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.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Bocas del Toro and Boquete, Panama update - 8-8-2012

Hostel Mondo Taitu, Bocas Del Toro, Panama

My return to Bocas Del Toro after the side trip to Puerto Viejo was good. I was looking for a quieter hostel than Hostel Heike, but still social, so I checked into Mondo Taitu for three days. Mondo Taitu is owned by five American gents, three of whom rotate between the US and Panama to run the business. I met two of the owners, Jack and Ari. Both were good, helpful folks who answered a lot of my questions regarding what running a hostel in Panama is like. The hostel itself was kind of dark, and somewhat cluttered with surf and island knick-knacks, but all that stuff definitely added to the hostel's atmosphere.

Wizard Beach, Bocas Del Toro, Panama
I spent most of my time at Mondo Taitu hanging out with two solo travelers I met, Dann (Canadian) and Robert (English). We did some exploring, including hiring a water taxi to take us to Wizard Beach on Isla Bastimentos, enjoying having a picturesque beach with bath warm water all to ourselves, and hiking through knee deep mud for 45 minutes to reach Red Frog Beach. The weather was beautiful, so I did manage to take some great tropical paradise pictures. All in all, my return to Bocas was active, fun, tiring, and still involved meeting great people.

Hot Springs Outside of Boquette, Panama
I've been in Boquete for two days now. Boquette is several hours south of Bocas del Toro and back on the mainland. It's in the heart of Panama's coffee country. I spent the first day and a half getting over a cold I picked up from too much living in Bocas and Puerto Viejo. Today, a German friend from the hostel, Daria, and I took an hour bus ride and an hour hike out to some mineral hot springs near the small town of Caldera. The water was almost too hot, but the scenery was amazing. When we were done, she and I walked back to our bus stop through a pounding thunderstorm that did not relent until we returned to the hostel two hours later. Whew! Thunder crashed what seemed right on top of us several times.

I'm headed to Panama City on Friday to see if I can arrange a trip to the San Blas Islands in Panama's eastern frontier. I've heard again and again that the islands are the most spectacularly beautiful scenery in this country, so I just have to see for myself.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Three Quiet Hours in Panama Viejo - 7-26-2012

Panama Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Panama Viejo, or Old Panama, is the original city of Panama that Henry Morgan burned down in 1671. The Welsh privateer split his forces in two and flanked the defenders. The poorly trained Spaniards broke and Morgan looted the richest city in the New World. A fire that either Morgan and his men or the defending Captain-General started burned the conquered city to the ground. Morgan was arrested and taken back to England because his attack violated a treaty between England and Spain. Morgan proved he knew nothing about the treaty and subsequently knighted then appointed Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica. Captain Jack Sparrow should do so well.

Today, Panama Viejo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The ruins run inland along a swampy lowland near the seashore in Panama City's far southeast. From my hostel, Hostal Aleman, the ruins were a 20 minute walk south and east. In the early afternoon sun, though, it felt much longer. Definitely bring water, no matter when you visit.

Panama Viejo is accessible just off a major road, but I took a detour through the surrounding neighborhood because I was curious about it. I did not wish to be rude, so I did not take pictures, but the neighborhood surrounding the ruins is struggling. Some of the houses looked like they could collapse at any moment. Many houses had heaps of trash in the front yards, and there was trash in the streets. Still, children played and parents watched over them dutifully. More than one resident asked if I was looking for "la ruena", the ruins, and helpfully pointed me southwest towards them.

I approached the ruins from their eastern end. This part of ruins are particularly poorly maintained. I waded through knee high grass that I didn't know was knee high until I stepped into gopher holes and hidden puddles. I nearly twisted my ankle when I stepped awkwardly into a particularly deep hole. Be careful if you approach the ruins from the east. To the west, modern Panama City's glass and steel skyscrapers rise several miles away.

Moving west, I followed stone paths past sections of centuries-old walls. I pass only three other visitors today; the ruins are nearly completely deserted. The ruins are quiet as a tomb except for the occasional chirp of a far off bird, or the chatter of crickets. I am only a couple miles from the noise and horns of a major street, but I feel hundreds of miles...and years...from 21st century Panama City. Very few buildings are identified, but the ruins stretch for hundreds of yards before me. No one is sure how large Panama Viejo is since much of the surrounding area is coastal lowlands, swamp, or barrio. It feels large, though.

