After a few months of being back in the states getting Poppins all stored away, spending the holidays with friends and family, recharging our bank accounts, and raging face on Jam Cruise…it was time to set off on the next leg of this wanderful adventure. We experienced an amazing way to travel via overlanding with our camper and now it was time to switch things up and try something new. Downsizing wasn’t the easiest thing to do, especially to the size of a backpack for the next five months or so. Nevertheless, we got it done and took our first bus ride of the journey from Tampa to Miami to catch the next flight out to Panama City!
We didn’t plan on spending all that much time in Panama City, mainly using it as a hub since it was dirt cheap to fly into. Based on our experience throughout Central America, I assumed that Panama City would be somewhat in line with the other major cities we came across. I expected a couple tall buildings, a cool hip barrio or two, and scattered areas of extreme poverty with massively underdeveloped neighborhoods. Most of that proved to be very similar, but one major difference was the skyline which was one of the tallest and busiest throughout Latin America. The city was loaded with sky scrapers and high-rise condos towering over the waterfront, looking like we were still in south Florida. Being a banking capitol and a major port city featuring the world-famous Panama Canal, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised.
We happen to arrive there the day before the Superbowl, so we booked accommodations for two nights to hang around for the game. We woke up early and set out to find a place that would suit our needs for the big game. We were hoping to find a spot that would broadcast the game in English, serve cheap beer, and have some specials for unhealthy food like nachos and wings. After unsuccessful attempts to check off those boxes at the local sports bars, we had a great idea and headed for a nearby major hotel, figuring that’s where the tourists would be. Jackpot.
The sports bar at the Marriott had it all. Thirty-something TV’s, English speaking broadcasts, food & beer deals, and even a TV dedicated to the actual US broadcast so we could see the commercials. Good thing for all that because the game it self was crap. One of the least exciting football games I have ever watched. The big winner was the dollar beers and the commercial where The Dude orders a Stella instead of a Caucasian.
Aside from doing our best impression of stereo typical fat American tourists doing American things abroad, we also felt compelled to go check out the canal. After a bit of research, I discovered that to see the locks you had to pay an entrance fee which got you into a museum that had viewing decks and gave you access to a short film. It was rather expensive for our budget considering all we wanted to do was have a look. So, being the crafty travelers that we are, we found a little work around that would get us access to view the canal and avoid the entrance fees.
There was a little restaurant with a patio overlooking the locks where you could grab a beer and wait for ships to pass through. It was pretty much all we wanted to do anyway, so it was perfect. Unfortunately, no ships came while we were there, but it was interesting just to sit and admire this incredible feat of man. It was crazy to think about how young we were when we first learned about the locks back in school, thinking that they were a whole world away, just a story in a history book. All these years later, there we were, sitting next to them and enjoying an afternoon cocktail.
Other than the obvious visit to the Panama Canal, we spent an afternoon wandering the old cobblestone streets of Casco Viejo. This is the oldest neighborhood in the city, which had many bad years of gang violence but is now a main tourist hub lined with cozy cafes and high-end restaurants. We made a pit stop for lunch at the central fish market, Mercado de Mariscos, which is always a favorite activity of mine. This time around we tried a delicious platter of seasoned prawns in a coconut sauce that was fantastic.
While we enjoyed the few things we did while we were there, I can’t say Panama City had all that much appeal to me. A good hub, but I was ready to move on after a couple days. It was time for our first overnight bus ride, and I couldn’t wait to get to the other side!
Bocas Del Toro
It was a 10-hour ride from Panama City to the small town of Almirante where the boats leave to take you to Bocas Del Toro. The first part of the ride wasn’t so bad, but the last few hours was stop and go and constant winding roads jerking you side to side in your seat, so needless to say, we didn’t sleep all that well.
After the bus landed and we got to the docks, we waited a bit and then hopped on the next boat out to the islands. One of the benefits of taking the overnight bus was arriving at the crack of dawn and being treated to a beautiful sunrise on our way out to Bocas.
