Falling for Panama

I didn’t have a distinct reason for visiting Panama. When I began to plan my first international trip since returning from Uganda, I knew I wanted to go somewhere warm and relatively close as I was acutely keen on maximizing my vacation days from work.

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Initially lured to Haiti by the promise of white sands and a re-connection with the African Diaspora, I decided to stall the plan to the tiny country as the airfare to Haiti never quite fit into my budget. At that time, I also happened to convinced my boyfriend to travel with me, and we agreed that it would be best to visit Haiti (the home of his forefathers) at a later time. When originally looking into flights from ORD (chicago) – PAP (port-au-prince) we saw it had a 24 hour layover in Panama, and thus we redirected our focus to the isthmus. Flights in and out of Panama City were inexpensive, short in duration and direct allowing us to maximize our on the ground time. To be candid, Panama in my mind didn’t attract the fanfare I know neighboring Costa Rica typically received, but after spending 10 days exploring the isthmus, I now know those who visit the country either hate it or love it, and I have unashamedly fallen into the latter category.

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Panama is the type of country you can explore through a moderate layover of 8-10 hours or spend days getting to know the unique cultural makeup, exploring jungles, mountain ranges, or trying to figure out which beach is your favorite.

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Once again, without maintaining a preset notion of what I was to find in my travels, I found myself pleasantly intrigued by the country. I only heard of a beautiful archipelago in the northeastern part of the country, surrounded by the warm Caribbean waters. I knew traveling in late February or early March would afford me the opportunity to flee from Chicago’s brutal winter. I also had it in my mind to complete my Open Water Scuba certification in Bocas del Toro, a province within Northeastern Panama. Bocas del Toro promised a relaxed lifestyle, one which is insanely popular with tourists, however I’m happy to say I spent four days discovering all the islands and surrounding waters of Bocas had to offer and not once did I feel overwhelmed by the touristic nature of the archipelago.

The day we decided to depart Chicago, I woke up on Sunday to a bitterly cold morning, with the wind howling sweeping back and forth the snow which had most recently fallen. The weather couldn’t have provided a better reason to escape the city, but as the minutes ticked away I repeatedly and silently prayed our flight would not be delayed. As my bf and I hit the road, he tried his best to maneuver us along the three-lane highways which have yet to see any snow truck or salt deposits. After 40 minutes on the road, we safely arrived at the airport, happy to ditch the snow covered roads and heavy winter boots for sun, salt and humidity.

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We arrived into Panama City after a 5 hour direct flight from Chicago and I immediately had to dust off my knowledge of Spanish to communicate with all who we found in the airport. Many Panamanians we ran into understood English; however would most commonly respond to you in Spanish. I couldn’t be mad at it. It was rather refreshing to find a people more comfortable with their own language they would go through a conversation with a person fumbling through their Spanish. In the end, I was able to secure us both a cab which would take us from the airport to the mall, however 10 minutes into the ride I was sure we had been ripped off.

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I pushed my feelings of being taken advantage of aside, and relished in the sunshine which shone into our jerky cab ride. 30 minutes and $35 later we arrived at Albrook Mall, where we would purchase a bus ticket to Bocas del Toro.

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To travel from Panama City to Isla Colón (Bocas del Toro) by land, the most common route by bus is:

Panama City (departs from Albook Mall) – Almirante (10 hour bus ride, $27.80 each way)

Almirante – Isla Colón (30 minute water taxi for $6.00)

Or

Panama City (departs from Albook Mall) – David (6 hour bus ride, $18.50 each way)

David – Almirante (3 hour bus ride for $8)

Almirante – Isla Colón (30 minute water taxi for $6.00)

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The bus terminal at the Albrook Mall was hot and humid. It was best to try and purchase a ticket early because we did not want it to sell out and risk remaining in Panama City overnight. Did I mention we arrived right in the middle of Panama’s Carnival, as the students had a one week vacation and everyone (parents, teachers, pupils alike) looked to escape the city for a Caribbean themed break? At Albrook, we located the ticket stand where we were to purchase two tickets from Panama to Almirante and after standing in line for 30 minutes we were finally close enough where I was able to read the sign on the ticket window which read: “No hay boletas hoy, solemapara manana 7:30”. I’m typically a wiz at reading Spanish, I have a good sense of context clues even when I don’t understand every word but this sentence had me stumped. Boletas? No entiendo. Solomenpara? Solomente + para? Without an iPhone (hard to admit my reliance on technology!), I had seemingly no way to translate a sentence which contained our fate. All I knew was I needed to leave Panama City that night. I confirmed my Scuba Diving course for the next morning and there wasn’t any time in our schedule to become a day behind the second we landed into the country.

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[hot, humid and frustrations abounded]

The entire time we waited in line, hot, hungry and confused tested every part of our relationship, as I couldn’t translate and there was nothing to do besides wait in line. We made it to the front of the line, and I managed to streamline my Spanish and ask multiple times if there were still tickets available for the bus which is leaving tonight. The ticket agent confirmed, and issued two tickets for the overnight bus from Panama to Almirante. We decided to stay in the mall, grab lunch/dinner and be first in line for the bus.  We arrived back at the bus depot and secured our position on the 8pm bus. Traveling Panama by bus was extremely safe, cheap, reliable and moderately comfortable. The intercity buses in Panama are a popular mode of transportation, and I enjoyed being surrounded by Panamanians and forced to use my Spanish while at the rest stops. Our particular bus was large, fast and coach style, however it was also extremely cold (50 degrees).

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We finally arrived at our B&B in Bocas del Toro after a 5-hour direct flight from Chicago to Panama City, a six hour layover in Panama City, a ten hour bus ride from Panama City to Almirante a thirty minute boat ride from Almirante to Isla Colón and another 5 minute boat ride from Isla Colón to Bastimentos. I was absolutely exhausted yet happy to check into to our little ocean-front oasis, the Firefly and eat breakfast. I rested for a quick minute, hoped on a water taxi back into Bocas town, and made my way to the scuba shop, where I was instantly drawn into island life. It felt good.

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More to come…

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3 comments to Falling for Panama

  • What an exhausting journey – whew! Glad you made it though. I lived in Panama as a child but never made it to Bocas. I’m planning a family trip back there next year and I’m really looking forward to it. Also looking forward to reading about how your Bocas trip turned out!
    Dana Carmel @ Time Travel Plans recently posted..Memorable Meals (part II)My Profile

    • I’ve learned to relish the more challenging travel journeys as they always end with a story to tell. How awesome is it that you lived in Panama as a child! I’ll be re-caping my Bocas trip next week, hope it is helpful to you.

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