• devon

San Blas Islands, Panama

There are three ways to get from Panama to Colombia. One way involves crossing the Darién Gap, which sounds like and amazing adventure if you have ample time and money to prepare for an extended 4x4 adventure through the jungle. Not to mention expertise in the area, as it is my understanding that guerrillas still operate in the area and you stand a reasonable chance of becoming a special member of their group... The second option is to fly, and the third option is to take a boat. We weighed the pros and cons, of option two and three, and came to the conclusion that flying would be fast and expensive, whereas boating would be slow and expensive. We chose to take the boat... We initially heard about taking the boat, from other students at our Spanish school in Guatemala. Everyone raved about it! From the moment I heard about this option it stuck with me; this is the kind of thing that is right up my alley. Who could say no to 4 days of camping on remote tropical Caribbean islands and the opportunity to interact with the aboriginal people of the area?! I looked up some more information on it, after first hearing about it, and found that it has been written up by National Geographic as an experience of a lifetime. We had to get to Colombia somehow, and the boat option was a couple hundred USD more than a flight, but included meals for three and a half days, accommodation, and transportation, so from a strictly economic perspective it made sense - although it would still be way above our loosely adhered to daily budget. Oh well, you only live once! 

YOLO has been used WAY more times than I can count, on this trip. It seems as if it is almost daily... Examples: More deep fried chicken? YOLO! Private room? YOLO! Paragliding? YOLO! Three day boat trip through the Cayes of Belize? YOLO! Hot chocolate with cheese? YOLO! Etc... As you can see, the list is extensive. Although, as I write this, I’m starting to think we might have a problem with self control... 

We went with what I think is the largest and most well known tour operator doing this trip: San Blas Adventures. They were more expensive than other operators, which threw me for a bit of a loop, but they were recommended by so many people that we’d met along our travels, we booked with them anyways. After doing the trip with them, the extra expense is worth it. The tour operator was really well organized and the food was out of this world! I also had some reservations about doing the powerboat tour instead of the sailing tour, but without question I would say that it was the right choice. It is faster, and a hell of an experience ascending and descending twenty foot waves in a small powerboat. that is loaded way beyond what we would consider safe in Canada. Initially when I had read that the power boat option meant that you would only be in the boat for up to three hours a day, it seemed like we would be bored out of our minds with so much time to spend on the islands. Also, somehow sailing seems like so much more of an adventure to me. I was wrong...

After a two hour drive in some Land Cruisers, from Panama City, to god only knows where on the East Coast of Panama, seventeen of us piled into one boat, and disembarked from the mainland. Within twenty minutes of leaving shore, we were hammered by rain. Rain like I’ve never experienced. Everyone scrambled to put on their rain jackets, but it was futile. The rain was coming into the boat so hard you couldn’t keep your eyes open. Instantly drenched, I would spend the next forty five minutes with water pouring down my face so hard that I could barely inhale without drowning. Generally I am down for a good adventure, but after about half an hour of this, I couldn’t help but wonder if the plane was the better option. The powerboat was a RIDE! When the boat isn’t sheltered by a reef, you are hanging on to anything you can find to keep you planted in your seat as you crash through wave after bone crunching wave. In the tour fact sheet you get before you leave, they tell you to triple bag your backpack in garbage bags, so that it might stay dry - ours didn’t. Between intense tropical rainstorms and what seem like huge waves when you're sitting in a rinky-dink boat, us and our bags didn’t stand a chance.

The boat was thirty foot, open haul, fiberglass, and shallow haul design. It was not designed to cut through the waves, so much as ride above them and maintain speed. It was operated by two guys, one at the back driving blind, and another at the front who signals directions for the driver to follow. The engine looked to be about 20+ years old, was a 75hp Yamaha, and would intermittently cut out at low speeds. This was not a vessel which would be considered by most people to be particularly seaworthy, or even appropriately engineered and fitted out for the sea conditions. However, the Kuna people have been boating this coastline since time immemorial, so I assumed they probably knew what they were doing. Also, wearing a life jacket was mandatory, so in the event of a capsize I would survive to live out my life long dream of playing castaway on a tropical island!

Two hours later and we finally arrived at our first island camp, and it was stunning! I want to describe just how incredible all of the islands were, but I honestly can’t. The closest I can think to say, is imagine what your dream tropical island paradise would look like... This was better than my wildest imagination. The colors, the sounds, the beautiful sunsets... And maybe the most incredible part was the sense of relief that you still have a functioning spine after hours of wave bashing. The human body is truly incredible!

