Panama Travel Tips

Panama Travel Tips

Disclaimer: After two weeks, I don’t claim to be an expert but if I’ve piqued your interest, here’s a few Panama travel tips I’ve learned/observed after a couple weeks of traveling around. As the wealthiest country in Central America, Panama is a good choice for people looking for beautiful beaches, a Caribbean feel and efficient place to travel with well-paved roads and modern comforts. You have access to the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean, the Panama Canal and a nice mix of Central and South American culture, with a Caribbean flavor and indigenous influence. In addition to beaches, you have areas near volcanoes and the dense Darien rainforest that separates Panama from Colombia. Although I met way more Canadians than Americans, Panama is an especially easy place for US citizens to visit because it uses the same currency and Panama mints their own coins but use American currency and you don’t need a visa for a 180-day stay as long as they have a ticket out of Panama (so some people buy bus tickets to Costa Rica that they may or may not use) and proof of accommodation. Upon entering, I received a pamphlet about 30 days of complimentary tourist insurance for visitors- I’ve never been to a country where I’ve seen that before! Furthermore, Panama’s healthcare is known to be excellent, even making it a medical vacation (which I don’t really understand but is reassuring, nonetheless). With some of the best water filtration around, even tap water is safe to drink (except for maybe in Bocas). That being said, don’t expect to pay Central American prices while traveling in Panama. Taxi rides tend to be reasonable (unless you stand out like I do, but usually if you ask around, you can get a driver that will offer you a good rate) and you can find cheap places to get food, but for public transportation, lodging and tour packages, you’ll basically be paying American rates. Shared dorms in hostels typically start around $12 while privates start at $25- fortunately I enjoyed all my accommodations. Transportation: I wrote a few entries about wild bus rides this trip but most routes offer air-conditioned coach buses that arrive on time. Private companies offer smaller buses that could get you there cheaper (but you don’t even get your own seat, like my trip to David) or more expensive (several hostels offer more direct routes between tourist destinations for slightly higher rates). I had to buy all my tickets in person at the bus station and certain routes only allow you to buy tickets the day of, or day before, your desired trip (for example, Panama City to Bocas). I didn’t fly within Panama but Copa and Panama Airlines tend to be popular options for local routes. Safety: I felt very same in Panama and many travel books that I read recommend it as a place to experience Central America without having to worry as much about safety. No backpacker that I talked to had an issue in Panama. There were certain areas in Panama City that I won’t dream of walking but generally, most areas tourists would find themselves are safe and guarded by police. I can’t remember encountering any beggars or homeless people, even though I moved around quite a bit. Panamanian People: In my experience, the Panamanian people were definitely pleasant. Not extremely outgoing but polite and helpful if you asked them questions.  Kuna women are often in touristy places selling malas, beautiful, colorful hand-stitched fabrics and beaded bracelets.  And they love bachata music, which automatically makes them amazing. Food: I was on a quest for Panamanian food but besides eating Kuna dishes in San Blas, I didn’t have much luck hunting down “traditional Panamanian food”. Fish, chicken and coconut rice seem to be popular. Dustin introduced me to patacones, “Panamanian French fries”, fried green plantains and ceviche is very popular. Generally, their food doesn’t seem to be too healthy- people constantly seem to be eating chips, drinking soda and beer. I hated seeing the Kuna kids eat potato chips for breakfast but that seemed common. Drink: Balboa, Atlas and Panamá are the national beers, with Balboa being the most prevalent that I could see and Panamá having a reputation of being popular with the ladies (from what I was told). Ron Abuelo is the most popular domestically produced rum. Lonely Planet’s cover of their Panama guide boasted about its national liquor of seco, a very raw white rum. However, I didn’t witness this being commonly consumed or advertised at...

