Central/South America Whistle Stop Tour: Panama

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Our original itinerary included just two countries: Panama and Costa Rica. In this candid travelogue, we focus on all the things no one tells you about, but glosses over for reasons only known to themselves. We will also debunk a few myths and give you our bias-free recommendations.

Getting there

Our KLM flight to Panama City was comfortable and uneventful but we were happy to stretch our legs after 11 hours in the air.

Panama City Airport is one giant shopping mall and it’s quite easy to get lost in the labyrinthine halls. The queues – one through passport control where you get photographed and finger-printed US-style, and another through customs where they scan your luggage on arrival – are long.  Expect to spend an hour at the airport and do download Uber because you are going to need it on this trip.

Bocas del Toro

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Our first destination was Bocas del Toro, hyped as the next big thing on the Caribbean coast. Flights to Bocas are frequent but there are none after 4 pm, so first night was spent at Albrook Inn, just minutes from Albrook airport.

Panama City is hot and humid at this time of the year (early February), so we headed for the nearest mall to buy flip flops and grab a salad.

Do not expect salads, fresh fish or anything grilled in Panama unless you go to a dedicated high end restaurant. Our first meal in Panama City consisted of a couple of green leaves with defrosted prawns on top. All else on the menu was deep fried and primarily chicken.

Do buy a local adaptor as the world one does not work in Central America.

Our flight to Bocas was delayed and took an hour and a half.

Our first port of call there was Red Frog Beach Resort. We were met by the resort’s 4×4 and taken to Bocas Town (Isla Colon) where we had an hour or so to explore before the boat trip to Isla Bastimentos.

Isla Colon is a coulourful settlement of ramshackle buildings, most of them with vast, distinctive decks on the water.  You can have lunch there or a coconut from a street vendor, or just a fresh tropical fruit juice. Avoid Hotel Laguna’s cafe where we were charged, for reasons unknown, double the advertised price.

Isla Colon is somewhat reminiscent of those hastily put together towns of the Wild West where every street shop sells real estate or trips around the islands, or very basic grocery supplies, or local artisanal products.

It is paved, if only just and well littered (apparently, litter collection, like postal services there is quite unheard of).

The boat taxis are flimsy plastic jobs that hit the waves in an unnerving way but are the only mode of transportation around the archipelago unless, of course, you have your own yacht, and even then…

We were safely delivered at the Red Frog Beach marina (whose resident yachtsmen use the water taxis to shop in Isla Colon) and had our first taste of the real tropics.

Red Frog Beach Resort

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This is an impressive 11ha development offering the best and probably only jungle experience in both comfort and authenticity on Bocas del Toro.

Approaching it by boat, you will disembark on a pontoon leading to extensive mangrove and signs affirming its green credentials. Complimentary golf carts and jungle trucks take you wherever you want to go on the estate. The villas are vast, offering almost palatial space, private pools, huge decks surrounded by palm trees and thick luxuriant vegetation, and state of the art kitchens with top range facilities for longer stays.

There are several small beaches on Red Frog. Ours was right next to one of the restaurants – a beautiful cove backed by tropical forest. This is a bird watcher paradise and we could not even begin to identify all the different species we encountered.

The staff are multi-lingual, extremely friendly, and the resort eminently safe. Even the poisonous red frog which gave the resort its name is hardly ubiquitous (you can go on an island trip that would allow you to see the frogs from a safe distance).

Red Frog Beach is the best possible combination of rain forest and 5 star luxury creature comforts, and if you arrive from Europe in the middle of the winter, simply magical.

Highly recommended are the green coconuts, fresh off the trees, hacked with a machete and offered with a straw for a refreshing and nutrient packed drink.

We spent 2 blissful days there and were able to visit the nearby Bastimentos town on the other side of the island, reached by small boats you can hire at the reception.

Bastimentos Town

Basimentos is a car-free zone and a typical Central American village that’s finding it hard to come to terms with the influx of tourists in the sense that every other building offers lodging, but no garbage removal or, one suspects, great sanitation.

We didn’t know it the time but our best meal in the whole of the Bocas was at Bubba’s bar and the only fresh grilled (as opposed to deep fried) fish we had there.

“Up on the hill” is a much touted cafe cum natural products and ointments destination on Bastimentos. What no one tells you is that it requires a 30 min. treck across the jungle, through mud and haphazardly placed stone steps. Once there, pippa juice (coconut water) is not available, just overpriced chocolate and fruit juice, with the visitors looking like a throwback to the 60s, all braided hair, bare feet and sweaty Tshirts. In fact, old hippies and less than clean backpackers dominate the landscape of Bocas del Toro and Caribbean Costa Rica. More about this as we progressed across to Costa Rica itself.