Panama was the last Central American country for us to explore, and to be straight up, we didn’t do enough research on the country before booking simply because we travelled through most of Central America on an organized tour, therefore, we never had to think about lodging or the logistics of getting from A to B.
This led us to make mistakes, and we’re hoping by sharing our mistakes, you can properly plan for your time in Panama, including how to get there.
Mistake: Not Knowing about the tropical islands of Bocas del Toro. Whoops!
Don’t be like us and fly directly from San Jose, Costa Rica to Panama City, Panama. Instead, go to the beautiful tropical islands of Bocas del Toro in Panama, stay there for a few days (minimum) THEN get on your way to Panama City.
To get to Bocas del Toro, take a flight directly from San Jose to Isla Colon OR a bus from San Jose to the border and then a 30min ferry to the tropical islands of Bocas del Toro. If you are catching a bus from Costa Rica, be aware of the Panama border control which can take a considerable amount of time. You also must have $500 cash, and a ticket out of Panama to enter the country.
After your stay in Bocas Del Toro, you can get a cheap direct flight with Air Panama or an overnight bus onwards to Panama City.
Silver Lining: Business Class Upgrade!
Although we had to backtrack to get to Bocas Del Toro, we did get some silver lining in the situation and we were upgraded to Business Class on our flight.
This was the first time we’ve both been in Business Class together. Wearing our beach bum clothes, flip-flops and salty hair we walked our way to the express security lane but not before we were stopped and told to go in the regular line. I mean we definitely didn’t look like we belonged in the priority lane, but hey what is this stereotyping business?!?
We showed the lady our boarding pass and she looked at us, looked at the pass and giggled under her breath. We felt like immature school children in these huge-ass seats on Avianca Airlines. We were being called Mr and Mrs Cass, given champagne on arrival, hot meals with proper silverware, blankets, pillows and tray tables that fit both our computers and trays of food at the same time. It was a definite treat. I wonder if we’ll ever get so lucky again.
Bocas Del Toro
Here are our tips for the islands of Bocas del Toro. Unfortunately, the weather gods were not in our favour for the 4 days we spent here but we made do with what we were given. A little rain never hurt anyone.
Accommodation in Bocas del Toro
Selina Hostel is a very large hostel located in the heart of the Bocas town. It opens directly onto the water and offers many different activities including free breakfast, surf and SUP rentals, a jetty to jump into the water, a large bar, movie room and decent sized dorms. It was one of the more expensive hotels on the island but the atmosphere wasn’t one to miss and we highly recommend it. There were so many people from so many different countries, it felt like a giant house party all weekend. We thoroughly enjoyed it!
Offroad ATV adventures
After a stroll down the main street, we spotted a truck with Flying Pirates written all over it and we were intrigued.
Flying Pirates rents ATVs for $90 for half a day (4 hours) and $117 for a whole day (8 hours) and you get to ride through the barely untouched jungle, on the beach, through mud pits, lakes, under branches, over logs, you name it. The ATV paths were made by chopping through the thick jungle with chainsaws & machetes, so the surroundings were completely natural and it made for the most interesting, fun, bumpy ATV ride we’ve ever had. A highly recommended experience!
We did once run into a tree, but by the looks of the bumps, scratches and dents, we weren’t the first. We also bogged ourselves in the sand at one point, the reverse gear was not working and then some rain started coming down so we figured the only way out of there was to lift the damn ATV ourselves, so we did just that. Muscles!
The whole day was such fun, the paths were marked out with subtle arrows on a tree so unless you went off course it was easy to navigate. We stopped in all the different locations through the jungle including beaches and water holes. The beach at the end was only accessible via a 45-minute hike. You’ll stumble across some legit mud pits, so deep that at times you are knee deep. Jacob thought he would test this and found out the hard way. His foot sunk down, including his flip-flop which he had to fish out, elbow deep in mud.
After our safety demo, they told us the biggest accidents happen with males between 18-35 years and mainly Israelis, Americans and Australians! We can see how that statistic is right 😉 If I hadn’t been on the back of the ATV, I’m sure Jacob would have added to that statistic. Jacob’s break was for me to squeeze the living daylights out of him and squeal in his ear to slow down. He definitely got smacked once or twice. Whoops!
By the end of it, we could see exactly why it is rated so high on Trip Advisor!
Note; If you do the whole day tour, pack lunch and drinks as there isn’t anything along the way – only right at the start.
Eating & Drinking on the Island
Bocas del Toro has a very decent selection of food options for such a small town. There are plenty of places to get great, cheap local food like fried whole fish, plantains, stewed chicken, and coconut rice. Then there are restaurants serving great food from all over the world. There’s pretty much everything from Caribbean style to the Mediterranean, Italian, Mexican, healthy and of course, you can’t forget about the street food!
Below were our favourites!
- La Iguana – Turns into THE club in the evening but a good restaurant for wood-fired pizza during the day.
- Aqua Lounge – $1 taxi across the other side of Bocas is a nightclub, bring your swimmers here as they have jumping boards, swing ropes and trampolines.
- Taco Surf Bocas– Delicious Mexican at reasonable prices, located inside a surf rental store.
- Captain Caribe – Our FAVORITE on the island. The burgers are to die for. Three local guys run this place and cook in the yard of their place with super unique burgers. Located right next to Selina’s Hostel.
- Om Cafe – If you feel like a change, this Indian joint won’t disappoint.