Insider Scoop on Kuna Sacred Traditions: Fiesta en la Casa de Congreso

Insider Scoop on Kuna Sacred Traditions: Fiesta en la Casa de Congreso

The boat pulls up to the Kuna village but despite the festive election flags flying, the village looks eerily abandoned. As it is our third day on San Blas Islands, we’ve become better at systematically disembarking the boat but this time, we look questioningly at the captain before hopping out. “I thought there was supposed to be a festival today?”, someone asks Brando, our grizzled guide that scored us an invitation to supposedly partake in one of the Kuna’s most sacred traditions. As we unload, Kuna kids in tightie whites raced to greet us, brown limbs akimbo, looking for high fives. Even on our island, the indigenous children appeared everywhere, borrowing sun block to give each other tribal face paint, asking to play with your camera or flinging each other off island hammocks. But today, they roam with especially unbridled freedom and independence. As we walk through the sandystreets, we wonder, “where are their parents?” and the already tipsy Kuna captain a non-deserted convenience store where he can snag a beer. Drinking Chicha From Coconuts on the Man’s Side Consistent with his jungle hunter appearance, Brando tilts his head, sniffs his nose and tilts his head in the direction of the large Casa de Congreso. The sounds of bachata grow louder as we tentatively approach a large thatched hut with smoke billowing out of the low-entry opening. As our eyes acclimate to the dusty darkness, we see horseshoe-shaped benches, men on one side and women on the other. In the center, a man in a cerulean collared shirt and a cowboy had hops sideways, the string of animal bones broadcasting his movements. Around the edge, the men sit perched on wooden benches, organized by age, with the curious teens out near the door, puffing their chests to look nonchalant, although their anxious grins reveal their excitement. Except for the women, everyone is dressed in decidedly un-ethnic garb. Belly-bellies poke through teal T-shirts “Juan Carlos para presidente” while trucker hats covering the sweaty heads of same person advertise “Jose Domingo 2014”. We plant ourselves on a bench and I watch four adjacent wrinkly men (one in a Yankees jersey, a “junior soccer league champs” tee, a knock-off Polo collared shirt and a Metallica tank) rise and head to the center when they are handed a coconut. They click their “cups”, let out a chimp-y chant and start to do a circular dizzy-bat-esque dance. Suddenly, they stop, line up, down the contents of their coconuts and sit back down, after some dramatic brow-wiping and spitting, passing their coconuts to the next people in line. Just as I start to get in the rhythm, bouncing my feet in time to the shaken animal bones, it stops. Through the smoke, a short man enters the hut and everyone turns to stare. Loaded with lollipop-sized rings, his fingers hardly fit in the pockets of his back jeans. Gold chains and an assortment of other bling encircle his neck, a cowboy hat with a dusty feather covers his silvery hair and as he passes, I see “Music and Money” embroidered across his chest. “Where’s the poker tournament?”, jokes the Argentinean next to me, as several people offer this urban cowboy their coconuts but he waves them away and sits near the perimeter. Eventually, I get passed the coconut, and it takes all my inner fortitude to down the chicha.  I barely could swallow this indigenous “corn beer” which tasted of rotten olives and coffee grinds. The man who passed me the coconut looks at me expectantly, and I muster a same spitball that I tentatively send to the ground. With an approving nod, he advances. Shaded Story time: History of the Kuna After an hour or so, woozy from the booze, heat and smoke, Brando decides it’s time for our village tour. We squeeze through skinny walkways, ducking under breadfruit trees, walk by convenience stores selling soda and chips and outhouses precariously placed over the water. Brando has us sit on the shaded steps near the basketball court outside the primary school (the only one on the island, where attending is optional) and he shares what he’s learned after 3 months living alongside the Kuna. We learn about their battle for independence and their current political system, known as the most advanced of any tribal group in Latin America. Three chiefs (including the “Music & Money” man, I learned) manage village affairs democratically with collaborative decisions made from the Congress Hut. They move families around every three months to help preserve their culture and make sure that everyone can experience island life. Although the community pools their resources, Kuna have always placed a strong emphasis on economic...

