Bocas del Toro is a group of islands in Panama, on the Caribbean side next to Costa Rica. Some are still very natural and pristine, some are more developed.
The main one is Isla Colon, which is full of restaurants, bars, and guesthouses, and where the airport is, along with all the boats to and from mainland and to the other islands. On the north side of Colon, away from the crowds, there is Bocas del Drago, a series of almost untouched beaches, right next to the rain forest, some of which famous for their sea stars population, to which I had the privilege to teach a yoga class! ;)
Isla Bastimento is also famous for its beautiful beaches, such as Wizard and Red Frog. On the other end the main town there is not very appealing and with no good swimming.
Isla Carenero is a good option because it has some nice beaches, it's very close to Bocas town but more quiet. Isla Zapatilla is a great day trip: classic tropical paradise and natural reserve.
Every year around the end of February there is a great music festival in Uvita, Costa Rica that is called Envision. What I love about this event is that in addition to great international music and emerging artists, there is a very strong environment and spiritual vision behind, they offer workshops inviting experts to talk, and it becomes an opportunity to raise the awareness of the visitors as well as the local people on important concepts such permaculture and self empowerment. For instance, the day before the opening of the festival they promoted a permaculture action day, during which volunteers - me included ;) - worked on turning the back yards of three local schools into permaculture food forests, sharing with the locals this holistic approach to agriculture, and listening to their wisdom as well.
This year the festival sold out so if you want to go next year book in advance!
I recently led a Yoga Retreat at OMV Volunteer Center, a Permaculture Eco Village in Costa Rica, by the Osa peninsula, Pacific Coast. I highly recommend this place to anyone who is interested in learning about permaculture, sustainable living, and in an immersion in the Jungle life.
Accomodation was incredibly comfortable, with large tents - bigger than my bedroom in NY!- sealed and clean so no bugs inside, comfy real beds, hot water, and a friendly familiar atmosphere!
Stay tuned: I have the feeling I will lead more yoga retreats there! ;)
The Canary Islands are a Spanish archipelago of 12 volcanic Islands, all pretty different from each other.
So far I visited:
- Tenerife is probably the most touristy, especially the south is very developed with resorts and hotels because of a special micro-climate that allow at least 3 degrees warmer temperatures than in other parts, making this coast the warmest spot in Europe during winter. In this area Los Cristianos is probably the most interesting area, with two long sandy beaches, nice board walks, and still some traditional town feel with lots of stores and restaurants.
The north is more natural and green because it rains more there, and if you like hiking I would recommend Anaga National Park. In that area there's also a nice beach called La Teresita close to the capital Santa Cruz, which is a pretty town as well.
Don't forget to visit El Teide, which is the tallest point on the island with its 3,718 meter altitude. There is a stunning variety of landscapes, from lunar to Alpine ones
- La Gomera is way less developed than Tenerife and it's home to the vastest laurel forest on earth, an eco system that remained unchanged since pre-history. You can reach La Gomera by 45 min ferry ride or by plane from Tenerife.
I recommend to rent a car and to explore different areas of the island every day: it's pretty small and the variety in landscape is incredible: in 30 min you could go from a hike in the middle of a misty forest in the Garajonay National Park to the warm and wild beaches of Playa Igles in Valle Gran Rei.
I stayed in Valle Gran Rei in a private renovated apartment, 33 euro/night, sea and mountain views, 5 min by car to the beach, managed by a gracious old lady called Mari who kept her property clean and beautiful. Phone: 922805039
Valle Gran Rei is appealing to a lot of Nature lovers and spiritual people, which gives it a really nice vibe. I would recommend being at the main square along the beach before sunset with a drink: several talented musicians and artists like to perform at that time, the atmosphere is magic, and the sun will set right in front of you.
- La Palma, also called La Isla Bonita, is the greenest island of all, paradise for hiking lovers, and not so touristy: if you arrive on a Sunday you'll find everything closed! It has an international airport, but you can also take a 1.5 hr ferry from La Gomera. Santa Cruz is the main town and it still holds its traditional look and feel, try Restaurante La Plazeta! With a car you can easily cross the island in about 30 min to Tazacorte, half way you'll find the visitor center with all the info you need to plan your hikes: La Caldera and Ruta de Los Vulcanos are the most popular ones but there are plenty of beautiful untouched forests, for instance Cubo de La Galga, and Los Tilos, reachable from the east coast. The main beach towns are Los Calcajos, 5 min south of Santa Cruz, Puerto Naos (even if it's surrounded by ugly banana plantations), and Tazacorte, which has a nice beach area with bar and restaurants for sunset. Stay at Apartamento Atlantis 30 euro/night, good quality. We did a great hike in Tijarafe to a Pirate's Cove with homes carved in the rocks and on a beautiful bay, it's pretty inclined so I would recommend to drive down half way.
