Wednesday, October 3, 2012

72 Hours in Panama's Stunning San Blas Islands - 8-17-2012

From August 15th until the morning of August 18th, I was on a sailing charter that cruised through the San Blas Islands of Panama. I can tell you without exaggeration that the San Blas Islands are among the most beautiful places on Earth, and certainly one of the most beautiful places I have seen myself. A previous post talks all about why you should visit these gorgeous islands. This post covers Day 3 of my sailing charter. Read about Day 1 here. Read about day 2 here.

The San Blas Islands, Day 3:

I woke up in the middle of the night when flashes of light disturbed my sleep. The flashes were coming from outside, above deck. In the dark, I climbed up and saw forks of lightning far off. The storm that opened up just as Ingmar, Ilonka and I returned from the island last night had passed and another storm was coming. The sea was calm now and there were even patches of starry sky through the cloud cover above. Far away, white and yellow flashes lit the night.

A few hours later, we were all woken up in the dark by raging wind and violent waves. At one point the ocean was so violent I was afraid the boat would capsize. My cell phone fell to floor along with some food. My camera would have crashed to the floor as well, had I not fumbled around for it, grabbing it just as it was about to slip over the edge of a cubby hole I found for it. Thankfully, the gale passed as quickly as it was upon us and soon we were all asleep again.

Chichimi, San Blas Islands, Panama
We woke up to a cloudy, drizzly morning. The sky was grey and there were darker clouds on the horizon. Ingmar spent much of the day swimming but I stayed out of the water. I love the water, but I had my fill the last two days. The captain and Mateo rowed to a nearby island, leaving only the passengers and I on the boat (Dina had spent the night on the island with her Kuna friends and hadn't returned). The Da Capo was so quiet and peaceful when Mateo wasn't jumping around it. I nearly fell back asleep in the cockpit listening to the waves gurgle against the dingy while a light rain fell and the far away rumble of thunder sang through the air.

Midday, Ingmar and I rowed to a nearby island. We had to find a Kuna that Captain Mats knew and have him arrange for a water taxi to pick us up in the morning so we could head back to Carti, and then to Panama City. This island was larger than the others we visited and we stopped twice to ask Kuna for directions to our man. Following a path through the jungle in the rain we came upon a small Kuna village and several tourists who were staying on the island. I struck up a conversation with a pretty Spaniard. She was from Madrid. I told her I had visited Barcelona and really liked it. Soon, Ingmar and I found our transport man and we were all set for tomorrow's departure.

Your author in Chichimi looking adventurous.
Ingmar and I left the village to explore the island. Even in a dark and cloudy rainstorm, the San Blas Islands are stunning. Ingmar and I took pictures of white sand beaches, palm trees that reached across the sand above the water. He took a picture of me I wanted for a while. Damn I look adventurous standing in knee deep water, a key hanging from my belt, a bag over my back and paradise behind me! Yay, backpacking!

Ingmar I took a few more shots, then hurriedly rowed back to the Da Capo because the rain was falling harder now. The rest of the day, I just stayed on the boat, alternately writing about my trip and talking to Ilonka. That evening, we all had spaghetti bolognaise that Dina prepared. It was very good, and a fine way to end my last full day in the beautiful and serene San Blas Islands.


The water taxi arrived mid-morning of the 18th to take Ingmar, Ilonka and myself to the mainland and the taxi back to Panama City. Our three day cruise through the San Blas Islands was over. Back in Panama City, the taxi dropped me off first. I said goodbye to Ingmar, who was heading to David, Panama later that afternoon. Ilonka and I spend the next few days together.

Ilonka at Mamallena in Panama City
Playing tour guide for Ilonka through Casco Viejo, along the Cinta Costera, and in Bella Vista was a great way to cap off my trip. I'll never forget Ilonka telling me about the finer points of floor tiling and interior decor for five minutes after she walked back to our streetside table at Casablanca in Casco Viejo and I asked her "what did you think about the inside of the restaurant?" That girl had one hell of an eye for detail. We spent those days talking more about where we've been and she shared some great stories from her 18 months living in Mexcio, her month traveling through Panama and the years she spent building her career and her business.

