I hot footed it from Honduras to Panama in 6 days to meet a friend in Panama City. I spent over 50 hours in buses and exited & entered 6 different borders (entering Panama being the worst!)
I spent the days on buses and at night I would enjoy sleeping horizontally at different hostels in different cities before taking buses each following day. I was lucky enough to spend 2 nights in Leon, Nicaragua to break up the trip.
The city itself was pretty shitty in my opinion, nothing really nice to see and although “safe” I still didn’t enjoy walking the streets alone. I met an awesome Aussie chick traveling with an Aussie & Norwegian guy so we spent a day at a nearby beach, getting smashed around by the waves, drinking cervesa and lazing by the pool.
I made it to Panama City on a Saturday night and was thrilled at the realisation I wouldn’t have to see the inside of a bus for at least a few days. I checked into a hostel in the old town, which is beautiful and so refreshing to be in a city in CA that is actually safe to walk around & where “gringos” are common. When I say “safe” I mean the area I was in anyway.. When I arrived at the hostel I was given a map by the reception and he drew a huge line and crosses over part of the area. The invisible line between the rich & the slums, a place not even safe to step foot during the day. I met a crazy Japanese guy who had just taken a dingy boat from Colombia to Panama and was heading out to meet his new Colombian friends from the boat. I joined him and we went to the fish market and ate fresh shrimp ceviche and whole fried fish. The Colombians left before us and we realised afterwards they had paid our whole bill. The third free meal I got during this trip! 🙂
We spent the rest of the night sitting in the street outside our hostel where I polished off a bottle of wine.. The first time I had drank wine in 5 weeks and I must say it was a struggle climbing into the top bunk that night!
The next day I moved hostels into a place called Mystico Hostal & Spa. The place was absolutely stunning! I assume it was originally a beauty salon/spa as the bottom floor has 2 rooms, each with 2 jacuzzis, massage tables & saunas. It was something you would imagine in your dreams! The top floor was converted into private rooms & dorms with a beautiful kitchen & rooftop terrace. Surprisingly the accommodation is an unbelievably affordable for Panama City! My friend arrived that afternoon so that night we had an hour in the jacuzzi with a few cervesas and a bottle of wine and the best part; it was included in the price of our room! Bliss.
The next day we went to the Panama Canal which was the worst $15 I think I have ever spent and the most boring half an hour of my life. I really don’t know why this is a “must-see” in Panama City, but each to their own I guess. To make the afternoon a little more exciting we snuck into the Hard Rock Hotel and went to their rooftop pool & jacuzzi and lived it up like rich people for a few hours.. It was bliss! We then went an organised our trip to the San Blas islands for the following day.
San Blas is a group of islands off the Caribbean coast of Panama. The inhabited islands are home to the local Kuna people. There is a law prohibiting foreigners to own any property or businesses therefore keeping this place untouched and unspoiled by Americanised tourist traps. I had heard many mixed reviews about San Blas, mostly good, but the occasional complaint of it being a little boring. To me, a beach paradise cannot be boring and I knew we had to go!
We were picked up at 5am the next day and taken by 4WD for 3 hours to the north of Panama City. We arrived at a small river with a shelter and a few sticks in place for the boats to moor at. We waited for almost 2 hours (typical CA) until our boat finally arrived to pick us up. After a few rainy days in Panama City the clouds disappeared and the sun was beaming down as we took the boat to our island. We stopped a few times at different islands for unknown reasons. (Again, typical CA never knowing what’s going on, always disorganised.) The boat also broke down in the middle of the ocean for a while, but eventually we made it to our home for the next 3 days! And home it was 🙂 As we pulled into the beach I had a feeling of extreme elation, the place was paradise in every sense of the word! We walked across the small island and checked into our cabin. It was literally a thatched roof & wall with a double bed in the middle IN the sand. The sand was our floor! Just 5 metres from our cabin was the beach. The water was crystal clear and the colour was a Caribbean-blue like you would see on a postcard. The beach is pristine, white sand lined with palm trees, a few hammocks strung about and only about 20 other people in sight.
