We crossed into Panama, our last country of Central America via the border town of Sixaola. This was the most distinctive border yet. To test how serious you were about getting into the country a disused railway bridge over the Río Sixaola had to be crossed on foot. It was very much a ramshackle looking structure, with a rusty steel frame sparsely crisscrossed with cracked and weather-beaten planks which gave mostly uninterrupted views of the river below. The general mantra was, don’t look down!
Panama was also one of the only countries in Central America where we had to prove onward travel. Crossing from Central to South America is not possible by land. The Interamericana highway stops in Panama, beyond which lies the vast wilderness region of the Darién Gap. The highway starts again 150km further south in Columbia. The Darién is home to Panama’s most spectacular rainforest, however it is also home to many drug traffickers and former Colombian guerrillas who don’t take too fondly to backpackers hiking through the woods. Therefore, it’s strongly advised to fly or sail to Columbia. We decided to sail via the San Blas islands and once we were able to show an email stating this we entered Panama.
Bocas del Toro, 12th-14th January
Where we stayed: Hostel luego
Our first stop in Panama was the Archipélago de Bocas del Toro, consisting of six densely forested islands and scores of uninhabited islets. These islands are Panama’s principal tourist draw and unfortunately the rate of foreign development here has skyrocketed in recent years. We decided to stay on the main island, Isla Colón, home to the town of Bocas. The town was built by the United Fruit Company (now Chiquita banana) in the early 20th century and on the bus from the Panama border to the ferry town of Almirante, the road was lined on both sides by dense banana plantations as far as the eye could see.
One of our days in Bocas was spent exploring the nearby islands. We took a boat trip to Dolphin bay, aptly named for the many breeding dolphins. We also went to Cayos Zapatillas, a beautiful palm fringed white sand island surrounded by reefs. Unfortunately in Bocas it can rain quite a lot, even in the ‘dry’ season. Shortly after arriving the heavens opened which meant we spent a lot of our afternoon on the deserted island sheltering under palm trees and huddling together for warmth! Our next stop on the tour was a coral reef for snorkeling where the water was pleasantly warm after the cold rain. We spotted a lot of familiar fishey friends, including parrot fish, sergeant majors, trumpet fish, lion fish, moray eels etc. We also encountered fighting fish for the first time. These fish swim right up to your goggles, hitting the plastic, looking for a fight if you stray into their territory. They’re not much bigger than gold fish though so we weren’t too worried. Unfortunately not everyone on the tour was interested in the snorkelling so after about half an hour we had to finish up and head back to shore.
Bocas is a popular surfing destination. All of the breaks here are reefs, located a little off shore. That means to reach the surfing spot you have to hop into a local water taxi with your board and jump over the side once you get to the reef. You usually agree a pick up time with the driver for the return trip. The first time Dónal went out it all worked fine, but the second time the boat driver tried to over charge him once they got to the break. He only had the exact price of two trips on him (hard to bring a big wallet surfing!) so this lead to an argument about the price and the driver ultimately refusing to return to pick him up! That made for a stressful session as he was worrying how to get back home later before it got dark. Fortunately he was able to wave down a passing water taxi later and only had to pay the normal price to get back. The reef breaks were a little intimidating for me as I like to feel I can always swim to shore easily, so I left Dónal at it.
We had a lovely few days in Bocas and would have easily stayed longer. Unfortunately with the sail trip to Colombia booked we were under a bit of time pressure for the first time on our travels.
Boquete, 15th-17th January
Where we stayed: Hostel Mamallena
Boquete is a mountain town in the northern part of Panama. It is a major coffee and flower growing region and while we were there the annual Boquete flower and coffee festival or a Feria de las Flores y el Café was on. During the day the show grounds just outside the town had a number of flower displays and one or two token coffee stands. But in truth I think the flower and coffee theme was just a good excuse to put on a party. At night the fiesta really took off. The main attraction was the ‘Xtreme Zone’ which was a big open air night club. The electronic music was booming until 3am at which point the fire works started. It was a very local affair with few gringos evident. One American expat described it as the locals reclaiming their town from all the tourists for a week, and he was all in favour of it. We left the partying to them and just enjoyed the quieter day time entertainment.
