Tag Archives: Panama

Mapping My Journey So Far

Sixteen months on the road is a long time. During that time I covered quite a distance and did many things. While I’ve been ‘resting’ in the United Kingdom, I’ve put together a step by step rundown of my trip including maps.

South East Australia

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In a van called the Pointy Brick I…

Antarctica, Chile and Argentina

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From Brisbane, I flew to Auckland and spent 3 weeks with family before flying to South America where I…

Brazil, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador

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From Buenos Aires I…

Colombia, Central America and Mexico

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From Ecuador I…

The Full Map. May take some time to load.

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The World Wanderer

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Costa Rica – Adventures

With an official end date to my Latin American adventures quickly approaching I’ve had to make some hard decisions. One of these was to only spend a week in Costa Rica, this being on the basis that it’s the most expensive country in Central America.

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From David in Panama, I caught a bus to Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose. The bus ride was around eight hours including the border crossing, which wasn’t as stressful as I was led to believe. Like Panama, when entering the country ‘proof of exit’ is required. This time I had a fake booking set up but was not asked for it.

San Jose isn’t as influenced by the US as Panama City is, and since my plan was to stay in the city only two nights I didn’t spend a lot of time exploring the city beyond finding a restaurant and a supermarket. This still took me past a municipal building.

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Soon after arriving, I arranged for a full day tour to see as much as I could in the short time I was here. I confirmed the time of pick up and was prepared for the early start. The next morning the tour operator arrived 30 minutes early and when I wasn’t ready, left without me. This led me to wonder if I’d heard the wrong time. When the staff member at the hostel arrived for the morning, he confirmed that I had been correct and set about getting my money back. He booked me on another tour for the following day, a cheaper one, with the difference in price covering the cost of another night in the hostel.

The next morning the tour operator arrived at the correct time and we were off. First stop was the ruins of the Temple of the Santiago Apostle Parish. The building of the temple began in 1870 but stalled after an earthquake destroyed part of it. Building again began several years later but again stalled because of another earthquake. This happened several times over the course of 40 years until in 1910 when it was decreed that God didn’t wish the temple built and construction was abandoned.

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Our next stop was Volcán Irazú, the tallest active volcano in Costa Rica. As we drove to the top, the cone was shrouded in clouds so it was unclear if we’d be able to see much. At the top the crater was barely visible through the mist and we put on rain jackets to save getting wet. Like Volcán Barú in Panama, Volcán Irazú can sometimes give views of both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, but today was not one of those rare days. The clouds cleared enough after 10 minutes and we finally got to see the crater.

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After the volcano visit, the tour headed to a restaurant for breakfast then north across the continental divide to the Caribbean side of the country. After a couple of hours in the bus we stopped at Rio Puerto Veijo and got on a river boat for a 90 minute cruise along the river.

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On the trip we spied plentiful birds, including the rare Red Macaw – which are often poached and sold on the black market for US$30,000 each. We then encountered a lone Iguana sitting in the bushes on the side of the river…

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There were also sightings of a Sloth and its baby asleep in high boughs…

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Then a lone Caiman about the length of my arm. Caimans have no ridges along their backs and are much smaller than their larger cousins…

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We heard several Howler Monkeys, although only caught glimpses in the trees. Then small camouflaged micro-bats on the trunk of a tree and lastly, Crocodiles. This one is about three metres long.

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We then stopped at an animal sanctuary that houses poisonous frogs, an Asper snake and a butterfly conservatory. The poisonous frogs were the most interesting. There were two varieties, one black with luminous green spots about the size of your big toenail, and the other tiny and red about the size of your little fingernail. Their poison was used in blow guns by natives of Latin America. Lunch was a traditional Costa Rican meal but included Iguana, which like crocodile, tastes very like chicken. Then it was a 2 hour bus ride back to the hostel.

The following day, I caught a bus to the northern city of Liberia, a hub of tourism in Costa Rica. Like many Costa Rican cities, it has a more modern church…

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During the couple of days I stayed, I made my way to Playa del Coco – Coco Beach, which is a touristy beach town set on the Pacific Ocean. As much of Costa Rica is tropical, even in winter, I enjoyed a swim in the cool waters of the ocean.