Jurassic Park Jungle Rides, Shipwreck Snorkeling, Ghost Stories and Island Camping on San Blas Islands, Panama

Jurassic Park Jungle Rides, Shipwreck Snorkeling, Ghost Stories and Island Camping on San Blas Islands, Panama

From Panama, hopping over the border to Costa Rica is pretty easy but it’s pretty hard to get anywhere else, making this the final stop on most people’s tour of Central America. However, sailing on a charter from Panama City to Cartagena, Colombia is an increasingly popular option for those willing to brave over 40 hours at sea on drug trafficking routes. I learned about it from a Brit in Bocas, who was looking forward to the pit stop in San Blas Islands, just as much as the opportunity to continue her journey into South America. She heard that the indigenous inhibitors of the island only used coconuts for currency up until the 1990s and that they orchestrated the males’ first sexual encounter to be with another man. “Whoa!”, I exclaimed, officially intrigued as evidenced by my widening eyes, “I need to go!”. In addition to her comments, I had heard Dustin and others rave about the beauty of San Blas, a collection of 365 islands (one for every day of the year!) with less than 40 inhabited. Until this trip, I thought a beach was a beach so I preferred a convenient, mediocre one than “waste time” journeying far to find one. But prior to Panama, the beaches I’ve experienced were crowded with sun-burnt tourists toting seam-bursting bags, unhappy babies and squealing seagulls ready to attack for a snack. Never have I experienced the complete tranquility of San Blas’s unoccupied white sand beaches with woven hammocks blowing lazily in the breeze, suspended by palm trees that generously dropped rejuvenating coconuts. As one might expect, getting to paradise wasn’t easy. The previous evening, I stayed in Hostel Panamerica in Casco Viejo, Panama City to surprise Jen from Bocas (who I knew would be staying there). Sure enough, she walked down the stairs as I checked in, her jaw dropping in surprise to see me there. I wore nearly the same expression when I saw her flanked by two tall men with handlebar mustaches, red parachute pants and suspenders. Apparently, the Urban Circus decided to have a spontaneous series of free performances in the courtyard outside of Panamericana. This also explained why the power was out in half the building so the front façade could be dramatically illuminated when they sent acrobats out of the top windows, wound up in sheets, to descend dramatically to ground level. Sharing a hostel with circus performers doesn’t guarantee the quietest night’s sleep and so getting myself organized to wait, bleary-eyed on the curb by 5 AM was pretty brutal. Jeep Ride Through the Jungle & Entering Kuna Territory A Jurassic Park Jeep picked me up and I joined two Dutch, two Brits (well, one was Russian but has lived in London the past 15 years) and two American girls for yet another topsy, turvy 2.5-hour ride through the jungle. Thank God, we had a 4×4 because these roads made the rollercoaster ride to David look tame. The (mostly) paved roads folded in on themselves like a matchbox car mat, crumpled and discarded in the corner of a child’s closet, and every so often we’d hit a dirt patch of car-eating potholes. Usually, I can read, write, sleep, Sudoku… do almost anything in the car, but if you get car sick, you may not survive this part! Eventually, we reached Kuna Territory, where we had to pass through a guarded checkpoint, get our passport examined and pay a $10 entrance fee before being allowed to enter the protected park. Several decades ago, the Kuna won their independence and maintain autonomous territory with their own laws, enforcement and chief-run government. I’ll dedicate a post to the Kuna’s fascinating lifestyle and traditions because co-existing besides them made living on the island unforgettable. The Kuna are a reserved and curious people who, just like myself, take awhile to warm up to people. The captain, with his larger-than-life size (from perpetual beer drinking) and personality was a notable exception. Immediately upon arrival, he wanted to know where we were all from, chatting with us Americans about his college education in Wisconsin and bubbling over with excitement when he heard there was a Russian on the trip, “Let me call my Kuna friend! He studied abroad in Russia. You’ll meet him later but he’ll want to talk to you now!”. Since the Russian speaking Kuna didn’t pick up, we fortified ourselves with a traditional Kuna breakfast of a fried egg and corn cakes then boarded a boat to our Hook Island home for the next three days. Arrival on Hook Island As soon as the hull hit sand, we heard the bellow of a blown conch...

