There has always been an argument if the whole America continent is actually one or two continents. Some maps count North and South America as two separate continents, while others just called the whole thing from Alaska to Ushuaia America or Americas.
For me, the whole continent (and country) concept is just a way to put labels on things so we can identify them easier. Then this thing was twisted to a differentiation between people and it all went horribly wrong. Anyway, is there something that separates North from South America?
Well, not. But there is one thing that actually connects. In times where we need to connect rather than be separated, there’s one thing that does this work – connecting the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans.
This thing is allocated in the southernmost country in Central America, Panama. Panama is also the last country part of the concept of North-American continent. This is the Panama Canal – and you don’t have to be a sailor to have heard of it.
Panama hides other specialties too. In this article, we will show you other Panama highlights that we visited in country number 8 of our Central America Grande journey.
Weather and nature
Tropical islands, green mountains, humidity and rain, thatched roofs versus skyscrapers. Panama tries to keep up with the preserved nature, and people entering from Costa Rica will definitely have an eye on that.
While forests and coastline may not be home to such a diverse wildlife anymore, the environment is pretty much inviting for explorers.
We were followed by rain everywhere we went. In the mountains near Boquete, in the Caribbean islands of Bocas del Toro, in the capital Panama City, in the community islands of San Blas too. End of the winter season, last tails of rain to make sure we are never completely dry.
Of course, we almost never took off the swimming suits as Panama is quite exposed to water so we had to take a full advantage of the ocean before we return to begin a much harsher winter – the one in Bulgaria.
Coming from Costa Rica
We enter from Costa Rica and crossed the border which was the Las Vegas of all borders! Stores, duty-free shops, food, drinks, casinos, it was just too overwhelming. Borders are supposed to be just crossed, but this one was like inviting you to stay longer, as every entertaining-utopia would love to! We managed to keep it together and walk the border area without getting trapped in this world.
After some very comfy colectivo ride and a chilly bus ride, we reached the town of Boquete. It is situated in the mountains and some even call the town of eternal spring. We can vouch for that – it didn’t stop raining at all. But the amazing views and fresh air compensated for the chilly rain.
No wonder so many American retired people chose to locate themselves in Boquete – the town is charming, has a couple of nice restaurants and pubs, even local eateries. Coffee production is the thing in the region. Craft beer production is becoming a thing too.
Rain or not, we had to do laundry. Our clothes were wet and damp from all the rainforest adventures in the past days. So before we boarded a shuttle through mountains and forests with destination Almirante, we collected our freshly washed and dried clothes.
Bocas del Toro
The thing about shuttles and us is that we always get the worst seats and the journeys are long enough to experience all the discomfort and pain possible. The beautiful mountain views didn’t compensate for the sick kidneys. Arriving in Almirante, we saw so much poverty that we couldn’t get it. The Bocas del Toro archipelago is just a boat drive away and is supposed to be one of the wealthiest spots in the country.
Part of the adventure was getting stuffed like sardines inside the boat. No such activity goes unaccompanied by a scandal, but this is Panama, who cares? We had to accept our fate and be stuck altogether with our baggage, wearing stinky life vests that were not even real life vests. Could it get any worse – it can. The skies were getting darker and darker, and our dreams of beach life and island hopping were disappearing.
When we arrived at Bocas Town, it was pouring. We checked in the “typical” “German-owned” hostel and waited for the rain to stop. It kind of stopped, then we tried to reach a nearby island and the Red Frog beach – supposed to be one of the best on the archipelago. The boat drivers were so insolent that we decided to take a stroll instead.
Sailing and partying
Bocas Town is a place we wouldn’t recommend. It’s a party town, super overpriced and has no good beach. For us the best of it was the huge supermarkets and the amazing dinners we cooked. And it’s probably a good base for browsing the other islands and venues around.
That’s how we boarded a nice catamaran the next day. We had a good captain, not so good wind, but engines were working instead of it. Chilling almost a day on a catamaran sailing around dream paradise islands – can’t be a bad thing.
We swam near mangroves to find plenty of sea stars, touched thousands of harmless jellyfish. The visibility was not very good, but we stumbled upon some amazing sea life. That, and lying on the front deck while sailing, and drinking a beer or two with tasty freshly cooked lunch – all that could fix the bad first impressions we had on Bocas del Toro.
What really won us was the totally unexpected parade on the main street. It was a school orchestra practicing, but it had such an energy that still manages to make us smile when we think about it. All those students with instruments and flags blocking the street and everyone around applauding – feel the magic?
We were ready to leave the archipelago early at sunrise as we had a long way to go – all the way to Panama City. The bus was quite modern and far from chicken, but it was freezing cold all the ten-ish hours we were in it. The driver said that it’s set to 21 degrees but it wasn’t. We put all our clothes on and were still cold all the time.
