Panama City Baby!

After our amazing sailing trip through the San Blas Islands we touched down in Panama and headed straight for the big city.

After zooming along the most ridiculous/incredible road I have ever travelled on through the Panamanian jungle we nipped across the thin strip of land to the Pacific coast.

Having spent an hour in a stuffy 4×4 weaving our way through the jungle and passing many miles of banana farms, Panama City could not have been more of a contrast.

The incredible shiny bright white mega skyline looked a force to be reckoned with. Having gone six days living on a boat only having contact with the same 10 people and seeing pure, raw and untouched natural beauty it was fair to say we knew that for now at least the simple life was over.

Luckily we got dropped off directly at our hostel because this city was a maze of skyscrapers and motorways. After the obligatory shower, unpack, rest and regroup we ventured out to find some food. Conveniently our hostel was situated right opposite a retail park with numerous food outlets and a huge 24-hour supermarket.

After our amazing sailing trip through the San Blas Islands we came ashore in the dense  tropical rainforest that makes up Panama’s Caribbean coast.

We endured a rollercoaster ride along the most ridiculous and incredible road I have ever travelled on (Machu Picchu stills holds the title for scariest) zooming through the thick and mountainous jungle, after about 40 minutes of ‘the road that makes you feel like you are in a tumble dryer’ we had escaped the rainforest , now it was a comparatively simple drive down the pot-holed freeway as we nipped across the thin strip of land to the Pacific coast.

Having woken anchored off a tranquil paradise island at dawn and then spent well over an hour spent an hour in a stuffy 4×4 weaving our way through the jungle and passing many miles of banana farms, Panama City could not have been more of a contrast.

The incredible shiny bright white mega skyline looked a force to be reckoned with, even more so after living the simple life for the last six days on the boat. Having only had contact with the same 10 people all week and living with a backdrop of pure, raw and untouched natural beauty it was fair to say we knew that for now at least the simple life was over…

Luckily, we got dropped off directly at our hostel because the city is an impossible maze of skyscrapers and motorways and we would have spent hours tired and frustrated in the midday heat trying to navigate our way around. After the obligatory shower, unpack, rest and regroup we ventured out to find some food.

Conveniently our hostel was situated right opposite a retail park with numerous food outlets and a huge 24-hour supermarket which we called upon numerous time during our short visit as we made the most of a clean and modern kitchen and saved a few pennies by cooking the majority of our meals.

That evening we had decided to meet up with some of the guys from the boat and see what Panama had to offer us in the way of nightlife. In the heavy evening heat we left our hostel and planned to meet at a bar in the old town – however plans are never that simple… we arrived to find that said bar was  closed, cue wandering around the winding streets of the old town trying to find a bar which no one seemed to as ever heard of!

Eventually we saw the huge garden with brightly coloured swings at the bar and candles and twinkly lights everywhere, we had found Finco del Mar – cocktails and beers were swiftly ordered and just kept on coming!

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All a bit drunk by now we decided to carry on the night, we ventured back up towards the edge of the old town where Luna’s Castle is situated and ventured up 5 flights of stairs to find a magical roof terrace.

Despite being backpackers we got carried away hanging out with our older, working friends and surely ordered more and more drinks and even some of the tiniest tapas samples I have ever seen!

Needless to say somehow we had found ourselves rubbing shoulders with the cool kids of Panama City as we sipped our drinks over-looking the vast sea of bright lights.

This group of bars is a must-visit, unfortunately I didn’t quite catch the name of the one we ended up in (the evening is already a little hazy at this point) but it was so cool – as well as the terrace the toilets are worth the visit alone – the toilet is a hotel room… I kid you not, a full hotel room complete with bed, artwork and even a bedside lamp, with an all-important ensuite of course!