We stuck our oars in for a spot of whitewater rafting for the first time. After a very brief safety instruction it was straight into the river with a mix of class II and III rapids. It was a lot of fun, jamming our feet under the straps to stop ourselves from falling out. During the calm stretches we could admire the jungle scenery and came across a boa constrictor coiled around a branch above the river. An Australian girl in another boat got a very impressive black eye after falling out and hitting her face on a rock. She was very lucky that it was not more serious. After traversing the rapids for an hour we enjoyed a picnic lunch. The second half of the day was a more sedate affair. A bit disappointing as we would have loved to have built on from the morning. We shared our boat with a retired couple from Canada who were well up for the rapids, having tackled class V previously.
Our last activity in Boquete was a tour of a coffee farm. The first day we were meant to do it they forgot to pick us up, so full of apologies they offered to let us do the tour for free another day. The tour had received excellent reviews and after the disappointing coffee farm in Guatemala and Dónal’s love for coffee we really wanted to squeeze this visit in. We reckoned we could do it in the morning before taking the bus to Panama City. The tour was fantastic. The American owner Rich started off by chatting to us about the history and economics of the coffee world as we enjoyed a cup of tea made from the dried coffee berries. After taking a walk around his picturesque farm looking at the coffee beans and drying beds, he made us two types of coffee to compare, a dark and medium roast. The coffee version of a sommelier is called a cupper, and he gave us a few pointers on what criteria they look for in order to rate a coffee. After that we got to roast a batch of beans with Dónal picked to operate the controls. It was a really interesting day out (said by the non-coffee drinker) and we each got to take home a bag of the coffee Dónal had roasted. It took a lot longer than planned though so rather than getting a bus around noon, it was closer to 4pm before we were on our way to Panama City.
Panama City, 18th-20th January
Where we stayed: Hotel Roma Plaza & Magnolia Inn
We had booked a hostel for our first night, but as it was 1am before we arrived in the city we presumed it would be closed. Instead we got a taxi man to bring us to a nearby hotel that he knew. The whole thing worked out very well and though it cost a little more than a hostel, it wasn’t ridiculous and it was really nice to enjoy the relative luxury of a hotel for a night.
The next day we moved to a hostel in the historic old quarter of Panama City called Casco Viejo. This area is filled with narrow winding streets with lots of old, beautiful restored buildings. Unlike some of the other colonial towns we’ve visited, this was very much a tourist zone full of restaurants and hotels with very few locals. We came to learn very quickly that Panama City is a city of contradictions. There was the quaint charming neighbourhood of Casco Viejo, around the corner there was a bustling local market and 10 minutes across the bay you’ll find a concrete jungle of skyscrapers and multi lane freeways.
We also found one of the biggest shopping malls we’ve ever seen. We spent a morning there and in 2 hours had only covered the ground floor. There’s so many entrances they don’t give them numbers or colours. Rather, they name them after animals and put 20ft statues of that animal by the door. So there were giant lions, penguins and even dinosaurs decorating the place. In the food court we counted over 50!!!! different brands of fast food outlets. It was just on a scale we haven’t experienced before. After a lot of thinking over the last few weeks, and encouraged by Dónal’s camera starting to act up, we invested in a new camera. Let’s see if the photos improve…
A trip to Panama wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the canal. The Miraflores locks are located just outside the city. They have a very good museum depicting the Panama Canal’s history, dedicated to the thousands of workers who died due to disease and accidents. We also learnt that the lowest toll in its history, 36 cents, was paid by Richard Halliburton, who swam the length of the canal in 1928. There was also a viewing platform from where you can get a great view of the ships transiting the locks. It took about an hour for the ship we watched to get through this one set of locks. Dónal did say he felt he was cheating a bit, coming to see the canal by land and not on a ship.
San Blas Islands, 21st-25th January
Where we stayed: Velero Amande
After a nice few days in Panama City we took a bus to the Caribbean coast to meet the sail boat that would be taking us to Colombia. Our first stop was the city of Colón. We had heard people commuted for 2 hours from Panama every day to work here, and once we saw it we could see why. Colón is the city that Panama forgot. We only went to the bus station but the whole place looked so seedy and dirty. It definitely felt like one of the dodgier places we’ve been to, which is such a huge contrast to the rest of Panama. On the next bus to Porto Lindo there were two real characters on board. Two American fifty something expats, who were throwing down cans of pre mixed rum and coke. One of them had a false leg and once he removed it to get comfortable he used the socket of the leg as a cup holder. They were very loud but funny and definitely helped speed the journey by.
