The long isthmus of Panama connects the Americas, so narrow in diameter in places that it looks like it could be snapped in two by a particularly strong breeze. My last week in Central America involved a brisk traverse across this thread of land, stopping to take in the islands of Bocas Del Toro, the spectacular mountains of Chiriqui Province, and the tropical, skyscraping metropolis of Panama City, before embarking on a rather different border crossing to Colombia.
Bocas Del Toro
I spent two days and three nights on the main island of the Bocas archipelago, Isla Colon. Continuing the theme of the previous days, the vibe was distinctly Caribbean, the weather hot and sunny, and the beaches vast and stunning.
I stayed in the rather average Hostel Heike with my then-travel companion Laurien – it was cheap, but other than a good location and nice rooftop garden had little else to recommend it. Both days were beach days, firstly biking with another friend to Playa Bluff (an expansive stretch of oatmeal-like sand battered by huge waves) and then visiting Starfish Beach the following day. Bluff was the more beautiful but Starfish was more populated and more fun, hanging out with a good group and seeing numerous examples of the five-pointed creatures that give the beach its name.
Other Bocas highlights were mostly culinary, with a couple of solid burgers and also a magnificent tuna ceviche at the excellent Captain Caribe restaurant. For some reason I hardly took a single photo on Bocas – I can’t think why, given the beaches were lovely.
Lost and Found
Hidden way up in the mountains of Chiriqui, the Lost and Found hostel is a destination in itself on the Central American backpacker trail. It’s well known for its remote location, adventure games and social atmosphere, and so I headed out there from Bocas with a good deal of anticipation – and it didn’t disappoint.
From the main road between Almirante and David, the hostel is a 15-minute hike up a hill – the bus drops you off and up you go. I arrived in the rain, and was very happy to finally get to the top and be greeted by a warm, welcoming vibe in the hostel.
Though the weather was often cloudy and at times very wet, when the skies did clear the views were spectacular. The days were spent adventuring around the mountains and jungle that surround the hostel, and the nights were spent mostly in the bar after a communal dinner each evening. The crowd at the hostel was a lot of fun, usually a small group of between 10-15 people but always high-quality travellers. During my 3 nights there I bumped into some familiar faces too – Lukas, who had been on the El Hoyo hike I did in Nicaragua, and Carly and AP, who I met in Monteverde. The longer you travel down Central America, the more it happens!
On my first full day, a few of us went to find a local waterfall, some 45 minutes away by motor transport. Eschewing the wait for a bus, we hitched a ride in a family car – there were 5 of us, so one (and the family’s teenage son) went in the boot! It was really kind of them to pick us all up, though unfortunately we didn’t find the right waterfall – after hiking half an hour up a rocky stream we had to give up! Still, it was a good adventure, and the hitchhike back to the hostel in the back of a pickup truck was even more fun.
The “adventures” set up by the hostel involve finding clues to solve a mystery. One of them was based in the impressive grounds of the hostel, and was quite cerebral, rather like an Eacape Room game – the goal was to find out what happened to a (fictional!) missing backpacker who died at the hostel. The second game was more active, involving a hike through the jungle to find clues to discover the secrets of the local village. This had us climbing steep slopes and fording knee-high rivers, getting thoroughly soaked by the torrential rain – a hike with a difference, and a great way to see the surrounding areas.
The chilly evenings spent playing games and drinking in the bar will live long in the memory – ring of fire, giant adult Jenga, the numbers game, all manner of card games and the dreaded “riding the bus”…
Moving on, it was time to head south to Panama City, via a bus change in Panama’s second city David. The buses were all full and failed to pull over for me, so, emboldened by my recent hitchhiking adventures, I tried hailing a few cars down, and soon enough got a lift almost all the way to the bus station in David. I then had an epic 7-hour journey almost all the way along Panama, west to east, to the capital, where I arrived pretty exhausted late on a Sunday night.
The grand exception to the Central American rule of capitals (unsafe, uninteresting, chaotic, spend as little time there as possible), Panama City is a maelstrom of contrasts – financial skyscrapers and office towers nestle up against poverty, progress and brazen modernity stand next to beautiful historic buildings.
I stayed in Luna’s Castle, a huge blockbuster of a hostel in the old town (Casio Viejo). The dorms had views across the city skyline and it was cool to be able to stay in an expensive area of town on a backpacker budget – our neighbours were boutique hotels, cocktail bars and high-end nightclubs.
I loved being in a good city for the first time in a while, and spent a lot of the first day walking around and taking it all in. Me and Lukas, my friend from Lost and Found, went up to the 66th floor of the Trump Tower (it was free, so I didn’t feel guilty!). The views from the viewing deck there were stunning, revealing an endless sprawl of high-rises stretching out most of the way to the city limits. It was weird to be able to go up there unattended, and no one else was around – I’m guessing it’s less than common knowledge that you can go up there for free.
The waterfront and seafood market were a particular highlight at dusk, with more great ceviche and a buzzing atmosphere in the humid evening air.
A good day was rounded off by beers at the hostel. The following day I managed to polish off some travel admin (planning ahead of my boat trip to Colombia via the San Blas islands), before heading to the canal locks at Miraflores.
We skipped the museum (which by all accounts is overpriced and fairly average) and went to the viewing area, where we managed to catch a big container ship going through the locks. It’s a painfully slow process but it was really cool to see the mechanics of this world-changing place in action.
The icing on my Panama City cake was getting to see a live international football game between Panama and Honduras, a crucial World Cup qualifier which Lukas and I had managed to get tickets for the previous day (for just $15). The venue, Estadio Rommel Fernandez, is a 30000 seater a little way out of town, and the atmosphere was loaded with expectation as we walked through the crowds towards the stadium – it was seen as a must-win game for Panama in their quest to make it to Russia 2018.
The game was entertaining, with Panama dominating possession and territory but Honduras capitalising on mistakes at the back to lead 1-0 and then 2-1. In the final minute before injury time, though, Panama scored a dramatic equaliser, which sent the stadium into overdrive and sent their newest European fans home in a pretty good mood.
I could definitely have spent another day or two in Panama City – it’s got a lot to offer. But it was time for an island adventure, which would take me down to South America and bypass the world’s wildest, most impassable land border. I hope to write about my San Blas adventures soon – that’s all for now though.