After waiting around all morning on the boat, the Captain finally had the initiative to call a lancha (small boat) to come rescue us. I actually suggested this option yesterday. A little infuriating. The wind had completely dropped at this point and there's no way we'd have been able to make the remaining distance to Cartagena, Colombia by nightfall without the engine power. We were all so relieved to be getting off the boat by this point. No-one said bye to the Captain or the first mate, and as expected no-one gave them a tip. The lancha was a bumpy and soaking 2 hour journey to land. The highlight of the day was seeing one of the other passengers miss his footing getting onto the lancha and going face into the sea. Hilarious.
The day started off with bad news - we wouldn't get to Colombia today, as scheduled. Jules, the Captain had somehow lost a piece of the engine and spent 12 hours trying to fix it, whilst we sailed with just wind power (unfortunately there wasn't much wind). It also turned really soar, as one of the girls on the boat turned into a total b****h and I didn't hold back on my comments about her. It was deserved. Believe me.
We pretty much just chatted to an American couple we got on well with, whilst the rest of the group (the other 5 passengers) sat in silence for hours. Strange group dynamics. Again, the food lacked quality and quantity, and everyone went to bed early, with the hope we'd be able to get the engine fixed during the night. A likely story.
Well, sailing day starts. It was a fairly horrendous day (to say the least), with people being seasick; a lot of awkward moments with no-one speaking (the pleasantries had now gone); lack of sleep; and the first mate Ricardo dishing up two awful meals (if you can even call them that). We had rotten fruit salad in the morning (essentially apple and gone-off banana), no lunch, and 2 tortilla wraps each with a slice of cheese for dinner. We were starving. The only snacks they had were dried crackers or the rotten bananas. We went to bed early, so the time could pass faster, and so did everyone else. Just praying to get there ASAP. I now hate this :-(.
Another change of islands, hammock swaying, snorkelling a ship wreck (with the biggest puffer fish we have ever seen - it was a freak of nature) and beach volleyball. The weather has been perfect the past 3 days and today was so intense, that a lot of us got sunburnt. We've completely settled in to our home and in love with the deserted islands, incredible clear waters, fresh fish dinners and little Chica (the boat dog).
We moved on to another cluster of islands along the San Blas and home to the Kuna indigenous people. They sell extortionate patches of cloth (that apparently took them a month to make...I really doubt it, unless they had a lot of breaks). As we watched the sunset, we ate a lobster dinner, which only cost $6usd per lobster from the local fishermen and of course still knocked back those rum cocktails. This island hopping malarkey is definitely the life for us. Seriously thinking of sacking of the campervans and getting us a boat now.
Unfortunately, 3 out of 4 toilets were now broken (including ours), so we had to embark on a new experience in the sea, when we wanted to go. Definitely different. YOU. HAVE. TO. DO. IT.
Our first day in the San Blas Islands, and an early start to get there. We got picked up from our hotel at 5:30am (he was only 30 minutes late), then drove 2 hours to the El Porvenir port. From there, we met the rest of the group we were spending 5 days with, consisting of 3 couples (besides ourselves) and a single person. Majority of people were aged between 25-35. We then went on a lancha boat ride (and got soaking wet) lasting 90 minutes, were we finally got on the Maly yacht. It's fair to say the boat is beautiful and we got our own cabin, with en-suite. We met Jules (the captain) and his first mate (Ricardo), who put on an awesome spread of treats and delicious snacks for brunch.
For for the rest of the day it was snorkelling around paradise islands, then it was the obligatory drunken first night antics and dancing around the fire. We have a feeling we're going to like this way of life for the next 5 days...
e went around the town again, did some shopping in the financial district, and stocked up on supplies for the San Blas trip. See here for tips on the San Blas regarding what to take and which boat to pick, etc. Apart from strolling around the high street for hours, getting lost trying to find a Bureau de Change, it was a fairly uneventful day...until we got back to the hotel, to be informed that the boat we had the Galapagos liveaboard trip booked with was cancelled. I was almost in tears. We spent hours emailing and trying to get onto another boat, which resulted in a few stressful couple spats to rescue our trip. We won't know if our efforts have been worth it until we get to Colombia and get the internet again.
In the morning we drove the 1hr 15 journey to Colon, where the van has to go in a container in order to get shipped to Cartagena, Columbia. We had a Columbian guy who was shipping his vehicle with us, which made the process that much quicker and easier, but in essence we met the agent (Evergreen logistics) who sorted out the paper work, then we were escorted to the shipping yard, drove the van in, secured the container, then left. The whole thing took a few hours. We also managed to get a motorcyclist in our container, which reduced the price even further. For more detailed information of all this process, click here.