We were told to meet everyone at a bar in Porto Lindo. It turned out another two couples on our bus were also on the same boat as us. We arrived at the bar at 5pm, this lead to a lot of welcome beers before the captain was due at 7pm. There were 12 passengers on board, our captain Victor and his helper Sophie. The group of backpackers we had the good fortune to be sailing with were lovely. We will readily admit we were a little worried. Five nights sharing incredibly intimate quarters could be a very long time! We instantly clicked with an English couple, Emily and Jim and Canadian couple, Fiona and Neil. We even continued to spend a lot of time together once we reached Cartagena, Columbia. They had a really interesting billing system in the bar. They wouldn’t clear the table until you paid your bill. When it came time to pay they simply counted up the empties and charged accordingly. Sweet and simple!
After dinner and introductions we got a lancha to the boat, Velero Amande. This felt all very surreal as we loaded onto the lancha and speed underneath a blanket of stars to spend our first night on board at anchor. Dónal and I pulled the short straw and had to share our cabin with an Alaskan Thai. But to be fair he was great company and had some amazing stories to share. He lives in an yurt in Homer, Alaska and has worked as a guide in Antarctica, travelled the world and was going paragliding in Columbia. He had a very cramped claustrophobic bunk over our bed and he was a ninja in being able to get in and out without waking us.
The next morning we set sail for the San Blas Islands. Dónal was disappointed with the amount of sailing during the trip. While the sails were always up, we also motored constantly. For the majority of the passengers, myself included, it was just a mode of transport rather than a sailing trip and I think the captain planned the passage with this in mind. Dónal was the only one looking forward to the sailing itself. Sailing towards the islands I instantly didn’t feel great. So back downstairs to grab the seasickness tablets. Too late unfortunately, I was the first to require a bucket. Thankfully I was soon followed by almost everyone else, though of course not Dónal!
Once we reached the San Blas Islands that afternoon, my sea sickness quickly disappeared. The islands were truly amazing. Palm fringed with white sand that is in stark contrast to the clearest turquoise water. Paradise! Our three days sailing around the islands consisted of sunbathing, swimming to cool down, snorkelling with sting rays, starfish etc., exploring ship wrecks, slack lining (like tightrope walking) between palm trees, dolphin spotting and watching spectacular sunsets over the ocean. Local fishermen were constantly trying to sell us massive lobsters and crabs. The fisherman would row up, triumphantly hoisting up their freshly caught seafood which could be purchased on the spot. On one of the islands the local Kuna people were knocking coconuts off the trees and the women were selling their traditional embroidered textiles, molas.
On the evening of the third day it was time to head out to the open sea. This was really tough in a small boat. We motored for 36 hours, ploughing into 3m waves. Thank god my seasickness tablets were taken in time and worked well, although I was a little out of it and slept a lot. It turned out that we were actually very lucky with our cabin as all the forward cabins started leaking badly, directly onto the beds, every time a wave swept over the deck, which was about every 30 seconds! Ours leaked too, but thankfully only onto the deck. The second night at sea the bilges (the space underneath the floor boards) were full of water and it started to spurt up through the floor boards as we rolled. The pump was started but soon had to be cut as the electricity had to be turned off due to lights on deck sparking when the waves hit. It was all a bit scary, as I was at this point jumping off my bed into water in the pitch darkness as the boat rolled violently. Thankfully having a sailor by my side helped and also the tablets took the edge off my panic. Dónal reckoned the seas weren’t that rough as these things go, but that all the leaky hatches were a bit dodgy. There was no fear of the boat getting into trouble, but it is very disconcerting, not to mention uncomfortable, when there’s that much water splashing about on the inside. One of the key principles of sailing is to keep the water outside and the people inside the boat! We sailed into Cartagena at 2am and the motion changed instantly. We managed a few hours of sleep before disembarking later that morning. It was an amazing experience to visit the gorgeous San Blas Islands with great company. However the 36 hours at sea did taint the adventure a bit. The leaking of water into the cabins and expecting people to sleep on soaked bedding was awful. Also when the boat was in darkness and water everywhere the ‘captain’ Victor explained nothing to ease our concerns. This trip isn’t cheap and really there should be better standards.
We loved Panama and we would have loved to spend much longer exploring the country. It has the right amount of development, similar to Costa Rica but without the crazy expense. We have learnt that our favourite way of travelling is without deadlines. We love to explore a country with a very loose timeframe and we definitely felt the pressure to keep moving in Panama due to the impending sailing trip. Each place we stopped in Panama was a highlight with the San Blas Islands probably taking first place. They are still an unspoiled paradise, though how long this lasts remains to be seen as worryingly, two small cruise ships showed up on our last day there and disgorged about 200 passengers onto one tiny island. Overall though, Panama has been one of our favourite countries of our trip so far.