Car Rental: Cicar is pretty affordable and reliable!
I went to CR for a wedding in Tamarindo, and obviously I had to explore as many beaches as possible! This time I rented a car with two friends, so that was easy. Costa Rica is very touristy and pretty expensive in general, it's also full of Americans and you don't even need to change $: they accept US $ and give you the change in colones.
Playa Coco. Lively town, a lot of stores and bars, sometimes loud along the main street, which is perpendicular to ocean. The beach is wide with dark sand, water not great, but there is a nice new waterfront where locals and tourists meets at sunset. I stayed at Hotel M&M, one of the few on the waterfront, rooms w private bath $20, recommended. I enjoyed few meals at the 3rd restaurant to the right when you get to the waterfront.
Playa Brasilito n Flamingo: nice wide beaches with some resorts, not much of a town.
Tamarindo. a nightmare: absolutely overdeveloped, overpriced, overcrowded, with tons of traffic and construction sites.The beach is nice and wide, full of surfers, surfers wannabe and wannateach. I stayed at Hotel Boteya de Leche, on the hill behind the beach, maybe 10 min walk from ocean. Familiar feel, friendly staff, wide kitchen and common areas, $15 for a dorm w/ private bath, $40 for a private room. No restaurants to recommend:expensive, and not impressive.
Nosara, big surf destination. The original town is inland, the American town is sparsely spread behind the two beaches: playa pelada, intimate and picturesque, and playa Guiones, very wide but with no shade at all. Good waves though. I stayed in Guiones at Kaya Sol, nicely landscaped, with restaurant. $15 dorm, $68 for a cabina that sleeps 5. Good Asian restaurant next door.
Samara, my favorite town: wide long beach with shady palms, and several nice beach bars, activities and restaurants, e.g. Gusto beach, chic and tasty, and Tutti frutti, more rustic, both Italian owned. I stayed at Ahora Si, clean private rooms for $40, it is also has an amazing vegetarian restaurant. Italian owned as well... It's almost a colony! Great vegan food also at Luv Burger. Playa Corrillo next door is very nice: wide, with palm trees and no development at all, 5 min by car from Samara.
India was challenging for me. Even if I arrived there thinking of being a well balanced, strong, and peaceful person, India really was able to touch few of my weak points, but it was a constructive experience because it tested me and gave me a wide perspective on myself.
Uncomfortable things about India
- The concept of personal space doesn't exist: Indians just get on top of you, and it's totally normal for them. They don't usually give you the way just for the sake of being kind, it's all about survival instinct there!
- They honk all the time and the streets are noisy, congested, and polluted. The only driving rule is: do whatever you want but make sure you honk so everybody else know.
- Communication with Indian is very difficult: few of them actually speak English. They can't say no, they bubble their head all the time and you don't understand a thing: it could mean yes, no, maybe, I don't care, or you are a nice person!
- Tourist prices are usually at least double Indian prices: you have to bargain for everything, and you loose the sense of what is a fair price, which actually varies a lot from town to town. Vendors call you all the time also from far away and hassle you.
- There are a lot of things that Indian women don't usually do. For instance, chai tea stalls on the streets are very popular among locals but I haven't seen any woman having tea there; there are very few women in the streets in the evening; you should cover your legs, shoulders, and wear loose clothes. As a woman I've been wearing long baggy or alibaba pants (btw very fresh!), tunics with long sleeves or t-shirts. It's very handy to have a scarf: every woman there is wearing a scarf over the chest or a sari. I've heard there are agencies that organize tours for Indian men to touristy beaches to watch western half naked girls...
- They croak and spit all the time, including women in this case!
- It's not cool to show any affection in public, the most you could do is holding your "husband" arm, and if he's not your husband maybe just say he is to not disappoint them!
- Indians stare at you with no shame, sometimes they also giggle at you and you have no idea why.
Funny things about India
- I think they are stock between the 70s and 80s: big mustaches, colorful overdecorated outfits, a ton of huge gold jewelry.
- They are crazy about weddings, saris, and jewelry. The streets are covered with ads of happy brides dressed like princesses with the the most luxurious silks and the heaviest earrings and necklaces.
- They eat with their right hands, and make a mess out of it: it's actually very entertaining looking at them eating.
Varkala is a nice town along the coast of South Kerala, it develops along a cliff, with the main road pierced with a lot of shops and restaurants. It is touristy, and you need to get used to be called out by the local vendors, but it's still not overwhelming: there's no loud music played, and the scenery is fantastic, overlooking the ocean, the fishermen at work, and daily passage of schools of dolphins.
We stayed in Odayam beach which is a little north of Varkala, about 10 min pleasant walk along the ocean. Here the beach is wide and not crowded. We found a nice hut with private bath, hammocks, and sea view at Ashtamay Beach Resort, $20 per night. They also have very good food here.
