Panama - Snorkeling and Sneaking

We’re sitting outside, a few km away the impressive skyline of Panama City. Today we’ve arrived here after travelling nearly 2 weeks thru the country.

Still, Panama is 1 of the very few countries visited where we never really arrived. True, there are some nice spots. Still, we don’t feel really welcomed by its inhabitants. For us, many places are pretty strange or weird. Others are just a bad copy of American lifestyle, often inhabited by numerous US and Canadian citizens. Many places reflect the huge difference between an extremely rich elite and the poor guys asking themselves what the hell has happened with all the wealth Panama produces. 

Yes, maybe it’s all about the experience. 

Cahuita 2 El Valle

Bocas del Toro, 3rd February

Goodbye Costa Rica, goodbye Cahuita, goodbye Reggae Bar & Chaos, goodbye all stoned Rastas – wherever u r.

We’re on our way to Panama. To Bocas del Toro.

Some 30 km to the border. There, no sign where to go for all this admin. stuff. Just parked cars. Great opportunities for some job seekers to help poor tourists. Fortunately, they’re also happy just explaining us the system and then to watch Prado.

First of all, 8 $ exit fee to pay. As we’re still in Costa Rica all to be managed by the country’s Central Bank. And a small shop providing this service at a small fee. Arriving there, a busload of backpackies. Having been waiting there for several hours due to a problem with internet, or the bank’s computers, or whatever.  True, we remember such situations in Costa Rica when we tried to buy national park tickets. After an hour without the slightest success Monika discovers that we can simply pay this imaginative fee on internet. And for us, it even works. Then all other incredibly important steps to leave the country – pretty easy’n’fast.

We cross the bridge to Panama. A guy of customs explains to us step by step where to go and what to do. Most important: immigration. Works extremely slow. More than 1h for 10 people. Then it’s our turn. Despite the fact, that their internet is down, there’s no problem – they just ignore the Covid-QR-Code which normally is the most important document to check. Instead, they put all emphasis on the return flights for everybody. Of course, as overlanders we have no flight ticket. We show the guy our car documents, explain to him that it’s pretty complicated to leave the country by air with Prado in the hand luggage. Nothing helps. The guy only knows that he has to make sure that everyone has a flight back to mommy.  Unfortunately, they forgot to tell him that there may be other cases.

Then the proof that wonder happen – or immigration officers may get tired – he stamps the passports and off we are. Immediately. 

Quickly buying an insurance for Prado, getting a TIP for Panama, a sim-card and we’re on the road again. After nearly 4h at this beautiful border. 

Just 1h to Almirante – the gateway to Islas Bocas del Toro.

Prado gets its home with Leiza’s – a secured parking.

We quickly buy our tickets to Bocas and we’re on the way again.

Definitely, Almirante doesn’t look too fancy. It rather remembers 1 of these lost places along the Amazon River you see sometimes in very old movies. All rundown, rotten, getting moldy in the hot’n’humid climate.

30′ later we’re approaching the town of Bocas del Toro with its chaotic skyline of sleeperies’n’eateries cum wateringholes lining the waterfront.

We check out the different snorkeling tours offered. Unfortunately, no other way to visit the corals’n’fishes. Pretty quickly we come to know, that there are some 100 tour operators. Luckily, we don’t need to ask them all about our dream tour. They all offer exactly the same at very  the same price. Thus, we just buy a ticket with the guy next to our sleepery, pay 30 bucks each of us – and we’re part of it. Then we move on to our well-deserved beer. 

We still have a busy evening. As we’re in Panama now, we have to decide on how to continue our trip. Should we park Prado here in a bonded warehouse and move on to Colombia without a car. Or should we look seriously into possibilities on how to leave Prado either in Colombia or Ecuador until Peru’s government understands that there may be more efficient measures to fight Covid than closing land borders to foreigners while allowing all others to do whatever they like.

Nevertheless, as far as we’re informed the Peruvies rather head for the closure – at least for the next 6 months. 

We call a guy in Ecuador to understand better how to handle the situation should we park Prado with him until the Peruvies stop their nonsense. Quite a long communication, then we decide definitely to ship to Colombia. 

Thus, a short notice to our preferred shipping agent in Panama City, Tea Kalmbach to ask for possible dates within the next 2 weeks.

The next morning. The weather has changed. It’s raining. Not just a few minutes, but constantly. We take our chance to postpone our dream tour by 1 day.

And take the opportunity to discover this “fascinating” town in the afternoon – once the weather has improved.

Normally, we’re not too much into advertising in our posts just to earn the hell a lot of money.

Nevertheless, there are some opportunities probably no future overlander traveling on a budget should miss. 

We all know, often it’s not easy to find a reliable 2nd hand van for an affordable price. 

Now, just look at this beauty we found in Bocas. Isn’t it nice? Does it not look reasonably priced? And nobody could say Volkswagen is not a reliable car. Of course, not a Toyota, but still much better than a Landrover.