Our accommodations, for the duration of the trip, would be a large cabanas with hammocks for everyone. All of the islands on the trip are owned by the Kuna aboriginals; each island a little slice of tropical paradise. The Kuna maintain the islands and are responsible for piloting the tour boats. The islands, though not big, were made up of beautiful Caribbean sand, palm trees, and varying amounts of low growing vegetation. Each island had a beach volleyball net, which became the focus later in the afternoons with matches between the Kuna and us (the travelers). The Kuna live for beach volleyball, and beat us more times than I care to admit.

Two to three hours of aqua bronco, heated volleyball matches, sipping on coconuts, snorkelling, and enjoying lobster that was literally the size of your arm! Rinse and repeat for the next three days. AMAZING!! Ahhhh, as I write this, I wish I could turn-back time and re-live it all over again. If you find yourself in need of transit from Panama to Colombia, or vice-versa, this trip offers so much more than a means of transport. I would come back to Panama just to do this trip again.

Panama City, Panama

Panama City: a gateway city infamously known for the Panama Canal. This will be our last stop in Central America before we depart on our boat trip through the San Blas Islands, to Colombia. We rolled into Panama City on the nicest bus I have ever been on; a fitting entrance into a city which is experiencing a significant transformation to becoming a world class city. We had heard a lot about Panama City from many people and were excited to see it. From the moment we stepped off the bus in a new, modern, and clean bus terminal we new that Panama City was going to be different than other cities of Central America. The bus terminal was attached to a mall, which worked out well for us as the screws in the back of my laptop were coming loose and the bottom protective plate was prone to falling off. Rose also needed a new phone case, as her case was crumbling apart - the wear and tear on our clothing and gear is clearly evident, and we have only been on the road for a little over two months. The mall was PACKED! It was friday night, three weeks before Christmas, and everyone was shopping.

After our short mall diversion we took a cab to our hostel, in Casco Viejo. A clean, comfortable, and relatively quiet place. We shared a dorm room, which was fine - a lot of times the price of a private room is only marginally more than the price of two beds in a dorm room, so we will opt for the private, but when the price is right we will save a few bucks and go for the bunks. We try and weedout the “party hostels” when we look for places, and this place fit the bill. For us, because we aren't partying in the evenings, staying at a "party hostel" can get extremely irritating when people continually roll in from 1-4am. That being said, it is probably equally irritating for those people when Rose and I are packing up our stuff at 7am - It's just better for everyone if you can find a hostel which caters more to your travel style. Our first night in Panama City we spent the evening wandering the newly restored Spanish Colonial district of Casco Viejo. Casco Viejo is "the" place to be in Panama City if you want to be where all of the travelers, expats, and wealthy Panamanians are. It is a beautiful area with lots of stores, restaurants, and museums. It goes without saying, but Casco Viejo is not a good analogue for what Panama City is to the locals. That being said, it is a great place to enjoy a couple days.

Saturday morning we left our hostel in search of breakfast. We found what looked like a modern somewhat busy restaurant, and I ordered Huevos Rancheros. What I got was eggs and sliced hotdog... For me, a crap breakfast is the WORST! Not only was the breakfast utter garbage, it was very expensive because it was at a boutique restaurant in a tourist hotspot. Immediately I was kicking myself for not knowing better. How many times do I have to learn this lesson!? NEVER EAT IN A POPULAR/TOURISTY AREA. The touristy places, with minor exception, are terrible. It is always better to seek out where the locals are eating; the food will be better and the price will be WAY better. Not only was the food terrible at this place but so was the coffee, which is a real disgrace because the coffee through all of Costa Rica and Panama has been sensational - not an exaggeration. I am not someone who flaunts after the best coffee, nor do I drink coffee regularly, but the coffees I've had in Costa Rica and Panama have been out of this world. It doesn't matter if you are at a hole in the wall place our a nice restaurant, the coffee is superb everywhere; it is like a religion in this part of the world. As I was munching on my hotdog eggs, I was internally laughing at the thought that I would've rather been eating airplane food, which is really saying something. The feeling of disappointment wouldn’t last long. I was immediately able to redeem satisfaction as we left the breakfast place and there was a guy selling fresh sliced watermelon, pineapple, and mango, which I snapped up. A whole freshly sliced, beautifully ripe mango, and only $1.00 USD! Something which makes Panama an easy place to travel is that the currency is in U.S. dollars.

