Panama, the last country of our four month journey, served as a constant reminder of how quickly time passes. The last nine days of our trip seemed to vanish in mere moments. We spent a lot of time during the last week struggling to be present in our experiences in Panama, while fighting off the reminders that our flight back home loomed in the near future.
We entered Panama via an early morning shuttle from Puerto Viejo ($66 for two), which dropped us off right at the water taxi dock in the town of Almirante. Our first stop in Panama was a three night stay on the island of Isla Colon, part of the Bocas del Toro province. Though we had just spent four nights in Puerto Viejo, we decided a few more nights in the Caribbean would be enough to get us our fix for a while.
Each of the Caribbean islands we visited (Isla Colon, Caye Caulker, and Utila) differed significantly from each other, but the most noticeable difference about Isla Colon was the presence of cars. The island was much bigger than either of the previous two, something we would find out the next day.
Our first full day on Isla Colon, we set out to visit the iconic Starfish Beach. From the center of town, we took a forty minute collectivo ride ($2.50 per person) to the opposite side of the island to Boca del Drago. From the beach at Boca del Drago, we walked fifteen minutes before arriving at Starfish Beach. We quickly found that the beach lived up to its name. We made sure to arrive early enough that we would be able to see a few starfish before flocks of tourists showed up, scaring them into deeper waters. We did not expect to see as many as we did. There were dozens, some hanging out in groups of four or five in the ankle-deep water. The starfish, perfect water, delicious lobster tacos ($24 total), and dolphins swimming past helped to instill the beauty of the Caribbean in our minds.
With our last day in the archipelago, we hopped on a water taxi ($2 per person) for the short ride over to the neighboring island of Isla Carenero. We spent the majority of the day swimming in the waters, enjoying our last views of the tropical paradise.
From Bocas del Toro, we were heading to the mainland to the mountainous town of Boquete. With five transportation changes, we knew it was going to take the entirety of the day to get there, but it ended up taking longer and becoming more of an adventure than we anticipated.
The first method of transportation for the day was a water taxi ride ($6/person) back to the mainland. Once at the dock, we grabbed a taxi ($1/person) for the short ride to the bus station, where we would catch a bus ($8.50/person) to the town of David, five hours away. In David, we switched buses and traveled the last hour to Boquete crammed into a seat designed for two small children ($1.75/person).
Arriving in Boquete was supposed to be the end of our adventure for the day, but it was only the beginning. After grabbing a quick dinner, we searched for a taxi to take us to our Airbnb on the other side of the river. Whenever we were walking anywhere in nearly any town, taxis would always seem to appear from every angle offering us rides. Of course, whenever we wanted one, they were nowhere to be found. We were used to that, but this time it was taking even longer than usual. Also, for a “quiet mountain town,” Boquete seemed oddly crowded, with a few of the main roads completely gridlocked.
When we finally located a taxi and explained where we were trying to go, the driver simply laughed and shook his head, before pulling away. Luckily, almost immediately, another taxi pulled up, and the driver convinced us he knew exactly where we were headed and offered to take us there, albeit for an inflated $10 fare (“Porque no hay muchos taxis”).
As our driver weaved through the mountains, based on our intermittent phone service, it seemed as though we were heading in the opposite direction of the house. Our Airbnb host had told us to get dropped off at the nearby school and walk down the gravel road to the house. The taxi driver dropped us off at a school with a gravel road running next to it. There’s no way there are two schools on this mountain, right? After pulling our bags from the trunk, the driver waved and drove away. We started off down the gravel road with only the bright stars and our headlamps to guide us. It was only about ten minutes later when an elderly man in a truck pulled over and asked us where we were headed. From our broken exchange, we gathered that the taxi driver dropped us off at the wrong school, and we were at least two miles from where we were supposed to be. We continued down the road, trying to get ahold of our host with the sporadic service we had. At least we were lost in Panama, not some sketchy area of El Salvador, and it was around 60 degrees, not 90. After throwing out a back and a knee from slipping on the loose gravel, we were finally able to get in touch with our host, who graciously offered to spare us the rest of the hike and pick us up.
Apparently, we had arrived in Boquete just in time for the annual, ten day fair, which draws herds of people from all across Panama. The fair causes the bridge over the river to be closed, which made travel to the side of town we were staying much more difficult. Due to high demand, taxi drivers were also brought in from all over the country, many not so familiar with the area. Add those factors together and that’s how we ended up lost in the mountains of Panama.
The experience was just another example proving the veracity of a truism that we always seem to encounter, the more difficult it is to get somewhere, the better the destination ends up being. Our accommodations for the next two nights were probably our favorite of the entire four months. Built by our host over the course of eight years, the treehouse was enclosed by the surrounding pine trees, far enough away from the town to allow for gawking views of the endless amount of stars in the sky ($79.03 for 2 nights).
The next day, we set out to make good use of our brief time in Boquete, the only problem was we were low on cash. We weren’t too concerned though, apparently there were six ATMs scattered throughout the small town. The forty minute walk into town was a sight in its own right. We probably could have gotten to town in less time, but it was hard not to take our time with the beautiful, mountainous landscape surrounding us and the spring-like wind to our backs.
When we arrived at the first ATM, we were greeted with the “Sorry. Out of Service.” screen. No big deal, there were five more. Second one, blank screen. Third, out of service. Out of Service. Out of service. Each of the ATMs had been drained of every last dollar, due to the massive crowds in town for the fair, and it was Sunday so there was no chance they would be refilled at some point during the day.
