Currency: US Dollars. For most countries, it is Visa On Arrival and costs $5 to enter Panama. This gives you 180 days in the country! Six months in a country on such a cheap visa is definitely the best I’ve seen in my travels. As a warning though, Panama is the only country in Latin America that asked for details about how I was exiting the country. I explained my plan to leave by boat for Columbia, but the border agent wanted to see documented proof. I did not have any with me, so of course he wanted a little bribe money. I refused and was about to wait for a shift change, but thankfully the taxi driver waiting for me was able to convince the border guard to leave me alone. If you don’t have a set method for leaving the country, I would print out a fake itinerary just in case.
If you are crossing the eastern border between Costa Rica and Panama, you are likely headed for Bocas del Toro. To get there from the border, you will need land transport to the town of Almirante where you catch the boat to Bocas. The boats run every hour or more and the price is set, but the land portion is more negotiable. The cheap way is to take a series of two local buses for a few hours to Almirante and then walk to the dock. For a few dollars more, grab a taxi and in 45 minutes you’ll be dropped at the dock in Almirante. As an added bonus, the taxi driver may even negotiate you out of some border fines! I was tired when I crossed so I chose the taxi option, but if you have the time and patience, I heard the local buses are easy as well. Assuming you’ve found others crossing the border to share the taxi with you, it should only cost $5/person after negotiating. You’ll have more negotiating power if you approach these taxis in a group, so try to organize it before crossing. Once at the dock, sign up for the next water taxi to Bocas del Toro. These take 30 minutes and only cost $5 as well.
Boca del Toro! Welcome to one of my favorite spots in Central America! Bocas does not have museums, art galleries or historic buildings, but it’s people, islands, and nature give it a vibe and culture that make it hard to leave. This archipelago of islands is a mix of beautiful beaches, mangroves, coral reefs, indigenous villages, and expat communities. You can surf, dive, swim with dolphins, hike through jungles, party the night away, eat at delicious restaurants, or have your own secluded island for the day. All within a 45 minute boat ride of each other!
The main island is Isla Colon. Bicycles are a good way to see Isla Colon and all of its beauty. Bike out to the best surf beaches on the island, Playa Paunch, and Playa Bluff. Whether you are a surfer or just like to watch, these are the best places to do it. You can spend your day, lying on your back watching white-faced monkeys, or surfing the waves. Bluff Beach with its distinctive bright orange sand is also a marine turtles nesting beach, where conservation groups work during the nights, in season, to preserve nests and turtles from predators, which is an activity open also to tourists. Take a day to explore the Botanical Gardens where all types of native plants and flowers are on display, watch the Blue Morpho butterflies play at the Butterfly Gardens, or put on a headlamp and crawl through the bat cave known for its beautiful grotto.There are several hostels in town, but I chose Mondu Taitu since a few friends were already staying there. This place is legit! They have a hilarious staff, open kitchen for cooking food, killer drink specials, and sweet T-shirts for sale. A dorm bed here is $10 per night.
Usually hanging around the hostel will be a few locals that run island hopping tours. Negotiating privately with them can knock the price from $25 to $15 per person, especially if you have a group ready to go. The tours all go to the same places, so if someone isn’t negotiating with you, just find someone else. The tour will visit Dolphin bay to see dolphins, a small uninhabited island named Isla Zapatilla, and a small bay for snorkeling. While in town check out La Iguana on Fridays and Aqua Lounge on Saturdays. Aqua Lounge is basically a massive deck party on the water with swings and jumping platforms into the water. Good times! It should only cost you $1 to boat between the main island and the island that Aqua Lounge is on.
After Bocas you’ll have the rest of the country to explore to the south of you. Panama has many national parks and beach worth exploring, but unfortunately our group didn’t have the time to explore them. We had plans to catch a catamaran to Columbia within in a week so we had to get moving. From Bocas there is a night bus to Panama City. The bus leaves Almirante at 7pm and arrives in Panama City at 4pm the next day. Bring a sweater and a blanket or something else to keep your legs warm because these buses are freezing! No joke, there was frost on the windows level cold!
Located on the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal, Panama City is a city of 1.2 million people with a thriving economy based on banking, trade, and tourism. Because of the bustling economy, weather, health care, cheap cost of living, and other factors, the city has been consistently ranked as one of the top 5 cities to retire in the world. I’d certainly never move there, but it was a fun place to visit. The backpacker hub is in the historic neighborhood of Casco Viejo. Completed and settled in 1673, it was built following the near-total destruction of the original Panamá city, Panamá Viejo in 1671, when the latter was attacked by pirates. Fortunately, much of the old spanish architecture remains and the area was designated a World Heritage Site in 1997. Since then, there has been a strong local push to restore the remaining buildings. While in town, we stayed at Luna’s Castle, easily one of my favorite hostels around the world. They have a big movie room, a few common rooms including one with a balcony overlooking the bay, a popular patio bar downstairs, lockers for your stuff, and free breakfast! Dorm beds here are $13/night.