Spending our last afternoon together in Panama City checking email, organizing pictures and listening to Jack Johnson on her iPhone might be my favorite single memory from my four weeks of backpacking through Costa Rica. I mentioned to Ilonka back on the Da Capo that my favorite singer was Jack Johnson, and she had "Good Together" queued up when she handed me her earphones with a smile. For several days, we were indeed good together.

It was the evening before I was to fly home and she was to continue on to Bocas Del Toro when I saw her for the last time. We were standing on the Via Espana beneath a streetlight. It was a humid Monday night in mid August. We had both extended our night as far as we could and decided it was time to go our separate ways. I waved down a cab for her. She and I hugged and kissed goodbye before I opened the taxi door for her and closed it behind her. The taxi turned right at the first corner and she was gone.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

72 Hours in Panama's Stunning San Blas Islands - 8-16-2012

From August 15th until the morning of August 18th, I was on a sailing charter that cruised through the San Blas Islands of Panama. I can tell you without exaggeration that the San Blas Islands are among the most beautiful places on Earth, and certainly one of the most beautiful places I have seen myself. A previous post talks all about why you should visit these gorgeous islands. This post covers Day 2 of my sailing charter. Read about Day 1 here.

The San Blas Islands, Day 2:

The Da Capo - San Blas Islands, Panama
I woke up early on the Da Capo's deck to a deep blue morning sky punctuated with wispy cotton ball clouds. I had slept the night above deck, dreaming of a tropical paradise while the Da Capo anchored in one. Being on vacation, I treated myself to a couple more hours of sleep below deck before I started my day for real. Yay, sleeping in!

After a quick breakfast with Captain Mats, his family and the two other passengers, we left our night anchorage in eastern Cayes Limones and sailed east two hours to Cayes Hollendaise. The journey was smooth and I found myself quickly getting accustomed to the rocking waves, salty sea spray and stiff breeze. There's something magical about this part of the world. The water is so warm, as is the air...but it's pleasant and not in any way oppressive. Every island we passed had white sand and thick green jungle. Every island had at least one simple hut built from wood boards and a thatched roof. The San Blas Islands really were a tropical paradise, unspoiled by the over development and exclusive resorts that turned so many stunning locales into generic, expensive, culturally bankrupt, Westernized tourist traps. Waikiki or Cozumel, anyone?

We anchored far from shore when we arrived in the Cayes Hollandaise. "The reefs come up quickly here as you approach shore," Captain Mats told us. It was fine, though, the five minute swim through calm, warm, green-blue water was heavenly and I hadn't done much more than splash around the previous day. A proper swim felt good. Curious schools of bright yellow and blue fish came near me a few times during my swim, wondering who the interloper was.

White sand beach in the Cayes Hollandaise
This island in Cayes Hollandaise looked to be uninhabited. Ilonka and I walked through the jungle and around the shore for a good 15 minutes and didn't see a single hut. Captain Mats' six year old son, Mateo, accompanied us and played guide, energetically explaining to us in Spanish which plants were medicinal, which the birds ate, which had pretty flowers when blooming, and so forth. We walked along the soft, white sand beach and waded waist deep through water so clear it seemed you could see forever through it if you dunked your head in it and took a look. After climbing over a few palm trees that had fallen into the sea,we came upon a small crescent-shaped cove. Partway along the beach, several trees reached over the water, creating a shady place to sit in the warm water and rest. How was it possible that every place we stopped at was more beautiful than the previous place?

Ilonka and I sat down in the water and talked for a while before Mateo got bored and started acting up. Ilonka volunteered to accompany him back to the Da Capo since she could see I was completely enraptured with my picture post card gorgeous surroundings. The pair walked off and I was left in silence.

Cayes Hollandaise
Gentle waves of clear water lapped quietly against my stomach. Tiny yellow and grey striped fish came up and swam underneath my legs. Palm fronds whispered in the warm tropical wind. For 10 minutes or 30 minutes or two hours or forever, I sat in that turquoise water, on top of white sand, beneath the blue and grey sky, and in front of a wall of dark green palm trees. I had NEVER been so satisfied with my life as I was right then and there.