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For my last day in the country, I visited Llanos de Cortez waterfall where myself and three women from the hostel enjoyed swimming. This is just one of the many waterfalls in the area…

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Next I head to the beach town of San Juan del Sur in southern Nicaragua.

The World Wanderer

Volcán Barú, Panama

Barely 37km from the border of Costa Rica is Panama’s tallest mountain, Volcán Barú. At just under 3,500m, it’s still considered high altitude but is really just a molehill compared to 6,000m tall mountains of Andes. Volcán Barú is commonly climbed for the rare possibility of seeing both the Pacific Ocean to the south and the Caribbean sea to the north. It’s rare because the view to the Caribbean is often blocked by a layer of clouds.

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There’s two ways to the top of Volcán Barú, either taking a 4×4 vehicle tour or to hike. The hike is difficult and long at 13km from the trailhead to the peak (with a 1,750 climb in altitude) before 13km back again. What makes it a challenge is most people begin climbing at midnight, aiming to see the sunrise from the summit after walking 6 hours in the dark. Hiking 26km makes for a long day at the best of times, but beginning at midnight makes it just nasty. I even tried to nap in the afternoon, but only managed an hour, which was nowhere near enough.

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Getting to the trail head is fairly easy, with one of the hostels offering transport for US$5. Then after a very short briefing, we were pointed off along a wide track and told to just keep climbing no matter what forks in the trail we see. Except for 3 short descents, the 13km was a steady climb along the wide rocky trail. When you’re hiking at night all you have is your head torch and the ground directly ahead of you to look at.

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We were lucky to be walking under the full moon, so it wasn’t always necessary to use the head lamps. But even in daylight there would be little to see, as there are trees along both sides of the trail. We did come to several locations where we looked down upon the township of Boquete. The lights were beautiful but fleeting and too distant for good photos.

Getting to the summit for sunrise was not my aim, so I took is more slowly. When sunrise did hit, I was still half a kilometre from the summit but was able to watch it, seeing the same view as I would have from the top.

Unfortunately it was around this point where altitude sickness struck. It felt like someone had split my head in half and prodded at the insides with their fingers. As I climbed the last of the trail to the radio tower buildings at the top it grew worse and I started to feel ill.

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The last 500 metres was steeper than the rest and when I made it to the top I found the howling wind rough. I found a secluded spot and put on some warm clothing. When dressed, I looked around the buildings and took photos of the surrounds.

To the south was the city of David and the islands in the Gulf of Chiriqui beyond.

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To the west, Costa Rica.

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On the other side, I discovered the buildings were not at the absolute summit, as there was a rocky outcrop that climbed perhaps 30m higher. To get to the top was a rocky scramble, but with the state of my head and stomach I decided against it. The cross on top is the highest point in the country.

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From the northern side of the summit I was out of luck with seeing the Caribbean sea but instead clouds fading away into the distance.

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While I sat huddled out of the wind, one of the girls from my hostel found me and sat with me while I brewed a cup of tea using my hiking stove.

The walk down was very long but straightforward. The trail descends for most of its length except for three points where it climbs. Half way up the first and longest of the three climbs, my tiredness gave out and I lay down on a large rock for a power nap, letting my friend walk on alone. I woke forty minutes later slightly refreshed and no longer feeling the altitude.

The rest of the walk was more of a stagger although I did manage to catch my friend again. We discovered there were many wild flowers growing along the trail but was too exhausted to take photos beyond this one…

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We passed some of the lookouts and caught daylight glimpse of Boquete…

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We eventually made it to the end of the trail and exhausted, booked a taxi through the ranger before being whisked away back to the hostel for a shower and a well deserved sleep.

Overall, the hike up Volcán Barú was okay. I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t suffered altitude sickness at the end and if we’d started at a more reasonable time. While walking at night was fine – it’s cooler out of the sun and there isn’t much to see anyway – the main difficulty is the length. To make the hike more enjoyable, I would make it a two-day hike, camping just below the summit, climbing to see the sunrise early on morning two before the long walk back again.

The Lone Trail Wanderer.

Boquete, Panama – Impressions.