Bocas is an Archipelago consisting of a small chuck of mainland Panama along with nine main islands, each having a bit of its own character. Some are more populated than others, and some are not populated at all. We planned on exploring the area for five days and decided to stay on three different islands during our visit. Our first destination was the main island called El Colon.
The launch from the mainland takes you to El Colon where you could find yourself accommodations or take smaller boats to the other islands. We found a cheap private room on Airbnb just outside of town and started our Bocas adventure there for two nights.
The waterfront where the launch drops you off is jam packed with two- and three-story structures, all with decks and docks stretching out over the water. This is where you find some of the islands coolest dive bars and restaurants. Being creatures of habit, our first order of business was to walk the streets and check out the different shops, bars, cafes and restaurants. El Colon certainly has no shortage of that sort of stuff.
As is our problem with many of the awesome destinations we have found along the way, we could have easy spent a week on El Colon just so we could try all the different restaurants. In the short time we did have, we quickly found our favorite spot, Om Cafe, and ended up eating there twice. The place was run by a super sweet Indian woman(from Canada) who blended her menu to feature a bit of Indian, some Thai, and some of what ever she may be feeling like cooking that day. Between the butter chicken and the Pad Thai, it may be up there with some of the best meals we’ve had on the entire trip.
One of the days we rented bikes and spent the afternoon exploring the beaches and cool dives just outside of town. There is a dirt road that takes you along the coast up to the popular Playa Bluff beach, a popular spot for surfers from all over the world that travel to Bocas in search of the perfect wave. As you continue along that coastal road you pass by a handful of beach dives which set up the perfect course for afternoon beach bar hoping. At the end of the line, the Bom Bom Beach Bar also served up our first taste of the popular Panamanian snack Patacones, which are smashed plantains made into a fried patty. Bom Bom’s version of the plantain snack came topped with shredded seasoned beef with guac and was unreal good.
While the bikes helped us reach these further away beaches, there was still another side of the island to be explored, but too far for bikes. The next day we hopped on a local bus and headed to the other side, so we could check out these more secluded beaches, including the famous starfish beach. The beaches themselves were great; calm seas, clean & clear water, and white sand with awesome palapa bars serving up local seafood and fresh cocktails. Unfortunately, the heavy tourism has driven off the starfish population, so your lucky to see one or two in the water where you used to see tons.
After making stops at about 10 different bars and restaurants over the course of three days, we knew it was time to get away before we broke the bank. Next up we planned on spending a couple nights on the more tranquil island of Bastimentos.
Bastimentos features two main areas where you can find accommodations. You can stay in the town on the west side of the island, or you can stay in one of the lodges or hostels on the north side of the island near Red Frog Beach. The area around Red Frog is much more spread out, with a few places scattered along the beaches and no real town area. We opted for a hostel in the town, which was the more affordable route, but ended up being best for us anyway.
El Jaguar hostel is built on a dock over the water with two floors of private rooms and dorms, as well as a big deck that was home to the common area and kitchen. We had a room on the first level, so in between the planks that made up the floor you were looking down at the water below. While the hostel was basic, we enjoyed the uniqueness of sleeping above the waves.
With only a couple days to explore the island, we got right to it and began to wander as soon as we landed onshore. Our first adventure was a nice little hike up the hill and out to the north side of the island to the secluded Wizard Beach. The hike was minor and featured a cool half way point café that was all about sustainability and organic farmed products. They made some of the best fresh herbal lemonades I’ve ever tasted, and they were perfect to cool us down after hiking in the hot Panamanian sun. Wizard beach is only accessible by hiking to it, making it serene and peaceful with only a handful of other people around. Throw in a fresh coconut and I don’t think we could ask for anything more!