Panama Viejo, Panama City, Panama
I come upon the ruins of Panama Viejo's old church, the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción (Cathedral of Our Lady of Asunción), built between 1619 and 1626, and the best-preserved building of the ruins. Not much remains, but I can see that what does hints at a tall, wide, majestic building with two side chapels so the building makes a cross shape when viewed from the heavens. A portrait of the Virgin Mary looks down on me gently from the wall behind where the altar once stood. Moving north and west past the church, towering wall sections stand silently. Birds of prey patiently sit at the top of a few sections.

Just north of the cathedral are the massive ruins of Casa Alarcón, the town's best-preserved and largest known private residence, which dates from the 1640s.

I spend about an hour among the ruins of what was once the New World's richest city. Though your own interest in archaeology might be limited, I do recommend visiting Panama Viejo. The juxtaposition of old Panama City's ruins with its sophisticated modern incarnation in the background is worth the visit. Finding an oasis of silence and calm among a crowded, steaming, chaotic metropolis is a good second reason.

Getting there:
Every cabbie in the city knows "La Ruena de Panama Viejo" is a major tourist attraction. A ride there from anywhere in the city should cost no more than $6.00. Cabs can also be found near the ruins, or on the main streets several blocks outside the ruins. Alternatively, you can take a Metro Bus or a diablo rojo to Panama Viejo, which will have stops near the ruins, but not at the ruins. The ruins themselves are surrounded by a very low-income neighborhood. The residents are accustomed to seeing backpackers and several people helpfully offered directions to me the afternoon I visited. Still, I recommend you NOT visit La Ruena after dark, as they are neither patrolled nor well lit.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

How to Spend a Day in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica - 8-5-2012

Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

After spending three days in Bocas Del Toro, Panama at the end of July 2012, I took a side trip to Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica. Puerto Viejo is a great little sea side town on Costa Rica's Caribbean side, about an hour north of the Panamanian border. Puerto Viejo definitely has a stronger Afro-Caribbean feel than anywhere I have visited on Costa Rica's Pacific Coast. We saw plenty of sun despite visiting during the rainy season.

There are plenty of hostels and budget hotels in town, but three are worth mentioning. Rocking J's is about a 15 minute walk south out of town and is Lonely Planet's pick for Puerto Viejo. This huge, beach side hostel sports its own bar and a sizable built-in backpacker community with which to hang out. Rocking J's also enjoys a party spot reputation, making it a great place to party and meet folks.

Just north and across the street from Rocking J's is it's polar opposite, La Ruca. La Ruca is smaller, much quieter, and much more hippie. When my traveling companions and I walked in, several bearded hippie guys were strumming guitars and smoking while their female companions listened quietly. The friendly staff showed us a private room and the dorms. I liked the granola vibe, the private bathroom attached to the private room, and the numerous trees and flowers on the property, but my traveling companions were looking for something more...conventional.

Lazy Mon is right in town, right on the beach, offers a dorm and several private rooms with balconies overlooking the beach. There's a bar restaurant right downstairs that features foosball tables and talented singer-songwriter music nearly every night. Its location in the heart of Puerto Viejo, chill vibe, and beach side access made it a great choice for my traveling companions and I. Dorm beds are $15 per night and private rooms are $25 per night.

Baby Sloth at Jaguar Rescue Center, Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica
Once you've checked in to your place, you'll definitely want to check out Puerto Viejo's list of things to do. At the top of that list for my traveling companions and I was the Jaguar Rescue Center, a 25 minute bike ride south of town. We rented bikes for $5 for the whole day at a spot across the street from Lazy Mon. The Jaguar Rescue Center doesn't have any jaguars, and only very rarely does. The center is named after the first animal they tried to save, a jaguar. The center does have monkeys, plenty of baby sloths and a whole lot of snakes. Do note that the center is neither a zoo, nor a preserve. The center nurses injured animals back to health and then releases them into the wild as soon as they are ready. Certain animals can't be released back into the wild because they were kept as pets. These animals are instead released into the nearby forest, also part of the preserve, and are regularly offered food if their hunting skills are weak (perhaps because their parents were killed and were unable to teach the animal wilderness skills). Highlights of the tour included seeing baby three toed and two toed sloths and having monkeys climb all over us for 15 minutes in the monkey reserve.

Tours happen every two hours and last about two hours in total. The preserve conducts tours in English and Spanish. Entrance is $15. Contact them at 506-2750-0710 or Check out their website at

Punta Uva, Costa Rica
About 15 minutes south of the Jaguar Rescue Center by bike is Punta Uva with Playa Manzanillo about 10 minutes further south of that. Punta Uva is a beautiful white sand beach that emerges from thick jungle. It's in the community of Cocles, which has several restaurants and hostels, so don't expect to be alone. Also, don't try to swim outside of the red flags posted on the beach because the rip tides get bad there.

