Dolphins, red frogs, whales - a most perfect start in Panama (Western Panama)

Published: September 26th 2010
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(Day 905 on the road)Enter Panama, the last remaining country in Central America that I haven’t visited. It will also be the last new country for me during my travels. After Panama, all that remains of two and half years of travelling is ten days in Florida (where I have been previously many years ago) before it is time to go home at the end of October. Better not think about that right now.

The crossing into Panama was rather eventful and memorable. First, there was this German girl that had mysteriously attached herself to us. I don't recall where she came from, but at one point she was there, and was simply tagging along. She didn't say a word, she was just there and following us; it was pretty surreal really. At the border, she wasn't in the possession of an onward ticket from Panama (her flight out was from Costa Rica), and she was turned back by the immigration officer. The only way to enter the country was for her to purchase a ridiculously priced bus ticket from Panama to Costa Rica that she knew she would never use.

We were in a far better position - we did actually have onward tickets from Panama. But even if not, I have become quite adapt at creating fake flight tickets out of various countries. Many countries around the world ask to see one upon entry into their country, which is nothing but a joke. To either create one, or, for stricter countries that might actually check the details, buy a refundable plane ticket and cancel it the day after you have entered the country, is easily done. If one wants to get in, one will. So these silly rules only serve to cause inconvenience and stress to backpackers, who very seldom have onwards tickets if they are travelling overland through a region. Ah, the joy of pointless bureaucracy.

Anyway, the unfortunate German girl disappeared as mysteriously as she had appeared on the scene, and the action was about to start for us. Tino managed to insult one of the pestering unofficial guys that was working the border and telling everybody they had to pay a dollar for something that nobody quite understood. Of course we didn't pay (unlike everybody else I should add). Instead, we played the old and proven backpacker tactic of wait and see what happens. If I have learnt anything during my travels, it is to not believe anything which shady guys at borders or bus stations keep telling me. And, of course, the charge was unofficial and nothing happened, the unfriendly female immigration officer stamped our passports, and we were in.

So Tino made this annoying guy understand in very plain English language that he should mind his own business. He didn't take it too well. He threatened to inform the police that we didn't get the unneeded stamp he thought we should buy from him. We did start to get a bit nervous (after all, who knows what possibly corrupt immigration officers is capable of), and this just started to walk away. We didn't get too far however, as he had called ahead to a military checkpoint, where the soldiers interrogated us, thoroughly checked our passports, then our flight confirmations, then our passports again. But everything was in order, and they had to let us go in the end. Not a pleasant experience by any standards, and we were happy when we finally sat on a bus taking us east.

A few hours later all was forgotten as we settled into a lovely room with a kind Panamanian family on the island of Colon in the Bocas del Torro archipelago. The backpacker hostels on the main street were noisy, full of loud backpackers and overpriced, charging almost as much for a stuffy dorm bed what we paid for our spacious private room complete with our own veranda. And yes, we were the only guests. Perfect!

Even more perfect was the wildlife watching we did a few days later, after Tino had completed his advanced dive course (he got quite hooked, and I regret not being able to dive with him, but after my severe diving accident in June 2009 in Sipadan, Malaysia, I have stopped diving for good). The day was off to a great start with our captain successfully searching for dolphins. Seeing these agile creatures swim around playfully our boat was just wonderful.

After some decent snorkeling our last stop for the day was on Red Frog Beach, where, no surprise, there were red frogs to be found. Tino played volleyball on the beach with the lively crowd of the other tour boats, and I went in search of these and rare and poisonous frogs. It took me a good two hours to spot the first one deep in the jungle, but it was worth the effort. Despite swarms of mosquitoes eager to suck my blood (and hopefully not infect me with Malaria), I was stalking these elusive creatures and managed to take some amazing pictures. Sometimes I am surprised what my little pocket camera is capable of.

Next up was an uneventful stop for a few days in the mountainous town Boquete. Boquete came to fame some years ago when a US retirement magazine voted the area the number three place in the world to retire. Sleepy Boquete never was the same again. Whilst it has managed to retain some of its charm, the giant SUVs, foreign restaurants, gated communities and villas that have sprung up everywhere changed the landscape for ever.

As hard as I try, I cannot see the attraction to retire in such a place. If you want to live just like at home, why move so far away in the first place? Maybe one day, when I reach this age, I will understand the comfort and peace of mind such a situation will give me, living in a foreign country but still being surrounded by fellow countrymen who speak my language. To be fair however, we chatted to a few of the new residents who gave us a lift to some hot springs in the area, and they were very friendly and well-informed people.

