Panama (2018)

Magic of the Caribbean, Reunion with Herbie and Erika

Herbie and Erika emigrated from South Africa to Panama and run a B&B in Boca Chica, which gave us the idea to visit our old friends in their new home.

Panama is a country in Central America, bordering Costa Rica to the west and Colombia to the east. The Panama Canal connects the Caribbean Sea in the north and the Pacific Ocean in the south.

Panama gained its independence from Colombia in 1903. After that, the country was under the influence of the USA for a long time. In 1999, the USA finally ceded full control of the Panama Canal to the state of Panama. Thanks to the revenues from the canal, Panama is now one of the richest countries in Latin America. In the 2016 Human Development Index, the country ranked 60th out of 188 countries. (Info from Wikipedia).
We want to "experience" the country on our own by rental car. Here is our route (the numbers indicate the individual stops):

Caught in Atlanta

Actually Atlanta/USA didn't play a role in our vacation planning. We just wanted to change planes there (with Delta Airlines) to Panama City (also Delta). Arrival on time. 2 hours connecting time. Should be no problem. Wrong thought.  It took more than 2 hrs to go through immigration formalities. Not because they checked very thoroughly, but because for 500 passengers only 3! counters were occupied. Short and sweet, the connecting flight was gone. The airline declared itself innocent, because the plane had landed on time. After 2 hours of hard negotiation, many phone calls with some supervisors, we got at least a free night in a moderate hotel and a flight booking for the next day. For food we had to provide ourselves. As expected, there was no restaurant in the hotel, so pizza delivery service. The flight the following day was overbooked, so we could not board our seats until 15 min before departure. Conclusion: Never again book a flight via Atlanta!


22.00 o'clock - finally landed in Panama. Luckily our luggage arrived on the same plane. Now we can take off. The cab mafia controls the airport business and demands $30. No matter, the main thing is a bed. Finally we are picked up in 7 hours for the first tour.

The city center is dominated by hotels and banks. On foot we make our way to the old town. The waterfront is extremely well kept and decorated for Christmas. People are jogging, playing basketball or riding their bicycles. On almost every corner, street vendors with small charcoal grills offer meat skewers or sausages. In the old town, all hell is breaking loose. Hip pubs, bars and posh accommodations. We have our dinner, rice with beans and grilled dorado, at the fish market in a street restaurant. 
Too bad we have so little time here!

From the Pacific to the Caribbean

Punctually 7:05 the minibus of our tour provider comes to pick us up. Due to the holidays, the tour is well booked and we are loaded into a larger bus in the parking lot of a shopping center. With 15 other guests from Europe and Canada, we head for Lake Gatun and thus immediately towards the Caribbean Sea. Enrique, our tour guide, informs us very entertaining about the country and its people and of course about the Panama Canal.
With a motorboat we cross the canal, observe the first giant ships and feed monkeys that reach the boats via the branches hanging into the water.
Afterwards we visit Fort San Lorenzo, the oldest Spanish fortress in the Americas. In the strait, the merchant ships were protected with batteries of cannons against pirate raids.
Last stop is the locks of Aqua Clara, which were put into operation in 2016 as a new lock facility. Here we meet again the container ships from the morning and watch the spectacle. 

Panama Canal

With the excursion boat we sail a few kilometers on the canal to the Agua Clara lock. There we can witness up close how the giant pots are pulled into the lock by boats and then lowered into the barrages. The process takes about 3 hours per ship. The fee to pass through is €500,000 per container ship. A new suspension bridge is under construction near Colon (exit to the Caribbean). We still crossed by ferry and were transported back to the city by bus.

El Valle - Life in the volcano

Our first destination outside the city was the village of El Valle, about 2 hours from Panama City. El Valle is located in the crater of an extinct volcano, therefore it is surrounded by the former crater rim all around. The soil is very fertile, the climate somewhat temperate. One has the feeling of walking through a garden. Everywhere it is green and blooming. Our accommodation "Golden Frog Inn" is no exception. We could stay here longer. An ideal place to relax. Right after arrival we hike through the rainforest to the "summit" India Dormida (the sleeping Indian). (The ridge looks from below like the silhoette of a reclining woman, hence the name). Upon returning to the Frog Inn, we are pleasantly surprised by the Friday happy hour with free drinks. Good thing we were there on Friday!

We extended our stay (involuntarily) by one day. The diesel filter of our Hilux-Doublecab was defective. The rental company sent a mechanic to replace the part.

Reunion on the other side of the world

Next destination is Boca Chica on the Pacific Ocean. Heavily neglected in the guidebooks and only positively mentioned in some backpacker travel blogs but our real reason for traveling to Panama. Here Herbie and Erika will soon open a B&B. We know them from our trips to South Africa. Their B&B in Ballito was several times a stop on our trips along the east coast around Durban.

