A reflection of the time I spent with Catherine, a solo-female traveller from the United States who was brutally murdered on Bocas del Toro, Panama.
This piece is a sad story but something I want to share as it covers issues that are close to all of our hearts.. Solo female travel and the dangers.
We can all wish it’s the same as solo male travel, but the reality of it, is it’s not. Having boobs and a booty change the way you travel.
I was in Bocas del Toro when the beautiful Catherine from New York was murdered. She was a solo traveller who had crossed 6 continents and had worked in Vietnam as an English teacher. I met the 23 year old the night before her disappearance. We chatted over beers and homemade Mexican quesadillas in our Hostel on Isla Colon. We even invited her to stay with us on her next trip to Mexico. As we drank the last of our beers, we swapped Facebook details so we could stay in touch and gave her a hug goodnight.
The next morning Catherine headed off by herself to Isla Bastimentos for a day on Wizards beach. A common place for tourists to venture to and somewhere that I had spent the previous week camping with friends. Online reviews had suggested that the 20 minute trek through the dense jungle to get to Wizards beach was considered dangerous.
Whilst we were camping on Wizards Beach a weird thing happened on our last evening, making us raise our guard by 10 fold. Two local men rounded up all the tourists off the beach and walked them back to civilisation due to safety concerns. Being in a group of 6 we decided that we would stay one more night, making it a total of 3 nights and trek back the next morning. That night carrying a hint of paranoia, we dug a hole in the sand and buried our passports and money, and slept with machetes and pocket knives under our pillows.
As we packed up our tents and hammocks the following morning, police came by to speak to us. “Have you had any trouble camping here?”
My Brazilian friend Joe replied in Spanish explaining the weird situation that occurred the previous day.
“Ok, well you need to leave the beach today, as we won't be around to protect you at night from local gang-members. Some of them even carry pistols” said the officer as he scanned the beach suspiciously.
We knew robbings were common on Bastimentos, but little did we realise that these gang-members were capable of murder. After Catherine never returned that night, the Hostel alerted authorities. She went to Bastimentos with only $20 cash and her phone, making concern levels rise immediately.
When it hit the 48hr mark of her disappearance, chaos hit Bocas del Toro. The search party was upped with International police and the American FBI being flown in. The search party covered the Bocas del Toro archipelago with officials everywhere on land and helicopters flying above.
The moment her family was warned of her disappearance, her parents and siblings jumped on the next flight to Panama. Catherine was an intelligent and well-traveled worldly chica. She had a grin from ear-to-ear and stood half a foot taller than the average female.
Her family arrived the same day as her body was found strangled in the jungle. Stories hit the town like there was no tomorrow. Locals gossiped about what had happened and tourists were overwhelmed with a sense of fear and sadness. The whole community was shaken with fear and disbelief.
Catherine was a curious girl who loved the world she lived in. She happened to be alone in the wrong place at the wrong time. This unfortunate piece of the puzzle lead to a drastic turn in fate for Catherine and her family. Whether it was an attempted robbery gone wrong or an event that held evil intentions, someone took away one bright-shining soul from planet earth.
As female travellers, we are faced with a unique set of risks different to men. Reality has it, we are not as physically strong. It’s all too common that women are taken advantage of whether it be getting robbed, lead into a vulnerable situation or sexually abused.
I wish I could say that everyone I have met traveling were kind and friendly, but that would be naive. I have met people that were sneaky, I’ve been in situations that felt dangerous and I’ve taken risks that I probably shouldn’t have taken.
But just like Catherine and millions of other women, I choose to travel too. I am aware of the risks and the dangers, but I also know that travelling makes me feel alive.
I feel inspired everyday I’m in a foreign country.
I am continually trying new things.
I see incredible sights and visit amazing places.
I hear the stories of people from around the world. I am a more compassionate and understanding human because I’ve seen inside the worlds of people who would usually be worlds away from me.
I’ve felt how they love.
I’ve experienced how they live.
I’ve seen their happiness and I’ve felt their sadness.
My dears, I encourage you to travel and to see the world. I want you to feel inspired by nature, by culture and by the people you meet. I want you to understand that other people live differently to you, but they still love and have have the same basic needs as you and I.
But be sure to travel respectfully, make conscious decisions and be safe always.
Trust your instincts, follow what your gut tells you and use common sense.