For us, we soon headed on, and our next stop was a true gem. On the rather remote island of Boca Brava in the Gulf of Chiriqui, a German architect had built a simply stunning hotel on a hill high above the sea below with a crazy obsession to detail. It has been a long time since I have laid my eyes on such a place. Just to give one example: The tiles in the bathroom for men and women were of blue and red colour respectively. Upon entering, one would instinctively choose the right entrance. It took me a while to figure it out. These things might not sound like much by so-called western standards, but trust me: After travelling in Central America for five months now, where accommodations tend to often offer just the bare-bone essentials and milk their business for as long as they can, this attention to detail in a hotel came completely unexpected. Everything was in order and simply worked.

More often than not, the hotels, hostals, hospedajes or posadas that we stay in are run-down affairs and operated with no long-term perspective whatsoever; it is the norm that these places feature one or any possible combination of the following traits: The toilet seat is missing or broken, there is no water in the toilet, one or more light bulbs don't work, the ceiling of our room is leaking and water is dripping down whenever it rains, mould is building in the corners of the ceiling, there is no nail to hang your towels in the shower, there is none or only a badly cracked mirror, the mattresses are so saggy you get back-ache, the mosquito-nets on the windows are so full of holes that they have become pointless, the fan doesn't work or is so noisy that we cannot possibly sleep with it running, there are no power plugs in the room, the light switch is at the back of the room or on the outside, etc etc. Plus, every new places we stay at is different and holds new surprises for us, so it never gets boring.

I got a little carried away here, so back to Boca Brava: After building the place from scratch and running it for 15 years, the architect sold it to the caring and friendly US couple who run the place now, and they are busy further improving the place. Our spacious room stood on a steep hill right above the ocean below, and we thoroughly enjoyed our stay here. We stayed four nights, and I could have easily stayed for much longer in this beautiful and relaxing piece of paradise.

The only really upsetting experience of our stay was during check-out, when the US American owners of the place presented us with a bill that was inflated by a cool 20% compared to what they had quoted us initially. They first added a tax of ten percent, and then had the nerve to add another 10% service charge. We were quite upset at this sneaky and dishonest tactic, as was the couple who paid in front of us, having to cough up 240 US$ instead of the 200 US$ they had anticipated. We refused to pay the service charge but were not firm enough to refuse the tax as well, not wanting to have a big confrontation after our lovely five days here.

However, this left a very bad after-taste with us and the other travellers; the practice of understating prices to make your place appear cheaper is, in my opinion, the worst way you can run your business, as it destroys trust. They quote you a price of 20 US$ per night (bargained down from 25 US$ in the beginning), and in the end they charge you 24 US$, essentially not honouring the price that was agreed upon, and not telling you either at check-in. Liars and cheaters, these people, and I cannot recommend supporting them, as lovely as the place itself was.

Anyway, apart from this we thoroughly enjoyed our stay on the island. And how could we not enjoy it? On our second day on the island, we organised a whale watching cruise with two interesting Norwegian women we had met here on the island (thank you so much for the Panama guidebook Christina and Kristin, ours was really outdated!). In fact, hoping to spot whales was the only reason we had come here in the first place, and we were not to be disappointed. After a slow start in the morning when we spotted only one whale rather in the distance, the afternoon, after a relaxing stay on a remote beach on an uninhabited island, brought all we could possible wish for.

Two enormous humpback whales were swimming around us in the deep waters, and our experienced captain did a fantastic job of bringing us close without disturbing the whales too much or endangering us. And two whales meant that we were able to take come good pictures as well - when the first of the two whales surfaced for air, we knew where they were and could point our camera and focus, in the knowledge that the second whale would follow shortly. We also managed a few good shots of the two whales swimming together, which was a stunning sight. It was a once in a lifetime experience for me.

The great irony of the day was that we shared the boat with the above-mentioned Norwegian couple. Norway is a nation famous for killing whales for profit and torpedoing any European and international effort in establishing a law prohibiting the commercial hunting of whales. I guess there are very few whales left at home for them, so they have to come all the way to Panama to spot these endangered mammals. What a shame.

So what can I say? Our start in Panama was just fantastic. We had come here with the understanding of wanting to seek the unusual, and to do activities and see sights that we haven’t been able to do or see in Central America. And spotting dolphins, poisonous red frogs and humpback whales in the course of just ten days was far more than we could have possibly hoped for.

Next stop: Azuero Peninsular (Central Panama).

To view my photos, have a look at And to read the full account of my journey, have a look at the complete book about my trip at Amazon (and most other online book shops).