- Bibi’s on the Beach– A $1 water taxi over to Carenero Island, they offer fresh seafood dishes and good views.
- Cafe del Mar – Classic cheap breakfasts and healthy sandwiches and wraps.
- Almost every restaurant in town will have happy hour so we just walked the streets to see what suited.
Islands Around Bocas
There are so many islands to explore off of Bocas but due to the torrential rain we were slightly limited to visit any, but on our last day we were thankfully greeted with some beautiful sunshine. How typical!
If you are lucky enough to get good weather, make use of the many water taxis, jump in one of them and they will take you to any of the islands you want to go. So many locals will jump at the chance to do this and it is the best way to see everything. Pay anywhere from $1-$20 depending on the distance, tell them where you want to go, what time and when you want to be picked up and they will be there for you. Easy.
Red Frog Beach – For $10 round trip, 10 minutes on the boat and $5 entry (it’s a national park) they took us to Red Frog Beach located on the island of Bastimentos. This island is often considered the more relaxed alternative to the busy streets and bars of Bocas del Toro District and is slowly becoming more popular with backpackers. The beach here was beautiful and we were stoked to have some sunshine before we left. Instead of staying where you first enter the beach, we took a long walk around the headland to find our own secluded beach for the day. Perfection 🙂
For more information on all the other islands to visit from Bocas, visit here and hopefully the weather gods are on your side!
Panama City + Casco Viejo
Panama City felt like a cross between Dubai, New York and Miami. Downtown Panama is the main financial hub with many banks, high rise buildings, tall skyscrapers and apartments. We never expected Panama to be so developed. Although we didn’t stay in Panama City, we had an amazing view of the city from the recommended old town of Casco Viejo.
Casco Viejo, meaning old quarter in Spanish is where the tourists flock to during their visits to Panama. The town is surrounded by the modern day Panama City but it still has the charm of the old days, due to its colonial streets, buildings, and squares around the French Plaza. The architecture in Casco Viejo is a combination of the colonial styles of the French, Italian, American and Spanish.
A lot of the houses and buildings have been renovated to modern day styles and there is the constant refurbishing of buildings. It is such a quaint town to walk around in and with a lot of trendy restaurants and bars to keep you busy.
Unfortunately, as we were only staying 2 days here, it didn’t give us enough time to explore and eat at as many restaurants as we would have liked but these are some we can recommend: The Tantalo Kitchen rooftop is awesome for a rooftop cocktail and dinner, The Fish Market (not to be confused with the seafood market) is an outdoor area near the America Trade hotel, it has a few small food trucks set around picnic tables and then there is the Seafood Market also known as Mercado de Mariscos, this is a seafood lovers dream. Fresh fish and ceviche! For ice-cream, look no further than Granclement Gourmet Ice Creams and Sorbets, this was by far the best gelato we’ve had since Italy.
The World’s Most Expensive Coffees
Considering how much Jacob enjoys coffee, it was important to make a stop inside the American Trade Hotel to visit Cafe Unido. We were told by a local that we must sample “the world’s most expensive coffee” that is exclusive to Panama, the “Hacienda La Esmeralda”. The coffee was made through a drip system and was of the Geisha coffee bean variety. Neither of us had heard of it before but we were told we must try it. It came in at a whopping $7 a cup, and $1200 per KG! :O. I watched Jacob drink every.last.drop.
Was it worth the $7? I don’t think any coffee is but for a once off, why not?
The Panama Canal
The Panama Canal is the gateway to the world and it saves the boats weeks of time by travelling through a small canal, connecting the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. It is by far one of the biggest engineering feats of all time and it was an insightful experience seeing it in the flesh.
Seeing the boats pass through the canal is a must, but make sure you go at the right time. There are only certain times that the boats pass through and luckily we were told this prior to organize our visit. The boats will pass through the locks until from 9 to 10/10:30 am on a regular day and then again at 2:30-4pm. From October to May cruise ships also pass through, around 12 pm. It takes a while for each boat to go through, but we watched from the viewing platform for about 30 minutes.
Fun facts on the Panama Canal
- Cruise ships pay a whopping $400,000 to pass through the canal. Larger boats can pay up to $1 Million.
- The cheapest fee ever paid to go through the canal was a French man who decided to swim through and paid a total of 38c.
- Each boat will take 8-10 hours to pass through transit but will have to line up for as long as 24-48 hours prior.
- Between 13,000 and 14,000 ships use the canal each year
- The canal is now being expanded to handle more ships wanting to pass through.
- The Panama canal runs 24 hours a day
If you want to be a passenger on a boat that goes through the Panama Canal, then there’s the option to book through Panama Canal Tours, however, this doesn’t come at a cheap price. $250 per person for a full transit cruise or for a partial cruise, $180. A much cheaper way is paying the $15 entry at the Miraflores Locks Visitor Center to view the canal from the platforms. You also get entry to the 4 story museum to learn more about this amazing man-made creation.
To know how much went into creating the canal is crazy, including the 25,000+ lives which were lost – very sad. But what it means for so many people today, is very uplifting. All in all, it was extremely fascinating.
Well Central America, that my friend is a wrap. We’ve had the best time and could only wish we stayed longer! I think it’s time we learnt a few more Spanish words because something tells us we won’t get by all that well in South America with only Hola, Gracias, Por Favor, Si, No, Rapido & Bano. Duo lingo, please help!
Married days survived: 280