I discovered a mind blowing dessert here: it's called Hello To The Queen, and it features warm banana slices, chocolate chips cookies, nuts, and ice cream... absolutely delicious!
This was the perfect place to relax, and enjoy the last few days of the trip, while getting a little tan, eating good food, and buying gifts for my friends back home.
After a long day of travel by bus, rickshaw, and taxi we arrive at Sivananda Ashram at dusk.The setting is beautiful: on a leafy hill in front of a lake with manicured gardens and lawns. It's high season, there are a full Yoga Teacher Training and Yoga Vacation Programs going on, the regular dorms are full and we end up sleeping on thin mattresses on the floor of what used to be roofs and now are dorms, but we expected something like that. $10 per day all included.
At Sivananda there are a lot of rules, for instance:
- 2 mandatory Satsangs, one at 6am and one at 8pm
- 2 mandatory Yoga classes, one at 8am and one at 4pm
- You cannot leave the ashram
- Meals are silent, sitting on the floor of the dining room, you are supposed to eat with your hands
- Silence and lights off from 10:30pm to 7:30am
- Dress code: legs covered, no sleeveless shirts, no tight/transparent clothes, also during yoga
- Celibacy, no open signs of affection, separate dorms for men and women.
I guess we are too free spirited people to deal with all this for too long, and we ended up staying just the min 3 nights. Even if I love practicing yoga, and the yoga here is excellent - still very different from Vinyasa - I don't like the idea to be forced to do it. The Satsangs - big communal meetings for meditation, chanting of mantras, and lectures from the swami - were way too loud: they started with what sounded to me like a Kapalabhati boot camp - "one! two! one! two!" - and then after 30min meditation there was a mantra aggression, the speakers were so loud that we had to close our ears and few times we had to walk out of it, no matter the rules! One morning we went for meditation by the lake - we are such rebels! - which was so peaceful despite the loudness still in the background.
The food was very tasty, I brought my own spoon because I just don't like to eat rice and soups (?) with my hands. We met nice people, but with all these silence restrictions I didn't have the chance to know them better.
It feels good to be in the real world again after the clinic, now I even enjoy the noise, the hassle, and all the surprises that come with it. 6.5 hrs of buses to get to Kochi. Fort Kochi is an artsy town on the ocean, touristy but still pleasant with cute cafes- go to Kashi cafe-, colonial architecture, and a lot of irresistible shops: alibaba' pants, shirts, antiques, spices, jewelry, paintings! We rent bicycles for $1.5 a day to explore the town better and discovered beautiful graffiti, art installations, parks, and Jew Town with even more exciting shops! There's also a Palace, a synagogue, and old Chinese fishing nets particularly nice at sunset. One day we took a ferry to a near town with a big celebration in honor of Siva: imagine a "normal" street fair around the main temple, with the exception of occasional decorated elephants passing by the crowd, dangerous fireworks in the streets, funny theatrical performances and musicians here and there. Did I tell you that Indians are totally crazy about weddings? Most of the ads in the streets show happy brides over ornate with heavy gold, precious stones, and the most beautiful silk saris. We passed by a three story department store completely dedicated to saris, fascinating. Another day we went for a half day tour of the backwaters, a series of canals within scenic natural setting where people live, cultivate spices and make ropes the old way out of coconuts shels.
Aditya Ayurveda Hospital in Kerala is a small clinic, set within a lush garden of medicinal plants, with half dozen rooms, and lovely staff. Dr Satya comes from a family of several generations of Ayurvedic doctors and he offers among other treatments Pancha Karma, which a deep cleanse of three weeks min that rejuvenates the body balancing the tridoshas - Vata, Pita, and Kapha-, eliminates illness and toxins from the body, and really tests your mind! It's not easy at all; you may have to handle drinking cups of ghee -liquid butter- which captures the toxins in your body, and you then have to eliminate it from your body in various ways. The good news is that this process really works: for instance it got rid of psoriasis, lowered chronic high blood pressure and rheumatism, and it put back to full action a paralyzed arm.
I just had few days available for a light cleanse, which consisted of drinking disgusting herbal infusions, pleasant massages with medicated sesame oil, delicious warm medicated water poured all over me, very light tasteless monotonous food, which after four days I couldn't bear anymore, imagine 3 weeks...There were 4 other lovely European ladies being cured there and we helped and support each other during our weak moments. We had very gentle yoga classes every day at 6:30am, which was taught by a good local teacher who gave us the best shavasanas. Btw, you are not supposed to do any challenging asana during treatment: you need to keep all your energy for the detoxification process!
Anyway after 4 days of cleanse and several emails from Robbert telling me about his delicious meals in Kochin, I decided it was time to join him!! : D