We had to pay $20usd between us all to get a taxi from the shipping yard to the bus station. There is an option of going by train to Panama City for $25usd, but we choose the $3usd air-conditioned bus. It was quite nice actually. 2 hours later, we in Panama and convinced by Abu, the motorcyclist, we went to his hostel, only to be informed there were no dorm or private rooms left. We ended up staying with the other couple (who's car we shipped with) and went out for dinner with them. The place we stayed was called Pensions y Corona on 36 y Peru. It was nice enough, but more importantly for us, it had really good wi-fi (a rarity when travelling sometimes).
In the morning we visited the Miraflores locks along the Panama Canal. It's really easy to get to - just follow the Carr Gaillard/Diablo. The best time to visit the locks is between 9am - 11am or 3pm - 5pm, as that is when the big liners pass through. For $8usd you get to have the full Panama Canal experience ie access to the observation areas, some 3D 20 minute film, and the museum. We did it all, but we weren't too fussed with the film or museum; they weren't that good. In relation to the canal itself, there's no doubt about it that it's an engineering marvel and an impressive man-made structure, but it's just a canal and did get boring after awhile. We lasted 2 hours there, which was surprising given Gwyn's strop when we went to the Hoover Dam and my moaning on the Yangzte river cruise. You could do it in 40 minutes, if you just wanted to view to a boat going through the locks.
We went further along the road to the Sumit Botanical Gardens and Zoo. The admission is now $5usd and although we did get to see jaguars, tapirs and the harpy eagle, they are all in fairly small enclosures. It's not the best zoo we have been to and seeing them in the wild is undoubtedly much better. We'd say miss it, unless you have children.
We went as far as Rainforest Discovery Centre. It's $20usd pp, plus parking for essentially an observation deck to view birds, that we'd already seen, so we skipped it. As we were leaving, one of the back doors came off. As in the whole door actually flew off. We had lost a hinge, probably when we did the last 1km of off-roading to the centre. We had to steal a bolt from our bed and use it to keep the door on, along with the best invention ever - duct tape. If you can't duct it, f**k it. It worked. Yeah!
In the afternoon, we went around the historical district again and down along the Causeway for a few drinks. The views of the skyline are better from the Plaza de Francia in the historical district though. The causeway is just restaurants and bars and a place for joggers and cyclist to exercise. There's not much more to it than that, but it's nice enough.
Again, we stayed outside Balboa Yacht Club.
We spent the day sorting out shipping the van to Colombia. For a easy step-by-step guide of how to do all this, click here. The procedure was fairly painless and as along as you have a loads of copies of practically everything car related, you'll be fine. There's a lot of copiers in Panama City, so this is easy to do. As a general rule, copy 10 of every documentation, so that way you are more than covered.
We had an inspection in the morning, which took all of 10 minutes, then came back at 2pm to collect further documentation. NB. Both of these offices are across the way from each other. You have to wear formal clothes to access the police station (to pick up the documentation). As long as you are wearing trousers and shoes, this will suffice. As a further reminder, check all information on the forms you get back.
In the middle of the two appointments, we went to find the Baha'i House of Worship, which is located along the Transisthmian Highway. We couldn't find a way to get near the building, despite the fact we saw it loads on the hill. After paying several tolls and having a million arguments of who's fault and idea this was (admittedly I was the one who really wanted to see it), we gave up our mission and headed back to our 2pm appointment.
After sorting out the documentation, we walked around Casco Viejo (the historic district). It's easy it get parking here, so just head for a plaza. This district has plenty of character and charm, with some quaint restaurants and cafes. It's very Havana-esque. Go to Plaza de Francia, for great views of the skyscappers and sunset.
We also went to Mamallena hostel to pay for our transportation to get to the port (El Porvenir) to head to the San Blas Islands. For more information of this read our article.
In the evening we went back to Balboa Yacht Club to join the other overlanders. It's a safe area, you are able to use the toilet facilities and even parking outside you can pick up free wi-fi. We'd recommend it as a night patch if you have your own vehicle.
In the morning we hit the hot springs in El Valle, then the waterfall a few kilometres away. Both attractions are overpriced for what they are and a little underwhelming. We've been to much better hot springs through Central America and although the waterfall was pretty enough, for $4usd pp, plus an additional $4usd pp to swim in the pools (you can get away without paying this), it's not really worth the 2 hour round trip detour from the interamericano.