Playa Manzanillo, Costa Rica
For a truly deserted beach, bike south to Playa Manzanillo. There are few signs, but you'll see beach access through trails that lead through the thick jungle and mangrove swamp. The brief trek from road to beach is worth it, though. Playa Manzanillo is a picture perfect, deserted, white sand beach with clear warm water and moderate currents. My companions and I spent about an hour there sunning and taking pictures of the beach's striking beauty. Palm trees stretched over turquoise waters, and thick green jungle hid all sings of the road and human civilization. Aside from my traveling companions, not a single person disturbed the peace. If you've got the time, go to Playa Manzanillo. you've visited an animal rescue center and biked to two beaches...the second of which is nearly beautiful beyond words. How do you cap off your day? Tasty Waves is a small bar just north of Rocking J's and is the perfect place to go nuts with the locals (Tuesday night is when the entire town hits up Tasty Waves) or melt into the Caribbean ease with a beer and a game of pool on the other nights of the week. Alternatively, you could hit up Stanford's bar beneath Lazy Mon for foosball and live music. The live music ends around 9:00PM, though, so you could easily start your night at Lazy Mon and end at Tasty Waves. A cab ride from town to Tasty Waves should cost no more than $5 round trip. Make sure to arrange a time for your driver to pick you up because it's a long, dark walk back into town from Tasty Waves.

Safety Notes:
Our hostel's manager, Justin, advised that parts of the town are not safe for tourists after dark. Take a cab if traveling after dark, especially of going to the bars in the far south end of town like Tasty Waves.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Back to Panama After All - 8-2-2012

View from Lazy Loft, Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

You can disregard my last post.

It's raining today in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica. Hard. It started last night with the strobe of lightning and the crash of thunder. My Irish traveling companion is going to San Jose, Costa Rica today. I'm staying one more night to listen to the rain and enjoy peace before heading back to Bocas Del Toro, Panama in the morning.

I don't regret interrupting my Panama trip to visit Puerto Viejo. I don't regret meeting Jen from Dublin. I certainly don't regret the fevered rush of promises made by and to a beautiful woman an hour from sunrise, made potent by four year old Flor de Cana, made intoxicating by the sound of summer thunderstorms and sweetened by the slow swing dance moves I taught her in the early morning. It's almost always the things I didn't do that I regret...not the things I did do.

Panama waits for me; new towns wait for me too. And perhaps on a bus, or in a hostel, or on a tour, a new traveling companion waits for me too. I can't wait to show her how to swing dance.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Bocas del Toro and Back in Costa Rica - 8-1-2012

Bocas Del Toro, Panama

As usual, I haven't been keeping up with my blog because I've been doing a lot and meeting amazing people on the road. Stay tuned for a post about Panama Viejo (the original Panama City).

Anyway, speaking of amazing people, I've met one such person. After Panama City, I headed up to Bocas del Toro, a backpacker hub and picture perfect archipelago not far from the Costa Rican border. I spent five rainy days there swimming and snorkeling happily in water that was almost bathwater warm. On my last day in Bocas, I met a really cool Irish woman who was headed through Costa Rica and then into Nicaragua to spend the last two weeks of her vacation before heading home to Dublin. Using ungodly amounts of rum and coke, a girlish smile, and the beautiful black magic all Irish brunettes seem to wield, she convinced me to blow up my plans for a solo trip through Panama to travel back into Costa Rica with her. That happened at 4:00AM on a Monday (I think). Four hours of sleep later, it still seemed like a good idea. We've been in Puerto Viejo...a new town for me...on the the Caribbean side of Costa Rica for a couple days. Tomorrow we're headed to San Jose to rent a car and then spend five days traveling up the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica.

Yay travel adventures!

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Visiting the Panama Canal from Panama City - 7-25-2012

Panama Canal 

Want to satisfy everyone at home who'll ask "did you visit the canal while in Panama?" Want to bask in the glory of human achievement? If so, then visit the Panama Canal. Two separate superpowers (19th century France and 20th century America), poured unfathomable amounts of money and lives into their effort to link Atlantic and Pacific. It is indeed one hell of an engineering feat, and getting out there and back from Panama City can be half the fun. The end of this article tells you how to get out there a couple different ways.

The nearest set of canal locks to Panama City are in nearby Miraflores, about 10 miles north of Panama City. First, I cabbed from my hostel to Albrook Bus Terminal for $6.00. All city bus routes in Panama City end at Albrook, and all buses leaving Panama City start there too. Traffic was awful; the 15 mile ride to Albrook took one hour. I did get to see a lot of Panama City, though. the cab driver dodged main thoroughfare traffic by ducking into working class neighborhoods hidden in hills. Back on the main road to Albrook, we passed ghettos and favelas, as well as American style strip malls anchored by recognizable chains like Office Depot.