You’ll find it on Main Street, Bocas del Toro, Panama. Could be, you have to ask around a little for the owner.

Next morning. Weather is not much better; at least no rain. 

Our tour operator is ready to bring us to our dream destination. Just a few minutes and a boat picks us up. Yeah, we’re part of the famous tour. The boat drives up’n’down the waterfront with all its hotels. To collect more people, not just the 8 they promised. No, the boat can carry even 12 guys, if squeezing a little bit. Looks like we’re not alone on our way to paradise.

Then we pass some other islands of the archipelago. To a point where everybody can observe dolphins. Of course, today is the dolphin’s day off.

So, we can drive on. To a restaurant/ hotel. Looks a bit like the houses in Almirante. Rotten, decayed, the hotel looks like it has never been used. The restaurant still offers some food. For those who are eager to have lunch the opportunity to order their fish with rice to make sure it will be ready on return.

On to Isla Zapatilla. It’s said to be the most beautiful island in Boca del Toro. The most remote and as we arrive visibly the most crowded as all tours go at the very same time to the very same place. 

Whatever. There’s white sand, turquoise water, and a jungle-fringed beach. And nobody feels lonely.

We have some time to discover the island and to go for a swim.

Thus, we leave the rather crowded beach and walk around the island. About 1h. Sometimes on a path, sometimes we make our own thru the jungle’n’beach.

After the slightly crowded paradise of Isla Zapatilla the boat takes us to the eatery.  Munching time for those who ordered. All others may watch them.

Then on to a snorkeling spot. Quite sure 1 of the better 1s of Bocas del Toro. Some colorful corals, but not too many fish – maybe there are too many visitors snorkeling at the same time. Unfortunately, the visibility is not that good. Probably there are too many silted rivers discharging into the sea in this area.

A little later we’re on our way back. A short stop to admire some starfishes and a lot of sea urchins. And then we’re back in Bocas. That’s it.

Remains the question of whether or not it’s worth making this tour. For this question just consider, that visiting these places is one of the main reasons why you visit Bocas del Toro.  From this point of view, the tour is simply a must.

On the other side, it’s definitely questionable why the guys have to convert the whole thing into an event of mass tourism. All boats arriving at the same time at the same spots, the obvious indifference of the captain’n’guides – somehow you feel how tired they are to show each’n’everyday these odd tourists the same stuff.

Whatever maybe we’re just not that much used to this kind of tours. Probably a backpacky on his/ her ultimate adventure trip living in his/ her all beloved hostel bubble considers this slightly different.

Boquete, 5th February

The next morning we’re on our way to Boquete, Panamas’ famous highland destination.

But before, the boat back to ugly Almirante where we find Prado safe’n’sound at Leiza’s Secured Parking


Then 4h on a small, winding, and bumpy road over the hills. The lower parts of the road are a delight for cow-addicted guys while the higher elevations are rather dedicated to fog lovers. Maybe we miss a beautiful landscape. Who knows if the visibility is around 25 m.

A little outside Boquete we discover a beautiful sleepery. A guy built a few pretty ordinary cabanas along a river – and a treehouse. And that’s the 1 we got. Some 5m above ground, all open. High above the ground with a kitchen, a parking for Prado, and a lot of space around us. Well, the place to be.

Boquete is definitely 1 of Panama’s tourist destinations. At the same time, it’s the retreat for numerous US senior citizens escaping the freezing cold of the mid-western prairies or avoiding the exuberant heating costs of their uninsulated, cheaply built house in Prudhoe Bay. Consequently, there are quite some infrastructure and goodies important for Americans, pretty useless for all others.

Tourists mainly head to the area for hiking. Of course, for those coming from the south the opportunity to climb their 1st volcano – Volcán Baru. An 8h hike to 3400m. For those coming from the north a number of trails to waterfalls, into deep forests, and on some hills. Unfortunately, the famous Sendero los Quetzales thru Volcán Baru National Park is closed. It’s said too many unwary guys got lost on this trail.

Finally, we opt for a trail to a couple of waterfalls (the Lost Waterfalls Trail). The trailhead is some 15km from Boquete. Thus, an opportunity to know a small valley next to Volcán Baru. We pay 8$ for the hike as someone has to build’n’maintain the trails. 

Then we’re on our way. Pretty step up. The further we go, the smaller and steeper the trail. And the more slippery it gets.

Later we continue organizing our shipment to Colombia. We got 2 dates for departure in February. Unfortunately, Tea could not find another car to share a large container.  Nor did we. Well, we’re in contact with someone, but nothing realizes. So, we rather think of shipping in a small 20″ container. Still, we have the problem that we have to lower Prado by nearly 20cm to enter the small container’s front door. We start measuring, calculating, imagining, etc. Remove the cover of the rooftop tent (3cm), dismantle the ladder (6cm), open the hinge of the tent – nearly 12cm. Hey, that should be enough. Maybe lower the tire pressure to gain a little more and Prado should be able to enter the container.

