Panamá Financial Summary

Hola chicos!!!!  I just realized that although I wrote this awhile ago, I never posted it!  Better late than never though!  Here are the stats for Panamá!

Days in Panamá: 10

Money Spent: $286.88

That means we spent $28.66 per day, or roughly $14.33 per person per day.  So we were just barely under our target budget of $15 per person per day.  I’m very proud of us forfinallybeing on budget again after going over in the last few countries.  Rock on!!!!

A side note: I didn’t count our passage on Fritz the Cat here, as I consider that to be between countries and it was so expensive it would totally throw the whole skew off.

As you can see, our spending only fell into a few categories in Panamá.  Despite how small the country is, buses are not cheap in Panamá.  They seem to run about $2+ per hour of travel.

Food is also more expensive than in South America.  The cheapest meal we ever had was a $1.50 plate of rice and beans in Las Tablas.  In Panamá City and Bocas del Toro, you can expect to pay at least $3.50 for a decent plate of Panamanian food.  We did have hostels with kitchens most of the time so we tried to buy groceries and cook a lot to keep costs down.

We didn’t pay for a single place to stay in Panamá!  That’s right, our Lodging cost was absolutely ZERO!  Yeah hostel reviews and Couchsurfing!

FYI, Panamá’s currency is the US dollar, although instead of just calling them “dolares”, they are also called “Balboas.”

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Life in the banana-lands

Awesome tractor-bus outside Las Tablas

Other long-term travelers out there might be familiar with the feeling of “the travel grind.”  To me, it’s how you feel when traveling becomes too routine and nothing feels fresh anymore.  We were kind of suffering from it in Panamá as we were mostly sticking to big touristy sites due to lack of time.  Nothing was feeling authentic or real.  Everyone spoke English and everything was too easy.  We were feeling too much like tourists instead of travelers.

Then, we found the perfect remedy!  Thanks to Couchsurfing, we hooked up with a Peace Corps Volunteer in a small village in the rural mainland of Bocas province.  We stayed with Doug in Las Tablas for two nights, getting a taste of life in “el campo” and meeting some real off-the-beaten-track Panamánians.

Las Tablas is in the heart of the banana-growing lands, where it’s very hot and rainy.  Chiquita Banana is headquartered nearby and thus almost everyone in this area is employed growing bananas which are shipped to the US and Canada.

Miles of banana trees. The sign says "Don't enter or you might get crop-dusted."

Since I did a stint in the Peace Corps in Tanzania, it was really fun for me to reminisce and to compare Doug’s situation with how my life was.  Panamá is a lot further along development-wise than Tanzania, but big parts of the Peace Corps life are the same everywhere.  Doug was definitely a local celebrity known by everyone in town.  Kids would yell, “Hello, teacher!” as he walked by, and he always had to stop to talk to all his fans.  Add Zach and me to the mix and we created quite a spectacle.  Three gringos in town, oh my!

Kids in Doug's host family

Hanging out in Las Tablas helped us feel more connected to Panamánian culture.  It was refreshing to be in a place were there are never any tourists and the pace of life is slower.  The best part of our stay was just walking around the village, greeting kids and practicing our Spanish with all of Doug’s friends.  Las Tablas welcomed us with open arms and we couldn’t stop smiling while we were there.  The Peace Corps life is truly a challenge, but the rewards of being so totally accepted by a completely different culture seem abundant.

Doug and some of his students

We realized that we need to do more of this stuff!  The problem is that there’s just so much we feel like we HAVE to see and we have so little time left!  We’re definitely going to try to hook up with at least one other Peace Corps Volunteer though!

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It’s a hard life in Bocas del Toro

Greetings from paradise, friends!  Thanks to the high demand for hostel reviews here, we’ve spent the last five days chilling the gorgeous Bocas del Toro islands off the coast of western Panamá.  The chain consists of several islands, some big, some small, with endless opportunities for exploring.

We first hit up Isla Colón, the biggest island in the chain.  Bocas Town, the most hoppin’ place in the islands, is there.  Although super touristy, it had a laid-back California-esque vibe which we really enjoyed.  Although there’s tons of snorkeling and surfing spots around the Isla Colón, we wanted to have a more relaxing visit.  The biggest event was taking the bus to Boca del Drago, an isolated beach on the far side of the island.

Boca del Drago

It was pristine, refreshing, and relaxing, until we decided to save $5 by hiking back to town.  18km in the heat and we were about ready to fall over.  At least we had plenty of water this time!  (As longtime readers may know, we kind of suck at hiking readiness and preparation, despite how much we do it!)  Zach deciding to hoot back at an angry monkey proved that the heat may have been getting to us.  Thankfully, despite their heated argument, Zach stayed on the road and the monkey stayed in the tree.  When we finally made it back to Bocas Town, we were rewarded with $.50-beer happy hour at Mondo Taitu, and ice cream bars from the local supermarket.

The next day we headed to another island, Bastimentos, known for having less gringos and more wildlife.  Unfortunately it rained throughout most of our day here, but we still enjoyed wandering through Old Bank, listening to the unique Guari-Guari language spoken by the Afro-Panamánians here.

Swingin’ from trees like a monkey.

Although touristy, Bocas del Toro is still closer to its roots than similar places in Costa Rica (so we’ve heard).  I don’t think there’s any way that a couple days here wouldn’t be a good decision!

