Backpacking in Panama
Panama was a dark horse in Central America, we did not know what to expect. Travelers coming from South America to Panama on a yacht visiting the San Blas islands could not stop talking about an untouched, perfect tropical paradise beyond imagination. The San Blas Islands archipelago is made up of 378 islands of which 49 are inhabited. Most backpackers do a 5 day all-inclusive tour from Panama to Cartagena in Colombia by sail boat for about $500. This sounded great, but other than the price tag, we were not planning to go to the Caribbean side of Colombia.
If we had to rate how much we enjoyed all Central American countries, Panama would be low on the list. We were there in rainy season and maybe we were in a bit of a rush and did not give Panama a fair shot. Though we saw some beautiful beaches and nice jungles, they were not as good as in Costa Rica, with less animals and more pollution. We were a little annoyed, because this was the only country in Central America that we could not stick to our budget.
LIKES: Nice beaches, good hikes, impressive jungles
DISLIKES: Transport and food was expensive, pollution in some places were quite bad.
We spent $242 in 10 days, at $24 per day it was our most expensive country in Latin America. This includes all expenses, but is excluding the plane ticket from Panama City to Medellin in Colombia at $180. The break up:
Transport: $43 avg $4.30 per day
Food (shopping): $71 avg $7.10 per day
Accomodation: $110 avg $11 per day
BOCAS DEL TORO
Your two options for finding perfect deserted islands and beaches in Panama are The San Blas islands or around The Archipelago de Bocas Del Toro. We decided to go to Bocas since it is only 30km from the border with Costa Rica. The Archipelago is made up of six islands and many uninhabited islets with in Panama’s largest marine park. Bocas Del Toro town on Isla Colon is the easiest to reach by water taxi and was our first stop in Panama.
It is very touristy here and feels a bit like a touristy island in South East Asia. We stayed in Heiko Hostel. On the way to the closest beach to town, Big Creek, next to the airport are the worst polluted mangroves that I have ever seen. A community lives next to the mangroves and the path passing through is flanked by tons of plastic, old washing machines and every kind of rubbish imaginable. This big rubbish dumb seems to be alive with thousands of little crabs, fish and other animals living in nests of plastic and metal.
Big Creek Beach
Just a couple of minutes’ walk from the town centre, there were a couple of guys on longboards paddling to catch knee high waves. But the water was dirty and not nice for swimming.
Bocas Del Drago
On the opposite end of the island is made up of beautiful jungle and palm fringed beaches there were no people or pollution and great spots for swimming, this was what we were hoping to see! The visibility was not great but we could see many giant sea stars snorkeling from the beach. A pod of dolphins passed by the beach a couple of times. There is a regular bus from here back to town. This is a beautiful beach!
Heiko Hostel, a bed in the dorm room is $11. I would classify this as party hostel, which we normally avoid, but I enjoyed it here. It was clean with a good kitchen, central location and good enough Wi-Fi. There were pancakes for breakfast every morning, a big batch of dough, and you can make as many pancakes as you like.
Water taxi 25 leaves from Amerante waterfront every 30 min to Bocas town ($6). Buses cross the island towards Bocas del Drago a couple of times a day ($3 one way).
Having got a taste of the Bocas we expected at Bocas del Drago we were really psyched to go and see the hyped up Wizard Beach and Red Frog Beach on Isla Bastimentos. We moved to Isla Bastimentos with a couple of friends we met in Heiko hostel. Unfortunately we did not see much more than the inside of our hostel. It was the peak of the rainy season and every attempt we made to go and explore was foiled by massive downpours making walking through the muddy jungle or seeing much, next to impossible. The waves here looked pretty good with a couple of point breaks on shallow reef spread around the island.
Hostel Bastimentos, $15 for a double room, nice hostel, good Wi-Fi. Behind the hostel was a palm tree and a ladder were Alya could pick many young coconuts. It had a couple of hammocks on the deck, a good kitchen, good central location, overall a nice place to be stuck in stormy weather.
LOST AND FOUND
From Bastimentos we went to the highly rated eco lodge, Lost and Found, in the cloud forest of the Talamanoa mountain range. The bus dropped us next to the road and from there it is a 15 minute hike uphill through the cloud forest to the lodge. We expected something similar to the amazing Bolita Eco Lodge in Corcovado in Costa Rica. It was nice enough, but very different from Bolita. The lodge was more a party hostel in the jungle. The trails through the cloud forest is amazing, with some monster trees and is free to hike, it kept me busy for a day.
There is an innovative free treasure hunt, with beer as reward and the hostel does sell many tours if your budget allows. You can order meals for about $4 a meal, a nice kitchen is also available for doing your own cooking, with basic food supplies for sale at reasonable prices (pasta, rice, eggs, vegetables, cookies and snacks). I was happy with the good organic coffee for sale in the kitchen for about 50c per cup. There is a good vibe in the hostel, a pity it has one of the worst dorm rooms imaginable. They squeezed bunks for 24 people into a high room with small floor space, creating very high triple beds. It is dangerous and there were always tons of backpacks on the floor.
It was quite a shock to our senses! We avoided big cities in Central America, consequently we did not see a real city for 5 or 6 months and the buses, malls, lights and rows of fast food places caused a sensory overload when we arrived in Panama City. We just felt like running back to a beach somewhere. The main attractions in Panama City are the Panama Canal and Casco Viejo, the old city.
This is a beautifully restored area with nice streets, buildings and fountains. There are many hostels, restaurants and bars in this area; this is the main tourist area and the best place to hunt for a hostel.
It is an impressive piece of engineering and a must see if you are in the city. It is the reason why Panama is economically so far ahead of the rest of Central America bringing in millions of dollars every year. The most popular place to view the canal is from the viewing platforms at the Miraflores locks ($5). To view the canal for free go to the Pedro Miguel locks.
The view is ok when a ship pass, but you have to stay on your side of a very high fence and security guards chase you away when you take pictures, this is not a big problem, just move a little down river. Take the Gamboa bus and tell the driver to drop you at the Pedro Miguel or Gamboa locks ($0.50). Another fairly interesting sight that you can visit by public bus is the Ruins of Panama Viejo, you pass some interesting buildings on the way.
Panama City has a good Metro bus system and transport within the city is cheap. Albrook bus station is the main bus terminal and has a big mall linked to the terminal, we were thinking of sleeping in the terminal one night, but nobody could tell us if they lock the place at a certain time. You need an orange transport card with credit loaded to pay on the bus, apparently cash is not accepted, but since they are gradually moving over from chicken buses to the new metro bus system, you still have to pay cash on older buses. I paid another passenger for credit on his card when I was without.
We stayed in an overpriced, cheap hotel located about 20 minutes’ walk from Casco Viejo for $25 a night. The drawback to a hotel was we had no kitchen and our culinary choices were limited to noodles, sandwiches and Burger King (cheaper than McDonald’s).
We saw some nice beaches, good hikes, impressive jungles and nice waves. Unfortunately some of the beautiful nature was spoiled by being very polluted. It is the most expensive country in Latin America. There are some amazing things to see.
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