Finally, we arrive at Albrook bus terminal. Albrook is a one-stop location from which passengers can grab buses leaving Panama City for other locales and grab buses that run routes through Panama City. Ticket windows line one side of the terminal from which customers can purchase tickets for intra-city trips. Buses that run routes within Panama City can be boarded by walking out to the main street. The new orange Metro Buses list their destinations on electronic signs on the bus' front. The diablo rojos, or red devil buses, usually have the neighborhood their route originates in painted on the front windshield. The red devils are heavily decorated (and heavily dilapidated) old US school buses pressed into service as public transportation. Most of these buses run incomprehensible routes through the city, but some run routes connecting Panama City to other places as well. A bus from Albrook to the locks at Miraflores costs $0.35 and takes about half an hour. You'll want to take the bus to Gamboa -- Miraflores is on the way. Pay upon disembarking from the bus.

Red devil drivers routinely pack their buses so heavily that people have to stand shoulder to shoulder in the aisle. My bus is no different. I ask the woman next to me if Miraflores is far and she gestures that it is. She also gestures to say she will let me know when we arrive. Sure enough, she touches my arm half an hour later and says "Aqui," as we pull up to a sign that says "Miraflores, home of the Panama Canal." I thank her and disembark. I cross the highway and follow the signs to the Visitor Center. It's about a 15 minute walk from the bus stop, partially uphill, that also passes a dammed river. Finally, I reach the Visitor Center. Prices for non-Panamanians are $8 for adults and $5 for students and retirees. It's three dollars cheaper if you want to skip the museum and theater and only see the observation decks. I came this far, so I pony up $8 and walk inside.

Container Ship at Panama Canal
Straight ahead is the lobby and past that, the first floor observation decks where throngs of people watch ships pass by. Just behind the observation decks is a small snack bar that sells hamburgers, hot dogs and similar fast food. The canal is busiest from 8AM until 11AM, and again from 3PM until 6PM. On the left side of the lobby are two theaters, but both were closed during my visit. There is an additional theater outside and to the right of the observation decks. This theater shows a 10 minute informational movie covering the history of the isthmus of Panama, the failed French efforts to build a canal, the American success, the handover of the canal from the United States to Panama, and the $5.5 billion expansion that is set to finish in 2014.

Panama Canal Museum, Miraflores, Panama
Back in the Visitor Center, you'll find the museum on the right side of the lobby. The museum has four floors; enter the first floor from the ground floor of the Visitor Center. The first floor covers the history of the Panama Canal's construction. It has videos, interactive displays, and several scale models of the dredging ships and locomotives used during construction. The second floor contains displays and videos about the relationship between the canal and the local environment, including life-sized displays of various butterflies and other indigenous animals. The third and fourth floors were closed during my visit.

The Visitor Center is also multistory. The second floor contains additional observation decks and administrative offices. The third floor contains Miraflores Restaurant and Bar. For $20, you are treated to a sumptuous Panamanian style buffet and floor to ceiling windows overlooking the canal. The fourth floor also held a restaurant, it was closed during my visit.

Your Author at the Panama Canal, Miraflores, Panama
Partway through my visit, I watched a few ships come in. Watching massive tankers and container ships navigate the locks and dwarf the crowd of spectators is indeed humbling. A loudspeaker announces the nature of each ship passing through and its length. Throngs of people crowd together to snap pictures of loved ones in front of each passing ship. I finally find someone to take a few pictures of me, too, but the ship has passed by then. It's OK. It's still a good picture.

The ride back to Albrook was uneventful, but steamy, loud and bumpy. Again, $0.35 and half an hour gets you from Miraflores to Albrook. Back at Albrook, I ask a few folks where I can find a bus home. I find the Panama Viejo diablo rojo bus and get on. This ride took nearly 90 minutes and cost $0.25. All diablo rojo bus rides within Panama City cost only $0.25. This ride took so long because I was riding at the start of rush hour. Off-peak, the ride should take about 60 minutes.