There was an amazing reef around 20 metres off shore with tones of different fish & sea creatures and beautiful, colourful coral. You could walk the island in around 20 minutes, but despite the small size there was a handful of small bays to swim in or places to sit. The first afternoon we went by boat to a local island & village for a “fiesta”.
When we were told we were going to a fiesta we expected a bar on the beach, some Caribbean tunes playing and cold cervesas awaiting. We arrived to discover we were actually going to witness a traditional Kuna festival! We were told we couldn’t take cameras onto the island and that everybody must wear a shirt. We walked around the small village and while the adults ignored us as if we weren’t there the children were all excited to see us and say hola!
I had mixed feelings about being there, on their island, during a traditional fiesta.. Like I was intruding on their land and gawking at them like a tourist. On the other hand I was excited to experience their culture and how they live.
We were taken to a huge hut lined with wooden benches where people sat patiently.. We didn’t even know what we were doing there but we sat and waited anyway. Eventually a line of Kuna men wearing hot pink button up shirts, black pants and bucket hats walked/danced into the hut. It’s hard to say really if they were walking or dancing, but it was definitely an interesting sight. Following them were a line of Kuna women dressed head to toe in their colourful traditional wear doing the same half-walk, half-dance into the room. Most of them had cigarettes hanging out of their mouths and they all carried a wooden bowl. Inside the hut they would stand in a circle, fill the wooden bowl with something, drink it and then do the same half-walk, half-dance out of there. This happened several times and in the meantime there was an Argentinian couple translating information to us. This was between very little English and broken Spanish so I’m not even sure if this is true.. But, we were told it was a 4 day celebration because a local girl had become a woman. I don’t know if it was because she got her first period or turned a certain age. At the end of the day they filled the wooden bowls with a local rum and passed them around the room and people had to drink these huge bowls in one go. There was a lot of dry retching and a lot of spitting which was quite funny to watch!
Turns out the place we were staying in San Blas only served us chicken for the 3 days we were there because the fishermen were all too drunk at the festival to go fishing! Haha.
The next day we were taken on a free boat trip, first to Starfish Island.. It was actually just a sandbar in the middle of the ocean with hundreds of starfish on the sand. Then to another island with yet again crystal clear waters and white sandy beaches. We also saw pelicans diving and catching fish which is a really cool sight to see! By night we would sit on the beach and drink Rum Punch, swim in the warm waters and enjoy the stars overhead. The morning we left we awoke early to the most beautiful fire-orange sunrise and snorkeled the reef early before heading back to the mainland. San Blas is by far the best place I have visited in the world so far! There was not one minute I was bored, nor was there a moment where I couldn’t handle the basic amenities.
Tips/information for traveling to San Blas Islands
San Blas is very untouched and it can be hard to find useful information online. Without spoiling any of the surprise, here are some tips 🙂
*You cannot pre-book San Blas. You can only reserve the day before through local travel agencies and hostels. I recommend going to book through Mamallenas hostel as they don’t charge any commissions, the staff are helpful and speak English if you need.
*If you like to eat, yes, take snacks! The meals are substantial for small eaters, but for a big eater like myself I needed more. Take only snacks that you can eat in one time or that are resealable as there are bugs. The islands generally sell beer, soft drink & bottles of rum, but if you prefer to drink something else take it with you and they will allow you to put it in the fridge. Beers were $2.50 at Inas and around 50c if you buy in Panama city.
*These costs may change/vary, but what we paid to travel in July 2014 was this: $60 each for the return transport to where the boat departs from. $20 each return for the boat to Inas Cabins. $50 per night total for a double room for 2 people including 3 meals. Dorms were $26 per night per person including 3 meals.
*My biggest tip… Don’t plan your return date! You can continue booking nights whilst on the island and your transport is open dated. If we didn’t have further travel plans in place we would have extended for longer!
This information is based off travel in 2014 and may have changed since then.