April 30: With a fully functional Subaru, we took off from San Jose to Puerto Viejo – our first time visiting the Caribbean coast! Here we found a much more laid back culture and with, the blazer game on at the bar, coral lined beaches under the crashing waves, and music playing into the evening, we soaked it all in.
The next day, after a run, swimming in the ocean, and a relaxed breakfast we took off through the Refugio National Grandoca Manzanillo (national park) and toward the Costa Rica-Panama boarder. I would go so far as to say this was the most frustrating boarder crossing yet, but after 4+ hours and having to return to correct the incorrect paperwork, we made it to the port town of Almirante in Panama – the gateway to the Bocas Del Toro islands. Unfortunately we missed the last boat taxi and found a cozy gas station parking lot to camp for the night.
In the morning we parked the Subie at the local fire station and took off to Panama’s premier attraction (outside of the Panama Canal), the Bocas Del Toro islands. Surrounding us were beautiful clear waters, palm tree lined beaches, and small costal homes poking out of rare breaks in the island foliage. After securing breakfast and beds at the Hieke Hostel, we took off to the NW of the island on rented single speed curser bikes 17 KM away.
What we found were more pristine beaches and after a 10-minute walk down the beach, what I can only describe as a Corona beer commercial. Small beach stands selling beer and drinks, beach chairs waiting for us under the shade of palm trees, blue-grey water gently lapping against the shores, and a few dozen tourists laying or splashing about in board shorts and bikinis. I’m not sure I had truly felt relaxed this whole trip until this moment. Maybe I am meant for a life of leisure?..
Eventually we had to bike back to town, but on the way, we stopped off at the first true micro brewery we found on our Central American trip – Bocas Brewery S.A. – opened a month earlier by a couple from Colorado: Wally and Evyn Wild. We chatted with Wvyn and other customers while tasting 7 wonderful microbrews. I’ll tell you what; good beer tastes just as good in Panama – business idea anyone? That evening we further explored the town and met loads of local folks and travelers.
The next day after a beautiful run and delicious pancakes with ginger syrup, we took off on a boat tour to several islands to see dolphins, snorkel in the open ocean, and relax on more beaches. Upon returning, the town (Bocas Del Toro District) was shutting down early for the elections the next day and we stayed in for an easy night.
We would have stayed longer in paradise, but we had a timeline to keep, so we took off back to the mainland the next morning, picked up our car, and headed two hours off to a highly recommended hostel called Lost and Found in the mountains of Panama. The hostel is a 15 minute hike up from the road but once there is was clear is was unique – remote, quiet outside of the sounds of birds, monkeys, and whatever ipod might be plugged in at the time. We dropped off our belongings and took off on a hike for the remaining day light hours to a swimming hole in the local river and a outlook over the valley. As the day cooled down, we settled into meeting other travelers, listening to the election results roll in, playing foosball and giant jenga, and playing with Rocky – the hostel’s rescued Honey Bear! (And this may be the first time anyone has ever said this, but being mulled by a (Honey) bear isn’t all that bad, and kinda adorable)
May 5: After a run through the jungle/cloud forest, we took off on a 7-hour drive to Panama City. Panama city is beautiful – with its high rise downtown, waterfront pathways, and historic buildings, it was even more spectacular than Bart or I imagined it would be. We had trouble finding parking, and in true Central American fashion the guards at the presidential residence parking garage took pity on us and we negotiated (read bribed) to leave the car there for the night. Hey a new guy just got elected yesterday, what the hell, right? The Hostel, Lola’s Castle, was great and full of excited travelers and neat architecture. The $.50 beer happy hour was all we needed to get a good night rest.
The next day, I enjoyed a spectacular run on the waterfront parkway which reminded me of a mix between Portland’s waterfront, DC’s monument views, and what I can only imagine Hawaii’s downtown high-rise scene would look like. Lots of runners, lots of sun, and perhaps the only city so far I haven’t had to dodge cars. We spent most of the rest of the day dealing with paperwork and the police inspection for shipping the Subie to Columbia. We met Amy who helped us organize the whole endeavor and several other travelers who were also shipping their vehicles to Columbia, including our container buddies who are headed to Brazil in to promote conversations around ending human trafficking.
Afterwards, we used the rest of the daylight to head over to the Miraflores locks – one of the three sets of locks that make up the panama canal. Amazingly cool! We got to watch a few huge ships pass though, check out the history of the Panama Canal at their museum and watch a film. I highly recommend this to anyone who makes it down to Panama. We rounded off the evening with some research on sailboats from Panama to Columbia (for Bart and I to meet the car), and caught up with several folks who we had met in Bocas Del Toro who were at our Hostel.
May 7: We woke up very early to meet our fellow vehicle shipping companions and caravan up to Calon, on the northern coast of Panama, where the Subie would be shipped from. After a long day of pouring rain, lots of paperwork, and a test in patience, we waved goodbye to the Subie and took a taxi up to Portobelo, Panama, where we would meet the sailboat crew for our trip to Columbia.
In this sleepy coastal town, full of crumbling forts and buildings, formerly the new worlds main port for sending out gold and silver to Europe, we settled for two nights and met the 3 crew members and 8 other passengers who we would travel with across the Caribbean. Our boat will be the Victory, a former racing 44 foot mono hull regatta sailboat, captained by Hernando Higuerra – read more about the boat and colorful captain here. We take off in an hour to spend three days in the Sandblast Islands and then two days sailing across the Caribbean to Cartagena to meet and pick up the car.