Our first activity of the day, after the delicious frutas, was the Panama Canal Museum, in Casco Viejo. I would highly recommend this as your intro to Panama, but make sure you get the audio headset because most of the writing in the museum is in Spanish. The Panama Canal itself is an incredible engineering feat, but what might be more incredible is the geopolitical relations involved with the construction, use, and the ownership of the canal.

Some interesting things about Panama and the Canal that you can look up:

  • The contentious location of the canal - the initial route was to be through Nicaragua

  • The attempt by the French to build the Panama Canal and the subsequent buyout by the U.S.A.

  • The former American ownership of the Panama Canal and the handover of the Canal from the U.S.A. to Panama

  • The numerous infrastructure projects being funded by the Chinese, which are underway in Panama right now

Surprisingly, I didn't have to drag Rose through this museum...You know a museum is good if Rose willingly gets through the entire thing ;). That being said, at the end of the museum we were over being studious and were ready to switch gears, so we rented bikes. Riding bikes, especially in cities in Central America is not common. For the most part the sidewalks are a hobbled mess of concrete and holes. Panama city, along the promenade is about the only spot you can comfortably ride bikes. The road around the outside of Casco Viejo, although contentious because of how it blocks the ocean view, is nice to ride. We rode through Pista de Patinaje, to Naos Island, and back to Cinta Costera. The ride took around four hours, but included a bunch of stops along the way and about an hour and a half spent at the Bio Museum. The Bio Museum was interesting in the sense that it explored the geological formation of Panama and the biological diversity of region prior to the land bridge that connects the Americas. Do you know about the Giant Land Sloth? Look it up, it was HUGE! The museum was interesting, but was expensive and lacked in depth explanation. For us, it was worth it as we were seeking shelter from the hot afternoon sun, and the airconditioning felt incredible - we have become accustomed to showing up everywhere as hot sweaty messes. The locals don't go outside during the afternoon - they must think we are lunatics riding bikes around in the middle of the day, but we are trying to make the most of our time. The Bio Museum is one of those things if it fits in your schedule than great, if not, don't worry you didn't miss much. That being said, if you are interested in biology, more specifically convergent evolution, you should take a moment to lookup the impact of the conjoinment of the Americas. As a side note: do you know about the North American Rhinoceros? It was a thing!

In the evening we went to the only soda in Casco Viejo, and I had a delicious 1/2 chicken with deep fried plantain. If you have a weakness for deep fried chicken, you are in luck, it is literally everywhere Central America. I was worried I might lose weight on this trip, but I am doing a great job of keeping my calorie count up.

Something which you have to eat when in Panama is the ceviche. It is advertised everywhere, but the best place we found was Cevichera La Bendición, across the street from the fish market. There are a bazillion cevicherias at the fish market, but skip them. They are annoying as they holler at you and pester you to eat when you walk by, and the locals don't eat there, so you know there is better Ceviche elsewhere. Something helpful to know is that Cocteles is a type of Ceviche that is made with mayonnaise instead of lemon/sour orange - think coleslaw, but instead of cabbage it is seafood.

Our time in Panama City, as touristy as it was, was really enjoyable. We spent most of our time in the tourist hot spots, but they are hotspots for a reason. All in all we had two and a half days in Panama city and that was the perfect amount of time. It would be a great place to spend an extended layover when you are travelling between places. There was just enough to keep us captivated for a couple days. If you really like to slow down and hangout at upscale restaurants and bars, or really want to experience what Panama City is like outside of the main tourist spots, you might enjoy more time here.

We are excited for our four day boat trip through the San Blas Islands, and to get into Colombia, and... SOUTH AMERICA!!

A quick side note about the Panama Canal: It was interesting to see, but really nothing very special. The museum at the canal isn't nearly as good as the one in Casco Viejo, Panama City. If you are planning on going, look up the boat transit schedule on the canal website, so that you can actually see a boat go through the canal (we looked up the schedule and planned to see a boat transit, but sadly either the schedule was wrong or we showed up slightly too late). The canal museum gets stupid busy, too. We weren't at it in high season and it was packed by 9:00am; I can't imagine what this place would be like in high season... All in all, if you're in Panama city for the first time, you probably feel obligated to go, and I don't blame you, but temper your expectations.