I remember eight months ago being stressed about my job's future and about what the future might hold for me in general. "Have I saved enough money to take a break? What about passive income? When can I walk away from this three hour commute and do something I love, like travel?" I used to worry. How I wanted to run away back then to a beach side paradise and find a jungle to explore, warm water in which to swim. Now I was doing just that...I was vacationing in paradise...a beautiful, verdant paradise with crystal clear perfect water. I had jettisoned the commute, the office politics, and the job. I had saved enough money to take a break. I was living my ideal life. Talk about manifesting my will!
Ingmar interrupted my serenity and we talked a bit. He was having as great a time exploring the island's jungle and reef as I was soaking up its peace and beauty. I accompanied him further around the cove before he suggested we turn back. We had been away for a while and he said Captain Mats wanted to reach our next stop, Chichimi, by mid afternoon. Satisfied, but by no means sated, I returned to the Da Capo with Ingmar. I'll definitely be coming back here one day. Soon.
I totally ate all of that.
We left Cayes Hollendaise and traveled another couple hours east to Chichimi, where we stayed for the afternoon and anchored for the night. Shortly after anchoring, I kayaked ashore with Ingmar and we explored this island. We also kayaked to two other nearby islands, but only observed them from the sea. Just like yesterday, the water between these islands was so shallow we could have walked from island to island in shin deep water. Back ashore, Dina prepared a sumptuous lunch of skewers, rice, two salad, another rice dish, rice/banana/milk for dessert. She was friends with the local Kuna family and they helped her some as well. Ingmar and I cooked the skewers on a BBQ at the beach. 
Ilonka in Chichimi in the San Blas Islands, Panama
After lunch, Ilonka and I took some pics of this tropical paradise, and took some tourist shots of each other. During part of her 20s, Ilonka modeled professionally. She stopped in her late 20s, but there's no doubt that it's still in her blood. Just like riding a never forgets how to do it, right?

Ingmar and I went sea kayaking again after Ilonka's impromptu shoot. This time, he and I rowed to several nearby shipwrecks, including a large single hull yacht and a small freighter rusting away on top of a reef that reportedly ran aground when the night watch fell asleep. We must have kayaked several miles because I remember being quite tired. Ingmar got out of the kayak a couple times to go snorkeling, but I was content to rest in the kayak and enjoy floating on the sea. 

Bonfire in Chichimi
More than an hour later, he and I came back to a dinner of lunch's leftovers and amazingly flavorful chicken that Dina marinated and BBQ'd. To top it off, we started a big bonfire (not as big as the ones I've seen in Playa Samara) from dried palm fronds. By the time the fire was dying, I noticed the air had grown heavy and still. Distant peals of thunder and forks of lightning announced an encroaching storm. Ingmar, Ilonka and I commandeered the Da Capo's raft (which Dina had brought), and kayaked back to the boat through the pitch black night. We arrived at the Da Capo less than a minute before the heavens opened up and a downpour began.


Tuesday, September 25, 2012

72 Hours in Panama's Stunning San Blas Islands - 8-15-2012

From August 15th until the morning of August 18th, I was on a sailing charter that cruised through the San Blas Islands of Panama. I can tell you without exaggeration that the San Blas Islands are among the most beautiful places on Earth, and certainly one of the most beautiful places I have seen myself. A previous post talks all about why you should visit these gorgeous islands. This post tells the story of Day 1 of my sailing charter.

The San Blas Islands, Day 1:
Carti, Panama
The first day of our charter, our 4x4 taxi picked me and several other travelers up from Hostal Mamallena in Panama City at 5:30PM for the four hour ride from Panama City to Carti. Only three of us, though would be doing the boat charter. Ingmar was a 24 year old Austrian guy who looked a bit like Harry Potter, if Harry Potter was 6'4" and built like a mountain. Ilonka was a 32 year old Dutch woman who turned out to be a former model and currently owns her own interior design firm back home. And of course there was me, the former economist turned backpacker. The scenery outside of Panama City is beautiful, by the way -- winding roads and dense jungle for hours. Around 9:00AM, our taxi dropped us off at a dirt parking lot a wooden dock and two water taxis. This, apparently is Carti. We waited 20 minutes for the water taxi to arrive, but it gave the three of us plenty of time to talk and begin getting to know each other.