Complete Pandemonium: A Panamanian Wedding in Boquete, Panama

Complete Pandemonium: A Panamanian Wedding in Boquete, Panama

Meet the new star of wedding crashers: international edition! Well, thanks to Dustin, my couchsurfing host who generously scored me an invitation, I didn’t technically crash the wedding. But, for all essential purposes, I arrived without knowing the husband and wife-to-be or anyone else at the wedding, and had such an incredible time that I may make international wedding crashing a habit! Introducing the picturesque mountain setting of Boquete Dustin and I headed to Boquete early for many of the same reasons people from David chose to have their weddings there (if they can afford it): to escape the city’s heat and monotonous surroundings, to breathe in mountainous air and to seek adventure (even though the name of the town makes my Brazilian friend giggle because apparently it means “blow job” in Portuguese). After less than an hour’s drive, we arrived at the outskirts and stopped for coffee where we could enjoy the view of the river demarking the fold of fertile fields and the volcano with its head lost in a halo of clouds. We descended into town and the overcast weather made everything seem a bit more mysterious, exaggerated the vibrantly colored wildflowers lining the roads.   Central Boquete is an adventure tourist town, exuding a relaxed vibe as the crash pad of people who have been hiking, rock climbing, ATVing or zip-lining all day. In addition to all these tour operators, the town hosted an impressive variety of international restaurants: French, Peruvian, Italian, Chinese, Caribbean… I haven’t really picked up on much of a foodie scene in Panama overall but there’s quite a few options, even if all the exteriors look similar. Apparently, Panama hosts the largest number (or percentage) of retirees worldwide, because of the extensive tax breaks and other benefits, and Boquete is a popular choice for people who opt for mountains over beaches. Because of the volcanic ash left incredibly fertile soil, Boquete is blanketed with coffee plantations and barely contains explosions of flowers and fruit. Since the weather was a little drizzly and even hikes appeared to cost money, Dustin and I explored the area by car. We found waterfalls, “haunted houses”, “mi jardin es su jardin” (which unfortunately was closed), several carved totem poles, insane rock formations and “strawberry land”, (at least according to me) where we stopped for a fresh fruit and cream pre-wedding snack. Later, I learned that the popular hike to the peak of the volcano doesn’t require a guide and follows a straight-forward path so that’s an option if you’re looking to spend a day getting more intimately acquainted with nature. The Ceremony… and “Carnival” After-Party The couple chose a simple chapel on a hill for a traditional, Catholic ceremony. The only differences I noticed were the priest leashed the couple together with a giant rosary for a good portion of the mass and the newlyweds symbolically exchanged coins after their rings to represent sharing their wealth. And the attendees wore ball gowns! I tried my best to un-wrinkle one of my least informal sun dresses but I felt incredibly under-dressed near sequins and feathers and formal up-dos. In the car ride over to Valle Escondido, the local country club, Dustin wonders out loud, “I wonder what the reception will be like. The ceremony was pretty tame but usually weddings in Panama are more like carnival than a formal reception”. And right he was. The country club was breathtaking- gravel paths and water falls and we waited for the newly weds in a room draped in gauzy pink, looking at the letters “L O V E”. All of a sudden, I heard a crack, which I first identified as thunder from the ominous stormy skies. As the pops became regular and the crowd started move outdoors, I realized fireworks marked the entrance of the newlyweds. Not your typical backyard firecracker either- a fifteen minute long, orchestrated show! We settled down for a buffet dinner and I took advantage of the open bar to try Panama’s famous Abuelo rum (“the best thing about Panama” in the words of Dustin). Everyone was itching to dance, and the live band didn’t waste any time to start playing salsa tunes and Spanish pop tunes. Dustin and I fortified ourselves with sampling some treats at the dessert table- bridigerio (a chocolate condensed milk creation and common festival/comfort food in Brazil, where the bridge grew up), lemon tart and “drunk cake” (a rum-soaked raisin pudding) then hit the dance floor.   Part way through the party, the door open and in marched a live drum line. Before, I knew it, glowing wigs, silly glasses, neon ties and feather head...