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Pukalani Hostal in Bocas del Toro, Panamá

Pukalani Hostal in Bocas del Toro is a spectacular place to relax, party, and play!  The hostel is run by a fun family and offers all the activities necessary for enjoying your time on the beach: a pool, surf lessons, full moon parties, and happy hour!

Pukalani Hostal in Bocas del ToroPukalani Hostal is located right on the beach in Big Creek, a small community on Isla Colon 5km from Bocas Town.  You don’t need to worry about being isolated, however, as Pukalani offers frequent free shuttle service to and from town, and it’s also a beautiful walk!  The amazing private beach at Pukalani contains a nice dock with a pool table, grill, and seating.  The pristine pool is also a great place for lounging right next to the bar which offers great food and drinks all day.  For more adventurous fun, you can rent surfboards, paddleboards, or kayaks.  Manager Juan is a former coach for the Panamanian surf team, so you know a surf lesson from him is one from the best!

Pukalani Hostal in Bocas del Toro

Pukalani offers spacious, great-value dorms, or doubles with private bathrooms, TVs, and kitchenettes.  All the rooms are colorful, clean, and contain fans and air-conditioning.  There is an outdoor shared kitchen available for those staying in the dorm rooms.  The bathrooms are clean and modern with plenty of hot water.

Try to time your stay at Pukalani with one of its famous full moon parties!  With a pool, bar, activities, and an amazing beach just steps away from your room, Pukalani Hostal is a superb choice for a fun, comfortable stay in Bocas del Toro.

Services Offered:
Free shuttle to and from Bocas Town three times a day

WiFi

Bar/restaurant on site

Pool

Surfboard rentals and lessons available

Paddleboard and kayak rentals available

Tourist information

Weekly events and parties

Shared kitchen for dormitories

Kitchenettes and TVs in private rooms

Shared outdoor grill

Pool table

TV and DJ booth in bar

Hot water 24/7

Fans and air-conditioning in rooms

Location: Big Creek, Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro (5km east of Bocas Town on the main road)

Phone: (507) 6949 6465

Email: pukalani-hostal@hotmail.com

Website: www.pukalanihostalpanama.com

Prices:

Dormitory: $15

Private double: $66

Private double, oceanfront: $85

This post was sponsored by Pukalani Hostal.

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The Passage to Panamá: Were We the Last?

We might have been.  While we were riding on Fritz the Cat, there was a message over the radio that the Cartagena immigration wasn’t letting anymore sailboats with backpackers on board leave port.  This was reportedly because they are trying to get the government-run ferry between Colombia and Panamá restarted.  We had heard many rumors that this ferry would be starting within a few weeks and cost around $100 and such but it still had no website, information, etc.  The ferry would greatly decrease the price of the crossing and would undoubtedly be a blessing for all of us poor fellows searching for the cheapest way across the dreaded Darien Gap.  Whether or not more tourist boats will cross is still unknown, but I would just suggest not to have too tight of a schedule if you are trying to sail.

Until the rumors of the ferry are proven true, there are still only two (recommended) ways to cross from Colombia to Panamá: either by private boat (like Fritz) or by plane.

By Boat:

Here is a rundown of the cost of sailing with Fritz the Cat:

$488 per person payed in USD.

$6 for a National Parks fee.

$3 for the boat from Fritz to where the road is

$25 for the 4×4 to Panamá City

Total = $522

Included on the boat are all 12 meals plus unlimited fruit, water, and lemonade until it runs out every night.  Activities include the two days cruising around the San Blas Islas.  Fritz also takes care of all the immigration stuff and you don’t pay anything to enter Panamá.

By Air:

For this I’m going to assume that you don’t care which Colombian city you fly from and you want to see the San Blas Islands in Panamá.  The cheapest flight I was able to find today was about $350 from Bogotá, Colombia to Panamá City, Panamá.  Add onto that the $66 airport departure tax and probably pay for a bag so lets say $450 for the plane.

The trip to San Blas is $50 for round trip in the truck from Panamá City, plus $6 for the boat round trip, plus two nights lodging on the Islands $20 per night.

Rough total = $496

If you add food to all of this then the total will be far over the $522 of sailing.  Even if you don’t want to see the San Blas Islands (well worth the money) then the $450 + 12 meals is still going to be more than the $522 for sailing.  Any way you look at it, the boat is the better deal.

Sure, there are other ways to get to Panamá.  One is by heading to the shady Colombian town of Turbo, taking multiple boats through different mosquito-ridden backwater villages until finally getting into the first town in Panamá, Puerto Obaldia.  There is no road out of Puerto Obaldia, so from there you can take a domestic flight to Panamá City for around $100.  This is possible, but no one really recommends doing it, so try at your own risk.

The price of these sailing trips has soared in the last few years, but we think it is still a great value and a great time.  Maybe the new ferry will start; maybe everything will stay how it’s been, but for now we feel lucky that we were some of the last (or the last) people to experience this amazing adventure.

Read about our voyage on Fritz the Cat.

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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.

Isthmus of Panama
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.

Isthmus of Panama
Panama Canal shot from the bus window.

First read this: The Passage to Panamá: Part Two

Enjoy this post about crossing the Isthmus of Panama?  Check out our archives for other adventures! Also, don’t forget to follow us on Instagram @laaventuraproject and subscribe to our Youtube Channel.

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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.

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