We reach Boca Chica in the dark and still manage to get there without any major difficulties. The joy of seeing each other again is great and at dinner we exchange 
We have dinner together and talk about the past months.
The surroundings are stunning, the view of the bay sensational. The next morning we rent a kayak and explore the lagoon. In the evening we go together to the tiki bar to celebrate New Year's Eve with the other expats.

New Year in Paradise

To celebrate New Year, Herbie organizes a boat at a special price to take us to the Islas Secas. Snorkeling equipment and food is included.
At 10:00 a.m., many excursionists are already milling around the small harbor and boarding the boats. While Herbie parks, we load our private boat with all the cool bags and backpacks.
The weather shows itself for days finally from the sunny side. A bright blue sky and 30° accompany us on the one-hour trip over the calm, glittering waters of the bay. Already the views of the many small islands are stunning. We stop at a rocky island for the first snorkel. Back in the boat we hold course to the actual destination. In front of us lies a lonely white sandy beach, framed by palm trees. Completely relaxed we enjoy the afternoon, explore the surroundings, snorkel and feel a bit like in paradise, also thanks to the well filled cool bag.

Boquete - hotspot for dropouts

After bidding a fond farewell to Herbie and Erika, we head north to Boquete, a bustling town at the foot of Baru Volcano. From the summit, with good visibility, both the Caribbean and the Pacific can be seen. Unfortunately, a rain-cloud front had come up, so that we were not even granted a view of the summit. We also skip the "Quetzales Trail" due to the weather. Instead, we treated ourselves to a round of golf at the nearby Luzero Golf Course, the highest course in South and Central America.

Many of the restaurants, B&Bs and stores are run by dropouts from all over the world. So is our lodging, "Casa del Montana." It is owned by two Americans, one with Pakistani roots. The manager, a young Panamanian, tells us that his sister is married in Freiburg.

The "Boquete Brewing Company", only 10 minutes walk away, with excellent craft beers is one of our regular places to go. Sabine's birthday we celebrate in the restaurant "The Rock", appropriate for the occasion, the best house on the place.


Almirante - End of a dream     

We plan to spend the last 3 days in Bocas del Torro, a group of islands on the Caribbean side of Panama. After a 3 ½ hour winding drive through the Panamanian Cordilleras, we reach the port town of Almirante, where the Chiquita bananas are sent on their way. Here a water cab is to take us to the island. At the port, we learn that the cabs will have to stop operating for at least the next 2 days. The weather is just too bad. It storms and pours like from buckets. The dream is over! We can forget about the Caribbean. Together with several hundred tourists, mostly young backpackers, we have to spend the night in Almirante. Near the harbor everything is fully booked. Finally we find an accommodation of the category 0-star-plus, We can choose: Room with or without window. We choose the "luxury variant" with window for 25 $.

Las Lajas - longest beach in Panama.

After the failed Caribbean adventure we drive back over the mountains on the Panamericana towards Panama City. The last 2 days we want to spend at the Pacific Ocean, about 4 hours drive from the city. We decide on Las Lajas, where, according to the guidebook, there is the longest beach in the country. Despite high season there is hardly any activity. Fine brown sand as far as the eye can see. The sea is very shallow here. The waves are moderate. There are 100 beds in the village, but almost all of them are gone. We are not the only ones arriving from Almirante. Luckily we get the last room for one night in the Finca Buena Vista, built and run by Uwe and Berit. Both already emigrated 12 years ago, they know the country and the people very well. The accommodation units are spacious, well equipped and moderately priced. The breakfast leaves nothing to be desired. It is served on our terrace. Homemade rolls, of course lots of fresh fruit and even liver sausage, which I spurn, however, not so Sabine. Right next door there is a restaurant, also in German hands. Manfred and his wife have moved from Costa Rica to here. The food (seafood platter for 2) is rich and delicious. With lots of wine and interesting conversations the first day comes to an end.

The next day we have to move, to Le Villette, right on the beach, brand new and run by Italians. Still, it can't compete with Uwe's accommodation. Long relaxing walks on the beach let the vacation slowly come to an end.

Coming full circle: back in Panama City.

The 5 hours drive from Las Lajas to Panama City passes without any special incidents. For "winding down" we visit a small nature reserve on the outskirts of the city. It offers beautiful walks through the rainforest and after a rather steep ascent we reach an observation deck, which offers wonderful panoramic views over Panama City, skyline, harbor, and canal. A successful conclusion of an exciting trip with many new impressions. The country is definitely worth a second trip.

About the photos: Aguti (a guinea pig relative), tarantula, termite burrow in tree, leaf-cutting ants at work, strange tree, city