Nestled in the mountain plains 60km from the border of Costa Rica is the mountain town of Boquete (‘Boc-ket-e’). At 1,200 metres above sea level, the township is cooler than the rest of Panama and this makes it a popular holiday destination for both locals and travellers alike. It’s also one of the leading retirement locations for US citizens outside of the United States.

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Boquete is next to Parque Nacional Volcán Barú and is the primary starting point for those who wish to climb the volcano, the tallest mountain in Panama. The mountains around Boquete contain many short trails but the only real hike is the volcano climb, although it’s not the best of hikes as there’s little to see along its 26km length.

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Every year in mid-January Boquete hosts a flower and coffee festival that runs for ten days. It’s a very popular occasion with people coming from all over the country to party late into the night at the dance hall. Feriado Las Flores y del Cafe – literal translation: Holiday Flowers and Coffee.

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The fiesta is less crowded during the day, which allows better access to see the impressive flower displays.

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There are plenty of things to do in Boquete besides hiking and the festival, these include horse riding, visiting coffee plantations and farms, and the Aguas Calientes – hot springs.

For $2 you can spend all day on the property where several pools have been crudely set up. The crudeness gives it character, and if you get too hot there’s a river nearby to cool off in.

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Overall, Boquete has a vibrant energy about it and is a great place to hide away from Panama’s year round heat.

Next, I cross the border into Costa Rica to the capital of San José.

The World Wanderer

Bocas del Toro, Panama – Impressions

Not far from the Costa Rican border on the north-west Caribbean coast of Panama is Bocas del Toro. Meaning ‘Mouths of the Bull’ in spanish Bocas del Toro is one of Panama’s primary holiday destinations for both locals and travellers alike.

Bocas del Toro refers to many places: first the province, then the archipelago within the province and the provincial capital on Islá Colón, which is also known as Bocas Town. The island is named after Cristóbal Colón, the spanish name for Christopher Colombus, who visited the islands in 1502 looking for a way through to the Pacific.

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Getting to Islá Colón is easy, either catch a 30-minute water taxi across the bay from the town of Almirante or fly in from the Costa Rican capital, San Jose. You can’t miss Bocas Town when crossing the bay as most of the shoreline around the town is utilised by hostels, bars and tour operators.

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The town itself feels very much like you’re in a surfing town. January being high season, the town is bloated with tourists, most of them early to mid-twenties, surfboard clad and heavily tanned.

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I call Panama the 51st state of the US, not only because there are so many americans here or that the US dollar is the currency, but because most people speak english, in a U.S. accent. Bocas del Toro is no different, with its upmarket hostels, shops and eating places, including a fantastic indian restaurant that I just had to visit twice.

While on Islá Colón, one of the easiest way to see the islands is via a sailing tour. They take a group out on a pair of catamarans to several choice spots around the islands.

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This included two different snorkelling spots, which would give me the opportunity to test out my new underwater camera. The first part of our mini cruise was to a bay they have nicknamed Dolphin Bay because of the dolphins that come to play around the boats.

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Then it’s off to the first snorkelling spot. Flippers aren’t really needed as the water is not deep and you float around a coral reef surrounding a mangrove island in a place they call Starfish Bay.

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While there I swam with a pair of jellyfish. Cool to look at under the water, but I wasn’t letting them get too close.

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The water was not the clearest, but at our second spot, there were more coloured fish and I got some shots of the brightly coloured coral.

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There are several beaches on the islands that are well visited by tourists, but at an expensive US$5 to get to the sand, I decided against going.

For the three days I spent on the island, I managed to stay in three different hostels. On arrival, I discovered the hostel I wanted to stay at was full (you can’t prebook online), so I booked in for the next two days and went searching for another hostel. The following day I discovered my booking was no longer there. This time they located another hostel for me and ensured I would get a bed the following night. On the third day I finally got the bed I wanted and spent the day just relaxing on the side of the channel.

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During the midday hours it gets rather hot in Bocas del Toro, even in winter, but all you need do is roll out of the hammock and into the sea to cool down. Then in the evening they set up a band and we rocked out to the sounds of Sublime, Blink 182 and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Next, I head back to David for the night, then up to the town of Boquete, a tourist town in the mountains.