The Da Capo
The 30 minute taxi ride from Carti to Captain Mats and the Da Capo was smooth and was very pretty. Light blue sky above, dark blue water below and dark green jungle in the distance reminded me I was along way from Los Angeles. We greeted Captain Mats, a sixty-something Swede from Stockholm as he helped us onto his boat. Once aboard, Captain Mats showed us around his 36 foot sloop, the Da Capo, and collected the $300 from each of us for our three night cruise.

Captain Mats is a former investigative journalist and media consultant. He worked for decades for the largest newspaper in Sweden before he and his wife started their own media consulting firm. During the post-Internet bubble of 2001 to 2003, many of his clients merged or were acquired. The successor firms saw PR and media consulting as a cost center and so Captain Mats' business dried up. He and his wife sold their PR firm, split up somewhere along the line, and he dedicated himself to his lifelong hobby -- sailing. His adventures took him across the Atlantic multiple times, through the Caribbean and for the last several years, to the San Blas Islands.

Ingmar, Ilonka, your author making friends in San Blas
We start our trip when one of Captain Mats' Kuna friends rows out to the Da Capo in his canoe. He comes aboard and greets us with a friendly smile. In accented, but perfectly understandable English, he invites me, Ilonka and Ingmar to Nalu Nega, the island he and his family live on, for a tour. "Bring your cameras and leave your shoes," he advises with a laugh. Damn good advice for any tropical vacation, I'd say!

The Kuna are friendly folks, but aren't shy about asking for a dollar every time you take a picture with one. Thankfully, there were plenty of other great shots to capture, including charming wooden huts, clear water, and smiling children who were gracious enough to not ask for money. Our guide explains that about 20 families live on this island and that his uncle is chief. The island has a school, a sparely appointed hostel, a basketball court and a few small stores selling bottled water, bug spray, soap and other simple consumer goods. He gives us a tour of his hut as well, a huge structure with hammocks and clothes hung throughout. Large pieces of thin, multicolored, patterned cloth partition the large hut into "rooms." There's no running water or electricity, but I'm still impressed at the small luxuries the hut has. The large luxuries of free time, a warm climate and a stunningly picturesque locale that come with living on this island leave me more than a little jealous.

Damn that coconut was good. Yay!
Your author and a coconut in San Blas. Damn it was yummy.
Also awesome was sipping coconut water from a freshly opened coconut, which Ingmar, Ilonka and I did leisurely under the shade of a palm tree after our tour of Nalu Nega was complete. After Captain Mats' friend rowed us back to the Da Capo, we sailed east about one hour to Isla Pero (Dog Island). Dog Island is a tiny island that took all of 15 minutes to walk around. People don't go there for the hiking, though. They go there for water so clear you could see forever, so blue you think you're in a painting and so warm you'd think you had died and gone to tropical heaven. As soon as the captain dropped anchor, Ingmar, Ilonka and I were in the bathwater warm sea. Ingmar explored a sunken wreck just off shore. I swam with Ilonka to the white sand beach.

Isla Pero (Dog Island), Panama
I'll never forget how beautiful that day was, with its crystal water, warm breeze, dark green palm trees tall against a sky impossibly blue and endless, and my amazement that places this gorgeous still existed in the world. Also striking was how I was exactly where I wanted to be, and had wanted to be for a long time. Seven months prior (and for many months before that), I was unhappy, working a job I didn't enjoy and wishing I could run away to tropical island paradise where I could bask in peace and beauty. And now...I was! That afternoon, I realized that I was a long way from my old life, and I couldn't have been happier about that. It's a wonderful feeling to experience a dream coming true. I remember thanking God and the universe for my life a lot on this Panama trip, but never as much as I did when I soaked in Isla Pero's calm and beauty.