We walked around the market, then made the 2.5 hour journey to Panama City. We went to Balboa Yacht Club, which is a bit of a campervan community as overlanders come here to get other vehicles to share the cost of the container being shipped to Columbia. We have already sorted this out with people from a forum in www.drivetheamericas.com .
After getting wasted in the heat, we went along the coast and did some shopping. We then came back to the Yacht Club and chatted away with other travellers doing a similar trips and picked up some tips/gave advice. Always needed.
At 5am, another 200 baby turtles were released from Playa Malena. We then drove along the interamerican to El Valle, stopping along the way at natural (and free) swimming holes eg rivers. They're popular with locals and tourist free.
On the way to El Valle, Gwyn and I smelt something burning in the van. We looked around an electrical wire was smoking. As we pulled over, I was faffing about trying to find the right type of extinguisher, and Gwyn just cut the wires. Had to be Dougal's best trick to date - setting on fire, whilst we are driving. Brilliant.
When we got to El Valle, we went around the artisan and food market, which was just your standard fresh fruit and vegetable and touristy tack. There's some strange characters in this town, who walk around with pet monkeys in the markets, but we got to play with them, feed them and take some photos (they don't ask for money either).
Most of the attractions close at 5pm and the town turns into a ghost town. At least it's a mountainous town, which takes the Panama humidity away at night.
Realising that a boat was going to cost us $120 for the day to snorkel around the Isla Boca Chica, and not being able to find other people to split the cost, we headed further along the coast to Playa Lajas. We based ourselves at Lajas hotel, as it was quiet and overlooked the beach. Turn right once you hit the beach and drive 200 metres down the road. For $10usd pp non-guests are able to use the facilities all day, but we managed to escape this cost, as we never came through the reception area and given we had lunch there, assumed we could use the facilities for free. We beat the system. Yes!
Later, we drove to the off-the-beaten-track town called Malena. The turtle laying egg season is between August to December, with the majority of hatchlings taking place between November to January. This is more a community run project, were everyone in the village pitches in with turtle conservation work and you can do as much volunteering as you want for free. If you head to either Hostel Casa Verde or Tanager hostel, they should be able to give some light on the likelihood of turtles nesting/hatching for that day/night. We got lucky and within hours of being there a local informed us there was a turtle laying eggs, so we went along, collected the eggs (which felt like ping pong balls) and re-buried them in the hatchery the village had created. As we were doing that, some other turtles started to hatch and after an hour, 25 were roaming around the pen. Much like we did in Mexico, we released them 20 metres from the sea. Seeing these things never gets boring.
At 9am, we started the 3 hour Cafe Ruiz tour. Cafe Ruiz is Panamas most famous coffee grower and produces the most expensive coffee in the world - Geisha coffee. Our guide Carlos was knowledgeable and informative about the coffee making process, and he made the whole morning really funny with his jokes. The tour included a history of coffee in Boquete, a visit to a coffee farm and roasting facility, and the obligatory tasting session. We actually learned a lot and it's been the best coffee tour to date, so we recommend. Visit www.caferuiz-boquete.com to make a reservation a few days in advance.
In relation to the quality and taste of the coffee, we enjoyed it, but these things are subjective. The Geisha coffee is $800usd per kilo in London, so we purchased some A LOT cheaper than that ridiculous price. Starbucks won't cut it for Gwyn from now onwards...
After, we went to El Explorador on the other side of town. It's basically someones garden with 'sculptures' made of trash throughout. We'd heard it was very 'Alice in Wonderland-esque', but it was fairly crap in more ways than one. They charged a $5usd entrance fee, and it wasn't even worth that.
The coffee and flower festival is held in January, so we decided to go. It was okay (just a few flower displays, handicraft and food stalls), but don't come all the way here just for this. We were over it after an hour.
Given it was boiling day, we decided to skip the hot springs and drive to Boca Chica seaside town for sunset drinks.
Somehow, we managed to get a puncture in a tyre (the road wasn't even bad), and really unlucky for us (and somewhat stupid), where we parked up to change it, was directly in a fire ant's nest. We were covered within seconds, and I really freaked out, as I brought the little s**ts in the van. Just thinking about them now, makes my skin crawl.