With only enough cash to possibly buy a small meal and get a bus back to David the next day, it looked like our plans were ruined. This town was doing everything it possibly could to test our love of it. We stood in the center of town staring blankly, trying to figure out our next move. We decided to go to a nearby cafe to get some of Boquete’s renowned coffee and think of something to do that wouldn’t cost any money. About a block from the cafe, we noticed an ATM well hidden from the road. This particular machine was mentioned nowhere online. We fully expected to see another ‘out of service’ or blank screen, but not this one. We hurriedly pressed the buttons from screen to screen, hoping to get the last $20 in the machine. Thankfully, we were actually able to withdraw enough for the rest of our stay in Panama. Feeling like millionaires, we treated ourselves to those world famous coffees ($8.25 for 2 coffees + flan). The town would have to try a lot harder to get us to think any less of it.
There is so much to do in Boquete, dozens of memorable hikes, waterfalls, a cloud forest, rock climbing, a volcano, rafting, but we had only one full day in the town. Much like Panama as a whole, we greatly underestimated Boquete. We decided we would spend the better part of the day hiking the Lost Waterfalls Trail. To get to the trailhead, we got a ride ($10) from an enthusiastic taxi driver, who shared his love of everything Panamanian as we weaved through the mountains. The trail itself was beautiful and, at times, quite challenging. It didn’t take long for us to be covered from waist to feet in mud ($7/person entrance fee).
We stopped to stare and hang out at each of the three waterfalls, but unlike others, did not consider jumping into the frigid waters. The cool breeze and temperatures in the 60s were enough to keep us cool.
After the hike, we hitched a ride back to town with the owner of a nearby campground, ate at the always crowded, local cafeteria-style restaurant (including some sancocho), walked back over the river and up the mountain, and spent the night enjoying the house in the trees.
The following morning was our last travel day. We spent the short bus ride back to David joking around with a comical young boy in the row in front of us, before switching buses to get to Panama City ($15.25/person). Twelve hours after leaving Boquete that morning, we arrived in the capital. From the bus station, we split an Uber ($8.59 total) with a fellow traveler to the historic Casco Viejo neighborhood, where our hostel ($96 for 2 beds, 3 nights) was located.
Panama City surprised us. We knew it was a large, modern city, but the architecture and skyline was well beyond anything we expected. As we walked to the Seafood Market the next day, we stopped a few times in awe at the size, structure, and amount of buildings in the distance. To our left was the modern metropolis and to the right, the centuries old Casco Viejo, it was contrast like we had never witnessed before.
After grabbing some ceviche ($18 for ceviche + drinks) for lunch from the famed Seafood Market, we walked to the closest subway station to buy and load a metro card ($2 to purchase the metro card, $0.25 for each bus ride, $0.35 for each subway ride) to explore the city over the next few days. The subway, which was completed a few years ago, was pristine and extremely user-friendly, rivaling that of Toronto. The public transportation in Panama made us even more ashamed of SEPTA, hell some chicken buses operated better than SEPTA. We took the subway to the other side of the city to check out Panama Vieja, the ruins of the original city. After the subway ride, we were convinced that we had used nearly every possible form of transportation over the past four months.
When we got to the ruins of Panama Vieja, we found out it was $15/person to enter. That’s a hard pass from us. We walked the perimeter of the preservation site, getting some distant views of the remnants of the buildings. That was enough for us.
We took a bus back to Casco Viejo and spent the evening walking nearly every inch of the neighborhood. For dinner, we stopped into the well-known, historic Cafe Coca Cola ($18.40 for 2 meals + drinks). The diner is the possibly the oldest still functioning eatery in all of Panama. They boast having served countless notable politicians, intellects, and artists, everyone from Teddy Roosevelt to Fidel Castro. Thankfully, the place has not descended into a tourist trap. With its counter, locals talking politics, families sitting down for dinner, and unpretentious, authentic food, it’s the type of place we seek out everywhere we go. How did Bourdain never step foot in this place?!
When you’re in Panama City, there’s one thing you kind of have to visit, the Panama Canal. Yeah, it’s not as exciting as boarding down a volcano or snorkeling with sharks, but you just have to. We spent most of the next afternoon at the Miraflores Locks, wandering the museum and even getting to watch a ship pass through the locks ($20/person entrance fee).
Just like that... it was our last day in Panama City, and the last day of the entire trip. It felt like we had experienced years worth of adventures, but at the same time it felt like we were just eating tortas at the top of the Pyramid of Sun in Teotihuacan a week ago. Time is weird. We were just realizing how much we would miss daily adventures and the constant feeling of being surrounded by unfamiliarity. At the same time, we were excited to see familiar faces, sleep in our own bed, and get a large dose of dullness. Emotions are strange.
The last day, it seemed like we were just killing time until our flight at 3:00AM the next morning. We made one more stop at the seafood market for some fried corvina fish and some more ceviche ($25.50). We walked past the arch of the oldest Chinatown in the Americas, though the arch is just about all that’s left of the neighborhood, and we spent the rest of the day drinking coffee around Casco Viejo in anticipation of our sleepless night ahead.
Before we headed to the airport that night, we were able to have a rooftop dinner with some friends from back home, who happened to be in Panama for a long weekend. Much like we had the entire day, we ignored our budget and treated ourselves to steak dinners and overpriced mojitos.
Without anywhere to go, we headed to the airport via Uber ($15.63) around 10:00PM and planned to hang out until our flight. Before we knew it, we were in the car heading up 422 towards home...well, not quite. Due to the backup at customs, we missed our connecting flight and ended up spending twelve-plus hours in Fort Lauderdale.
We embarrassingly underestimated Panama. When allocating our remaining days, months prior, we figured nine days would be more than enough in the country. If we had to do it again, we would have set aside at least two full weeks and, even then, Panama would warrant a return. The country is so diverse, both culturally and geographically, and given its showy neighbor to the north is unfortunately overlooked. The unique history, welcoming people, and beautiful nature will definitely pull us back at some point. The mental images of Panama City are the freshest, but they already feel worlds away.