doing:

  • Wandering about town
  • Eating bruschetta at Bruschetta
  • Visiting the butterfly sanctuary
  • Stopping by the little museum beside the church

  
There’s tons of outdoor activities in El Valle, including hikes to waterfalls and around the caldera at various places. With the beauty of the landscapes, the freshness of the air, and all the adventures to be had, it’s easy to see why it’s such a hot weekend destination for Panamanians and travellers alike.
— Cyn and Matt