Bussing through banana country with chickens on my lap: Bocas to David

Bussing through banana country with chickens on my lap: Bocas to David

After a final ukuele session with Phil and Soy, I marched through the misty rainforest, slightly disappointed that I still couldn’t find any of the caymen crocs who reside in the muddy puddle pond on the way to the dock. Alone with the garbage that needed to be deposed of in the mainline, I departed on a water taxi back to Bocas Town. Avar, my dreadlock friend, spotted my frizzy blonde halo from an approaching boat, waving me on my way with a grand goodbye “Chao loquita” (Yup, he called me “little crazy”. Not sure why, except that I’d constantly squeeze by him behind the bar to refill my water bottle with filtered rainwater then gulp down it down, like a dehydrated nomad in the desert). After trudging through town to the second water taxi dock, I barely didn’t notice little Maria, my buddy from Panama City, before me in the ticket line. Although she stayed in town, this was our encounter #3… I found her a couple days prior drinking beers at my “office”, the restaurant near Red Frog where I had to go for wifi. Our repeated meetings reminded me again of how small the world is and how important it is to be nice to people, because you never know when you’ll encounter them again. After speeding by the Chiquita Banana shipping vessel, we slowed down to put- put-ing through the trash-filled waters near the waterfront homes of the workers. After landing, I bid goodbye to Maria (for a third time!) and wished her a safe journey to Costa Rica and met up with two Italian girls also heading to David. Some Panamanian promised us a taxi and after we walked halfway across town, we had to pay a $1 to pile on each other’s laps in a pick-up truck taxi, for a 45 second ride to the bus station. They dropped us in a swirling mob of Panamanians, “David?? $10 to David?? We need three!” and all of a sudden, someone strapped to the roof of a small shuttle bus and swept us inside. A squished 3.5 hour shuttle ride to David A skinny teen, apparently in charge of the shuttle’s occupants, brilliantly shifted people, boxes and bags to squish us inside. He placed me on the fold-up seat by the door and as I searched for a place my feet on the crowded floor, a cardboard box of baby chicks appeared in my lap. Apparently, they were mine to have and to hold for the duration of the journey. I could feel the eyes of their owner, a young boy about 10 years old who had to stand a few meters back, peering protectively at his precious cargo. I attempted to reassure the boy and the chicks by greeting the shuffling fur-balls with a welcoming smile when suddenly, the shuttle took off. Without the chance to brace myself, both the box and I almost slid into the teen bus-master who hung the open door, like a sailor from the crow’s nest, looking for additional passengers to usher into the already-packed vehicle. And so it went. Squished tighter than sardines, I slid on my collapsible seat with the wind in my face as the shuttle careened up, down and around rollercoaster roads. We’d stop at random roadside locations, the teen would grab my box, gesture for me to stand and hop out (often while the shuttle was still rolling) to let one person off (if we’re lucky) and pile 3 more on. Then, he folded down my seat, replaced the chickens and we’d be off! Not surprisingly, I didn’t get the nap that I was counting on but the scenery was incredible. As alluded to previously, Chiquita gets many of its bananas from Almirante and the rainforest in that region is dense and plentiful. I didn’t expect abrupt elevation changes but we constantly climbed mountains, whipped around corners on the edges of cliff-like drops., descended at goose bump-inducing speeds with the driver drifting in the middle of the road to avoid potholes. About an hour outside of David, the scenery changed suddenly to something that reminded me of Northern California. Horses shaded themselves under hunched, gnarled trees covered in speckles of something. Cows roamed barbed-wire pastures, munching on lumpy tufts of reedy bush. Cabelleros occasionally trotted roadside on skinny steeds. Arrival in David When I finally made it to David and met up with Dustin, my couchsurfer host for the weekend, I learned the area is known for its nature and agriculture. Even though it is Panama’s second biggest city, it has none of the skyscrapers or tourist attractions of...

