The adventures of two Americans on the isthmus of Panama. March 2015. True story.
If you are heading to Panama, there are a few things you should prepare for: mosquitos, garbage, tolls, hot weather with certain scarceness of a/c and very little beaches. People in general are very friendly, they are eager to help but many things are lost in translation.
The American and Panamanian dollar are interchangeable on a 1:1 ratio and gladly accepted everywhere. You might give them $10 American dollars and get change with four American dollar bills and three Balboas, which are Panamanian dollars. Don’t get me wrong, it is a beautiful country, but it is full of surprises.
Americans are commonly referred to as “gringos”. They greeted warmly by locals and, occasionally, treated with common expression of rolling up eyes and throwing hands up in the air, particularly when Spanish takes over English. This is especially true at many toll booths where English speaking locals are hard to find.
If you are renting a car, don’t forget to rent a GPS along with it. It is worth the extra $10. Relying on street signs and asking locals for directions can be the kind of fun that is frustrating, exhilarating and tiring at the same time. It does serve as excellent comical memories afterwards, but not during.
Be prepared for the multiple tolls you would have to pay traveling on Corridor Norte and Corridor Sur (North and South), the main highway, which has multiple tolls booths each way. They accept different types of payment (cash or card). If you do purchase a $13 dollar card and use it at that tool both, a couple of miles down the same road, the toll booth will only accept cash $2-$4 and don’t be surprised when you have to buy a different card on the way back. It only works in one direction!
But the biggest, most gloriously expensive toll is the Panama Canal. This is the king of all tall ways! Some call it the eighth wonder of the world. One passage through it costs anywhere from $94,000 to $1,500,000, depending on the size of the vessel. This is currently the only way for boats to cross from the Pacific to the Atlantic side without going around South America, and it is presently the number one income generating source for the country. There are talks about building another canal in Nicaragua and what impact that will make on Panama’s economy. But this prospect is very costly, time consuming and is not for certain, so there is no real worry there yet. There is a particular correlation of the military/war activities near any major routes or canals, a peculiar fact for historians to nibble on.
As you are landing in Panama City airport (Tocumen) you can see the never ending lines of boats, huge cargo ships all waiting to cross the canal. For those of you who choose to stay on the Pacific side of the country, the all inclusive 4-star resorts like Intercontinental Play Bonita and the neighboring Westin enjoy the murky waters and all the garbage wash off from the ships waiting to cross the canal. The beach gets swallowed by the tide every afternoon and comes back only in the morning hours, full of mud. This was never mentioned in hotel pictures online or in any of the photo reviews.
We encountered just that. After two nights at the Intercontinental Playa Bonita resort despite delicious all inclusive meals, we checked out and embarked on our search for the “perfect beach”. And by “perfect” I mean soft, clean, white sand with turquoise waters. We rented a car without GPS, armed ourselves with the brochure map from the Budget car rental and headed for the Caribbean side. As a side note: there are beaches along the Pacific side like Santa Clara beach, which are about 1.5 hour away from Panama City, but because of the particular water/sand color requirements we decided to skip the Pacific side.
Almost anywhere you go in Panama, there is free Wifi, which locals call “wee-fee”. The Internet is slow, but it works. We were able to look up beaches on the Caribbean side and they looked promising. So we picked out Portobelo next to the city of Colon as our next stop. I recommend using Google map app, the satellite view to look up the hotel and the beach you are heading to. Some of the pictures are clear enough to see the color of the water!
We took Corridor Norte and said “hey, we’ll just follow the signs”! Ten minutes later we came to a fork where the ramp to “Colon” was blocked off by a police car. The traffic was redirected into the main road which slowly merged into a one lane, super slow moving traffic through the hoods. One shocking discovery: the amount of garbage right by the side of the road. Three are no garbage bins. We watched cars pull over by the side of the road and dump garbage bags into a pile. Some garbage was not in bags, blown around by the wind, stray dogs picking through it. As you look up a few feet down, bananas and coconuts grow on palm trees opening the view into a beautiful rainforest.
People get around by buses, which looks like American school buses on drugs. I did not recognize them at first. The buses are repainted in funky colors with graffiti all over its windows. When I saw the first one I thought it was a party bus. Going deeper into the hood and noticing that all the buses look like San Francisco hippie mobiles, I realized: oh my gosh, those are the school buses used as city buses!!
There are many tire and car shops by the side of the road and there are many construction sites. We got to the city of Colon that it was time to stop for lunch. We were tired of sitting I traffic too. The little shopping plaza with the sign “organic” looked inviting and we pulled into the parking lot. It was the midday heat and the temperatures were in the 90s. I took out my camera to take a photo of the organic sign and immediately a fully armed security guard ran over to me and gestured “no camera”. He was wearing a bullet poor vest and I didn’t argue.