Well, the next morning we receive the message from Tea that she found somebody else to share a big container. What the hell, all this effort yesterday to shrink Prado. We quickly agree on sharing on the proposed sailing date of 20th February and hope everything will work correctly.

Santa Catalina, 8th February

Time to leave our treehouse. After all these waterfalls, jungle, and trails we urgently need some beach.

There’s not much choice. Only pacific beaches – and accordingly temperatures of at least 38 degrees.

A 1st stop in Boca Chica. A not that interesting place. Somehow a lost village with a few houses, and 1 or 2 watering holes. 

For us more of a stopover for the night, and an opportunity to admire the sunset with an ice-cold beer.

On to Santa Catalina, the jump-off point to UNESCO heritage Isla de Coiba. A few hours’ drive, partly on the Panamericana. By now a 4-lane highway with little traffic.

Santa Catalina – rather a great name for this cluster of sleeperies, eateries’n’watering holes. All looks slightly abandoned and neglected. Nevertheless, quite a number of backpackies sneaking around.

To visit Isla de Coiba, you can either buy your own boat or go for a tour. Finally, our finances tell us to book a tour. Still 80$ each (including 20$ national park fee) for snorkeling, visiting a few different islands, and being brought back.

Early next morning we’re ready for our snorkeling tour – or, as they call it the Adventure Isla de Coiba Expedition. Together with 10 fellow adventurers, we’re perched on a small boat and we’re all on the way to the island paradise. With us, a guy called The Captain and another 1, Antonio, in his role as an animator, watchdog, snorkeling master, and discoverer of all this fishy stuff in the sea.

Of course, we’re not the only 1s. There are some more similar boats. All with even more adventurous people on board. All ready to risk all to make the expedition the biggest success in their life.

After a while, we stop. True, we’re surrounded by quite a lot of dolphins. Some time to observe the guys.

Then on to the 1st  island. Some 45′ to reach it.

Time for Coiba’s underwater world.

On to the next spot. Fortunately, our snorkeling master coordinates with the other tour boats, so that every boat has its own ultimate, never visited before spot to discover marine life. Still, there are at least the 10 guys at your tour in exactly the same place should there be a turtle, a ray, a poisonous sea snake, or a Panamanian underwater elephant. 

The next island, just some 20′ away. Isla Ranchera. The island is known to have 1 of the world’s most perfect beaches. White sand, turquoise water, palm trees. And most important under the palm trees our snorkeling master serving lunch. Pasta with some tuna – the standard menu for all tours, every day for every visitor since the time of Christopher Colombus.

On to Isla Coiba. Just a few 100m from Ranchera Island. A huge island, formerly known for its notorious prison where former dictators invited all opponents to spend the rest of their miserable life.

Nowadays the administrative headquarter of the national park. Even if the guys only have 5 or 6 crumbling houses, you immediately feel their unlimited authority once you fill in the most important form of your life. Auntie’s birthday, uncle William’s passport number, the favorite dish of the mother-in-law of your 3rd husband, as well as of your 3rd husband’s 5th wife. Once you’re done, you swear that your information is the plain truth and nothing but it – and you’re free to visit the national park’s washrooms. Bring your own toilet paper.

After this enlightening experience on to the last snorkeling place of our expedition. Not too far away, somewhere next to Isla Ranchera.

Then 1h back to Santa Catalina. And that was the tour.

Despite all general critics on tours, we’re pretty enthusiastic about this 1. Of course, it’s not cheap, but also, they drive with their boats quite a distance to Isla Coiba some 25km away. The snorkeling master made a pretty good job, he’s even responsible for some of the underwater pics in this post. Thus, not to compare with the odd stuff we got in Bocas del Toro. Definitely, we’d go again – of course, after having recovered from today’s sunburn.

El Valle, 12th February

Time to move on. To slowly approach Panama City. In a few days, we have to start the administrative marathon to get Prado into a container.

Some 250km to El Valle, an escape for poor heat struck Panamies during their weekends. 

4h to drive. Some smaller roads, but mostly on the 4 lanes Panamericana. Finally, some 25km up in the hills to reach El Valle.

El Valle. You really get the impression you’re in a pretty small rural village situated in the crater of a former volcano. At least, until you discover quite a number of huge Chinese supermarkets; until you walk the side streets with huge lots and even bigger houses; or until it’s Friday when the 1st choppers fly in well-heeled Panamies from the capital.

Besides this, there are also some hikes up to the edge of the volcano. To the Cerro Cara Iguana – the leguan face hill. Some 3h, a few 100m up, a few 100m down.

Some nice views to the bottom of the valley and El Valle, and on the other side to the Pacific Coast.

In the evening a pizza – to balance the calories used for hiking.

Well, that’s it for this post.

Don’t be desperate. Soon there will be more of this and other stuff.



Costa Rica - Coast 2 Coast, Pacific 2 Caribbean
The Long Way to Colombia