Bocas del Toro & Panama City, Panama

Screen shot 2013-03-13 at 4.39.19 PMI think our mediocre experience in Costa Rica set us off on the wrong foot for Panama. The journey there was easy enough—Puerto Viejo is only 32km north of the border, so for once the drive was a breeze, and crossing the bridge from one country to the other was exciting! The bridge is old and run down and we had to walk across wooden planks wearing our heavy backpacks, trying not to slip on the wet wood or step between the cracks.

To get to Bocas del Toro, we had to take a 25-minute water taxi from the mainland, and the seas were turbulent due to the rough weather. Our boat was packed to capacity, and several individuals donned life vests before we even left the dock. Kyle, Meghan and I laughed and exchanged wide-eyed glances every time we were abruptly hurled side to side, but the other passengers (mostly locals) looked panicked—the teenage girl next to me started crying halfway through the voyage!

When we finally arrived, white-knuckled and queasy, we immediately felt that the expedition was not worth the destination. Bocas del Toro is a cluster of island towns that are said to be vivacious and happening… When the sun is out (which it normally is.) Unfortunately for us, the dismal weather followed us down from Costa Rica. The streets were deserted, the skies were dreary, and most of the good hostels were full. We checked into the International Hotel, which was bland both aesthetically and in terms of activity. We walked the main streets, looking for a good place to grab some food and ended up at an inferior pizza parlor. By the time we got back to our room, the three of us were so uninspired we didn’t even want to talk to one another, so we read our books in silence and went to sleep. The Israeli travelers staying in the room next to us blaredhorrific music all night and even started it up again at 6AM!

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I don’t mean to knock Bocas, because from all the reviews online and other people’s anecdotes, it sounds like a wonderful place—we just had bad timing and so decided to get on the next bus out of there and considered ourselves lucky to get the last three tickets on the overnight bus to Panama City.

This bus ride was the icing on the cake. The last three tickets also meant the last three seats, which were crammed all the way in the back next to the bathroom. The AC was cranked up to a level that was surely below zero. But even though we were freezing and cramped right off the bat, we weren’t complaining… However, within the first five minutes of the ride, a child several rows ahead of us projectile vomited all over the aisle. The stench engulfed the bus like a gas chamber, and the “clean up” that ensued consisted of smearing the puke around with a few paper towels in a half-assed manner and then casually tossing the soggy rags in a bin directly next to our seats without even closing the lid. The next ten hours were a true test of our limits. I tried as best I could to cover myself from head to toe with the few articles of clothing I brought on board to protect against the cold and the stink, but nothing could block out the sickening atmosphere.

We couldn’t get off the bus fast enough when we arrived in Panama City at 5AM.

Our next hostel, Mamallena, was a welcome upgrade and the weather in Panama City was warm again. Many other guests at our accommodation were also about to embark on the five-day sailing trip to Cartagena, so it was fun to spend some time getting to know our shipmates and preparing for the voyage.

image_10We went to check out the Panama Canal with a couple friends and we were… What’s the word? Let’s call it “whelmed”. Not overwhelmed or underwhelmed, somewhere in the middle. I was more impressed by the history and engineering than the actual structure. I don’t know why, I guess I expected it to be much bigger. To be fair, the passage is huge, and we got to watch an enormous cargo vessel go through the locks, which was pretty fascinating. We enjoyed the museums and the 3D movie presentation and, overall, we really did enjoy our little educational field trip. What I found most interesting about the whole thing was the amount of time and distance saved by cutting through the Canal. The Panama Canal made (and still makes) a colossal impact on the efficiency of trade, industry and transportation.

We spent the rest of the afternoon preparing to set sail—buying snacks, booze, pool floaties and Dramamine and trying to get a little sleep before our 4AM wake up call the next morning…

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Posted on by Erica Duncan in Panama

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