- Explore the islands of Bocas del Toro.
- Get your nature on in Boquete.
- Enjoy the historic district of Casco Viejo (Panama City).
- Catch up on the history of the Panama Canal.
- Take a weekend (or weekday) escape to Isla Taboga
- Stay in the 'new' part Panama City, look into Casco Viejo.
- Mess around with the starfish. Especially in front of locals.
After bidding my friends farewell in Rivas, Nicaragua, I had no idea what I had gotten myself into. Being restless and stubborn, not wanting to spend any more time in San Juan del Sur, I knew I just wanted to get to my next destination. Even if that meant giving up the lap of luxury I had with the van. I went from not having to worry about how or when I would get to the next place to having to take 6 modes of transportation within the next 48 hours.
So, you thinking of going from Nica to Bocas del Toro are ya? Let me break it down for you. I took a 30 min taxi ride to the Nicaragua/Costa Rican border (there's definitely a bus that runs from Rivas to San Jose, I just didn't want to risk being stuck in Rivas for the night because I did not know the time tables of the bus) The taxi was about $15 and don't be surprised if you pick up people along the way. I crossed the border on foot and paid the exit fee of $3. I didn't pay the entrance fee at the Costa Rican border since I was in transit and going straight to Panama. But from my understanding, your luck will vary depending upon your guard. After the border crossing, I managed to get on a bus that took me straight to San Jose ($9). Of course, the Coca Cola bus station in San Jose is seedy AF. Make sure you get into an official taxi here, as some people pose as taxis and will rob you. You kind of have to go with your instinct on this one. I managed to get to Casa Colon Hostel where I spent the night. This hostel is AMAZING because it's really clean and really comfortable. Guaranteed best bed you'll sleep on if you're backpacking. Plus there's hot showers which is a huge luxury for us gypsies. It was a bit more expensive than the rest but I was willing to splurge a little since I had a long day ahead of me.
The next day, I walked to the bus station which is a lot further than expected, and caught the earliest bus out to the border at 9am. Side note: If you're a planner, you can take a short flight from San Jose to Bocas. I, of course, took the more complicated route in the name of saving a few pennies and leaving everything to the last second. You'll need proof of onward travel from Costa Rica and Panama in order to enter each country. A bus ticket, flight or anything that is proof you'll be moving onward will suffice.
I was dropped off at the border (Sioxala, CR) and as I was walking across, I met a French backpacker who was going to Bocas as well. I had no idea that he would be my travel buddy for the next 16 or so hours. We managed to get into Panama just before the border literally closed, and got a van to take us to Almirante where the ferry station to Bocas is. However, the last ferry departed at 6pm and we arrived at 7:30pm. There are seemingly no hostels in this little town. Our cab driver brought us to a Chinese market where he addressed the sales clerk woman as 'China' and managed to get us an open room above her grocery store. I would have been so sketched out if I was on my own, so thank you universe for this French angel. We spent the night in a room that had so many different floral patterns going on, it was enough to give anyone a proper headache. But hey, at least there was a roof over our heads. We explored a bit to find a place to eat, had a chat over some street food and beer and the next morning caught the first ferry out to paradise ($4-$5 depending on time of year). Ferries depart every 30 minutes.
Finally arriving at Isla Colon (the main island in Bocas) we walked over to Casa Verde where I was reunited with my German friends. This hostel is situated right on the water with docks and tubes for guests to enjoy. It does book up quickly! If you don't manage to get a spot here, walk down the main road where there are plenty of hostels to choose from. Hostal Reike is cheap and decent for it's price. Plus if you're not staying at Casa Verde, you can grab lunch at the restaurant/bar to hangout. It's just a bit on the pricey side.
My first day there, my friends and I walked down into the main part of town to rent some bikes. We decided to bike down to the other end of the island to spend the day at Bluff Beach. This bike ride is gorgeous and so worth it! You will ride down a paved road for half of it, then you'll hit a part of the path where it's sand the rest of the way. The ocean is by your side pretty much the entire time. Either pack some snacks and water or get food and drinks at one of the beach bars there. If this doesn't make you feel like you're in paradise, I don't know what will. We stayed here until just before sunset and then biked back.
Day 2: Like I said, Casa Verde fills up fast, so we had to move to another hostel called Hostal Luego. It's a good walk from the main street but if you want something more quiet (or in our case, every hostel is booked) go here.
