So we found ourselves in Panama. We didn’t expect to get this far on this trip but it did seem to have a couple of places worth visiting. The town of David was certainly not one of them! It is, however, a good hub with a well connected bus station.
So that was our first stop and after asking a few locals we were soon on a bus heading for the mountain town of Boquete. We have learned that if you have a question, about anything really, that it is essential to ask several different people and then take the most popular answer as it is very rarely that they are all the same! The other thing we are learning is that every bus ride in Panama is accompanied by constant, loud music of the driver’s choice! Which is OK if it’s your sort of music or you are just riding two stops down the road, but several hours of ‘Panama’s Greatest Techno Hits’ soon goes from being unbearable to torturous. Earplugs have become a travel essential and we have no idea how people sleep through it.
As soon as we got off the bus in Boquete we knew we would like it. It was quiet for a start. It was also quite a pretty looking town and at an altitude of about 5000 feet, it was fresher and cooler. We had been in the heat and humidity for quite a few weeks now so this was a refreshing change.
The town is guarded over by another huge volcano, but unlike the perfectly looking one in Arenal, Volcan Baru looked just like the other mountains which surrounded the town. However, the pull of these slopes is that it is perfect for growing coffee and the area is littered with small coffee growing farms. One type of coffee bean in particular grows very well here and in the ‘World of coffee’ the Geisha bean is apparently very exclusive, ‘the Champagne of coffee’, some say. We did some research and found it regularly wins top coffee awards and in Dubai sells for upwards of $60 a cup!
We both like a cup of coffee so we decided to go on a coffee farm tasting tour. We were picked up from our accommodation by our great guide who told us there had been 13 on the tour the previous day, which was about normal, but for some reason that day we were the only two!
We had a lovely walk around the farm, accompanied by the family avocado eating dog. We learnt so much about the coffee growing and roasting, as well as all the other fruit which was grown on the farm. We then had a tasting session of different types of coffee including the Geisha variety which we both put towards the bottom of our preferences.
There were several coffee tour options available but we chose this one as at seemed more about sustainability and was also involved with coffee related projects in indigenous communities within Panama.
During the coffee harvest workers come to the region from indigenous communities for the seasonal work and are sometimes paid less than US$1 a day. They are also housed in some pretty poor accommodation, even by Panama standards, where rural housing is less than basic to start with. In fact, we actually thought the workers housing on some farms was the stabling for the horses! It reminded us of our Nicaraguan border experience……. One day we will write a retrospective post on that one!
On another day in Boquete we enjoyed an all day hike, high in the mountains. The trail was supposed to be one of the best locations in Panama to see the very elusive Quetzel bird. These birds are said by some to be one of the most beautiful in the World. We were lucky enough to see one in flight but from a distance in Monteverde so we were hopeful on this trail we would get up close enough for a good photo. It was after all mating season when they are at their most active.
Umm.. best place in Panama, middle of the mating season, and five hours of walking. How many Quetzels did we see?……. zero, not even a feather! It was, however, an excellent scenic walk and we did see monkeys and a snake. So all was not lost.
After Boquete we decided we would head for some beach time as most of the last month we have been surrounded by hills and forests and we do like our time by the sea.
Bocas del Toro is one of the more accessible beach destinations in Panama but from Boquete it was still five hours, on two different buses, a short taxi ride, and a thirty minute water taxi. So it was still a long day.
The second bus of the day took us almost the whole way across the width of the country. We had to cross a mountain range in the middle, over which the road twisted and turned and the surface varied from smooth tarmac (not a lot) to pot hole ridden dirt (more than was comfortable). The scenery, however, was spectacular and was almost enough to make you forget about the blaring music and rough surface. Almost but not quite!
After arriving at the water taxi port area, shaken but not stirred, we commenced our relaxed trip out to Bocas town. Well that is how it started out, however, two minutes into the trip and the driver engaged every horse power he could find. The front of the boat lifted way out of the water and we were soon skimming across the Caribbean Sea at a ridiculous pace. “At least he isn’t playing any music”, shouted Steve. “Maybe he is”, screamed Sarah. “We just can’t hear it”.
Bocas del Toro is a group of islands just off the Panamanian coast in the Caribbean. It has a definite Caribbean vibe and the locals all speak Spanish with a strong Caribbean accent. There are water taxis connecting the different islands. Some of them are home to bigger style resorts, but Bocas Town (on the main island) is 100% backpacker land. Our accommodation was on the edge of town. It was a bit rough around the edges, with a few floorboards that needed resecuring, somethings worked, somethings didn’t, but it would do us for a few days and besides we had booked a ‘real’ hotel in Panama City for our next stop.
We stayed on the main island on our first day and took a bus to the very north, about 45 minutes away, where we could access Starfish beach, which was reportedly one of the best beaches in the whole archipelago. It was awful!
At low tide the beach was at best 10 meters wide with compacted grey sand. Over half the beach had been taken over by ramshackle food and drink stalls, leaving virtually no usable beach. The whole scene looked like some building sites we have seen on this trip. Added to this, there were jet skis prowling the water’s edge with the drivers shouting out for potential customers for the inflatable tyres and bananas they were towing along.
