Lessons from our Panama work exchange


Mopping, sweeping, cleaning kitchens, doing other people’s dishes, folding laundry, checking in and out guests. Not activities you might choose to do on vacation huh? But what if you were only required to do it for 4-5 hours per day in exchange for free accommodation on a beautiful island? If you work 6 hours a day you also might get free meals. And of course you’ll get 1 or 2 days off per week. Not a bad way to travel on a budget right?

We chose to do a work exchange at a hostel in Panama for a few reasons- 1) to save money. 2) to practice our Spanish skills (many guests speak Spanish as do the staff). 3) to experience something new and different. We have been working now for almost 2 weeks and it’s been quite a learning experience, on a few different levels.


We’ve experienced the humility of cleaning service. Mopping and sweeping floors gave us a strange feeling of invisibility as guests walked right through the area we were cleaning without an “excuse me” or even eye contact. We’ve also experienced the power of working reception. Once we started working at the desk, we were suddenly acknowledged and noticed everywhere. We were now the people with the keys…not just to the doors but to the guest’s entire experience as we answered their questions and provided them with information on things to do and where to go for this and that. “How do I get to Wizard Beach?” “What restaurants do you recommend?” “Can I get more toilet paper please?”

We’ve also observed and learned some good business strategies like having back-up keys for everything, the value of clean and simple management processes, the importance of taking payments before rooming the guest (or else someone may leave without paying their $200 bill!), that regular paint doesn’t dry overnight in this climate, and lastly, that the vibe you put out is the vibe you will get back from your customers. The laid-back vibe here definitely attracts a very laid back guest. I mean, not one person complained about the green paint on their shoes! Amazing!


And lastly, one of the biggest lessons we’ve learned is regarding the relationship between culture and work-life balance. Here on the island, there seems to be a “chilling-out” culture, one of no stress, time with family, and happiness above all else. You will quickly see that efficiency and high profits are not always driving forces here. For example, it is very normal to walk into a restaurant or hotel and find no one working there. Sometimes there is a bell to ring that is connected to the owner’s home. They may or may not be there and you may or may not wait around for 30 minutes and then decide to go somewhere else. Sounds like poor business strategy but maybe it is just different from what we expect from businesses in the US. Here on Bastimentos, a good business strategy is one that promotes work-life balance, where the scale tips far to the side of life. One thing is for sure, this hostel is definitely doing something right as they never have a shortage of guests. They are happy and often stay days or weeks longer than they intended. Or maybe it’s just the new friendly faces at reception and the clean kitchen. 😉

If you are interested in extending your travel adventures and having a new experience through a work exchange, check out these awesome websites that have loads of opportunities listed! Helpx.net and workaway.info

Here are some more “working” pictures:


Martina, the hardest working person on the island and me kicking it in reception



Martina’s youngest son.  My favorite hour of work was rocking this sweet baby to sleep in the hammock.



Jon organized Spanish conversation nights at the hostel which were pretty popular!…I mean muy popular!



Jon being the entrepeneur and renting out the $50 surfboard he bought


Working hard for the people!


Carolyn’s drawing of the hostel on a card we gave to the staff. Not too shabby!


Actual picture of the hostal. Not too shabby!