Casco Viejo is a beautiful neighborhood to walk around. You’ll find cute cafes, old Spanish architecture, and an old fort with views over the ocean. Downtown Panama City is also within walking distance from Casco Viejo. The walk is along a beautiful coastal parkway and passes an amazing ceviche market. The market has dozens of stalls, each with their own specific flavors and fish types. Delicious! Past the market you can continue walking into the city and its modern malls, movie theaters and restaurants.
The Miraflores locks of the Panama Canal are just a short taxi ride away from Casco Viejo and downtown Panama City. The Panama Canal is a 48-mile shipping canal that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. Due to varying altitude levels, and to reduce the amount of work required to build the canal, locks are used to raise and lower ships to the level of Gatun Lake (85 feet above sea-level.) Work on the canal began in 1881 and was completed in 1914. One of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken, the Panama Canal shortcut made it possible for ships to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific in half the time previously required. The shorter, faster, safer route to the U.S. West Coast and to nations in and along the Pacific Ocean allowed those places to become more integrated with the world economy. The Panama Canal has seen annual traffic rise from about 1,000 ships when it opened in 1914, to more than 15,000 today. If you have a student ID card you’ll be able to get tickets for $3, otherwise I believe it was $10. Well worth the visit!
Since we were in a rush, we had to quickly get to our Columbia bound boat from PC. Since our boat was leaving from Portobello, we took a $3 bus to Sabaitas, and a taxi Portobello. If you don’t have a big group, you can also take the local bus from Sabaitas to Portabello.
Today Portabello is a tiny sleepy town of about 3000 people. Portobelo was founded in 1597 by Spanish explorer Francisco Velarde y Mercado for its deep water port. Legend has it that Christopher Columbus originally named the port “Puerto Bello”, meaning “Beautiful Port”, in 1502. From the 16th to the 18th centuries, it was an important silver-exporting port and one of the ports on the route of the Spanish treasure fleets. The privateer Captain Henry Morgan captured the city in 1668 with a fleet of privateers and 450 men. His forces plundered it for 14 days, stripping nearly all its wealth while raping, torturing and killing the inhabitants. In 1739, the Spanish port of Portobello was captured by a British fleet of six ships and the victory created an outburst of popular acclaim throughout the British Empire. More medals were struck for the admiral leading the attack than for any other 18th century British figure. Many Portobellos across the British Isles were named in honor of the victory, such as Portobello Road in London, the Portobello area in Edinburgh, and the Portobello Barracks in Dublin.
Unfortunately not much remains of this history today. Locals have built over many of the defensive positions that once defended the city, so that only a small portion of the fort remains. Tourism to this area is now mainly limited to those traveling on boats between Panama and Columbia. While in town, we stayed at Captain Jacks hostel. It’s a lively crown with interesting owners and clean dorm beds for $12/night.
When traveling between South America and Central America, you cannot travel by land. The land between the two continents is densely forested, mountainous, and inhabited by drug cartels and political rebel groups. Although it’s only an hour flight between Panama City and Cartagena, the airlines charge more than $350 for a one way ticket! For an extra $100, you can take a 4 day catamaran cruise between the two countries that includes unlimited food, snorkeling, fishing, and a tour through the beautiful San Blas Islands.
The San Blas Islands are an archipelago comprising approximately 378 islands and cays, of which only 49 are inhabited by the Kuna Yala people. The inhabitants used to wear few clothes and decorated their bodies with colorful designs. When encouraged to wear clothes by the missionaries, they followed their body painting designs in their Molas, which they wore as clothing. Nowadays you can visit these locals and support them by buying their hand-made products, fresh coconuts, and fresh fish. Apparently they also sell massive bales of cocaine that have been lost at sea by the drug traffickers and washed up on their shores!
There are dozens of boats these days making the journey between Panama and Columbia, with most taking a break in the first couple months of the year when the passage is often too rough. Our group chose a boat named “Fritz the Cat.” I’d go into the various reasons why you should NOT go with this captain, but his boat sunk with 16 people on board several months after our trip. Thankfully everyone was rescued by the Columbian navy, and hopefully Fritz won’t be back on the water. The reviews of other boats are hit and miss, so make sure you do your research before booking one. If it’s last-minute, read the message boards at Luna’s castle in Panama City. Several captains stay at the hostel before their trip and try to recruit passengers with last-minute discounted pricing. Because the islands are protected, the beaches are beautiful and the waters full of coral of fish. Most boats will spend two days in the islands and fill the time with snorkeling, island visits, massive meals, and LOTS of relaxing time. If the weather is good, it’s a beautiful way to travel. The final two days were pretty tough for our group. From the islands to Columbia is purely open water. If the weather doesn’t cooperate for you, as it didn’t for us, the seas can be very rough. On our trip almost everyone got sick and didn’t want to risk eating for two days! Thankfully I was able to keep my mind off it and didn’t get sick, but I didn’t eat much either.
On the morning of the fifth day you’ll wake up coasting into Cartagena harbor. After 5 days of tiny islands and open water, the massive harbor and ships are a welcome sight! Welcome to Columbia, South America, and a new continent!