The Final Frontier of Central America

There are so many aspects of travel that characterize our individual experiences in each country we visit. The landscape, people, animals, food, art, history and culture are just a few. Typically we like to take our time soaking it all in, but in the case of Panama we managed to squeeze it all into two short weeks and three different locations before jetting off to South America. The experience was uniquely ours and it was a fantastic way to close out the Central America chapter of this journey.

Our first destination was Bocas del Toro on the Caribbean where we found a little party town, reminiscent of Key West, Florida, and somewhat dreary weather. Call it getting old or call it being stingy but we weren’t drawn into the party scene in Bocas, rather we made our visit a gastronomical affair.

In Costa Rica we literally ate at a restaurant one time and when we drank alcohol it was box wine because the prices for beer, spirits and food at restaurants were absurd. Needless to say, when we got to Panama where the prices are significantly lower, we feasted.

The best part of Bocas for us was hitting up one special local eatery every day and spending the drizzly evenings making ridiculously huge meals followed by drinking Abuelo rum and playing cards on our back porch with our travel mates Ash and Tyson.

We didn’t spend the entire time eating in Bocas though. One day we went to the neighboring island Isla Carenero and experienced very random awesomeness. Case in point: with zero communication we ran into Brian who we spent a week hanging out with three plus years ago in a tiny surf village in Bali, Indonesia. The rendezvous was a great example of how we’ve found out that the world truly is a small place and the friends we make on the road will likely cross our paths again.

Here are a few other great shots from Bocas.

Second stop for us was Panama City. We stayed in Old Town which was an eclectic mix of old and new, posh and slum, museums, parks, graffiti art everywhere and situated just across the bay from the impressive skyline of the new city district (Trump building and all). I was quite taken with the city. To me the narrow streets, colonial architecture and general buzz in the air made me feel like I was walking through a movie set. Oddly enough, one morning we woke up to find a film crew shooting a movie directly beneath the balcony of our room!

Our favorite thing to do in the city was walk down to the fish market and sample the fresh ceviche which was surprisingly inexpensive – $2.50 USD for an overflowing cup. It’s a wonder that we still fit into our clothes, but I guess the immense amount of walking we did was enough to burn off some of our indulgences.

Now for the third installment, the final frontier of Central America… the San Blas Islands! Did you know that it’s actually impossible to cross from Panama into Colombia by land legally? Truth. The Darien Province of Panama which encompasses the southern border is intensely dense jungle, mostly uninhabited and primarily controlled by the drug cartels. So, if you’re traveling south the two options are flight or boat which is why we had to speed through Panama. Before leaving Costa Rica we booked our three night, four day boat trip through San Blas Adventures with Ash and Tyson.

Throughout this journey I have come to the conclusion that I prefer the Pacific Coast to the Caribbean (little wonder being from the PNW), but cruising through the 378 islands that make up the San Blas Archipelago was nothing short of epic. In total, there were 14 of us from all over the world: Australia, Belgium, Colombia, England, Germany, Spain and the U.S., and we made the watery trek via Latin American style speed boat.

Without giving you the play by play of all four days, I’ll just sum up the first bit which is a good representation of the entire trip. We were accompanied by a pod of small dolphins for a portion of the boat ride from the mainland to the first island, spent the first part of the afternoon snorkeling (which was the best I’ve done in all of Central America), and moved to the second island on which we would be sleeping which is one of the 42 islands that is actually inhabited. There were maybe six indigenous Kuna people living on the island.

We shared a couple bottles of rum and got to know oneanother before being served an all you can eat lobster dinner with pulpo ceviche and a few other sides. More rum drinking ensued, we built a bonfire, gorged ourselves on s’mores (score!), then splashed around in the bioluminescent plankton in the water. Finally, we were lulled to sleep by the salty breeze and sway of our hammocks under a thatched roof. The next morning we awoke to blue skies and even bluer water and the whole lot of us swam approximately 150 yards to a deserted island to snorkel with spotted eagle rays. Magical.

The second and third nights we stayed on islands with full on Kuna villages which gave us more opportunity to get to know the people. The kids were quite outgoing and hilarious, but one of the coolest moments for me was when the women dressed us up in their traditional wrap skirts and blouses “molas” and gold jewelry!

On a random side note, something we didn’t expect to see was that the Panama government provided each home with solar panels for power. It was so interesting to see the convergence of traditional (thatched roof huts, “toilets” on stilts over the ocean, clothes, fishing) with modern (kids on computers playing Gangnam Style on YouTube, trash from convenience food and soda, alcohol, solar panels).

Above all, what made our trip so fantastic and set the stage for our Colombia experience was the people we were with – our San Blas Familia.

Buena onda muchachos! (((((*)))))

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