Panama - Bocas, San Blas and Sad Farewells


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Published: December 30th 2011
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Halloween costume on BocasHalloween costume on BocasHalloween costume on Bocas

Halloween costume on Bocas
The final country I was to visit in Central America was Panama and even before I arrived there I had a feeling that I would really like it. As the Panama Canal is the only way to cross from the East coast to West coast without going right round the contintent there is a huge investment in the country. Panama City is an exceptionally safe and modern Capital city, it´s almost a tiny piece of America right at the bottom of Central America.

The border crossing from Costa Rica into Panama can only be described as a unique experience. We had been told it was pretty relaxed but I don´t think that we were prepared for how relaxed it would be. When the bus dropped us off at the border the first thing that we saw was this rickety old bridge, there were literally holes all across the floor. It was pretty difficult to cross with our heavy backpacks, trying to not fall through the gaps into the river below and dodging the suicidal cyclists on their way to Costa Rica. Why on earth you would be willing to cycle across that bridge I don´t know!

When we reached
Trump Tower for LunchTrump Tower for LunchTrump Tower for Lunch

Trump Tower for Lunch
the other side we were ushered into the immigration building by a really stern looking official, who indicated that he wanted Sue to open her backpack to check there were no illegal items being smuggled into the country. Unfortunately we both forgot about the illegal stash of apples that we had hidden in her bag, after a long pause where he just stared at her he asked us if the apples were a gift for him. In the situation you are hardly going to disagree with him, so the apples were placed on his desk. He didn´t look particularly happy as he looked at me and asked me to open my day pack. The first thing he pulled out was my camera and he asked me what it was, by this time I was getting pretty worried about whether the apples were really going to cause us huge problems getting into the country and he was looking for excuses. Having told him it was my camera he handed it back to me and requested that I took a picture of him and Sue. By this point the entire room were almost crying with laughter, the picture is hilarious he looks
The IslandThe IslandThe Island

The beautiful Island Iguana!
so pleased with himself. He told us to pack up our stuff and welcomed us to Panama.

Our first stop in Panama is an island in the North called Bocas del Tor. Bocas is a beautiful area with several islands and a reputation as a good place for backpackers to party. The best way to describe Bocas is the “3 Lies of Bocas”:

1) I am not drinking tonight!

2) I am leaving tomorrow!

3) I love you!

At some point on your stay in Bocas most backpackers hear or say at least one of the above. My main achievement on Bocas was to create 2 costumes out of bin bags, tights and make-up. As we stayed there 9 days it is not really a fantastic record!

Apart from partying we did do a couple of day trips to the local area. My favorite (or least favorite) depending on how you look at it, was the snorkeling boat trip that did not have any snorkeling equipment. When we arrived at the snorkeling site the driver asked us if we had any equipment, luckily between Sue and myself we had two masks and one snorkel.
Island IguanaIsland IguanaIsland Iguana

Island Iguana...look how small it is!
However there were another 6 people on the boat who didn´t have anything, I think the initial idea was we would all be sharing which we were less than happy about. Luckily another boat lent us some equipment for an hour and the boat driver refused to take us to take us to the second snorkeling site in the plan saying that “it was too rough to snorkel there”. Actually this excuse might have worked if every other boat on the same trip managed to get there and also snorkel! We were not best pleased!

As a result of an amazing group of people in Bocas, multiple Halloween parties and a badly injured toe (Sue´s) it took us a while to leave Bocas (OK, for those of you who were there I believe it was 9 days) but the time finally came to sadly say “Goodbye” to Bocas and head to our next stop Panama City.

The bus was horrible, it felt a bit like sitting in a fridge for 10 hours overnight. Every so often he would stop (2am, 4am) and there would be a passport check or you would be chucked off the bus to go
Island at NIghtIsland at NIghtIsland at NIght

Coconut, Rum.....Amazing!
to the toilet. I don´t think I have ever been so happy to see a destination s I was that morning. I was shattered and all I really wanted was a shower, a long nap and then something to eat. Unfortunately Panama City had something else in mind; it was an all day festival with drums, dancers and panpipes that seemed (and this could be paranoia) to be circling round and round our hostel, right past our window. I spent 20 minutes looking out of the window to check my theory. It was inconclusive!

Apart from our welcome to Panama City I really enjoyed my time in Panama City; I managed to replace my stolen walking shoes with some of the most comfy shoes I have ever owned, went to the Donald Trump tower for (expensive!) lunch and cocktails and of course we visited the Panama Canal which I thought was really impressive (although I gather if you have been to the dam in China then it isn´t that impressive. As we were both planning on flying out of Panama City we were heading back but there was just one more destination on our to do list. The San
Sunset on the IslandSunset on the IslandSunset on the Island

Sunset on the Island!
Blas islands!

If there is one place on my trip so far that I could recommend then it is the San Blas islands. I can´t describe how much I loved them. If you picture in your head perfect deserted islands, blue seas, palm trees, full moons and phosphorescent in the water then that was our experience of the San Blas islands. Ok, we also had strong thunder and lightning storms but (for me anyway) it made it more authentic. The food was incredible, the people were really nice. Well you get the picture if you are near Panama go to the San Blas islands!

