Panama – Bocas del Toro, Panama City & San Blas Islands

We arrived to Panama in time to bid farewell to 2018 and say hello to 2019…New Year’s Eve in legendary Bocas del Toro, where we expected a crazy party spilling into the streets. What we didn’t expect was for our hotel to cancel on us the day before, leaving us scrambling to find suitable alternative accommodations on the tiny island. But no matter…when there is a will, there is a way! We did manage to find a place for the night, and we hurriedly checked into our rooms, dropped off our bags, and changed into our party clothes before rushing back into town for the festivities. After Bocas, we had a marathon journey by public transport to Panama City, an adventure that yielded stories for years to come. Panama City did not disappoint – we checked out the canal at Miraflores Locks, wandered the streets of Casco Viejo (historic district of Panama), and watched sunset from our rooftop pool. After bidding farewell to BG and Francisco, we extended our stay in Panama with a whirlwind trip to San Blas. Our first foray to Panama was way too short…we could easily see ourselves returning and making Boquete and Isla Coiba a priority on our next visit.

The last leg of our journey...water taxi to Bocas del Toro Drinking jungle juice before New Year's Eve festivities Robby with a bucket of beer; Barco Hundido night club Cheers! Big smiles to ring in 2019! Pink flower; Playa Bluff Lodge Playa Bluff sea is off limits due to dangerous rip tides and violent waves A pretty walk around Playa Bluff Beach shacks right on Playa Bluff Hammocks to lounge in; Playa Bluff Playa Bluff bar humor Pink ginger flower; Playa Bluff Hungry dog; Playa Bluff Caribbean style wooden house typical of Bocas del Toro We liked the wooden houses of Bocas del Toro Colorful downtown Bocas del Toro Getting mentally ready for our marathon journey from Bocas del Toro to Panama City Francisco is smiling despite being super cramped on a chicken bus from Almirante to David 90 minutes after boarding the chicken bus, all 4 of us manage to get seats and are rewarded with views like this on the journey to David Miraflores Locks; Panama Canal It was very interesting to watch the locks in action as boats cross the Panama Canal Passing through the locks is a fairly quick process and the entire transit is on average 8 to 10 hours 36 cents to cross the Panama Canal, a record set by Richard Halliburton (an American adventurer) in 1928 Panama City street art Lunch at El Trapiche, a traditional Panamanian restaurant Plaza Herrera; Casco Viejo Street art in Casco Viejo Vibrant open air art gallery in Casco Viejo BG and BC at a cute cafe; Casco Viejo UNESCO world heritage Casco Viejo (old quarter) is considered the historic distric of Panama City Jesuit church ruins; Casco Viejo Panama blackbird Wooden doors leading to a balcony, Casco Viejo Beautiful buildings in Casco Viejo National Theater located on the waterfront of Casco Viejo Diablico Sucio (dirty devil); Casco Viejo Detail of the old municipal palace of Panama; Casco Viejo Christmas decorations at Plaza Cathedral; Town Square in Casco Viejo Casco Viejo is a joy to wander by day but locals advise it is dangerous at night Small park in Casco Viejo offering panoramic views of Panama City's skyline A local takes a nap on Esteban Huertas Promenade, which is full of vendors and tourists A vendor peeks out from behind her wares for sale; Esteban Huertas Promenade A long shopping arcade at Esteban Huertas Promenade Bridge of the Americas View of Casco Viejo from the French Plaza Kuna woman heading home at the end of a day French Plaza, dedicated to the thousands of people who died under the French effort to build the Panama Canal Once a former Supreme court building, this now functions as a small theater; Casco Viejo Colorful door decorations; Casco Viejo Walking the narrow streets of Casco Viejo is a must do if visiting Panama City Typical architecture in Casco Viejo Street art; Casco Viejo Indigenous masks for sale Colorful hand woven bowls made by the Embera Indians St Francis of Assisi Church; Casco Viejo Detail of Jesus on the St Francis of Assisi church in Casco Viejo Bolivar Palace Hotel Colombia; Casco Viejo Simon Bolivar monument; Casco Viejo Francisco and BC wear matching shirts on their tour of Casco Viejo Relaxing on our rooftop pool for sunset; Panama City Our final breakfast in Panama City with Francisco and BG Even the hostel dog seems sad to see our friends go; Carolina Princess Marbella Panty advertising; Panama City We join the hordes of tourists making their way to San Blas...thankfully there are several islands so we aren't too crowded on our island getaway View as we pull up to Ina Island, our home for 2 days Robby smiles as we both score lower bunk beds; Ina Island Simple beach huts; San Blas Robby shows off the "natural pool"; San Blas Finding a live sand dollar (flat sea urchin); Natural Pool View as we pull up to Demar Achudup Island Fishing boat; Demar Achudup Island Demar Achudup Island is tiny and we walk around it in 5 minutes Beach hut; Demar Achudup Island Becky relaxing in a hammock; Demar Achudup Island Locals adding a roof to this beach hut; Demar Achudup Island Lovely beach at Demar Achudup Island View of Starfish Beach Our boat crew arrives to whisk us away to our last destination, the snorkel spot of Pelican Island Pelican Island This mop looks humanlike! Checking out Ina Island, a short path leads us to one end of the island Conch shells recycled for a garden; Ina Island Kuna bracelets for sale Beach huts with hammocks; Ina Island Becky in front of colorful "Coco Loco"; Ina Island San Blas border sign; Ina Island Kuna children playing; Ina Island The Kuna tribe lives on one section of the island, away from the tourists' huts Kuna village; Ina Island Robby makes friends with the island dogs Beer can Christmas tree; Ina Island Nearing the end of a beautiful day at San Blas A young Kuna boy plays by himself Our simple meal for dinner - you better like fish because that is all you get! Drinking with Daniel (Sweden) and Chris (Scotland)...fun guys to hang with! Our pool, an oasis in the middle of Panama City Colorful wall mural outside our hotel; Carolina Princess Marbella js photo galleryby VisualLightBox.com v6.1