For a day trip I took one of the morning buses to Playa de Estrella. You can take the bus both ways or if you have some cash to spend, then you can take a water taxi. This beach is pretty mellow and it's main attraction is of course the starfish that stud the shallow water. I loved it, but if you're not into lounging around then you'll get pretty restless here after an hour or so. After a few hours here of reading, sunbathing, and chatting with some backpackers at the beach, we were all ready to go and split a water taxi back to the main town.
Since one of our friends had a plane to catch, our next destination was Panama City. But first we made a overnight pit stop in Boquete. This is a great stop to experience a different side of Panama. Boquete is known for it's coffee tours, hikes and white water rafting. You'll definitely notice the drop in temperature and a difference in the quality of coffee. We didn't spend too much time here, but it's definitely worth a stop if you want to break up your trip. Stay at Mamallena Hostal.
Once we arrived in Panama City, we got nice and comfortable at the Magnolia Inn in Casco Viejo. Maybe even a bit too comfortable. If you are traveling solo, you'll want to stay at Luna's Castle instead since it's more social. There's an underground bar called Relic so if you're not into a party hostel then maybe look elsewhere. Both make great options and are extremely clean.
Explore Casco Viejo. Between the architecture and the little shops and cafes on every corner, you'll definitely fall for Casco's charm. Start at the main plaza and work your way to and along the water.
At night check out Teatro Amador, an old theater turned into a nightclub. The party doesn't start until almost midnight though so don't go to early. If you're not into a club scene there are plenty of cool bars around the area so just explore and discover.
The next morning, we took a cab to the Panama Canal to check out what it was all about. A taxi is about $5-10, but make sure to get the price before you enter the cab. You don't want any surprises. A ticket to view the canal and enter the museum is $8. It's cool to know the history of the canal and finally see it in real life, but once you take a photo or two and maybe watch a boat go through a chamber, you won't need to spend much more time here.
After our tour of the Panama Canal, we went back to Casco Viejo to check out the infamous fish market. If you're a lover of ceviche, you can't miss this stop. Even if you're not, the ceviche here is a game changer. There are so many options but the mixto with the olives is my favourite. Try it if you're not afraid of olives. There is so much going on at the fish market so don't waste your time going to every stand since they all sell the same thing. Check out the first few and enjoy.
Since it was the holiday season, the remainder of the wolf pack decided to cook up a massive Christmas feast. I was really fortunate to have these friends around me at this time. There's a huge super market in Casco where you can literally find anything you want. It's actually quite overwhelming if you're used to the small stands and markets all throughout central. We made our dinner, opened our secret santa gifts and had a nice family holiday.
While Panama City is great and all, there's not heaps to do. Here's where we decided to do as the Panamanians do and take a weekend trip to Isla Taboga to escape the city life. You'll have to arrange a taxi to the ferry station, which your hostel or hotel can help you with. Once at the station, the ferry takes 45 minutes and is $14 (prices change) roundtrip making it a really easy getaway. When we arrived it was as if we were entering a new country. Our bags were separated from us and police with drug dogs walked down an aisle that separated us from our bags. After being sniffed, we were free to get our things and we walked off the dock to a crowd of several people offering accommodation. We were brought to a little bed and breakfast owned by a funny old Panamanian man. In December, it's low season, so not many things are open but everything is cheaper. I would recommend going at this time since the weather is just as hot and there are not hectic crowds.
There's not necessarily a stocked grocery store so if you need anything specific other than the bare necessities (eggs, water, peanuts, ice cream) then go to a grocery store prior to coming to Isla Taboga and bring things with you. Or live on restaurant food. Also, bring cash with you! While I was here, there were no banks or ATM's and you'll need cash to pay for your accommodation and food.
There are several beaches around the island that our more secluded. We would have explored more, but we stayed on the main beach (the one you'll see to your right as soon as you arrive) since there was no one around. It was like we had the island to ourselves. This is definitely not the norm, as Isla Taboga is a popular weekend vacation spot for everyone in the city. In all honesty we were worthless here and did absolutely nothing, but if you're looking to spend some extra time on this island and want a more detailed account of what to do and see check out:
The Wolf Pack only had a few more days before everyone would go there separate ways and head home for Christmas. Me to Florida, the Germans to Germany and our beloved Tassie made his way back to Guatemala to see his lovebird. After seeing all there was to see and drinking all of Super Gourmet Cafe's chai tea, it was time to bounce.
If all of this chat about Panama City seems like nonsense to you and you can only remember one thing, remember this: Don't stay in the city. You can see the skyline better from Casco Viejo any way.