Ingmar, your author and Ilonka. San Blas Islands.
For several hours on this idyllic mid-summer afternoon, I alternated talking with Ilonka, and swimming around the island's reefs with Ingmar...a pattern I'd repeat for the next two days. Ilonka and Ingmar were vastly different people, but I enjoyed both their company. Ilonka and I thought about the same things frequently: purpose, building something for the future, living a life that honored our values and dreams. Her's was a life of glamor, adventure, but struggle as well. Through everything, she worked hard desired to be successful as an entrepreneur and interior designer. Ilonka had a great life story and I could see how it forged her into a strong, assertive woman. She guarded her sentimental side with a certain coldness, but it was there if you looked...and if you earned her trust. She wore a ring on her left hand -- part reminder of a past love her heart clung to despite him treating her badly, and part hope that she would find a new love who would respect her. Looking back, I think meeting her on this trip and spending hours talking to her in San Blas, and then back in Panama City, was my trip's highlight. There wasn't anyone I met on this trip whose company I enjoyed more than Ilonka's. Ingmar was young, adventurous and active. I didn't have much to talk about him with, but he could always be counted on to go swimming, sea kayaking or photographing with. Part of me envied his youth and all the traveling he had done at only 24 years old. How could I so easily have traded my youth for over a decade of stress and late nights at the office?

Sunset in Cayes Limones, Panama
The afternoon passed all quickly. Too soon, the three of us swam back to the Da Capo and Captain Mats sailed us east again to our night anchorage at eastern Cayes Limones. We anchored between three islands that formed a loose triangle between them. Much of the sea between the islands was so shallow, you could walk from island to island and stay dry above your knees. Ingmar was eager to go sea kayaking. I had never kayaked at all and I wanted to try, so we went together. I sat in the front of the kayak and he sat behind me. Ingmar's muscles were twice the size of mine, and his never tired. Still, I kept up as best as I could. We kayaked between all three islands, admiring their white beaches and green jungles from the water. Small bright blue fish swam beside our kayak. Brighter orange starfish on the shallow sea floor almost glowed in the weakening sunlight. I could reach into the water to grab one and barely get my elbow wet, the water was so shallow here. Tired, but completely at peace, Ingmar and I rowed back to the Da Capo for dinner as afternoon faded to evening.

While Ingmar and I were out, Captain Mats' girlfriend, Dina, prepared a sumptuous, creamy lobster pasta for dinner.  The lobster was fresh. Kuna fisherman had caught it that day and sold it to us from their canoe not three hours prior to dinner. I do try to eat well when I travel, and this meal was still the best of my Panama trip. The company was excellent as well, and we all talked, ate and drank the rum I bought late into the night.

After everyone was asleep, I found myself still awake. It wasn't a tense wakefulness, though. It was a peaceful, serene wakefulness that wanted to enjoy the evening. That night, I don't recall how late, I climbed up to the deck and lay down. Above me were more stars than I had ever seen before. Tiny white lights twinkled in the sky from horizon to horizon. The brush stroke that was the Milky Way was nearly directly overhead. The air was warm and calm. Gentle waves rocked the boat and splashed lazily against the hull. There under the stars, in the warm air, a million miles from my old life, I slept through the night on the Da Capo's deck.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Why and How to Visit The San Blas Islands in Panama - 8-31-2012

From August 15th until the morning of August 18th, I was on a sailing charter that cruised through Panama's San Blas Islands. I can tell you without exaggeration that the San Blas Islands are among the most beautiful places on Earth, and certainly one of the most beautiful places I have seen myself. And with 380 individual islands, some only yards long and wide, you can check out a new island every day of the year with a bit left over.

This post covers the history of the San Blas Islands where to stay, and how to get here. Subsequent posts will cover my three day cruise through San Blas (which was awesome, thanks for asking).

Isla Pero (Dog Island)
History of the San Blas Islands and the Kuna Yala Comerica:

The San Blas Islands are part the Kuna Yala Comerica, which is a semi-autonomous region of Panama. The indigenous people, the Kuna Yala, have had contact with Europeans since the 1600s and are a fiercely independent people. In 1924, they violently rose up against the Panamanian government in response to adverse policies affecting the area. Shrewd diplomats, the Kuna Yala struck a deal with the American military. When Panamanian military elements moved to respond to the uprising, a Yankee gunboat was waiting for them. Backed by the Americans, and powered with their deep sense of sovereignty, the Kuna Yala negotiated their own constitution with the Panamanians, and autonomy within Panama. Subsequent constitutions have ceded more and more autonomy to the Kuna Yala. Today, the Kuna pay no Panamanian income taxes, have their own governance and police force and control all development within the Kuna Yala Comerica, including the San Blas Islands. Panama takes care of all international affairs and military defense of the Kuna Yala Comerica, and only interferes in Kuna law enforcement in the most serious circumstances such as murder.

