Worst Travel Moments - Central America

Traveling is great. But things can (and often do) go wrong. Here's a round-up of some of my least favorite travel moments from my trip to Costa Rica & Panama when I was 21.

Lost Luggage - San Jose, Costa Rica

In May 2013, I flew from Washington Dulles to Charlotte Douglas to San Jose Juan Santamaría. My flight from Dulles was delayed by some storms in between D.C. and Charlotte, and I arrived with only enough time to run from one terminal to my flight. I think that must be where my luggage got lost - I barely made my flight, so I can imagine that there was not enough time for my luggage to get off of my old flight and onto my new one. Landing in San Jose, I waited at baggage claim for what felt like ages. I watched the conveyor belt rotate around and around and around and then burst into tears when I realized that my suitcase was not coming out. It was my first solo trip; I'd just graduated university literally the day before and this was the first thing I did as an "independent adult." I was excited and invigorated by the idea of spending a month in Costa Rica on my own, but in that moment I felt super alone. Like, miserably alone. Luckily, it only got better from there. I still had my baggage claim sticker and I gave it to the US Airways help desk. After informing me that my bag somehow went to Miami, the help desk gave me a phone number to call when I figured out an address to which they could forward my suitcase.

Once I made it to my final destination the next day, a friend who was fluent in Spanish called the number for me and the airline told me I would get my suitcase in a few days. I was really pleased that I'd had the forethought to pack a spare outfit, my swimsuit, and all my essential items in my carry-on backpack. I managed pretty well on those first few days in Costa Rica without the rest of my stuff. However, I was a little bit hungry because a third of my suitcase was filled with food (spaghetti noodles & peanut butter & jam) that I'd packed since my village was remote, groceries were limited, and my sponsor organization provided just lunch. On the third day of my trip, I was gleefully woken up by the news that US Airways had called and the man who had my suitcase was waiting for me at the nearest port town. I hopped on a boat and was reunited with my suitcase which had arrived with a broken wheel and a whole lotta dust - but otherwise in tact.

 A dim photo of my beat up old suitcase in my Costa Rican home away from home. 

A dim photo of my beat up old suitcase in my Costa Rican home away from home. 

Creeps - Bocas Town, Panama

For the most part, I had a really great time in Bocas del Toro, Panama. On our last night there, though, my friend Nikki and I were sound asleep when suddenly we woke to the sound of some creeps trying to break into our room at 2 AM. Quick aside: at that point in my time in Central America, I'd been hit on a lot. This is not to sound egotistical at all. Being hit on is just a byproduct of being a young solo female in the machismo land of Central America. Over the course of my trip, males ranging in age from eight to eighty had all made inappropriate comments directed my way. For the most part, I was getting used to the flirting; it was mostly harmless. But this night felt very different. Some guys - who knows who they were, we certainly didn't - were persistently turning the locked handle of our room's door, shaking it vigorously, and shouting in drunken voices: "Ladiiieeessss! I KNOW you're in there!! LaaaaAAAdieeees! We are coming in!!" We steadfastly ignored them because the door was (thankfully) pretty well locked and the room's only window was cat-sized. After 10 minutes or so of the creeps attempting to get in, they finally left and we fell back asleep. Maybe they just wanted to party with us? I don't know or care. Maybe they had the wrong room? Overall, though, the way they had called "laaaaadies" as they aggressively pulled on the door handle was very unsettling and gave me the danger vibe. I am so glad that lock worked.

Traveler's Diarrhea - Bocas del Toro, Panama

I'll try to go into very little detail about this. I didn't actually get hit with traveler's diarrhea until after I got back to my Costa Rican abode after leaving Bocas. On our last night in Panama, just a few hours before the creep incident, I had ordered a smoothie. Nothing unusual there, I'd had many delicious tropical smoothies in Costa Rica and not been sick. Why should Panama be any different? Well, in Costa Rica, I had listened to all of the "don't drink the water" advice and only ordered smoothies made with milk or yogurt. I somehow forgot that wisdom on my last night in Panama and slurped down a smoothie made with ice. I was out of commission for a whole day, making countless runs to the bathroom, and drinking cup after cup of water. Luckily I was prepared for such a scenario because I had antibiotics with me that I'd been given for just such an unfortunate occurrence. I felt nearly back to 100% the next day, at least good enough to get back on sea turtle patrol.

Taxi Scam - San Jose, Costa Rica

When I returned to Costa Rica's capital city by bus to catch a flight home to the States, I first had to get a taxi to take me to the airport. A very friendly taxi driver hailed me to his cab and threw my suitcase in the trunk. He started driving around the city and I genuinely had no idea where I was going. I'd only ever been in San Jose for two nights and both times I felt like all the streets looked the same. This time was no different. I started to wish that I'd looked up the amount of time it took to go from the bus station to the airport because the ride seemed to be longer than it should have been. The day before, another girl I'd met on my travels had told me some horror story/urban myth about a fake taxi that had kidnapped a young woman travelling on her own in San Jose. Panicked thoughts were thus racing through my mind as we drove around San Jose. I was barely comforted by the fact that I'd done my best to check that the taxi was an officially registered one - I presumed that such things were fake-able to travel newbies like myself. In my somewhat-limited Spanish, I told the driver that my flight was leaving soon (though I still had a few hours) and asked when he thought we might reach the airport. He said that we'd had to take a route that was muy especial because "the president of China was visiting" and many roads were closed. I was quite skeptical. I considered bolting from the taxi when we were stopped at intersections, but I wasn't sure that I wanted to leave my suitcase behind. Plus, I had no idea where I was and no cell phone. I was just thinking about saying farewell to everything in my suitcase, and risk the unfamiliar city streets when I saw the airport come into view. I'm not sure if I've ever been more relieved. The driver pulled up in front of the departures terminal and cheerfully informed me that my hour-long ride would cost me 55,000 colones or $100 USD. I knew that was wrong but I was just so relieved to be at the airport after all of those paranoid thoughts that I just forked over a one hundred dollar bill and got away from the taxi as fast as I could. I now know that I definitely fell prey to a common tourist scheme, but it was a great learning opportunity. I'm never going to jump into a taxi without either first having researched typical timing and fares for taxis at my destination OR arguing/determining the fare up front before I get in the car. And if I solo travel again, I'll be sure to have a cellphone with me with some offline maps downloaded just in case.

 I was not feeling very "bienvenido" (welcome) by my taxi driver that day in San Jose.

I was not feeling very "bienvenido" (welcome) by my taxi driver that day in San Jose.


For more bad travel moments of mine: click here for Part 2, the Europe edition.