The trip to the San Blas islands went fairly calmly with a 4 wheel drive there and a water taxi to the island of your choice (ours was an island called Iguana), it was a fairly painless journey including the crucial supermarket stop to buy snacks, drinks etc as there are no shops on the island.

Iguana was about 100m long and it had space for only 10 people at a time on the island. Although there was room for more houses the owner of the island didn´t want anymore people as he
The girlsThe girlsThe girls

Enjoying the sun on the sailing boat
felt his island would be spoilt. The island itself was owned by a 24 year old local guy (the island are never sold, they are given to locals it is impossible to buy a San Blas island. I was told that the Panamanian president tried to buy one and he was refused) who had (apparently) been an ex-Barcelona junior footballer who had had a car accident and was unable to play football anyway. He told us that he was given an island to compensate, knowing nothing about football I have no idea if this was true but it was a good story.

Our room was a dorm cabin that held 4 beds (by this point there were 3 of us on the island together). Within 5 minutes of arriving on the island we quickly realized that there was a hazard on the island; coconuts. Matt was walking to the toilet and a giant coconut missed his head by about 30cms. Apparently it is the closest call they have ever had on the island. So for the rest of the time we would walk around either trying to dodge round the trees or if you really couldn´t avoid them sprinting to get past the coconut bundle. Apart from being a death trap the coconuts did provide a nice mixer for our Rum, there is something satisfying about finding a coconut (trying) to hack the top off and filling it with Rum.

We spent 3 days on the island and it was really relaxing; we swam in the sea, lay in hammocks, took 1000´s of photos, played Bananagrams and ate fresh sea food for every meal. It was amazing. However after 3 days it was time for Sue and myself to join the sailing boat we had decided to treat ourselves to for another 3 nights.

The idea behind the sailing boat was to see some of the further out islands and do something a bit different. As backpacker trips go it was more expensive but we thought we deserved it. Actually I was really excited about it the picture in my mind was bright sunshine, snorkeling and sailing around this tropical paradise with a really fun bunch of people.

This was unsurprisingly not the reality, the main cause of this was a group from hell on the boat. It started off with the rest of the group being 3 hours late (apparently due to car difficulties) making it impossible to do anything other than sail to the harbor where we would be spending our first night. The group consisted of 3 Spanish men (2 of them lived in Panama City) and the girlfriend of one of them. What we didn´t realize was that the next day they were waiting for 2 friends to turn up, who would also be late and so limiting how much sailing we would do the following day as well.

The first night was bearable, they were friendly enough although a bit sleezy. The next day however when their “friends” arrived it appeared that they didn´t seem to know the 2 girls who arrived. It seemed fairly obvious to the rest of the boat that the girls were prostitutes and the rest of the trip was spent with the group of 6 sailing off to islands with crates of beer and gin and refusing to come back. In all I think the rest of us saw about 3 islands as opposed to what would normally have been seen on the same trip. Whilst I felt sorry for the captain I felt he needed to take more control and either make them leave the islands or leave without them and leave a water taxi with them to catch us up at their convenience. However he didn´t so it was almost a relief when we discovered that the group had to leave early on the final day. Although this meant we just sailed back to the dock, it was nice to get rid of them. Whilst in retrospect I maybe wouldn´t have done the sailing trip (unless there was a no prostitutes policy onboard) it was still a fantastic experience.

The journey back to Panama City was one of the most ridiculous journeys I have ever been part of. When we turned up at the dock to get into our 4*4 jeep it appeared that there was not enough room for us. Well as we already had tickets booked the company agreed that they would find some way of getting us to Panama City that day, so reluctantly we agreed and sat down to wait. Suddenly we saw a dust cloud heading in our direction and as we were the only people left standing waiting for a lift we assumed it was for us. Around the corner came what I can only describe as a truck used to carry gas between the islands and Panama City. We started laughing and as we had no choice we jumped into the front of the truck. The driver was really nice but what we couldn´t understand is that at every check point comments were made about his passengers and the fact that we were girls. We couldn´t really understand it, until we got out and realized that on the door next to where we were sitting was a big sign saying “No Passengers allowed”. I have the best photo of me sitting next to it. Well this was fine when we were in the country, however it then materialized that we couldn´t drive all the way to Panama City as the police control points would fine or potentially arrest the driver. SO we stopped and we had to get into a car to drive the rest of the way. Slightly dangerous but you will be happy to know that it worked out well in the end, our truck driver friend got us safely back to the hostel only 3 hours later than scheduled and we made sure that he got the full reimbursement for our tickets. He didn´t have to help us out!

It now comes to the sad part of my Panama story, after 7 weeks (ish) of travelling together it was time for me and Sue to go our separate ways. When you spend 24/7 with someone you do end up knowing everything about them really quickly, we would both start stories and the other one would say “Sorry, I´ve heard this one already”. So to say goodbye properly we went to a really nice apartment on our last night and out for a nice meal. Then it was time to say goodbye, for those of you who know me you will be surprised to know I did shed a tear or two in the taxi as I drove off to the airport to catch a plane to Ecuador.

And the South American adventures were about to begin………………

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