The capital of Panama welcomed us with its heat and humidity and huge highways. After two months without big cities or capitals, we needed some time to adjust to the scale, the traffic, everything that makes a big city big (and city). We bargained with a cab and landed right at Casco Viejo, a unique neighborhood with colonial flavor.
If you’re fans of capitals, Panama City will be a nice encounter for you. Skyline of skyscrapers, touched by the ocean, caressed by the Panama Canal. We couldn’t say no to this romance. The historic quarter of Casco Viejo contributed to the picture with its old, new and charismatic buildings and plenty of choices to spoil with food and ice-cream.
The huge roads and modern stuff like Uber got us to Panama Canal and more specifically to the Miraflores Locks. Panama Canal is a wonder that doesn’t need further explanation! This canal not just saves over 20 days of sailing to go around South America. It connects two oceans!
That day we saw a ship from Colombia passing on its way to Singapore! Passing the Miraflores Locks takes a decent amount of time and human power, too. The construction is just so amazing that you need to be there to see how every detail and every person on field fits the whole plan.
The canal is a strong proof that human can be smart enough and “break” the laws of physics. The use of locks for controlling the water level helps to lift thousands of tones of water and a huge ship and get it on its way to the Atlantic Ocean. On the opposite side, only by lowering the water level again, using the smart locks system, the ships coming from the Atlantic can easily continue their journey to the Pacific. The emotions and thrill are not limited to the engineering miracle only. When a ship passes the canal staff and all the visitor are greeting the ship’s captain and crew members wishing them a safe and pleasant journey to their destination. The captain and the crew on their side are waving and cheering with their sincere smiles.
San Blas islands
We don’t remember how we learned about those distant but still accessible islands in Caribbean sea. We knew we had to visit them as they featured indigenous locals and well-preserved culture. Ah, and out-of-the-postcard tropical islands. Mostly uninhabited. So 4 hours of driving and 1-2 hours of sailing as a start seemed like nothing.
So we had to explore the indigenous Guna Yala (or Kuna Yala) people who were welcoming travelers on their lovely dreamy paradise islands! Community islands, party islands, snorkeling or diving, lying on the beach, enjoying artisan crafts, playing with the kids, living as we all used to live once – simple, close to nature, authentic and following the sun! Life on San Blas islands.
It was a two-day venture and we only hope to have supported the eco-friendly and community-based tourism. Snorkeling near shipwrecks but still surrounded by tons of yachts and boats – maybe this is going in the wrong direction. But there are local people who are partially autonomous to the country of Panama and they seem determined to preserve their islands. Hopefully, they won’t get more determined to own money.
Living with almost no running water, no electricity, and no commodities – that’s something that you should experience. Especially if you’re looking for happiness and simplicity. Don’t worry – there is enough beer and rum for everyone. Locals of some islands were chatty, locals on other islands – more introvert. But still becoming part of all of this was an experience of a lifetime!
After the simple happy experience in paradise, we returned (accompanied by huge rain) to Panama City to check in to a nice airport hotel, take a really long and hot shower, and get ready for a flight to Mexico for the second attempt of Isla Mujeres and also the final leg of our Central America Grande journey.
Travelers in Panama are usually people who are at the finish line of the Central America adventure (as we were), or people who are just starting, or people on vacation in this country only.
For us, it was a nice ending of the journey, but also a bit of too westernized for our taste. I mean it’s lovely that everywhere they speak English but it’s always strange there are places don’t speak Spanish and this is the official language in the country.
All the encounters we had were quite positive, people were nice and collaborative. That excludes the hotel stuff from Boquete that lost our laundry and wanted us to pay for sending it back to us. In general, people are warm and welcoming.
Guna Yala people are a bit different as they have some more isolation and very strong conscious for preserving the community. Some of them got straight into business, taking opportunities to win money from tourists. Most of them, however, is very quiet, introvert and laid back.
In a few words
- Panama hosts some amazing achievements of both human engineering and nature. The Panama Canal is such an achievement that totally changed the world trade, also Panama as a country.
- You have the perfect tropical island mix in Panama – you can explore islands still inhabited by indigenous people with their own traditions and partial autonomy. Or you can visit islands to enjoy all the modern world perks like party and luxury. Being able to see both will get you thinking if the direction the world is going could be a long-term right direction.
- People in Panama are friendly, welcoming and open. Influence from the US is felt everywhere and it’s getting harder to spot indigenous lifestyle or local traditions. Some might say that Panama is a mix of Central America and the Western world. The question is if this mix is diverse and colorful enough to be our cup of tea.
Panama may look small on the map, but don’t be fooled. It just has too much to offer. We can’t wait to go back and take in more of its beauty and charm. Have you been to Panama?