As we made our way up onto the third level restaurant for lunch (the organic sign was for a deli style store), something strange was happening. We heard a continued honking sound coming from the outside. Everyone in the almost empty restaurant came to the window and some began recording a video (the security guard wasn’t there). It was the parade of big rigs. They drove side by side, honking, taking up both lanes. It seems like there were hundreds of them. We asked the waiter about it but she was still struggling to process our order, so explaining this event to us in English was out of the question. One more advice: learn Spanish!
After lunch we decided to take another route since this one had too much traffic. But we could not find our way back. After a few “returnos”, the turn arounds, we learned that word very well! Our rental car map was of little help as it was not detailed enough for this area. Finally, we stopped at the gas station to ask for directions. We were sent back and forth a few times before we finally found a nice Spanish man named Julio, who said “Portobelo, sure, I’m going there, follow me!”
We reached Portobelo, which was much smaller than we expected. Julio informed us that if we want the beach, we need to go the smaller island, which is only accessible by boat. The captain of the boat was arriving in five minutes and he would gladly take us and another gentleman to the beach. We hurried with bathing suits, sun screens and such to board the boat. About five minutes later there was the beach. It was tiny. The water was gorgeous and shallow enough to swim. The fish was not afraid of humans. I saw beautiful yellow parrots, pelicans and other birds. We were not prepared for mosquitos. A bug spray would have been useful to bring with. I elected to stay submerged in the water to avoid mosquito bites.
After the beach Julio treated us to the world class pizza, courtesy of his Guinness award winning friend, who owns a local pizzeria. He is in the Guinness World Record book for making the biggest pizza back in Spain. His framed certificate is hanging on the wall. While we ate dinner Julio, who is originally from Spain, but speaks perfect English, gathered us around an outdoor bar and entertained us with stories. He recommended we go to the Bocas Del Toro islands, the backpacking central for travelers, where we would fine pristine beaches. It was a only an hour flight from Panama City and the airline tickets are cheap. He suggested we meet up with his friend Riccardo, who owns a very famous hostel “Mar Iguana”. What an interesting name!
That same evening we headed back to Panama City. Driving at night, feeling lost and not knowing the name of the road (the street you are on is never marked, only the cross streets), we somehow made it back to the city. We decided to check into Hard Rock hotel in downtown. For $224 a night we got a nice room on the 41st floor with the king size bed. The view was astonishing! One to rival Vegas. The high rise buildings strike with their unique architecture and design. But the best feature of this hotel was its shower, specifically, the shower head. It was ginormous and exerted enough water with enough pressure to feel like you are in the middle of the rainforest storm! This was quite an experience. Naturally, I could not get out of it.
Booking the tickets to depart the next morning was not a problem. Once I found Panama Air, the only major airline that flies there, I went to their website and within minutes I booked two round trip tickets for $499 including all taxes and fees. Finding the airport where the flight was departing from was another story. Despite google map directions, the signs on the freeway actually point to the opposite side from where the ramp is taking you, so you need to know that ahead of time. Otherwise, you will end up going in the opposite direction and pulling up to strangers that look like they would speak English to ask for directions. This is exactly what we did. Likely, the guy in the old Beatle bug, Alex, spoke English and he gladly pointed us in the right direction. But still, even going in the right direction, finding Albrook airport wasn’t easy. We finally spotted it and it took us another good 20 minutes to find the entrance! It is a one terminal building that looks like a warehouse. Miraculously we made it there in time to board our 40-seater plane to the islands.
Bocas Del Toro, or the “Mouth of the Bull” as Columbus called it, is a province of Panama that consists of a mainland and nine main islands. It used to belong to Costa Rica and Colombia at some point, it has a complicated history. Now more than 125,000 people live there and the archipelago is both exotic and primitive. There are some luxurious accommodations available, some of which are all inclusive. I recommend visiting several websites before you choose, here is one: http://www.bocasdeltoro.com/recommended-hotels. Beware of the beautiful pictures of beaches. They usually look nothing like the pictures.
For example, we chose Playa Tortuga: http://www.hotelplayatortuga.com/default-en.html. That picture on their website of the couple strolling on the beach holding hands – that doesn’t exist. Not at that location anyways. The hotel was nice and offered amazing views, but the beach was non-existent. Unless, of course, you consider two 8×10 patches of sand adorned with rocks a beach! Also, the bungalow bar on stilts closed down on the second day of our stay. They began drilling the concrete to replace some water pipes which created lots of noise. The hotel staff slipped an apologetic notice under our door but didn’t offer anything to compensate the guests for the inconvenience. Nevertheless, we enjoyed our stay.
The main town Bocas is on the biggest island Isla Colon. It has a one strip, tiny airport (where we landed) and countless hostels. This is the Mecca for the backpackers. People from all over the world, mostly students, come here to live on a modest budget. The rooms can be very cheap and for $10/ night you might even get breakfast included. But, of course, you will have to be willing to share it with dozens of others. Private rooms available in limited numbers and at a much higher rate of $30-45/ night, which is still a great deal, but check if private bathrooms and air conditioners are included in the deal. It gets really humid and hot even at night.