We made our way back to town in the early afternoon and set out to see what we could find for happy hour. Once again, we stumbled upon a gem tucked away in the palms just up the coast a bit from the town. The Firefly had a handful of rooms for rent, a nice little pool, a little outdoor yoga studio, and an outstanding laid-back restaurant. It was one of those places that everything on the menu made you salivate a little bit. Even more impressive was their list of craft island cocktails that each had a little hip spin to it. Obviously, my favorite had to be the Chai Russian, a spin on the white Russian using Chai Tea instead of milk. We put this place on the list for sure, and really hope to make it back here someday.
After chowing down on some super fresh guava ceviche with our fantastic cocktails, we figured we would take a little sunset walk along the waters edge before packing it in for the night. As we strolled along under the palms along the waterfront, we heard some rustling in one of the trees and looked up to find a Sloth slinking his way through the trees! We were dying to see one in the wild, and finally there he was, moving in what seemed to be slow motion along a branch, slowing climbing his way into the crest of a palm tree where it seemed he would be spending the night. Its hard not to love these guys with their furry bandit looking faces and gracefully, almost frustratingly slow movements. Second favorite only to the majestic Keel Billed Toucan, of course.
Our last day on Bastimentos we carved out for a visit to the north side to explore Red Frog Beach and the coast line that stretched east from there. A boat took us around the south side of the island from our hostel to a thin section where we could walk across to the north side. After a short walk through the jungle, you arrive at the large beach that stretches in both directions fading out of view as the island curves around. Aside from a couple lodges and bars, the area was undisturbed, and one of the more picturesque beaches we have encountered throughout Central America. We spent the day walking the coast from beach to beach, drinking fresh coconuts and living in paradise.
As much as I enjoyed it though, I preferred staying on the town side of the island where we could walk around and check out more places but visit the beach when we so desired. A couple days there was plenty to enjoy what Bastimentos had to offer. For our next spot on the island-hopping adventure, we planned on doing less exploring, and more chillin’.
On the island of Solarte, we scheduled ourselves an evening at Bambuda Hostel, one of the many jewels of Bocas Del Toro. The hostel prides itself on a family vibe and features a wonderful sundeck with a pool, hammocks and nets for lounging, and its most popular attraction, the huge slip and slide built into the hillside that spills you out into the water below. It was a little pricey for our budget, so we planned on one night only, and it was everything we hoped it would be.
Days spent lounging by the pool, reading a book, occasional slip and slide rides, afternoon cocktails, you couldn’t ask for much more. For dinner, they serve all the meals at once and everyone eats together family style, creating fun comradery between fellow travelers. Dinner together leads to games and drinks, and it’s a grand old time.
If you get bored with that sort of stuff, they also rent kayaks that you can take out to a really cool bar only accessible by boat. The Blue Coconut is its own little island bar built on a dock surrounded by clear blue Caribbean water. Every weekend, Bocas is home to a drinking event called Filthy Friday where boats take heaps of eager young partiers from island to island and bar to bar to drink their faces off. Apparently Blue Coconut Is one of the spots that erupts with a drunken raging dance party, but with our old age an all, we decided to skip the floating frat party this time around (although I have heard it is a good time).
Five days absolutely flew by while we were exploring Bocas Del Toro. Another high on the list of places to return to later in life spot, I would recommend it to anyone. We were now headed back to Panama City to gear up for the trip I had been looking forward to since we began traveling; Sailing to Colombia through the San Blas Islands!
Its hard to put into words how amazing that sailing trip was, but I guess I’ll give it a shot. The trip is very popular on the travel trail for backpackers venturing to Colombia from Central America, or vice versa. There is a slew of boats that do the journey, and you plan your trip by reading a bit about the different boats and selecting what experience suits your desires, and what time frame fits your schedule. Some boats are larger, fitting up to 20+ people and offering more of a party vibe, and some are the complete opposite, offering a chill vibe and smaller crew. After doing my research, I decided La Gitanita was our ship.