Accommodations

Playa Bluff Lodge, Bocas del Toro: $173.25 for a fan room, private bathroom, WiFi, incl breakfast and access to pool. Easy check in process (although no obvious reception area, just roam around the property until you find a staff member to help), lovely rooms (very big, spacious and comfortable). Nice private patio with a swing to relax in. Full breakfast served in the morning (eggs, toast, pancake, coffee/tea, juice). This area is secluded so it was a very quiet and peaceful night’s sleep. Beautiful gardens. Beach area is beautiful but very wild (cannot swim here due to rip currents but there is a swimming pool). Some negatives: Staff not particularly friendly (except the female host, Stephanie, who checked us in….she was lovely). Some of the rooms don’t feel private because other guests walking by can look into the bathroom/living area (curtains would fix this). The property is solar powered and it lost power when we were there (not a big deal but something to be aware of). No obvious reception area but the host lives in room 10.

Hotel Milan Panama, Panama City: $44 for a double, AC, private bathroom. Good budget option for Panama City. We arrived to Panama City at midnight but no problem for check in since there is 24 hours reception. Rooms are very spacious and clean, comfortable. Very nice hot water showers. AC was great and worked well since it was hot/humid. Late checkout (2:30 pm) and early check in is a huge bonus. Good value for money and property is located in a perfect location for Panama City. Negatives: WiFi signal weak in room and kept dropping in/out. No breakfast included but there is a restaurant in the hotel and there are loads of nearby places to eat so not a big deal.

Aparthotel Sevilla Suites, Panama City: $110 for an apartment for 4 adults. Excellent value option to stay in Panama City in comfort. Our room was very spacious and comfortable. It included a couch, two queen sized beds, kitchenette (microwave, stove, fridge and some dishes/utensils/cookery). WiFi good here. Breakfast is included starting from 6 – 10 am and is self serve with cereal, muffins, yogurt, cheese/deli meats, toast, maracuya juice (yum), croissants. Swimming pool on the roof was fantastic to meet other guests and cool down in the afternoon. Staff even let us check in early!