A hefty bar bill later and after almost being awake 24hrs it was time to head home – except we had a slight problem, we had no idea where we were staying!! Somehow we managed to communicate to our taxi driver using vague landmarks and even vaguer Spanish and miraculously ended up back at the retail park where we swiftly hopped out and walked the last 100m to home – a good rest was much needed…

Our first full day in Panama City and we woke feeling hot and bothered as usual in the oppressive heat – deciding to take it slow we cooked our own brunch and chilled in the hostels outdoor area.

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Where to stay

Luna’s Castle – a.k.a backpacker heaven right in the heart of the old town and serving $1 beers to a crowd happy to sleep in crammed full dormitories – for meeting people it is second to none

Hostel Casa Areka – In amongst the high-rise mega skyline, this huge converted home has a cool open plan living space and an outdoor area complete with pool and is run by 2 friendly brothers – conveniently located right opposite a number of shops and near plenty of restaurants but it is a 4/5km walk into the old town – we usually walked one way and caught the bus the other and stuck to getting taxis at night.

What to do:

Ride the bus – I know, not exactly swanky city living,   but actually it was a great way to navigate the town (especially when you have to to-and-fro from the bus station to buy advance tickets for your onward journey) the system is quite simple(ish) it basically works in a web so each bus leaves from the main station, drives out to its destination and ten retraces its route back to the main bus station. Yes, the enormous bus terminal is a total nightmare but persevere with the crowds, queue up for your pass which you buy for 50 cents and then just top-up (we used one between us)and ride the bus around the city with the locals.

Drink the night away at one of the thousands of rooftop bars – Panama City is a lively, vibrant and modern (in parts) city which has incredible views wherever you look – whether it’s out across the Pacific Ocean or from the old town across to the metropolis of sky-scrapers, join the partying locals, grab a cold one and enjoy the hot and loud evenings.

Wander the old town – Casco Viejo – follow the inevitably beautiful winding streets aand discover little bars and cafes and street markets – be sure to snap some pics of the grand and crumbling buildings and the views out to sea!

Get your trainers on – wander or cycle or rollerblade or run all the way along the 4km waterfront promenade and admire the Pacific Ocean to one side and the mega metropolis to the other.

What not to do:

Bother with the Panama Canal – if I was back in Panama City tomorrow I would not go and visit the canal… whilst initially shocking to outsiders the harsh truth is this; they have blocked off all the access points so the only way to see it is to pay $15 each for a ticket which lets you up some stairs to see the famous Miraflores Lock and a bit of a rubbish museum – it’s well out the way from the centre of town so you have to negotiate the bus or a taxi anyway and it takes about an hour for one boat to get through… not exactly thrilling – there is so much more to Panama

Buy frozen yogurt! – Unless you want to blow $10 on a half empty, sickeningly sweet pot! Lesson learned, stick to local goodies….

Visit the causeway – in Lonely Planet described as a ‘must-see’ and described as where everyone goes in the warm evenings to get some fresh air… in reality a road, with a barrier down the middle so you can’t even enjoy the view and a smattering of dodgy looking shops and restaurants that weren’t even open… were we missing something?

Miss out on carnival! – Unfortunately due to a number of reasons (isolation on the boat, lack of internet access for over a week, general travel absent mindedness…) we came to Panama totally oblivious that carnival (basically the biggest party every year which marks the start of lent) was just around the corner – all the time we saw the stage being set for one massive city-wide party but unfortunately our travelling bug had other plans and we were already booked to go into isolation in the Panamanian mountain jungle… not exactly party of the year – we definitely should have stayed HOWEVER if you are in Panama (or indeed anywhere in Latin America) over carnival BOOK EARLY – it is the busiest time of year for everyone!!

Lost and Found in the Panamanian Mountain Jungle

After the incredible sailing trip through the San Blas islands and living the high-life in cosmopolitan Panama City it was time for something a little different on our trip.

We were heading north into the Panamanian mountain jungle for a few days of trekking and adventure! Our Australian friends from our San Blas sailing trip had told us about this amazing little hostel called Lost and Found, only accessible by hiking up the side of a steep mountain with minimal electricity, no food supply and running water we were definitely in for an adventure!