This ain’t yo’ mama’s yoga: hula hoop & slack line yoga, surfing

This ain’t yo’ mama’s yoga: hula hoop & slack line yoga, surfing

“‘Now,’ he thought, ‘that all these transitionary things have slipped away from me again, I stand once more beneath the sun, as I once stood as a small child. Nothing is mine, I know nothing, I possess nothing, I have learned nothing…’ He had to smile again. Yes, his destiny was strange! He was going backwards, and now he stood empty and naked and ignorant in the world. But he did not grieve about it; no, he even felt a great desire to laugh, to laugh at himself, to laugh at this strange, foolish world” -Herman Hesse Hanging with Soy makes me feel like a kid again- “yoga” with Soy isn’t sitting stiff-backed and cross-legged, blending into a classful of yogis and meditating on profound lessons about life.  It’s about trying new things, playing around and embracing looking ridiculous.  I’m a klutzy, long-limbed being who has never snowboarded, never skateboarded… when it comes to boards, I can shuffleboard.  On a good day.  With two feet firmly planted on ground.  But having no experience at these things, I decided to approach it with the careless abandon of a child.  On a beach, there’s plenty to inspire this perspective.  I’ve seen kids deciding to bury their head in the sand by screwing their scalp in the sand and toddlers building sand castles in the same spot with relentless determination even when the waves regularly wash them away… they don’t think, they just go!  And that’s what you need to do with these things. Life Lessons Learned Even testing out the slack line, my whole body started shaking like a wobbly chicken, she yelled, “Just go for it, girl! You just gotta stand!” and I stood!  And promptly fell.  But when you’ve only got a couple feet to fall or when you’re trying something in the water, you fall and the water catches you and you’re fine, even if the subsequent wave crashes into you or you snort in some salt water.  But you live and you learn.  And that is life.  Not sticking with what’s comfortable and boring, instead, going out on a limb or jumping into the deep end.  As Neale Donald Walsch wrote, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone” and if you never try anything new, you don’t know what you can do. Another theme to my “multimedia” yoga adventures was the importance of a focal point or driste (as they call it in yoga).  When you’ve got arms akimbo, an unsteady surface and you barely know what’s going on, it’s amazing how something stable to aim for can ready center the body and the mind.  I think this too has implications for the way you live your life.  I’m all about not planning out every step of the path that will take you there (case in point: second week in Panama is still entirely unplanned) but having an eventually end goal in mind gives your life purpose and you can use that momentum to get somewhere, even if it’s not where you originally intended. Prior to my surfing lesson with Phil, Rich, an ex-marine and trainer of special forces, stopped by the chair renting cabana to update Soy and Phil about a naked dating show that will be filmed at Red Frog Beach and surrounding areas starting early next week.  It sounds absolutely ridiculous.  3 couples arrive, are subsequently mixed up for dates on a jumble on jungle activities.  Rich will take them naked zip lining, they’ll catch dinner while naked spear fishing, Soy is in charge of the naked SUP (Stand-Up Paddleboard) yoga lesson and Phil will be doing a naked surf lesson.  When I was lying belly on the board with him timing the waves behind me, I kept swallowing back giggles at the thought of him having to stare up someone’s crotch on an already awkward date.  A driste point helped me get my serious surfer face and although the waves were a little weeny, I was able to get up a half dozen times. Survival Island Tactics In addition to trying all these activities, Soy and Phil enlightened me on survival island tactics.  We threw things, climbed things, shook things and poked things to creatively dislodge coconuts from the nearby trees.  As we drank the water and replenished our “electric lights”, I learned about the coconut lifecycle.  The green ones have sweet water but no nut (no coconut meat to eat) but as they get brown, you need to crack off the outer layer to reveal the hairy part and then can enjoy both the meat (supposedly delicious with peanut butter) and the water.  They taught me how to...