  • devon

Boquete, Panama

It is an unusual feeling, knowing that the next two weeks of our trip is planned; normally we plan one to two days out. From Dominical Costa Rica we will be going to Boquete Panama, Panama City, sailing through the San Blas Islands, and then spend a couple days in Capurgana Colombia. Normally we spend two to four hours every other day planning accommodation, activities and transport, so to have the next two weeks dialed-in saves us a substantial amount of time. Our first stop on this leg through Panama is Boquete. We didn't have high hopes that we were going to be marveled by this place, but it was mentioned enough in blogs and travel websites that we thought we should check it out. Not to mention it is a convenient place to break up the journey to Panama City, from Uvita, Costa Rica.

We took a thirty minute bus from Dominical to Uvita, waited in the bus terminal for three hours, got a four and a half hour bus to David Panama, waited another hour in a bus terminal, and then got a forty five minute bus to Boquete, Panama. A long day. Days like this make you wonder why you can't just be content with visiting one beautiful part of our planet. Uvita and Dominical were beautiful, and if we had the luxury of a vehicle we could've spent weeks exploring the coastline of Costa Rica. However, there are so many incredible places to see so we continue our trek South. Panama will be our fifth and final country in Central America. Our first stop in Panama is a little town Called Boquete - apparently a hot spot for retirees. WOOHOO!

Going from Costa Rica meant another border crossing. Our experience with the border crossings has been very similar - none of them have posed any real issues for us, but they all have terrible signage. Like zero direction. I guess people just know what to do because they have been through before, but for newbs, like us, we feel completely lost. Often we aimlessly wander about looking for any hint of what our next step in the process might be - not unlike one of those escape rooms - and eventually some employee will stumble across us and treat us as if we are complete morons for not knowing what/where we are supposed to do/be. At first it was a little stressful, but has now become a bit of a running joke. There are literally (like actually literally, not "millennial" literally) no signs at many crossings. Some border crossings it seems as if nobody works there. They feel like ghost towns. Other times you are told to sit in an empty room for what feels like an eternity, and have no idea what the point of it is, but everyone else is doing it, so you follow along... Pretty much every border crossing there has been a moment where I wonder to myself what the point of the particular procedure is, but we follow obediently, like sheep. My best advice for getting through borders quickly is pick someone on your bus who looks local and try and follow what they do. Otherwise, just accept the fact that you stand out like a sore thumb and you're going to be labelled as the "dumb gringo". Travelling is funny in that it's a great form of mental exercise. It really makes you realize how much you take for granted in your own culture. When you are thrust into a new culture where you are subject to new cultural and social norms, it becomes painfully evident that you don’t fit in. No matter how smart you are (or think you are), you are going to be pretty dumb in these situations, there is just no way to prepare for them. Embrace that feeling and harbour that empathy for the next time you are teaching someone something new.

I digress, let's get back to Boquete. We rolled into the bus depot in David at around 4:30 pm and searched out the next bus headed to Boquete. As we watched hoards of people pile onto our bus with drums, batons, and costume attire we realized something was up... The bus was crammed with people headed to Boquete. Now, I want you to imagine a thirty degree celsius night, 100% humidity, and about two hundred people crammed like sardines onto a school bus - the school bus is so full of people the suspension is slammed and the bus is raked back. The windows have to stay closed because it is raining buckets outside and water will come flying in otherwise, so the bus is hot and really dank. If you're claustrophobic, this is not a situation you want to be in. Finally our forty five minute bus ride was over and we burst out of the back of the bus. As it turned out, we arrived on Boquete on the day of celebration of independence from the Spanish. What a happy accident! This was by no means planned. This celebration wasn't even mentioned in our Lonely Planet book (which has been terrible, forget the books and use the internet). Marching bands played in the streets well into the night, and food vendors were scattered up and down the main streets. What an incredibly lucky time to visit the otherwise sleepy city of Boquete.

The city of Boquete is nothing special. In fact, I don't understand what all the hype was about in the books and some blogs we read. That being said, we have seen a lot of cities throughout Central America, so maybe if this was your first experience dipping your toe into Latin America, you might get more out of it than we did; we weren't enamoured with it. We spent our day in Boquete hiking to waterfalls, and experiencing the city. It was nice, but not worth the trouble of getting here from David. There are so many incredible spots to see in Central America, you can leave Boquete off your list.