When most people think of the word Panama- my guess is that a few things come to mind. The Panama canal, or the bad Van Halen song “Panama” or maybe even the marijuana Panama Red- also featured in song, and possibly favored by some folks in the past…
For us, Panama has been both wonderful and frustrating. An opportunity to meet and get to know some amazing people and visit some amazing places.
We have been traveling in our little plane for about a month and a half now. The aviation paperwork for each country has been daunting and frustrating, but once we and the plane are in a new country, the things we see and do are wonderful. Our arrival in Bocas del Toro, Panama exemplifies this. Departing Limon, Costa Rica was very frustrating. Although the airport there is described as an International Airport with Customs and Immigration, no one was there to officially check us and the plane out of the country! We were told we’d have to go to town to complete all the departure formalities. We had to take an expensive taxi into town, go to 3 banks before one would accept payment of my departure tax of $27.00, visit the Immigration office to exit the country, then Customs at the port to try and turn in a document for the plane. Crazy! 3 hours later, our tasks completed, we returned to the airport and departed.
Our arrival in Bocas, as everyone calls it, was different. We landed, spent 5 minutes in the Immigration office with a wonderful woman who made fun of Paul’s picture in his passport, cleared Customs, confirmed that the plane was safe and correctly parked near the local soccer field that shares space next to the ramp, and we were on our way. Easy!
Our Airbnb accommodations were perfect and affordable; in a lively local neighborhood, but calm and comfortable once inside the house, which sat over the water with a view of an bay lined with similar houses and doted with sailboats, fishing boats and the occasional traditional canoe made from a single hollowed out tree trunk. In the evenings a light from the deck illuminated colorful fish, a few sea urchins and one time, a little squid that hung around for hours!
Bocas del Toro has a lot to offer those looking for fun on the water and it attracts people from all over the world. Our host at the B & B was a Canadian who burned out on his job there and arrived to start a new life. We had dinner one night with 2 french couples who sold everything, arrived in Bocas, started a restaurant and put down roots fast. A friend of the host was a Panamanian who had been living in Europe for 15 years but had recently returned to look after his aging parents. Bocas offers a laid back lifestyle.
Bocas isn’t a complete paradise. Islands like this import everything, so food is expensive and trash is everywhere, since everything arrives in some sort of packaging, and that packaging stays forever. That said, after a day or 2 this becomes a minor distraction and the appeal of the place becomes clear.
Beaches are great, but connecting with people is what you really remember from trips like this. Our Canadian host will be a friend for a long time. We shared dinners, laughs, stories and beers. Our Panamanian friend Jesus helped us complete complicated applications for entry permits and assisted in all manner of phone calls. We would talk for hours about all sorts of topics. (his English is far better than our Spanish) When he heard we were eventually coming to Panama City he insisted that we use a vacant apartment there that is owned by his family.
Our time in Bocas was just right, not the city, but not completely rural either, a happy blend of relaxation, fun and trip planning for the future. Our next stop was very different, but just as interesting. Destination: The San Blas Islands.
Enroute to the San Blas we flew over the Panama canal on the Caribbean side a true marvel of engineering to say the least. The new locks just opened this year, built with the bigger container ships in mind, they are wider and deeper.
The San Blas islands, off the Caribbean coast of Panama, appeal to people for different reasons. Some people go there to swim and snorkel in crystal clear water or to experience interaction with the Kuna (Guna) Indians. Others travel through by sailboat. Only a handful of islands are open to visitors. No matter what your reasoning is, the San Blas islands are an amazing experience.
Governed autonomously by the Kuna since the early 1930’s, the San Blas Islands are a group of approximately 360 islands bordering the the northeast Caribbean coast of Panama and into Colombia. The Kuna direct all commerce there, have their own political system and are committed to maintaining their traditional way of life. The Panamanian government is pretty much hands off. Outsiders are not allowed to conduct business or live in Kuna territory without approval. Many women still wear traditional permanent leg bands that are highly decorative, and arm bands as well. The portion of their dress that is the most well known is the mola. Women make these textiles, which are an intricate reverse appliqué, usually with geometric or fanciful animal designs. They sew them on to their blouses, and also sell them. Molas are highly sought after by folks who love textiles. I bought one years ago in Santa Fe!
A few of the islands have airstrips on them. We landed at El Porvenir, a tiny island made up almost entirely by the airstrip, that hosts charter flights. A boat from Isla Diablo picked us up after the completion of some minor formalities by the local Kuna authority. After a 20 minute ride over turquoise water we arrived. The island hosts the houses of 2 Kuna families, grass huts for 10 guests and an open air dining room where meals were served. Nothing more. Our hut had bamboo walls, a palm thatched roof, a bed and 2 chairs. All meals were included, there is no other place to eat!
We spend our days swimming, snorkeling, and lounging. Visits to other islands or swimming areas are offered daily. We went to a shallow white sand spot in the ocean, but not close to any island. It was like a swimming pool in the middle of nowhere. One evening we met an outdoorsy guy named Danny from Chile, who helped us plan our time in Chile, he was incredibly helpful. Another example of meeting people who make your time special.
From the islands to Panama City is a 35 minute flight. We went from staying in a simple hut to a city full of glass high rise apartment towers. We had to negotiate complex airspace on arrival, but eventually were directed to overnight parking after a Customs guy took a quick look at the plane, and let us go. Big Air Panama jets were all around us, we felt very small!
There is a guy who lives in Panama City who has the same kind of plane that we do. We communicated for months prior to our departure and it was great to finally meet him. Teddy was a great host. He showed us around town and invited us to get together at a brewpub that he and some partners started a few years ago. One morning he took us flying in his plane to another small airport down the coast to meet other pilots and see more of the countryside, it was great.
At this small airport down the coast, we met a Canadian couple who are essentially retired and live there most of the time, and have for more than a decade. Ron is a pilot and retired engineer and he built a high speed racing plane (a NXT) from scratch that he races at the Reno air races every year, how crazy to meet someone like this here!
We then met a different Canadian pilot with a B&B on Contadora island. The Pearl Islands are not far from Panama city on the Pacific side. The islands closest to the city are popular weekend destinations for the city folks.
The Canadian guy with the house offers us two nights for the price of one, we jumped at this opportunity since the island is so beautiful. A quick 30 minute flight later and we land at the airstrip on Contadora. We hit up a few beaches, walk the entire island since it’s so small and get over charged for mediocre tourist food at the restaurants. We’ll be in Panama City for another few days before we depart for Cartagena, Colombia, who knows who we’ll meet next!
Miles to date: 2,980 NM