La Gitanita is a 51’ Gib Sea built by Dufour (for those sailors out there) with five cabins that fit twelve travelers plus a three man crew that sleeps in the common room. While fifteen people on a sailboat for five days may seem like a lot, it actually worked out to be a perfect size crew for our trip. We set sail in the morning and our first leg was an 8-hour tour along the banks of Panama down to the start of the San Blas islands. San Blas is an archipelago off the Caribbean coast of Panama consisting of 365 islands and cays scattered throughout in the beautiful turquoise waters of the Caribbean.
The first three days of the trip, following the 8-hour sail to San Blas, consisted of island hopping to a couple spots each day. Our Captain, Caesar, made sure each one of our stops was unique. Some islands had great snorkeling, others great beaches, and others were perfect for land activities such as volleyball games, bonfires, or simply lounging in hammocks and taking it all in.
One of the nights, after playing volleyball seaside with some local islanders, the crew set us up with a feast made for kings on the island. Each of us were served a big fat lobster, cooked to perfections and topped with a fresh chimichurri sauce. Never thought of using chimichurri on a fresh grilled lobster, but it was incredible.
As for the food other than the lobster, it was an A++++. Each day as we sailed from island to island we set the fishing lines out and hit a few times. Our first catch was a small yellowfin tuna, followed shortly after by a beautiful wahoo. The wahoo was a good 25 pounds and instead of bashing it with a club to kill it once it was boated, Caesar and crew went the lady friendly route and jammed a bottle of rum down its throat. Not a bad way to go for a fish I’d say. That night the crew made us fresh wahoo ceviche for dinner that was to die for. The tuna on the other hand was saved and eventually served to us as a fresh yellowfin sashimi for a late after noon snack. As if the fresh caught fish wasn’t enough, as soon as we anchored for the evening at one of the islands, our captain went for a conch hunt, fishing out five huge fresh conch that later were added to a delightful seafood curry.
As any good fisherman knows, they call it fishing, not catching, so while we did get lucky with our own fresh caught fish, those other boats who might not get so lucky could purchase fresh seafood from one of the locals that cruised around in the evening selling lobsters, fish, conch, octopus, you name it. I can’t say I know how the food is on other boats, but I can tell you it would be hard to beat our culinary experience on board La Gitanita.
Food aside, our trip was made most special by the incredible group of people we ended up sailing with. Put a group of that size together in a small space at sea for that long and you never know what you are going to get. We were extremely fortunate to have twelve cool people that enjoyed being social and all seemed to be on the same wavelength, it was truly special. We got along so well that we all spent time traveling together throughout the weeks and months that followed the trip.
Everything was so great, I can’t even decide what my favorite part was. Playing beach volleyball each day until sunset, cutting open coconuts to fill with rum on our own tiny islands, catching and eating amazing tropical fish, eating all that other fresh seafood, or just sailing from island to island in the Caribbean Sea with amazing people. Simply the best.
After three days of island hopping, we had a 30-hour journey across the ocean to Colombia. We left at night after dinner, and at the instruction of Captain Caesar, everyone took two seasick tablets and passed out. We woke to a fresh beautiful day with no land in sight. Most people continued to take their seasick tablets and nap throughout the journey. I, on the other hand, being used to long trips on the boat out at sea took my seasick tablet in the form of cold beer and had a party for one all the way to Colombia. I had a blast watching the flying fish glide over the waves, even saw a big old sail fish who somehow escaped our hook that was trolling behind the boat. We did end up catching one last fish, a good size Kingfish, just as the shores of Colombia came into sight on the horizon.
We pulled into Colombia after only a 23-hour sail, beating the projected time by seven hours due to favorable winds and currents. Just one more little cherry on top of an already unbelievable trip. Usually on these trips everyone scatters once we land in Colombia, but since we all got along so well, we spent one more evening on the boat at the dock playing games and reliving the glory of what we had just done.
I think I can say with confidence, best 500 bucks I have every spent!