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Panama :: Our Route

Boquete, a mountain town in northern Panama, is a quiet, quaint community that has become the home of many American and European retirees.  Most of the town consists of the main street, which is lined with small restaurants, cafes, and stores.  The town has little more than a day’s worth of activities for tourists, but I enjoyed our time in Boquete to unwind.

Stop by Cafe Ruiz during your stay – the cafe offers bona-fide lattes and cappuccinos (which is a nice break from the ever-present Nestle instant coffee), and has a patio to enjoy your drinks.  We found Cafe Ruiz to be a wonderful place to network with gringos as well – we met a vacationing couple who allowed us to stay at their home in Panama City, and a man who directed us to his land to camp for the night.

Paradise Gardens Wildlife Rescue Centre allows you to see Panamanian wildlife up close, as well as to walk through the gardens.  There are other gardens in Boquete, including Mi Jardin es Su Jardin, an eccentric and, dare I say, tacky garden located close to Cafe Ruiz.

There is a lovely french cafe called Art Cafe La Crepe on downtown’s main street, which offers a variety of crepes in a colorful and quiet cafe setting, a ceramic tile gallery that offers beautiful tiles perfect for gifts, and a vegetable and fruit market that can fill your belly for a couple dollars (I bought a bag full of fruits and veggies – avocado, peppers, pineapple, limes, plantains, carrots, and cabbage – for $3 USD!).

There are natural diversions surrounding Boquete, including hiking trails and Volcan Baru, a nearby dormant volcano.  To learn more about Boquete’s tourist attractions, stop by the Tourist Office on the main street, which also offers free wi-fi.  You can also visit www.boquete.org.

Santa Catalina is a small surf spot on the northern Pacific side of Panama that offers great breaks year-round.  For a beginner, the main break may seem quite intimidating – surfers must swim quite a ways out to reach it, and, according to Lonely Planet, the waves can be comparable to Oahu’s Sunset beach.  Fortunately, beginners can surf the small break close to the beach.

Unless you are a surfer, Santa Catalina has little to offer – the beach is not particularly pretty, and the town offers little in terms of restaurant and activities.
If you are looking to camp in an area away from the beach, turn left onto the last road before you hit the beach.  This road leads to two hostel options, however the road itself is a great place to park to the side and camp surrounded by fields.

After traveling through Central America for months on end, Panama City seemed like an electric jolt.  Some areas, such as Albrook Mall or the Pan Canal Plaza in Clayton, feel as if you are in the United States.  These areas are clean, modern, and highly commercialized, selling merchandise with prices comparable to that of the States.  But as you venture into other areas of the city, the chaotic street intersections, crumbling buildings, and littered sidewalks serve as a stark contrast.

The Bridge of the Americas, stretching 1,128 feet, brings you into Panama City, giving you a birds-eye view of the canal.

Since my time in Panama City was too short to thoroughly explore the entire area, I have listed stores and locations that proved to be useful for the budgeted / camping rambler:

Balboa Yacht Club – Amador
The BYC is located right in front of the TGI Friday’s and Country Inn hotel on Amador.
It is a great place to enjoy cheap beers while chatting with friendly expats. 
The owner hates pit bulls!

El Rey
El Rey, the large grocery store located in Pan Canal Plaza, has easy parking and grocery items that, if you have been traveling throughout Central America, you have probably not seen for a long time.

Albrook Mall
Avenida Marginal
This mall is the equivalent of a small town.  If you are in need of supplies, to see a movie, or to simply enjoy a little air conditioning, go to Albrook Mall.
DOG TIP: There are two pet stores located in this mall – Melo and Amimals & Pets.

Casco Viejo
Casco Viejo is the historic area of Panama City that is in slow renovation.  Colonial homes line the streets, and a beautiful view of the city’s center can be seen over the water.  Many of these historic buildings are restored, displaying fresh paint and beds of flowers that hang from the windows.  However, this district has crumbling structures, many of which have plant growth growing within the empty insides.