To get to this remote spot we had quite a journey on our hands;

  1. Firstly, we got an overnight bus from Panama City to David, Panama’s second city in the north of the country, along with what felt like the rest of the country (it was the first weekend of lent which is a huge national holiday across Latin America).
  2. Arriving in David bleary eyed around 6am along with the rest of the crowds we tried to navigate our way around the bus station – eventually we found the right bus, but typically it had a queue of about 200 people along with mountains and mountains of stuff – we were all waiting for tiny minibuses that were arriving every 20 minutes!
  3. Finally they sped the queue along with a coach and before we knew it we were being loaded up, however in the madness of checking out bags were on board safely and trying to establish if we could get dropped off near Lost and Found we seemed to have missed out on a seat – cue us being given 2 up turned buckets to sit on down the centre aisle… At least we only had 1.5hrs to endure!!
  4. The massively overloaded bus eased out the station and began its painfully slow traversing of the mountains of northern Panama – with an average speed of around 15mph it wasn’t until well after the 2 hour mark that we were nearing kilometre 44, our drop off point!
  5. With such minimal instructions we were keeping our eyes peeled for the fruit stand at 44km from David – somehow the bus driver realised where we were trying to go and pulled up at the side of the road, turfing us out, luckily with our bags!!
  6. Glad to be off the buckets and in the fresh air we heaved on our packs and began the steep and winding walk up to the mystical Lost and Found.

The closer you get the more the little yellow signs tempt you; ‘congratulations – you’re over halfway’, almost there, keep climbing, ‘won’t that beer taste extra good tonight’ etc…

Eventually, the jungle opened out and we saw a collection of yellow huts – we managed to find reception and sign in and we went off to brave them dorm…

Now, of all the places we could’ve chosen to embrace the communal backpacker lifestyle, it will always be a shame that we settled to do it here. The dorm was a shed, with triple-decker beds that ran head to tail.

With one window which was smaller than a shoe box and stormy conditions outside keeping the door closed, it wasn’t like the 20+ resident room was particularly well ventilated.

Regardless, we had been awake and travelling for around 30 hrs so at this point we weren’t feeling particularly fussy. After piling on all the dry clothes we had (it was freezing!) we shuffled into bed.

A few hours sleep and we hadn’t helped ourselves, it was dark, rainy, cold and we were starving, tired and irritable… not ideal. So we cooked ourselves some pasta and ventured up to the ‘games-room/bar’ for a game of scrabble!

Slowly, more people seemed to emerge (where they in the dorm?!) and suggestions were made for a ‘pub quiz’ – don’t misunderstand, the people were perfectly nice, but after living on a yacht in beautiful Caribbean islands and then Panama City for 2 weeks suddenly launching into a freezing jungle pub quiz with a focus on Canadian pop culture… I have had less strange nights!

I could go on describing each day we spent wandering the jungle in torrential rain, drinking and playing scrabble, cooking odd concoctions from what we had managed to carry up the mountain and sleeping in a squalid, over crowed dorm, but I think you are starting to get the point.

Do I have any advice?

…plenty, actually;

  • if you want to hike, take hiking gear and have a back-up plan when every piece of clothing and footwear you own is soaked through
  • take yummy food with you as this is what you look forward to when the sun sets at 6pm!
  • be prepared to be cold (we had 30c appropriate clothing, not camping kit)
  • embrace the trails – that is why you are there after all

…and finally, don’t worry to much, every time we felt cold we thought of all those many days we were too hot, or spending too much – hear we spent $10 across 3 days on a few beers and a chocolate bar.

They say life is all about finding a balance – and I like to look back on our time at Lost & Found and think of it as how we found our balance, halfway through our trip, found out what we really enjoyed and appreciated.

Soon enough, we were headed back down the mountains and out of the jungle, to the lively, friendly, creole-spiced  Bocas del Toro islands (on the same slow bus that we arrived on….)