26th September 2010

home again?!
Du kommst zurück nach Deutschland? Nach Berlin? Kaum zu glauben!! Bocas del Toro war ich auch - kleiner Abstecher von Consta Rica aus, da Begleitung gerne auch mal in Panama gewesen sein wollte... ;-). Du hast da auch so eine Bootstour gemacht, wa, um Delfine etc. zu sehen? Fand ich damals furchtbar! 5 Boote oder so waren unterwegs, um Delfine zu finden. Sobald irgendwo welche zu sehen waren, sind alle Boote schleunigst hin - die armen Tiere! Die roten Frösche haben wir uns auch angeschaut, wobei es bei uns nur einer war, soweit ich mich erinnere und es hatte ewig gedauert, bis wir einen gefunden hatten... Wünsch Dir die letzten Wochen noch ganz viel Spaß! Grüße!
26th September 2010

More than 900 days on the road!
Hi Ben, more than 900 days on the road! Wow, how impressive! Enjoy your last country on this trip! walter
26th September 2010

thank you for sharing your travels
hi Ben! still following your travels and it is sad to hear it is about to end. it's the most enjoyable journey i never had. glad that panama is giving your journal some of the most exiting entries. wishing you'll get back on the road soon!
27th September 2010

Living The Dream
Bravo for you, Ben! Your experience has been wonderful to follow. You are a good diarist, very straightforward. I've enjoyed your travels tremendously. I guess the best thing about you is that you live life to the fullest. Can a man ask anything more of himself?
27th September 2010

What? The last stop???
Hey Ben, what's that crazy-talk about returning to Germany? Man, you can't do that! I've been reading your blog for I don't know how long now and dream away with your stories; it would be a shame to see that stopping! Besides, I don’t remember reading anything about Africa, India… and I am sure some other spots you should go. No chance to keep you up in the air? I mean, there should be some publisher willing to give you an advance payment on your book which will – I am sure – follow soon?!? Anyway, if it really has to be I just want you to know that you are my hero and I hope I will still be able to see some of the sights you have been able to. Let me know when you are back and near Bonn, you are more than welcome to visit us (and once we have moved into our new flat in Bonn stay with us for some days)! All the best, Philipp
27th September 2010

Some comments
"As hard as I try, I cannot see the attraction to retire in such a place. If you want to live just like at home, why move so far away in the first place?" Actually, isn't this rather obvious? They desire to live just like at home, and abroad they can do so much cheaper. (I don't really know the price level in Panama, but I would expect it to be significantly cheaper than the US). "Norway is a nation famous for killing whales for profit and torpedoing any European and international effort in establishing a law prohibiting the commercial hunting of whales. I guess there are very few whales left at home for them, so they have to come all the way to Panama to spot these endangered mammals." I find this a rather unnuanced comment (which is kind of surprising, coming from you). Norway only hunts a few Minke whales, which are (supposedly) not in any danger of extinction. Though, it's kind of strange that Norway have been so resilient on this issue, since we are usually more than willing to embrace all kinds nonsense that comes from the UN and eager to respect international institutions. Personally, I don't really care much about this issue, but since our government was pro-whaling, I used to have some sympathy with the anti-whalers, although I have a feeling the government may have been right on this one. It's amusing to hear though, that Norway is "famous for killing whales for profit" instead of as a "humanitarian superpower", as the government wants us to be known. By the way, you can go on whale safaris many places in Norway, just try googling the term. No need to go to Panama just for that. I suspect that the whale safari was not the only reason the Norwegians had come to Panama. P.S. Surely I can't be your only reader who wants an update on what happened to the ridiculous US jaywalking ticket?
27th September 2010

Enjoy Panama (and don't forget to buy a hat)
Hi Ben, Just enjoyed reading your Bocas-episode. I was there in 2006: brought back some nice memories. Only thought to write because saw your travel map (impressive - mine is one less country than yours!) and wanted to say: don't forget India. It's like another world really, traveller's dream. And you are welcome here too if you ever happen to be passing by Dhaka, Bangladesh (also a great traveller's country). Cheers, Andrew
29th September 2010

Unrivaled trip
Ben, I recalled that when you came to exchange in Hong Kong, we went hiking together. Our ex-hiking peers haven't gone hiking for some time already but I bet we all enjoy reading your blogs. There is an old Chinese saying that reading tens of thousands of books does not learn as much as walking tens of thousands of miles. Thanks for your sharing of your seeing and encounters during your 2+ years world trip. Glad to know that you would soon finish your trip and return home... You may miss all the time you have spent so far around the world. We would also miss your blogging and update. Wishing you all the best!~
2nd October 2010

zurück nach Deutschland?
Hi Ben, Du willst wirklich zurück nach Deutschland kommen? Hier ist es kalt und ungemütlich. Aber wenn ich mich recht erinnere, wolltest Du ja zu einer Hochzeit, richtig? Setzt Du danach den Trip fort? Oder war es das dann? Du hast ja noch nicht alles gesehen, oder? Viele Grüße aus Berlin - uund lass es Dir gut gehen Oli PS: Was ist mit dem deutschen Girl geworden, die Euch schweigend gefolgt ist? Habt ihr die wiedegesehen? Ist ja schon ne komische Geschichte, oder?
26th December 2010
Red frog on leaf on the island of Bastimentos

11th February 2011
Tiny crabs in a coconut shell

I really like this picture!
1st July 2011

Living The Dream
How I envy you. Thank you for the stories, very inspiring.

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