Our short Panamanian encounter started after 26 hours of bus from San Juan del Sur (or actually Rivas) and we were pretty beat up when we got to Panama City. We had 4 goals with our stay here:
- Visit Tuva’s friend, Maria, in Panama City
- See the Panama Canal
- Buy everything we have dreamed about the last months at a real, big, American-style mall
- Chillax at the San Blas islands
We managed to reach all goals with the six days we had, and then some. It must be said that if we’d had some more time we would have visited the cloud forest in Boquete and the beaches in Bocas del Toro, but because of our limited time we had to prioritize!
Tuva studied together with Maria from Venezuela in Lyon, France, 2007-2008 and lucky for us she now lives in Panama City, together with her husband, Fernando (also from Venezuela). We had two great evenings with them in Panama City. The first evening we went to restaurant La Mar, where we tasted some fine Peruvian cuisine (ceviche!), and the day after we got served a homemade Venezuelan dish, Arepas, together with some dangerously refreshing cold red-wine with 7-Up (try it!). Arepas is a dish based on a Maiz-flour patty, which you can find variations of all over Venezuela and Colombia, so we’re already looking forward to tasting the different varieties on our journey south!
Apart from the mandatory visit to the Panama Canal at Miraflores and the Casco Viejo (old town), we also checked out the Causeway, where we got a nice view of the Panama City skyline, and spent a lot of time in the cool air-conditioned malls (it’s very hot and humid here!). It’s worth noting that we took a lot of taxis around town in order to not have to wait too long for buses, and that the taxi-drivers always will try to get you to pay the tourist price (= 3-4x normal price) if you are/look like a ignorant tourist. We talked to people at the hostel to get the real prices and ended up only paying a little more than the locals. Mathias really honed his haggling skills here and even managed to get one of the taxi trips under local fare (we think)!
Our next stop was a 2-night trip to San Blas, where we booked a private cabaña at Isla Iguana (Kuna name Aridup), one of the nicer islands on the archipelago. We left 6 in the morning in a 4×4 “shuttle” and the trip to the dock took about 2,5 hours: 1 hour on regular roads and 1,5 hour on what can best be described as a paved roller-coaster. The jeep takes you up 45 degree steep hills before you dive down into a just as steep descent with a sharp S-turn or two, in less than safe speeds and driving-profiles, making you glad you didn’t have a big breakfast before you left. If you are lucky enough to get the middle seat without neck-rest you will get a really good 1,5 hour core-workout.
We entered Kuna-territory and had to show our passports several times and pay miscellaneous taxes before coming to the place where the boats would pick us up to go to the islands (after an hour-long wait). Luckily our island wasn’t too far from shore, so we had a short boat-ride out. Arriving at the island was just as in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, apart from the crazy pirates, with just a couple of palms sticking up from an otherwise desert island. When we looked closer we could also find some people there and some small cabanas.
We paid $50 per person per night for a veeery basic cabaña without bathroom and including 3 (basic) meals. Everything on the islands is basic, not surprisingly, as they lie quite remote in the Caribbean and are run by the local Kuna tribe. We found 2 nights to be quite enough and apart from just relaxing at the beach we also had a trip to nearby Perro island, where we snorkeled around a shipwreck and saw starfish (estrellas de mar).
All in all San Blas was a nice experience and could possibly have been better if we hadn’t had such great beach times just recently in Nicaragua.
If you want to go to San Blas you need to know the following:
- It costs a lot to get there:
- $60 in 4×4 both ways (you can probably do it cheaper by bus, but after having seen the roads we recommend the 4×4)
- $12 in various taxes (keep your receipt! You need it to get out again.)
- $20-$30 in boat, depending on the distance to your island
- Everything is basic and the prices are pretty high (at least $26 for dorm and almost double for private, but it includes meals)
- You should bring enough water to last you the days (we brought a gallon each) and some snacks for in between meals, as there isn’t too much to buy there
- Bring your liner, mosquito repellent, sun-screen/after-sun, basic toiletries, beachwear, some cards/books, flashlight, camera, passport and some money – not much else
- Some islands are more inhabited than others, resulting in more garbage and sewage and less idyllic beach paradise – check your island before you go!
Panama was short and sweet, now it’s off to Colombia for a 3 week adventure starting on the Caribbean coast and ending in Bogota. More pictures from our travels in Panama can be found here.