Getting here:
There are a few ways to get here via cab or bus. First, you can try to catch a cab here from Panama City. Some drivers will refuse depending on traffic into and out of Panama City. If you do this, don't pay more than $10 for each leg of your trip. I caught a cab to Albrook for $6.00 and then a diablo rojo bus to Miraflores for $0.35. Diablo rojo bus rides from Albrook will cost $0.35 for each ride. Finally, you can take a bus from Panama City for $0.25 to Albrook and then take a $0.35 diablo rojo bus ride to Miraflores. If you take a bus from Panama City to Albrook, I recommend the orange Metro Buses for their relative comfort and their air conditioning. Pick one up most easily along the Via Espana or the waterfront expressway that runs along the Cinta Costera between Panama Viejo and Cascao Viejo.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Four Beautiful Sights in Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama - 7-25-2012

Teatro Nacional in Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Situated in the far southwest of Panama City, Casco Viejo is the city's "old town." The district was built shortly after English privateer Henry Morgan burned and looted Panama City in 1671. Panama City's surviving residents moved their city five miles east to the more defensible, rocky outcropping that became Casco Viejo. Today, the district is an eclectic mix of colonial era buildings restored to their colorful, 17th century grandeur, standing next to dilapidated apartments waiting patiently for urban renewal to work its magic on them. Work crews are aggressively renewing Casco Viejo, so don't be surprised to see new construction equipment next to a hidden plaza or stashed away in the district's narrow alleys.

Luna's Castle in Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama
Once in Casco Viejo, the cab dropped me off not far from the hostel Luna's Castle at the corner of Calle 9a Este and Avanue Alfaro. Luna's Castle is perennially full and owns a reputation for being that quirky place you talk about for weeks after your trip ended. The hostel is situated in a three story restored apartment building. There is ample room for hanging out, reading, and sitting all throughout the reception level. Please note that they do not accept reservations for private rooms; those rooms are first come first served. Walking south along Avenida Alfaro, I followed the waterfront while admiring Panama City's impressive skyline from across the Bahaia de Panama.

Iglesia de San Francisco in Casco Viejo, Panama City
Moving southeast at Calle 3a Este I passed the small Parque Bolivar. The 19th century revolutionary, Simon Bolivar, held meetings in a schoolroom across the street from this park in 1826. Today, the park contains a bronze statue of the man, and provides a quiet shady respite from Panama's steamy afternoons. Walking further along Calle 3a Este, I pass the Iglesia de San Francisco and the Teatro National, right across Avenida B from each other. Iglesia de San Francisco holds the Golden Altar, one of the few valuables recovered from Henry Morgan's sack of Panama. The Teatro National is a beautiful, ornate operating theater. Its red and yellow archway echos those of Italian opera houses.

Paseo las Bovedas in Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama
From the Teatro National, I hang a left and follow Avenida Central south east and around a bend to the Paseo las Bovedas. Flowering vines climb trellises alongside and over the paseo, providing welcome shade from the afternoon sun. Today, the paseo is peaceful with only a few tourists and some indigenous artisans set up with tables upon which their quilts, bracelets, and other trinkets are displayed. The Paseo las Bovedas opens and ends at the Plaza de Francia. In the middle of the plaza is a huge column surmounted by a rooster. The plaza also displays stone tables commemorating the the memory of 22,000 French colonial workers who died while building the Panama Canal. Following the plaza around, I follow Calle Oeste north past the small Plaza Carlos V. This flowery square holds a small bust of Emperor Carlos V.

Statue in Iglesia y Convento de la Compania de Jesus
I move on to Avenida A, which leads northwest. Several blocks later, I pass the Iglesia y Convento de la Compania de Jesus. The church is a colonaial era building that still operates and holds a convent. Walking inside, I snap a few pictures of its gold and wood altar, as well as some exquisitely carved, painted and dressed statues of Jesus.

Cutting across Casco Viejo using Calle 5a Este, reach the Plaza de la Indepencia. Several restaurants line the square and offer outdoor seating. Casablanca, an upscale eatery decorated as a sophisticated wine bar, offers large salads and other entrees for an average price of around $12. Try their Andre's Salad, which offered two meals worth of food for $10. After a late lunch, I follow the waterfront for several miles towards Panama City's skyline before catching a cab back to my hostel.

Getting Here:
I recommend taking a taxi or walking along the Cinta Costera, but a bus would work too. I paid only $4.00 for a cab ride from my hostel in the far eastern neighborhood of Channis to Casco Viejo. I did have to ask three taxi drivers to take me across the length of Panama City, though, because Channis is on Panama City's eastern fringes and traffic in this city is so terrible that many cab drivers actively avoid traveling between certain districts. If you take a bus, I recommend you make your way to the Via Espana, Panama City's major east-west street, catch a Metro Bus that lists Casco Viejo or Casco Antigu (Casco Viejo's other name). If the bus does not enter the old city, just get off at the waterfront and walk east until your each the old city. Pay careful to avoid the high density slums north of Casco Viejo. Always take a taxi at night instead of a bus.