Bocas del Toro, Santa Catalina, Panama City
18.11.2012 - 24.11.2012 29 °C
Panama is a country full of surprises. Pristine coastline dotted with paradisiacal islands, world-class surfing and trekking and a capital city with a skyline to rival Sydney or Singapore. Yep, there’s a lot more to this country than the famous canal.
Not far from the border of Costa Rica lies Bocas Del Toro, a collection of six islands and our first stop on our Panama itinerary. Despite an influx of tourists in recent years, life on the islands is still traditional and development not too excessive. We stayed on the island of Bastimentos, a 20-minute white-knuckle speedboat ride from the mainland. Most travellers flock to Isla Colon, but we were content to be at the less touristy Bastimentos and suck up the Caribbean village life.
— Bastimentos, where the locals speak Gali-Gali, a type of Creole language.
— This was our hostel, right on the water.
There’s a whole heap of activities here - surfing, jungle trekking, snorkelling or dolphin watching but we only managed to make it to the beach. Bastimentos has five beaches, two of which we checked out. Wizard beach was the most spectacular but required an hour trek through a swamp to get there. Two weeks later and I’m still trying to get the mud out of my toenails. I don’t have any photos for my troubles either as I’d been warned not to take my camera for fear of bandits who frequent the trail.
We also went to Red Frog Beach, another sexy strip of sand and surf named after these little fellas’….
— Red poison dart frog. Despite their colour, they're absolutely tiny and impossible to find without a guide.
After a few days beach bumming on the Caribbean coast, for something different we travelled to Santa Catalina on the Pacific coast for some errr…beach bumming. Santa Catalina’s waves are meant to be perfect for beginner surfers so we thought we'd give it a go.
At first we looked the part, two Aussies walking confidently to the sand, boards under arms, monitoring the ocean for the best breaks. I’m sure we had em’ fooled until we hit the water. We were exposed big time as we scrambled to get on to waves, nosedived and repeatedly lost balance (even when the surf was flat). We even high fived each other if one of us caught some whitewash and ‘boogey boarded’ to shore. We may as well have been a couple of senior citizens from landlocked Mongolia than two spritely Aussies from a beach town.
— Looking the part...albeit with a foam beginner board.
— Layne Beachley...or just lame?
Having retired from surfing, our second day in Santa Catalina was spent at the beautiful La Coiba National Park – Panama’s answer to the Galapagos. It consist of Coiba island and 38 smaller islands – all bursting with wildlife. The scenery was stunning and the snorkelling incredible. I swam with turtles, sharks and fish in every shape and colour. Whales frequent the area but we missed out on seeing them. A pod of dolphins was a good consolation though.
— Love seeing dolphins in the wild.
— One of the islands where we went snorkelling off.
— We were taken to an area to look for crocodiles but unfortunately (or fortunately?) they were all hiding.
— Magnificent sunset back at Santa Catalina.
Finally we swapped sand for skyscrapers and hit the incredible, Panama City. I knew the capital would be commercial and modern but I wasn’t expecting such a metropolis….
— Surprisingly the population is just 830,000.
Of course most of it can be put down to the engineering marvel that is the 98 year old Panama Canal. We spent an afternoon at the canal admiring how it worked and learning how it has changed international trade forever. Lucky for us a great big cruise ship was trying to squeeze through. It only had about a foot either side as leeway.
— Apparently cruise ships pay something like $300,000 for a passage along the 77 km long canal which links the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
— Tight squeeze! An expansion to double the waterway’s capacity is set to be completed in 2014.
After the canal, the second most popular attraction in Panama City is Casco Viejo. The walled city consists of 16th & 17th Century Spanish Colonial Architecture all listed as world heritage by UNESCO. Over the last few years the area has been the subject of a colossal urban renewal project. At the moment it looks half like a crumbling ruinous slum and half like a perfectly preserved affluent neighborhood.
— Panama hats on sale.
— Day and night time view from our hostel.
Staying in Casco Viejo was like living in a massive construction zone. We must have been the only chums without a hard hat and flouro vest. I even managed to walk through wet (I’m talking sloppy) concrete. The worker wasn’t real impressed. Regardless, it’s still a top spot. We we’re even treated to a parade on our front doorstep. Oh how I love parades...
I never actually found out what the parade was for. I asked a couple of locals who scratched their heads and suggested it had something to do with commemorating a date in Panama’s history. But one thing I’ve learnt from my time in Latin America is Latinos need no excuse to party.
Well, after five months of Central America it’s time to tackle South America.
Next stop Colombia.
— Adios Central America!