Needless to say we didn’t hang around too long and made our way straight back to the bus stop for a return journey to Bocas Town where we boarded the bus with the worst music yet. It felt like a one minute repeat of the same music and played at a deafening level. Plus, the interior of the bus was decorated in bright green fabric. After 30 minutes we couldn’t stand it anymore so we got off the ‘Torture Bus’ and walked back to town instead. Our first day in Bocas had not been a success and we were struggling to work out what all the hype, that we had read and heard, was all about.
Thankfully, the next day things improved when we took a water taxi to another island to visit Red Frog Beach. So called because there are apparently tiny red poisonous dart frogs that live near the beach. The beach wasn’t amazing but a definite improvement on the previous day. No one seemed interested in looking for the frogs, no one that is except Sarah who walked off into the rainforest at the end of the beach in search of small amphibians. Steve obviously had to follow for fear of missing out.
Unbelievably Sarah found four of them in the thick vegetation and the biggest was less than size of a thumb nail. They are apparently a little dangerous so we were careful not to touch them.
We spent the rest of the day laying on the beach and enjoying a dip in the warm water. It was probably back in Escondido, in Mexico, when we last spent so much time on the beach.
The following day we hired a couple of dilapidated beach cruiser bikes and headed up the coast to Bluff Beach. It was an enjoyable ride, the road hugging the sea most of the way.
Bluff Beach was in our opinion easily the best of the three beaches we had seen. It reminded us very much of some of the beaches in Australia’s Far North Queensland where we have spent many happy times.
Bocas del Toro grew on us during the time we were there and we got back in the water taxi to leave feeling glad we had made the effort to get there. We made our way back on the ‘fun bus’ across the corkscrew road, back to the city of David, for a one night stop before we embarked on five days of luxury (for us anyway).
We were heading to Panama City, an eight hour (£15) bus journey away, or a one hour (£55) flight away. We decided that the cost to comfort ratio swung in favour of the flight on this occasion so we left our hotel in David and turned in the direction of the airport.
In what seemed like no time at all we were on a bus heading into the cosmopolitan capital city of Panama (we had to fit a bus in somewhere on the journey!).
In terms of modern architecture, infrastructure and general facilities, Panama City is way, way, way in front of everywhere else in Central America and it’s high-rise skyline is reminiscent of some of the great skylines of the World. It is sometimes referred to as the ‘Hong Kong of Latin America’. This modern city is a complete contrast to the rest of the country.
There are, however, constant reminders that you are still in Central America and the poverty is still there if you look, but it definitely has a different feel to anywhere else we have been on this trip.
This was our ‘treat time’ and our hotel was easily the best we have stayed in, not only on this trip but also since we finished work and for several years before that as well. Initially we felt a little out of place especially when we marched in with rucsacks on our front and backs, and clothes we had been wearing for a few days. There is a line from a James Bond film which amused us once and we employed it to good effect. “We are teachers on sabatical and we have won the lottery”.
Once again we put on our trainers and walked a good part of the city. We found a four kilometre cycle and walking path which followed the curve of the bay. It was a lovely walk with well kept gardens and was completely flat, which was an added bonus as it was very hot and humid, so we appreciated the lack of hills.
The path eventually led to the neighbourhood of Casa Viejo which was, at one time, one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in the city. But it has been undergoing a complete transformation which looks 75% complete, but then most things in Central America look 75% complete…… at best!
To be fair Casa Viejo is beautiful. The majority of the buildings have been expertly restored and look immaculate. Some have a look of Raffles, the famous hotel in Singapore, about them. There are still the odd buildings in a state of ruin but you can see that in a few years time this will be a standout place in the region.
As we walked back through the city we crossed some small bridges over storm drains. As we crossed one of them Steve stopped dead in his tracks. “Look at that, am I seeing things?”, he asked. There basking in the sun only a few metres away was a huge crocodile. It was between three and four metres long and just looking around. It could easily have made it’s way up to where we were standing and continued on to Main Street, Panama City. Apparently it is quite unusual to see them there (in the storm drain not Main Street!).
On another day in Panama City we caught the subway and a bus out to the Panama Canal. We were lucky enough to pass through it 10 years ago so it was good to also see it from land side. Unfortunately, no ships were in the lock during our visit but it is still impressive to see and there is a small museum which shows the history of its construction and transition to Panama ownership in the year 2000. It goes a long way to explain the boom in wealth and construction the country has seen since then.
The canal splits The Americas in two. The Trans America Highway, or Highway 1, runs all the way in various forms from Alaska, through Canada and The USA, Central America, and all the way to Ushuaia at the very tip of South America. It is a continuous road except for one small section. That section is just East of the Panama Canal leading to the Columbian Border. This area is known as ‘The Darien Gap’, a heavily forested area inhabited by drug cartels and Panamanian and Columbian rebel forces. Outside of war zones it is widely accepted as the most dangerous place on the planet. Access is strictly controlled by military checkpoints but it is possible to apply for permits to enter parts of it with an official guide. We decided not to bother and headed back to our luxury hotel to sit by the pool!
Our relaxing time in Panama City was over far too quickly and it was time to pack up the rucsacks and check out. Lottery winnings spent!
We now have two weeks to get back to Mexico for our flight home, so we have more crazy Panamanian buses to look forward to!
“Maybe we really should buy a lottery ticket”, said Sarah, as we walked out of the hotel into the mayhem!