Crossing the Isthmus of Panama – Atlantic to Pacific in Two Hours

In the morning of the fifth day aboard Fritz The Cat we anchored off the mainland prepared to cross the isthmus of Panama, near Carti, packed our backs and waited for a boat taxi to come pick us up.  The boat showed up on time and we soon had 17 of us and all our gear on board.  We puttered a short way along shore, then made our way up a small river that we were told was full of 2.5 meter caymans.  The boat dropped us off about 1km inland and we packed ourselves into 4x4s for the journey across the isthmus of Panama.  We climbed up through some small rolling mountains full of lush, green, very jungly vegetation.  Soon we came to the Pan-American Highway, an old friend that we had lost in Colombia.  The first thing that we noticed about Panamá was how nice the roads were.

After just over two hours in the car we came to the Pacific Ocean and the high rises of Panama City.  You could place that skyline on any coast in the United States and it wouldn’t be out of place.  McDonald’s and KFC were everywhere; we thought that we had gone straight back to the States.

Isthmus of Panama
Panama City skyline.

We stayed in a rich suburb near the old town.  That night we went for a little walk looking for food and wandered into one of the longest streets of cheap stuff (think Chinatown on steroids).  We ate some street snacks and were amazed by the cars which actually waited for pedestrians to cross the street.

The next day we walked towards the old city of Casco Viejo.  Don’t walk the wrong way heading toward the tourist center.  We accidentally took a wrong turn and made our way through a slummish neighborhood that was very interesting.  All colonial building that looked like they were still destroyed by war.  Only three blocks from where we were supposed to be, the police came and grabbed us and made us take a taxi the three blocks back because they said we were in a bad neighborhood.  In South America good changed to bad over kilometers, here it was over mere blocks.  I guess we need to be more careful around here.

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Crumbling colonial buildings of Panama City

Sadly, in Casco Viejo almost every street was ripped up with construction crews everywhere.  They are probably replacing the cool old cobblestone with new asphalt.  This made it hard to take good pictures and just annoying to walk around.  However, we did get to watch the boats in a long line to cross through the Panamá Canal.

Isthmus of Panama
Boats in line to cross the Panama Canal.

Everthing in Panamá City is super westernized, but it is a pretty smelly city.  However, even with all the chain restaurants, there were still plenty of the Kuna people walking around dressed in their awesomely colorful (but never matching) outfits.

Isthmus of Panama

We only stayed for two nights.  On our bus out we crossed over the famous Canal.

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Panama Canal shot from the bus window.

First read this: The Passage to Panamá: Part Two

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The Passage to Panamá: Part Two

First read this: The Passage to Panamá: Part One

When we walked up to the deck after waking up on Day 3 of our cruise, this is the view that greeted us:

We had reached the Comarca Kuna Yala, otherwise known as the Islas San Blas, a pristine chain of paradisaical islands off the Caribbean coast of Panamá.  Most islands are totally uninhabited, but those that are are occupied by the Kuna people.  The indigenous Kuna have managed to maintain their culture and independence despite over 500 years of outside influence.  Their islands are technically part of Panamá but the group maintains a mostly autonomous government.

And their islands are literally PARADISE.  For the next two days, I felt like I was living inside a postcard!  Fritz cruised us around to several different islands where we lounged on white sand beaches, saw starfish bigger than dinner plates (sadly we didn’t get a picture of one), snorkeled over diverse coral reefs, and caught glimpses of Kuna life.

Absolute paradise!

Kuna huts

Kuna village

This is basically what the last two days of the voyage on Fritz the Cat consisted of: snorkeling, lounging, and taking in the beauty!  Watching the sun set and the stars come out each night as the anchored boat smoothly bobbed in the ocean was a surreal experience.  We also enjoyed lots of fresh seafood bought from the Kuna who would drive up to Fritz the Cat in canoes.  On the fourth day, as we were eating lunch, Zach glimpsed a flash of silver in the sunlight.  A dolphin!  It ended up being three dolphins who swam along side us for several minutes!!!  Watching them dart and jump alongside the sailboat was, I think, the most magical experience of our entire trip.  The rare privilege of visiting the Islas San Blas was definitely what made the whole Colombia-to-Panamá voyage spectacular.