Ever since my roundtrip through Central America in 2009, I’m hooked. I love Central America. The friendly people, the atmosphere, the wildlife, the music… And let’s not forget the diversity. The Maya temples in Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, the marine life in Belize and Costa Rica, the volcanos I visited in Guatemala, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. I can go on and on.
Last year I visited Panama for the first time and I loved every bit of it. A very safe and beautiful country.
Panama City: Casco Viejo, the Panama Canal and the Metropolitan Park
I’ve been told that Mexico City is amazing, but I’ve never been there. All other Central American capital cities were not my best experiences, I have to admit. In fact, I wanted to leave them as fast as I could. Like that time that I asked someone in Belize City if it was safe to walk to a restaurant at night and he responded with a very ‘comforting’ “Ahhh…not too many killings in Belize City”.
Panama City was a different experience. I found Panama City the perfect place to acclimatize after the flight from Amsterdam. My first impression of Panama City was from the plane. Through my window I saw a beautiful sunset over the impressive skyline of Panama City. My first (and definitely not last) ‘wow’ of my trip.
I chose to stay in the colonial district of Panama City, Casco Viejo. A neighborhood with older buildings, amazing hotels (the American Trade Hotel!!) a fish market (with cheap -but good!- ceviche), local bars and rooftop bars with a beautiful view on the skyline of Panama City. Not a bad place to drink my first Panama beer.
Besides just walking around and exploring Panama City there are two things that I recommend you to include in your Panama City trip: the Panama Canal and the Metropolitan Park.
There are several ways to visit the Panama Canal, among others on one of the ships. I just visited the museum with its look out platforms. Yes, the Panama Canal-museum is full with (other) tourists, but it’s impressive to see the boats getting through the locks. I understand why Panama is proud of this prestige project and the prosperity it brought to the country.
And how cool is it to find a park in the middle of a capital city where you can find sloths, toucans, trogans (stunning birds), monkeys, turtles and so on? In Panama City all of them can be found in the Metropolitan Park. It’s recommended to go there in the early morning because the park is hilly and it’s obviously more convenient to walk the trails when the sun is still bearable.
I asked one of the rangers of the park if he knew where I could encounter a sloth and he walked with me and pointed out one! Also, I borrowed his binoculars and I was able to see some toucans up close! Next to the entrance of the park many turtles gather around a small creek. There, I also found many Jesus Christ Lizards, called that way because they walk over water (see my movie, even in slow motion they’re unbelievable fast).
San Blas Islands: palm trees, star fish and the Kuna
Tropical islands can be found just a couple of hours away from Panama City. The San Blas Islands or Kuna Yala are everything you’ll image when you think of the tropics: palm trees, star fish, white sand and 50 shades of blue water.
I booked a trip with Cacique Cruisers and I spend two nights at one of the inhabited islands. My accommodation was pretty basic: a dormitory with sand floor and single beds. Simple, but everything you need on a tropical island. The formula was as following: everyday people left and new people arrived. During the day we went island hopping and dinner and breakfast were served on ‘our’ island. With regards to alcohol the island had a more or less bring-your-own-policy. Therefore, on the way to the islands our car stopped at a supermarket for us to buy beers and rum etc. At night we drank, played card games and danced under the stars.
All of this sounds very romantic, and it was. But, the indigenous people (the Kuna’s) that live on the island that we stayed at seemed very unhappy with our company. I felt pretty unwanted and I felt we were disturbing their lives. Obviously, the only reason we were allowed on the island was for economic reasons.
On one of our trips we visited the main Kuna island and we learned about the local traditions in the Kuna museum. A tradition that is sadly vanishing a bit. The older generation is still dressed in beautiful molas and has woven bead bands around the wrists and ankles. But the younger generation prefers to wear western clothes. The women in traditional clothes accept their pictures to be taken, but charge $1 for that. Something I did with mixed feeling. I was happy to contribute to the Kuna economy, but I’m still not sure if I did the right thing by taking pictures.
You may wonder why the San Blas Islands were still one of my highlights while I also felt uncomfortable staying at the inhabited islands. Good point. The reason is that the islands are insanely beautiful. If you can find a way to see the islands without disturbing the Kuna’s, then a visit to the San Blas Islands is just perfect! Therefore, my recommendation is to visit the San Blas Islands by sailing boat and to avoid the inhabited islands. You’ll still contribute to the economy of the Kuna’s by the entrance fee you’ll have to pay to visit the islands.
Coiba: a beautiful marine world and Tito the salty crocodile
National Park Coiba (an island in the Pacific Ocean) has been on my list for a while and last year I was able to go! I booked a 3-day trip with Scuba Coiba and left by boat from Santa Catalina with 3 other enthusiastic divers, a dive master and a captain. Along the way to Coiba we made our first dive and we enjoyed our lunch at a beautiful pristine island.
In the following days we went out for diving 3 times a day, chilled on the beach, were spoiled with good food and enjoyed the wildlife on the island (vultures, monkeys, agoutis, iguanas etc.). Only a small wooden fence separated us from Tito, a saltwater crocodile that visits the island daily, mostly in the afternoon. And during the day I enjoyed the ‘sleep’ in dive-eat-sleep-repeat in one of the hammocks at the beach.
The ranger station that we slept in was very neat. Nothing fancy, but clean, firm, dry ánd it had air-conditioning… unfortunately the ranger station is closed down at the moment for an unknown period of time. Hopefully it will open soon again, because it’s really worth to spend some nights at Coiba.
The dives in the waters of the national park were nice. White tip reef sharks on every dive, loads of swimming eels, a mobula (small manta ray), a sea horse and I even saw a dolphin while diving! I missed a hammerhead shark, because I was occupied with saving my fin that came loose and unfortunately, we didn’t spot manta rays or whale sharks that regularly visit the area. A reason to come back, and also to see the humpback whales, later in the season!
Bocas del Toro: red frogs, water slides, beach and tequila
Bocas del Toro is another beautiful island group in Panama. Caribbean islands that attract all kind of visitors: backpackers, families, party animals, nature lovers, etc. I flew in from Panama City (an amazing flight!! Another ‘wow’) but Bocas del Toro can be reached by bus too. Transportation between the islands is by boat (what a surprise!).
I booked a (dorm) room at Bambuda lodge. A beautiful place in-between jungle and the ocean on Solarte Island. Daredevils could take the slide into the ocean. I just took the stairs! And every evening a family style was served, enjoyed on long tables with all guests. A great way to meet others.
I visited beautiful Red Frog Beach, and even though I read that the red frogs are hard to spot, I easily spotted a dozen of them. On the way back, I saw dolphins while the sun was setting. Perfect timing! Sorry, but ‘wow’ again! I joined a day trip that finished at the pristine Zapatilla. Pristine but not really deserted; I counted 15 boats. I saw sloths, beautiful birds and nice fish! And one night I joined a big group to the main island for drinks. Beers and tequila. The latter is never a good idea! So apart from the headache the next morning, I enjoyed every bit of Bocas del Toro!
Not convinced yet? Watch my short movie and let me know what you think!