There are hundreds of boats zipping in and out the docks by each hostel, many of which sit right in the water on stilts. The local “captains” navigate them to squeeze into tightest spaces between other boats docked at the piers. Given its geographic location, population, history and visitors, this place just breathes pirates. Make no mistake, none of the hostels have beaches. You would have to take a boat to get to one, also known as a water taxi. The water taxis around Bocas town run any time, even at night in the pitch black darkness. But taxis to the beaches only run during the day until early evening.
The hostels host parties regularity. There is a party somewhere each night of the week, you just have to know ahead of time where to go. Most locals will be happy to assist you with you inquiry. They love to be helpful. Also, beware of dogs! They run around freely on the streets, beaches and some bars, but know not to come in into stores. I happen to like the idea of dogs in public places and off leash, but not everyone is accustomed to that.
Bocas also has some pretty fancy dining options if you so inclined to have a nice relaxing dinner. One such place is a Indi Lounge. The interior decor of this place beats many I have seen in San Francisco. The food was also pretty good at a reasonable price. Compared to the relative simplicity and border line poverty you see just a few blocks away, it was quite a surprise to find this jewel.
We tried another place “Hobbit” and have eaten there twice, the only good dish there is the coconut curry shrimp. Did I mention mosquitos? They rise with darkness. Just be prepared with the bug spray or you will die from itching.
The tours of the archipelago are offered by many vendors at every hotel and hostel. The prices range from $30- $45 depending on length and the amount of islands visited in the tour. We went with the $45 option and our hotel preselected Gumbit tours as our carrier.
Being stuffed like sardines in a small motorized fishing boat with 22 other people for a full day is not my idea of fun, but we did see some pretty amazing places and our tour guide Juriy, a 21 year old dedicated father, was pretty cool. We saw dolphins, sea stars, sloths, a macaw, and, finally, the most pristine white sand beach in the Caribbean – the island of Cayo Zapatilla.
Cayos Zapatilla is a group of two uninhibited islands. Both belong to the Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park. The tours come to the northern island as the second island is only available for private parties, weddings and such.
We have finally found our perfect beach! Soft, white sand, turquoise clear water, everything we could ever want was there! There were only two problems: 1) we had less than two hours to enjoy the beach and 2) this was sun peak hours between 12:00-2:00 pm, guaranteed sunburn, a raccoon face.
Contemplating how we can get out here again for a full day, we quickly discovered that it takes 45 minutes to get there by boat and the boat will have to come pick us up no later than 4:30 pm. That is the curfew time for boats to come back to harbor. The patrolling police would bust anyone who is not complying with it. And if the boat doesn’t come, well, you know, we’d be stuck on an uninhabited island.
Back at the hotel we explored other options. Renting a four wheeler and exploring the beaches further down the coast of the main island sounded like a good idea, so the next day we embarked on the journey of discovering what else is there on Isla Colon. On Google maps satellite view it looked like Playa Bluff had a long stretch of a white sand beach so we headed north to explore it. Must I add, what a loud ride that was? The four wheeler sure makes a lot of noise! I wasn’t sure how the rainforest animals felt about that. Yet they must have gotten used to it by now since we saw many people riding them, passing us by.
The road to the Playa Bluff beach begins asphalted and quickly becomes the sand road. As soon as we got to the sand, a man ran up to us, waving his hands, trying to stop our four wheeler. “Did you see a black man in a red shirt riding a bike?” “He stole my bike, my money and all my travel documents”. It was obvious the man in distress was in dire need of help and without a second thought I gave up my seat in the four wheeler so he can ride back and catch up with the thief. Seconds later I was standing by the side of the sand road, on the beach, on the Caribbean island, all by myself, watching the four wheeler turning around and disappearing from the view. I’m thinking: Caribbean islands, pirates, thieves.. No, must concentrate on the beach. It is rocky but the water is beautiful. I had no doubt my man will be back for me, but, meanwhile I had to focus on being safe. I watched taxis passing me by in both directions. Oh yes, there are clearly marked american style yellow taxis operating 24/7 on the Isla Colon, the rides are cheap $1-2 to the city center. (Do not try to use the word “cab”, that don’t get it, stick with “taxi”). They have to pick up locals on the way and give them discounted rates. The taxi drivers charge non-locals twice as much, but it is still cheap by American standards.
Within about 20 minutes the four wheeler returned and we continued to our destination.
The Playa Bluff beach was beautiful, but again, looked nothing like the picture. The sand was soft but orange color. The water was a gorgeous azure color but you couldn’t swim in it because of the rip tides. The bottom dropped deep, so it as dangerous to go in. We spent about 2 hours there playing frisbee and laying in the shade under a tree. On the way back we stopped at a bar by the side of the road with the sign “nice people” and tried the jungle juice, a non alcoholic cocktail. It was a bright neon green color and was absolutely unexpectedly delicious, highly recommend it.
All in all it was a great adventure!
Here is the summary:
Total time in Panama: 6 nights
Total time on the islands: 3 nights
Total perfect beach time: 2 hours
Shocking discovery: garbage in the middle of beautiful rainforest, prices to cross Panama Canal