Kuna Village
San Blas Today:

The Kuna have severely limited commercial and resort development in the San Blas Islands, making the area somewhat "rough" for typical Western tourists. Don't expect nice hotels, electricity, or even running water if you stay on an island with the Kuna. Do expect to bathe in rainwater from a bucket and use an outhouse sitting over the water on an isolated part of an island. The upside is that the islands are nearly completely unspoiled; you get NONE of the obnoxious, high density resorts and high rise hotels that dot Waikiki Beach in Hawaii, for instance. You also get the clearest, most pristine water you may see outside of Belize or the Maldives, and you get thick, verdant jungles on many islands.

Fresh fish
Island Accommodations:

Several Kuna families in San Blas host backpackers in Kuna "hostels." Like regular hostels, these hostels have dorm beds and private cabins. The dorms and cabins will be spare...don't expect mattresses or electricity. Do expect some bugs in the cabins, and again...expect to bathe from a bucket and use an outhouse for your toilet. Meals are included in your stay; expect simple rice dishes and seafood. If you get hungry, though, nearly all Kuna accommodations offer guests the opportunity to purchase fresh crab, lobster and fish pulled from the ocean that afternoon.

Unlike regular hostels, you have to book these Kuna hostels either through a hostel or hotel in Panama City, or through a travel company like Panama Travel Unlimited. Different hostels, hotels and travel companies have relationships with different Kuna. So check around to see which place offers nights at the Kuna island most suited to you. Expect to pay between $35 and $150 per person per night depending on the food offered, island you'll be staying on, tours included, and whether you booked a private room or dorm. One hostel I stayed at in Panama City, Mamallena Backpackers, has relations with several Kuna families and offers a range of budget options to stay with the Kuna. Mamallena's owners also own Panama Travel Unlimited, which offers more expensive options to stay with the Kuna.

Travelers I met stayed two or three nights with the Kuna, but you certainly have the option to stay longer. The people I met cited boredom and "island fever" by the third day as their reason for moving on from San Blas.

So relaxing...
Sailing Charters Through San Blas:

Not looking to shower from a bucket? Rather not commit to one island for several days? Book a boat charter! My friends and I used our hostel, Mamallena Backpackers to arrange transportation to and from Carti, which is where the water taxi picked us up to take us to our boat. We arranged our boat charter by contacting a captain directly, however (see below). Mamallena Backpackers in Panama City, and other hostels and hotels in Panama City, have relationships with tour companies and boat captains and can definitely assist you. The list at the end of this post offers several reputable sailing charter companies you can contact, including the one my friends and I used.

Expect to pay between $125 and $175 per person per night for a San Blas Islands boat charter.

Getting to the San Blas Islands:

My friends and I used our hostel in Panama City, Mamallena Backpackers to arrange transportation to and from Carti, which is where the water taxi picked us up to take us to our boat. We arranged our boat charter by contacting a captain directly, however (see below). Mamallena Backpackers and other hostels and hotels in Panama City will have relationships with tour companies and boat captains and can definitely assist you too.

Expect to pay about $60 round trip for the 4x4 taxi ride between Panama City and Carti. Also expect to be picked up from your hostel or hotel around 5AM. The trip should take three or four hours. Taxes to enter Kuna territory are $3 and are payable upon entrance to the Comerica. The water taxi from Carti to the islands or your boat should cost $10 to $15, depending on which island you're headed to.

If you want to contact a tour company or boat captain yourself, start with the following reputable operators. Please note that different captains will have different sized boats, so be sure to ask about boat size and how many people the boat can comfortably accomodate.

1) Panama Travel Unlimited -- This company is owned by the same folks who own Mamallena Backpackers in Panama City. The company has relationships with numerous captains, and even some Kuna if you'd like to stay on an island instead of on a boat.