The World Wanderer

Panama City, Panama – Impressions

When you think about Panama, the first thing that comes to mind is turkey. That’s right, turkey. Actually, it’s the Canal, but sometimes its nice to think about turkey…right?

But there’s more to Panama than just the Canal and this time I’m not talking about turkey. Panama City was founded in 1519 by the spanish as a launching point for the eventual conquest of Peru. Then, 150 years later, the city was attacked by pirates – over 1200 of them – and burnt to the ground. The ruins are still there as a tourist attraction – Panama Viejo (Old City).

One of the more complete buildings that remained…

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Two years later a new city was built further along the coast. It would eventually grow to surround the site of the old city, which is now a World Heritage Site.

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Similar to Cartagena in northern Colombia the new city was built with a wall surrounding it to protect it from future pirate attacks. This new city has more similarities to Cartagena than just a wall, the entire district within the walls look similar too.

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It has also been given a World Heritage status – Casco Viejo (Old Quarter).

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The Panama Canal was begun by the french in the late 1800s, but after an estimated 20,000 workers died during its construction – many from Yellow Fever and Malaria – the project was abandoned. The United States took over the project in 1904 and ten years later – 2 weeks after the break out of WWI – it was officially opened.

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The locks system is fairly basic. Water is locked off in sections allowing ships to enter. Then the water is slowly released into the next bank of locks, equalising the water level so the ships can move further along. This happens three times before the ships are through the locks. There are three sets of locks along the 48km of the canal.

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Between the Canal and the US presence over the next 100 years, Panama City has grown along the beach front.

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The central city has a decidedly western feel, like the business districts of most other large cities. My arrival coincided with Christmas and New Years, meaning bus services and travel destinations were filled to the brim with locals for the holiday season. But after 10 months in Latin America it’s nice to spend a couple of weeks in a place that feels a little like home.

Views from atop the Hard Rock Hotel…

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Next, after the holiday season, I travel to Bocas del Toro in northern Panama.

The World Wanderer

Colombia to Panama Cruise via San Blas Islands

 

After nine and a half months in South America it’s time to make my way north into Central America. I’ve mainly travelled by bus around the continent, but as the border between Colombia and Panama is said to be controlled by guerrilla groups and dangerous – whether true or not – I decided to look for other options. Because I’m carrying excess baggage I avoid flying so I decided on a 5-day cruise through the Caribbean Sea via the San Blas Islands instead.

The San Blas Islands are to the east of the Panama Canal and of the approximately 378 palm covered, golden sand islands, 49 are inhabited.

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The boat I booked was the Luka, a 56’ yacht that has been converted into a cruise vessel. For the 12 passengers and 2 crew there are few rooms and most are crammed. Because I’m a solo traveller I drew the short straw of sleeping in the saloon. While it’s not ideal, the couch like seats are longer than the berths in the rooms, and as I’m 189cm (6’3”) a longer bed is better.

Day 0
We all arrived at the dock at 8pm and were ferried out to the yacht where we waited in the calm of the harbour. We were due to leave at 10pm but it was closer to midnight before we set off. Eventually we set sail under motor which caused many of the rooms to be rather hot overnight, even with their built-in fans.

Cartagena Harbour at night…

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Day 1
No-one slept well and two of our number suffered major seasickness overnight, spending the night on the deck throwing up. I woke very hot and tired after 9 hours sleep. With the motion of the sea and the heat of the cabin, I couldn’t stomach breakfast. Standing up also caused me to feel sick, so I went back to sleep until the early afternoon. When I awoke I also couldn’t stomach lunch so went on deck where the cool wind made me feel a lot better. There wasn’t much to see though, no sea birds or land, only the waters of the Caribbean sea and the very occasional dolphin – too quick for the cameras.

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I stayed on the deck for much of the rest of the day enjoying the sun and the cool of the wind. While it’s winter in the northern hemisphere and I’m told it’s snowing in parts of the US, I’m spending most of my time in just shorts, even late into the evening. And though I slept for most of the day, without anything else to do I was ready for bed at 10pm. With the flashes of lightning on the horizon we prepared for a rainy night.

