Panama, well Panama City to be exact would be the first stop on our short Central American leg of our trip. We decided back in Peru to cut this area short to better suit what we wanted to do in North America so only had around 3 weeks to take in the best of what Panama and Costa Rica had to offer.
Panama (and Costa Rica) has a strict onward travel policy for visitors, meaning to be allowed entry onto our flight we had to show proof of direct onward travel which was a little annoying. Many people take a 5 day or so sailing trip from Cartagena via the San Blas islands to reach Panama, however this was a bit expensive for us (around $550 each). This left us with the choice of visiting the islands from Panama city or travelling further up the coast to the equally beautiful Islands of Bocas del Toro. This would then mean travelling over into Costa Rica via bus (which isn’t a problem) however not wanting to get stuck with the onward travel malarky we decided to opt for San Blas and then hop on a cheap flight to Costa Rica solving any problems.
Panama city would be our first taste of a big metropolis for a while (with Western prices to match), the city’s skyscrapers tower above the coastline and supercars roam the streets. The old town lies at the far end of the promenade and can easily be reached on foot, good for an afternoon walk.
With the hostel (el machicho) charging a good $50 each to visit the famed Panama Canal we had to go it alone and used Uber for only the second time to get out to the Miraflores Locks ($6 for the taxi). Entry was $15 ($3 for locals) and to have any joy of spotting a ship go through the locks you have to be there around 9am, we were lucky enough to just catch a ship leaving the last set of locks.
The Miraflores locks are now not used that often due to the newer locks opening in 2016 that can accommodate much larger ships and I personally was left a little underwhelmed by the whole set up - its no Shipley 5 rise thats for sure!
The onsite museum takes a look back at early construction through to present day with plenty of exhibits to keep you occupied for a little longer once the boats have left - or if you missed them altogether! George and I both thought the history of the canal seemed a little fishy, initially started but then abandoned by the French (no surprise there) and later taken on and completed by the Americans. The canal was under US control until Panama took it from them via riots and protests. Panama now profits off the canal massively - not a bad little steal! I’m sure there is much more to it than that but that’s what we both took away from the experience. We used the centre’s free wifi to catch an Uber back to Panama city, total cost $42 opposed to $100 through a tour - result!
Our next step would be to get out to the San Blas Islands for a bit of indulgence, the 360 or so mainly uninhabited islands just off the north coast in the Caribbean perhaps won’t be around much longer if sea levels continue to rise. Unfortunately to reach the islands we couldn’t avoid the pricey tours on offer - as transport to the coast is limited and the region belongs to the local people for which they charge $22 to enter.
We decided to book through our hostel for 2 nights on ‘Diablo’ Island in a private hut for around $220 each including the local tax.
After an early start in a 6 seater jeep we travelled for 3 hours out of the city and eventually arrived at what can only be described as a car park next to a river - no dock in site! After clambering aboard the long thin boat we gently meandered down the river to the mouth before the driver let loose with the twin engines, throwing us back on our seats! After 30 minutes we arrived at our little island for the next couple of days and had to jump into the clear blue sea to get onto the pristine white beach. We were quickly shown to our straw hut (it was literally nothing more and looked like it had been knocked up on ‘the island with bear grylls’ on day one). A quick lunch followed (3 meals a day were provided as part of the tour) before heading out on our first of two day tours with the others staying on Diablo (only about 5 other people!)
After about 45 minutes of nerve wracking sailing, riding into the huge waves then turning sharply to ride the backside at an angle, we arrived at ‘tortuga island’ which can only be described as pure paradise. We have both never seen anything like it, the water almost glowed it was so blue. Our next stop would be to circle the island to find a suitable coral reef to snorkel, which didn't prove too hard. The only problem for me was that I'm not the strongest swimmer and it had a fairly strong current around it, add that to no snorkel and one hand taken up by a go pro and its fair to say I about bloody drowned trying to get some Hd footage of fish!
On the way back to the island we stopped at a natural pool, caused by an underwater sand bank to swim and look at the huge starfish that lived there. That night we learned that after a fish lunch, comes a fish dinner - fully intact - meaning I had to pull the meat from George’s before eating my own as she couldn’t bear to look at his little face on the plate. Ha.
The next day I decided to rent a snorkel from one of the locals ($3) for the day which proved to be the best money I spent as just off the beach on our island was a huge reef full of all sorts of tropical fish. To our surprise we then were taken on another day trip out (we were only supposed to get 1 trip - result!) this time to a different island, a lot bigger and busier with more amazing snorkelling just off the beach along with a visit to a different natural pool for more starfish spotting on the way home.
We both thoroughly enjoyed our time on the San Blas, however we couldn’t help feel that the locals that owned the islands were just out to make as much money as possible with the minimum effort required to draw the punters in. Our island could have been a pristine paradise, but the truth is behind the main small beach, the rest of the island was a bit of a tip. The locals seemed more than happy to relax all day rather than keep the island tidy - which is odd as they live there!
We returned back to Panama city early the next day, arriving back with plenty of time to catch our evening flight to San Jose, Costa Rica.