2) Captain Mats of the boat Da Capo -- This is the boat my friends and I used. Captian Mats has a reputation for being well...moody. He treated my friends and I great, however, and fed us really well. I would recommend using him, if you're OK with sharing the boat with his girlfriend (a great cook!) and their six year old son (somewhat hyperactive).

3) Yacht Latina -- As of August 2012, this company has been operating for about six months, but has a positive reputation. They have two boats.

4) Sailing One World -- The One World is a custom-built 64 foot brigantine schooner. She's got plenty of space and plenty of sail to take you where you need to go.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

I'm (Going To Be) On A Boat!

Wizard Beach, Bocas Del Toro, Panama. Not San Blas.
One of the folks in my hostel here in Panama City, a high strung but good hearted Austrian guy, organized a sailing charter! I'm headed to the San Blas Islands in the morning for three (with the option to extend to four) nights of sailing, snorkeling, and swimming through Panama's unspoiled frontier with my intense Austrian friend and a Dutch woman. I've heard so much good stuff about the San Blas Islands, especially how peaceful and beautiful they are. This sounds like a great way to cap off my trip, and heading out to San Blas was definitely on my list of things to do on this trip. Particularly cool is how it all came together after I had released my attachment to making it out to San Blas.

Thanks Universe!

In any case, I'll be out of touch until August 18th, perhaps August 19th. Be good!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Summer Days in Panama City, Panama - 8-13-2012

El Cangrejo, Panama City, Panama

I've been back in Panama City, Panama for four days now. I came back to see about arranging a sailing charter to the San Blas Islands, an unspoiled archipelago inhabitated by the Kuna People. The Kuna eschew electricity and running water, but do put tourists up in simple cabins...that lack electricity and running water. I wanted to cruise around the islands on a sailboat for a few days because I'd prefer to island hop and find secret snorkel spots over posting up on a single island for a few days and use a bucket for toilet. Call me pretentious.

I've contacted five sailing companies and it looks like I'm out of luck. Who knew that returning nearly two weeks before I leave the country wouldn't be enough notice to get a shared charter going? Oh well...there's always next trip.

El Cangrejo, Panama City, Panama
Since it looks like I won't be able to line up a shared charter, I've instead been exploring Panama City with people I've met at the hostel. A couple days ago, I took a woman from Michigan through Casco Viejo. Yesterday, I explored Calle Uruguay and the Bella Vista district alone and found a set of stairs going up several hundred feet to a quiet and beautiful neighborhood tucked away in the hills just inland from the Cinta Costera. Today, I took an Australian woman on my walk from the previous day, and then we explored the El Congrejo district together for several hours. I had a great time both days playing tour guide for my new friends and finding a new district today. She and I even had lunch at an upscale lunch place on Calle Uruguay called The Market, was decorated with such California sophistication that we could have been in the Ferry Building in San Francisco or in Newport Beach.

I'm coming to really like Panama City. It's much more energetic, vibrant and wealthy (in parts) than San Jose, Costa Rica...the only other Latin American capital city I've explored to this point. Calle Uruguay's lounges and upscale bars, Bella Vista's tree lined avenues and cute restaurnts and shops, and El Congrejo's relentless energy and hectic activity offer living proof that Panama City has a true city life. I could totally live here, and I think spending my last seven days in-country exploring Panama City would be an excellent use of my time.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Three Picture Perfect Beaches In Bocas Del Toro, Panama - 8-9-2012

Wizard Beach, Bocas Del Toro, Panama

I spent seven days in Bocas Del Toro, interrupted only by a three day trip to Puerto Viejo. It rained heavily, day and night, three of my first four days in Bocas. The three days of my return trip, though, were beautiful and were perfect for lazy beach hopping and swimming in crystal clear water.

Playa Estrella

Playa Estrella, Bocas Del Toro, Panama
Playa Estrella is a gorgeous white sand beach on Isla Colon with gentle waves, no swells and no riptides to speak of. Named for the numerous starfish that sit in its shallow bottom, and conveniently lined with wooden tables protected from the rain by canvas shelters this beach was custom made for an easy afternoon of swimming and snorkeling. I came here on a rainy day with six friends from Hostel Heike during my first trip through Bocas and it remains my favorite beach in the archipelago. The beach runs up against a thick, verdant jungle loud with cicadas and birds. Playa Estrella's beauty was apparent even under dark, rainy skies. My friends and I spent a good hour floating, snorkeling and swimming in the warm, clear water. Don't expect to be alone, though. Playa Estrella has a bar serving stiff drinks and is popular with tourists.

