“I think I’m getting dizzy” I said to no one in particular.
I had walked around the grocery store 3 times by this point and I still hadn’t picked anything up. Best I could determine was that I was having a small panic attack and it was for the stupidest possible reason. I didn’t know what to buy for dinner. The problem wasn’t lack of choice; actually it was quite the opposite.
It had been close to a year since I’d stepped foot in a grocery store where I could truly buy anything I wanted, it was as if I’d somehow been transplanted back in Vancouver overnight. I remember reading that Panama City is kind of like Miami Florida but with more English. It wasn’t far from the truth.
Having heard Panama was expensive, knowing it was heavily influenced by North America, and thinking it wasn’t much more than the canal I hadn’t planned on spending more than a week. In the end I spent nearly three weeks as Panama had so much more to offer than I had expected.
Oh, and I didn’t fall over in the grocery store.
The route from David on the west coast of Panama to the Caribbean islands of Bocas Del Toro on the east the road winds through a formidable mountain range with the highest peak topping out at 3,474m. At the time I hadn’t thought much of spending time there, simply getting to Bocas and then on to Panama City, but plans would change. As the minibus climbed ever higher and the mountains stretched out as far as the horizon, I knew I had to return.
My goal had been to volunteer at a wonderful beach resort in Bocas Del Toro, my poor planning and bad communication resulted in that falling through. Bocas didn’t quite end up being my style either, too expensive, too busy (for an island), and too much party; so I got the hell out of there.
I retreated back to the Panamanian Mountains and to a little hostel called “Lost and Found” not far from the town of Chiriqui, just ask the minibus driver, he should know where to go as its right on the route.
Though the hostel is nestled in the cloud forest and doesn’t get near as much sun as Bocas del Toro, it makes up for it with its lush green surroundings and chilled out vibe. Not far down the mountain the terrain becomes dry, hot and almost desert like, the sudden change is startling.
Lost and Found also has a variety of activities such as farm tours, hikes, and horseback riding, my favourite by far however was the hot spring tour in which we also got to visit a beautiful waterfall the guide, Nico, had recently located. At the end of the day dinner is family style which brings everyone back together to share stories of the day and plan the next day’s exploits.
There is even a little bar/cabin that was built for partying and late nights where we gathered to play horrible games such as Cards Against Humanity as well as a little guitar.
Though only a short four days, my time enjoying the mountain views and air was truly memorable. The hostel was reasonably priced as were a number of the activities they offered.
San Blas Islands
I’m not sure how it’s possible how Panama can be renowned for two sets of beautiful, tropical, turquoise water islands, but it is. If Bocas del Toro in the west is all that is party, the San Blas Islands in the east are the antithesis.
Of the nearly 400 islands only about 10% are inhabited leaving a plethora of deserted white sand beaches to explore. Truth be told there is a bit of a party atmosphere on some of the islands but very few and it’s hardly difficult to escape them.
I spent a week on Isla Diablo doing as little as humanly possible for an all-inclusive $25 a night. I woke up early as it’s nearly impossible to oversleep in a tent or palapa and like most others went to bed relatively early. I suppose the most stressful part of the day was vying for one of the not so numerous hammocks, I’d learned after a day or two that I had to stake mine out right after breakfast. I also managed to blast through nearly 3 books in those hammocks (when I could stay awake), The 4 hour work week being one I’d highly recommend.
We’d enjoy lunch and then head off to go visit another island for snorkelling, volleyball, drinks, or just relaxing. Sometimes I’d swim to the island next door (Isla Perro) working my way through a school of thousands of tiny fish and the occasional big barracuda. We could swim with the parrot fish and other colourful undersea creatures on a sunken ship, explore the reef that surrounded the island, enjoy the perfect sand beach and then return to our own paradise.
The sun and water were warm and inviting, the atmosphere relaxing and the Kuna people who kept the islands seemed as though they truly wanted us there. It was a truly rejuvenating week in paradise.
Panama City was an interesting beast, in some places there are shiny new high-rises and perfectly kept malls. There are neighbourhoods of beautiful restored buildings in Casco Viejo (the old center), as well as nice suburbs in Ancon which used to hold the US army. Finally you have the more run down parts of the city and slums so bad you can’t walk through them.
I was even stopped by two police officers as I nearly walked from the nice part of Casco Viejo to the rough part where I was likely to be robbed. I was floored over how such a rough neighbourhood could be right beside some of the most beautiful places in the old town.
Panama city is also home to part of what made the country so prosperous, the Panama Canal. It was quite impressive, though perhaps I expected bigger given some of the locks I traversed as a child. The new locks will however be much bigger; container ships traversing the canal can currently have a limit around 4500 while the new set of locks will permit ships carrying up to 12,000. There’ll be a new visitor center to view the new locks as well.
In all Panama ended up being much more than I could have expected. While it was more expensive than much of the rest of Central America, it had some amazing places that were still reasonably affordable. If you’re looking for a vacation with a bit of variety, Panama can certainly deliver.
What are your favourite spots in Panama?