In the morning the electricity in the town went again, so we stayed in bed. Due to this, we missed out on the morning surfing session tour (they have them at 9am and 3pm). We booked on to do one of favourite activities, wake-boarding at 12pm for a bargain $25usd pp, but surprise, we waited around all morning and the person never turned up. Apparently his wife had the boat. Likely story. Despite the gorgeous weather (where was this yesterday?!) we decided that today was not going to be our day and conscious about reaching Boquete before dark, we bailed from the island at 2pm. The only bonus from the day was relaxing in the sun on our hotel deck in the morning waiting around, and having to only pay $6usd for parking for 3 days when we got back to the mainland (that was a mistake on their part).
The journey to Boquete took 3 hours. To get there take highway 21 then cut across to highway 17 via a good paved (name unknown, but if you use the GPS we used it will come up). Do not go via David, as it will add another 90 minutes onto your journey. The roads were paved, but steep in parts. Dougal overheated and we had to slither back down the road to a flat section. Gwyn with one of his genius (but dangerous) ideas, decided that the best way to cool the van down quicker was to open up the radiator. I have never seen a geyser of boiling water coming from a car before. It went everywhere...but it did the trick in fairness.
Boquete is a mountainous town (which we like as it means a cool nights sleeping in the van) and we decided to park up outside Cafe Ruiz overnight, so we were ready for the tour the next morning. Unfortunately, the curry the night before got the better of both of us, so we had to go the 'toilet' in front of the grassy patch of the owner's house (we didn't know this until the next day). We're tramps, but the alternative was worse. Sod's law, no-one drives past us for hours, but when we were getting down to business a car with headlights pointing directly at us appears. I'm not sure who was more embarrassed, but I hope they aren't on the tour tomorrow...
We booked onto the tour to go to the Caye Zapatilla and for $49 we got to visit Sloth island (we saw two Sloths really close-up); Dophin Bay (several bottlenose dolphins were playing around the boat); Caye Zapatilla (beautiful beach, clear waters and a 20 minute jungle walk with crocodiles lurking in the lagoons); a decent lunch; deep boarding; and snorkelling at Hospital Point. Deep boarding over the Caye Zapatilla was epic. In essence you hold onto a plastic board (ergonomically designed) as a boat drags you for momentum. You can control the board by leaning left or right, or up and down to direct yourself under water. Awesome way of snorkelling and seeing the marine park. We were on a tour with some annoying girls who were extremely loud and irritated everyone during the day...but that's the risk you take with organised tours. Actually wanted to shove the BBQ chicken they turned their noses up, down their throats to shut them up.
The only negatives of the tour, was the weather was over-caste most of the day, with a few showers (that's life), and we only got to do the snorkelling at the end of the day as we (and several other people) complained (as it was promised as part of the tour, but clearly the guide couldn't be bothered and thought everyone would forget). That made things a bit awkward.
When we eventually got back to Bocas del Toro the whole of the town was without electricity. It wouldn't have been so bad, but for once we forgot our head torches and with our room resembling a prison cell, there was no natural light to navigate around.
Three hours later, with life back in the town, we broke our daily budget and went all out on an Indian at Om Restaurant. We recommend for top nosh.
A strange note about Bocas Toros, several people were sent back to their hotels by the police for walking around topless or just wearing bikini tops. Unlike the other islands we have been on throughout Central America, Bocas Toros appears to have more conservative views about flashing your skin. Shame :-(.
We arrived at the Sixaola/Guabito border crossing at 8am. Make sure you change up your Costa Rican colones here as, as we found it was difficult to do this throughout Panama, and we got a bad rate in the City, when we eventually found somewhere.
An hour later, we arrived at Amirante. If you have a car, park at the secure parking near the dock; don't follow the locals to their apparent secure parking outside their house. We got lucky with a space, but arrive early, or you'll have no option, but to go park in a potential dodgy parking space. Expect to pay roughly $4usd per day (but this fluctuates depending how light your skin is).
The boat to get to Bocas del Tora is 30 minutes and was $6usd per person. There's limited seating, so don't get the last boat out, as you aren't be guaranteed a space.
Bocas town is nothing special. Use it as a base for day trips to the Islands. There's loads of restaurants and tour companies, so shop around for the best deal. Lunch included is a big bonus as the cheapest main dishes on these other quieter islands is $15usd. Stupidly, we never booked accommodation before we arrived, despite the fact we knew it was high season. We spent hours walking around in the heat trying to get a room, and eventually found a hotel at the far end of the main strip (Hotel Brisas) for $30usd a room per night. It was basic, but that didn't bother us. Although, I suspect we'll come to regret the a decent air-conditioning room...
We spent the evening having a few drinks at Casa Verde for Margarita Mondays and then chilled out on the dock, at the back of our hotel. The water was beautifully clear and had plenty of fish (great for freebie snorkelling).