Map of Panama with locations called out


A week in the dense, central heart of Panama, the small, narrow pathway between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans was the memorable international trip I was privileged to get the chance to take on this month.

Panama, a country of less than 4 million people on land less than that of Pennsylvania, is best known for its powerful Panama Canal that was American operated until 1999. Until 1989, it was run by the dangerous despot Manuel Noriega but since then democracy has flourished and, with the New York Times profile in toe, is growing its tourism sector to try to compete with more popular Belize and Costa Rica.

Between $650 in airfare and about $1,200 in food, lodging and entertainment costs that I split between my travel buddy and me, I spent $1,200 myself on a week in Panama.

Most memorable stuff I did:

  • I crossed the Panama Canal on ferry near massive Panamax tankers, while reading about its construction
  • kayaking through the jungle near Gatun Lake and saw lots of monkeys
  • rode the country’s famous and endangered diablo rojo national bus system
  • ate lots of arroz con pollo and fish at roadside stands and house-cafes
  • went snorkeling along coral reefs in the Bay of Portobello (Carribean, Atlantic Ocean) and the Bay of Panama (Pacific Ocean) within 24 hours
  • Camped out within feet of the waves on Contadora, a half-mile square island that can only be accessed by once-daily boat drop-offs or private plane
  • used American dollars (and coins sometimes), as that, though dubbed Balboas, is the official currency, which is causing some problems these days. (There are other countries that do this)
  • put a whole lot of use to my very limited Spanish
  • drank out of a freshly felled coconut
  • drank a lot of cerveza de nacional, mostly Balboa but some Atlas and Panama too
  • hiked through three of the less known forts established in Portobello by the Spanish in the 1700s

Itinerary Overview:

  • Friday June 28 — Arrival at night, picked up by AirBnB host, toured downtown Panama City, ate late dinner and drinks on Via Argentina, an entertainment district more populated by the local, younger crowd from Universidad de Panama.
  • Saturday June 29 — Toured Casco Viejo and walked toward the Balboa district, formally the American HQ for the Canal, then Panama Viejo, the ruins of the former capital, the downtown skyscraper district, hung on our balcony overlooking Via Argentina and then went out for dinner, cerveza and Cuban cigars
  • Sunday June 30 — We took a day-long tour of the Panama Canal, visited islands populated by monkeys, went kayaking near Gatun Lake, hiking and waterfall jumping. Then we took the country’s famed diablo rojo bus system toward Colon, after a confused stop, we headed off to Portobello, once the home of the Spanish gold holdings of the Americas. We toured some forts and looked up at a big beautiful sky then retired at the very cool Captain Jack’s hostel.
  • Monday, July 1 — We took a wonderful tour from an American who grew up in Central America — holler at Jason from Portobello Adventures — that featured hiking lesser known Portobello bay forts, kayaking and snorkeling along coral reefs. Then we went back toward Panama City, with the help of a strange cheap ride on a fancy coach bus, to meet up with a very cool hostel in the Marbella neighborhood called the Villa Vento Surf.
  • Tuesday, July 2 — We woke up early to catch the once-a-day ferry out to Contadora, a small island named for being the administrative counting home for the Spanish collection of pearls that now has high-end resorts and multi-million-dollar homes after once being. Fortunately, I had read that Playa Ejectiva also allows free camping. We were alone on a beautiful beach, snorkeling and reading.
  • Wednesday, July 3 — We spent the day snorkeling, exploring and relaxing. When we got out, we passed by the Amador Casuseway on the way back to the hostel.
    Thursday, July 4 — We got an early start and one last taxi negotiation to head toward the airport home.

Quick Panama travel tips I didn’t find elsewhere:

  • Always know how much your taxi and bus rides should be. Negotiate down your taxis, and pay just what you owe the bus. (You should care about what you pay in taxi, because you can contribute to inflation for locals)

I have my full itinerary here and my detailed travel expenses here. I also have all my travel pics on Facebook here.

Also, two travel tips I really decided on: I only want to travel somewhere when I can spend at least two nights there, I’m captivated by the power of the airplane-mode phone abroad for photos and videos and screenshot maps from Wifi and, though I couldn’t here in Panama, I did try to get the same $25 for 100 MB data offering from Verizon, which is a good option for using Google Maps.

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