Getting to Playa Estrella is easy, but time consuming. Pick up the minibus across the street from Hostel Heike in Bocas Town at 7am, 10am, noon, 3pm, or 5pm. The one hour ride will cost about $1.00 and will wind across the island until you reach the northwest side and the small settlement of Bocas Del Drago. From here, walk along the beach for about 25 minutes, following the signs asking that you not touch the starfish. Alternatively, pay a water taxi $1.00 for a 10 minute ride to Playa Estrella. I recommend you walk because the entire way is a picturesque beach and jungle walk around or over leaning palm trees and through low waves. Pick up the return bus back in Bocas Del Drago at 8am, 11am, 1pm, 4pm and 6pm. You can also bike to the beach from Bocas Town, but expect that to take about 90 minutes each way.

Wizard Beach

Wizard Beach, Bocas Del Toro, Panama
Also known as Playa Primera, Wizard Beach is on the far side of Isla Bastimentos from Isla Colon. The day I went with friends, we saw only about ten other people on the miles long beach. Expect Wizard to be similarly deserted when you go. Wizard Beach features gorgeous white-yellow sand and a thick green jungle that comes almost right up to the clear, warm water. Numerous tide pools provide plenty of chances to see small fish, or to soak in relatively still water. Exercise caution when swimming outside of these tide pools, though because the currents at Wizard Beach are strong and can be turbulent. Wizard Beach is a great beach to visit to just get away from everything, or to explore a beach side jungle. My friends and I spent two hours here talking, reading, swimming, and quietly enjoying the sound of crashing waves. Even on a trip replete with relaxation, Wizard Beach left me feeling particularly peaceful.

Wizard Beach, Bocas Del Toro, Panama
You can get to Wizard Beach a few ways. Your day long snorkel tour might stop here, but probably not. Alternatively, you could start at Red Frog Beach and hike through the jungle. That's not advisable, though, because of the laughably deep mud and poorly marked trail connecting the two beaches. A separate path also leads from Wizard Beach to the small settlement of Old Bank. When dry, this path takes about half an hour. Budget at least twice what after a rain because the path turns to muck when wet. I recommend doing what my two friends from Mondo Taitu and I did -- hire a water taxi to take you out here and agree upon a time to be picked up. Expect to pay at least $10 per person round trip for this. We paid $10 per person and our water taxi guy still made us hike 45 minutes through knee deep mud to get picked up at Red Frog Beach instead of Wizard Beach. If you pay more than $10 per person, make sure you get picked up at Wizard Beach.

Red Frog Beach

Red Frog Beach, Bocas Del Toro, Panama
Red Frog Beach is on Isla Bastimentos and is next to Wizard Beach. What Red Frog beach lacks in gentle waves or peaceful isolation, it more than makes up for with amenities and the chance to see a rare species of frog. The beach gets its name from the strawberry poison-dart frog, a rare frog you'll want to keep your eyes out for because of its beauty. There is a small resort, Red Frog Lodge, in the area and a bar at the end of the beach. This makes Red Frog beach a good place to be around other people, grab a drink or by some some food. I recommend the hamburger and fries from the beach bar.

Red Frog Beach is a beach in transition. Large scale resort development here has been rumored for years and could indeed happen. The area near the beach bar is a typical beach, with volleyball nets and sun chairs. The opposite end of the beach is more wild though. Like Wizard Beach, small tide pools dot the yellow-white beach, and leaning palm trees provide obstacles to climb over. Unlike Wizard Beach, jungle gives way to some grassland halfway down the beach. The water is warm, of course, but do watch out for strong currents and riptides when swimming.

Red Frog Beach, Bocas Del Toro, Panama
Red Frog Beach is easily accessible by water taxi; many of the day long snorkel tours stop here as well. A water taxi from Bocas Town should cost about $10 each way. The water taxi will drop you at a dock not far from Red Frog Beach. Catch the free shuttle that runs between the dock and the beach bar.