Carolina Princess Marbella, Panama City: $32.72 for a double, shared bathroom facilities, incl breakfast. This property is in a good location, very safe and secure. The staff is helpful and friendly. Had to do laundry on a Sunday (laundromats closed) so the staff helped me out in a pinch. Need to use a key card to enter the property so it feels much safer than the nearby hostel options where anyone can walk from the street into the property. Staff can help you book tours here (San Blas islands). Breakfast is tasty. WiFi is fast and strong. Pool is lovely. Negatives: Limited shared toilets (one unisex, one for men and one for women) which is tricky when the hostel is full of large groups. Thin walls so bring earplugs if a light sleeper.

Itinerary

31 Dec: Cross border from Costa Rica into Panama. Drive to Almirante and board water taxi to Bocas del Toro in time for New Year’s Eve celebrations. We were supposed to stay here: Carenero Los Tres Pisos, Isla Carenero Sendero Bocas del Toro, 84 Brown Point, Panama (Phone: +507 6530-1970) Cost for a double: $64.4. However, they cancelled on us the day before we arrived, stating our room was under “renovation”. Since it was New Year’s Eve, Bocas was sold out and our sleeping options were limited. Thankfully, booking.com worked with us to find an alternative place to stay, which ended up being 8 km from Bocas Town at Playa Bluff (Playa Bluff Lodge, a whopping $173.25 per night for a double room, but booking.com was taking care of the difference in price from our original hotel). Had to find a taxi willing and able to drive us to Playa Bluff and return (for NYE’s festivities)….not an easy task as most taxi drivers were also partying it up. We did find a willing driver who charged us $40 round trip before midnight and $40 one way after midnight. Extortionate but we had no other options. New Year’s Eve was spent in Bocas del Toro and we just used Playa Bluff as a place to get a few hours of rest.

1 Jan: Long day today! After breakfast, make our way back into Bocas del Toro to catch the water taxi ($6 each) back to Almirante. Hop in a taxi ($1 each) to the local bus station, catch the next available bus ($8 each) to David. Change buses in David ($15.50 each) for a long haul to Panama City. Arrive before midnight. Note: if we had more time in Bocas, we could have coordinated for the night bus which would have taken us from Almirante to Panama City direct, without any bus changes. Sleep at: Hotel Milan Panama, Calle Eusebio A. Morales (just 150 meters from Aparthotel Sevilla Suites, which we would have stayed at but was fully booked for tonight).

2 Jan: Panama City tour: use Uber and visit the Panama Canal at Miraflores Locks. Check out of Hotel Milan and into Sevilla Suites, Calle Eusebio A. Morales – El Cangrejo, Panama City, (Phone: +507 213-0016). After lunch, Uber to the historical old town. Afternoon at the rooftop pool to relax and have a few cocktails.

3 Jan: After breakfast, goodbye to BG and Francisco. Check out of Sevilla Suites and check into Carolina Princess Marbella, Called Las Esmeraldas, Casa 44, Panama City, (Phone: +507 386-3050). Book onward tour to San Blas at Machico Hostel.

4 Jan: Free day in Panama City.

5 Jan: “More Places…More Fun” Tour to San Blas (2 day/1 night for $125 or 3 day/2 night for $145). Sleep at Ina Island and visit Pelican Island, Natural Pool, and Demar Achudup Island. Price includes SUV 4×4 pick up at 5:30 am, drop off to Panama City by noon on last day, boat ride to/from San Blas, 3 meals a day.

6 Jan: Midday return from San Blas, check into Carolina Princess Marbella.

7 Jan: After breakfast, Uber to the airport for onward flight to El Salvador.

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