Day 2
It did rain overnight, while not heavy it meant we had to close the hatches which increased the heat of the rooms below deck. I woke early, not surprisingly, and just hung out in the galley until breakfast was served. After breakfast I went on the deck and enjoyed the breeze on the overcast day. Along one side we could make out the mainland as the San Blas islands came into view.

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The smaller San Blas islands reminded me of the islands of the Pacific – beautiful golden beaches, palm trees and not much else, all surrounded by reefs that keep out the heavy seas. We were ferried across to one of the islands, known as Turtle Island because sea turtles are known to lay eggs here in September.

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The day was spent hanging out in hammocks on the beach, swimming, eating and drinking. What else is there to do on a virtually deserted island in the Caribbean sea?

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In the evening, we cooked beef skewers over an open fire as we continued to take in the surroundings. After dinner, the weather turned against us and it began to rain. After the first shower, several of us headed back to the yacht. We’d only just made it when the clouds opened and it poured, drenching those still on the island.

Day 3
In the morning, the captain went to pick up the three passengers that had chosen to stay on the island for the night. While there was a hut where the locals lived, it was not the best in rain, so the three slept little as they shivered in the cold and wet.

After breakfast, we set sail for the next group of islands. While we were told it was only 45 minutes away, it took us nearly 2 and a half hours to get there in the heavy cross winds. When we arrived, most of us couldn’t wait to get over the side and into the clear warm water.
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Then after lunch, we were dropped off at one of the islands and left to our own devices. While it had been gorgeous weather when we’d arrived, it turned sour after an hour or so, so we headed back to the boat where we hung out for the afternoon swimming between showers.

While we were on the island, the captain had brought a bucket of Lobsters to the boat that was to be our dinner. This was to be our only taste of seafood on the trip.

Day 4
In the morning we sailed for another set of islands. These islands were actually only 45 minutes from where we had anchored the previous day. We were ferried to one of the larger islands and hung out on the beach drinking beer in the sun while a bronzed blonde girl kite-surfed back and forth along the beach.

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After midday we were ferried back to the boat for lunch before many of us swum out to a small desert island not far from the boat. I made it to the island without issue, but because of an old sports injury, on the return trip my shoulder locked up and I had to be collected by the crew. A little embarrassing, but you get that.

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In the afternoon the captain changed his plan and instead of sailing overnight for Portobelo harbour, our end point, we set sail at 3pm instead. Most of us slept through the rocky 8-hour journey as it was difficult to sit on deck. We were woken for an early dinner, then it was back to sleep again until morning.

Day 5
We woke on our last day to the dirty brown waters of Portobelo harbour and waited while the captain took our passports to immigration.

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Panama has recently passed a law requiring travellers to show proof of onward travel out of Panama or suffer a US$105 tax. Onward travel must be in the form of airline tickets. This has resulted in most travellers creating false flight tickets to avoid this absurd tax. While the rest of my boat mates had copies of real or fake tickets, I did not. As it turns out it didn’t matter and we finally got to land without any further fees.

A Not So Good Cruise
While I’ve painted a fairly positive picture of this cruise, it wasn’t all happy travels. Beyond the rough seas, rainy afternoons and the chap who was sea sick for the entire 5 days – none of which could be helped – the cruise was particularly badly organised. The Owner didn’t come with us on this cruise, so the two Panamanian crew had free rein. The captain spoke english well but the chef did not. Briefings were non-existent, so for the most part we had no idea what we were doing each day unless we pestered the captain, who gave us information that changed regularly. Sure, trying to estimate travel times when winds go against you is hit and miss, but the different between 45 minutes and 2.5 hours is vast even for an experienced captain in the region. Then dumping us on an island and disappearing while the locals on the island hound us for the US$2 per person entry fee is poor form.

The cruise was not cheap, but having hot dogs for meals 4 times was not acceptable. In fact, beyond the BBQ Crayfish and the beef skewers on the beach (which we made ourselves), most of the meals were sub par, including stale breakfast cereals, stale bread and potato slush.

Overall, the trip was an experience and while the location was great with the beautiful islands, pristine beaches and seas, the cruise itself was a great let down.

Next I explore Panama City…

The World Wanderer