Centro de Visitantes Miraflores
This museum is located next to the Miraflores locks, which offer tourists a chance to see  enormous cargo ships pass through the Panama Canal.  Inside the museum are four floors of exhibits, as well as a theater featuring two short movies about the canal.  Although the museum is top quality in design, I found the exhibits to be a bit boring.  I favored the movies, which offered interesting information about the canal.  Tickets are $8 USD.

Camping in Panama City
Pirate Campers, you’re in luck!  Panama City’s Balboa district has plenty of empty parking lots perfect for pirate camping.  Nick will soon post an article about our site, located in the parking lots behind to Aldente Restaurant.
TIP: Aldente has unsecured wi-fi that can be picked up from the parking lot.

Nick and I ventured to this marina to meet sailors interested in taking us to Cartagena, Colombia.  Fortunately, we met a wonderful couple who just happened to be sailing to our chosen destination.

Want to Handle Lines in the Panama Canal?
Every boat that passes through the Panama Canal is required to have at least four line handlers on deck.  The entire process of passing through the canal takes around 12 hours and requires little prior experience on boats.  A line handler’s job is simply to catch the lines thown to you on shore in order to guide the boat through the canal.  If you are looking to for experience in handling lines in the Panama Canal, take a trip to Shelter Bay Marina and ask around.
TIP: There is a restaurant and wi-fi (you will need to pay to obtain a password) at this Marina, both of which are poor in quality.

Colon is a chaotic and dirty town with a bad reputation, but if you are shipping your vehicle to Colombia, it cannot be avoided since it is the entry city to the Panama Canal’s Caribbean side.  We spent hours in Port Cristobal, located in Colon, in order to complete the process of placing our truck in a cargo container.

I think Colon is especially interesting because travel books have varying degrees of warnings in reference to Colon.  Some authors state that this city, although dirty and high in crime, is on the up-and-up, and details it’s duty-free zone, which is the second largest in the world.  The worst description of Colon I read was in “Cruising Ports: The Central American Route” by Captain Patricia Miller Rains, who describes Colon as the following:

“It’s absolutely stupid to walk around Colon streets with a purse, backpack, wallet, gear bag, watch, necklace, earrings, or other jewelry – even for big men in daylight hours.”

Although this description is nearly absurd, I strongly advise keeping an eye on your valuables while in Colon, and to keep in mind that this city is considered one of the most dangerous cities in Central America.  We walked around Colon a bit, but spent most of our time in the port offices and in Cuatro Altos shopping center.
TIP: If you need to provision, Cuatro Altos is a shopping center that is perfectly fine to explore.  There is an El Rey (grocery store) and a Novey (hardware store) that has plenty of food and tool options.

This archipelago of over 300 small islands is home of the Kuna people, who are inhabitants that have created restrictions for tourists and the Panamanian government in order to protect their traditions and environment.  The waters in this archipelago are crystal clear, and the land islands are only inhabited by the Kuna, who forbid foreigners to live in San Blas or marry into Kuna families.

Since it is impossible to drive to these islands, we were fortunate to meet Kerri and Greg, a couple working on their sailboat in Shelter Bay Marina.  While our truck was shipped from Colon to Cartegena, Colombia, we sailed with Kerri and Greg to the San Blas Islands, and later continued to Cartagena.  Cruising to San Blas was an incredible experience, and I recommend it to any ramblers who are interested.

If you would like to visit the San Blas Islands but do not know any cruisers, you can charter a boat to take you, or you can fly.  If you choose to fly, be prepared to make reservations in advance, as well as pay a minimum of $35 a night in a hotel.  There are no restaurants in San Blas, so the hotels provides meals, which is included in the price.
TIP: Charter boats often offer packages to Cartagena, Colombia, that include a trip to the San Blas Islands.  The average price is $350 USD per person.  If you are interested in purchasing a charter boat tour, here are different companies I found in my research to contact:

The Andiamo: www.theandiamo.com  /   tony@theandiamo.com

Captain Marcos: freshaircharters@yahoo.com
Popular boat highly recommend among Motorcyclists.

Softair: www.Softair.us

www.hostelwunderbar.com offers a listing of various charter boats as well.

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