Admittedly, 2 weeks ago I didn’t know much about Panama. I had heard great things about Panama City, knew of the Panama Canal, and that it is the southern most country in Central America. I had also read a piece about the Darien Gap, which definitely served to pique my interest in Panama further. But, I don’t know anyone who has traveled there and I wouldn’t have been able to tell you anything else substantial about the country or its desirable destinations. Now, having begun to delve into all that Panama has to offer in preparation for my SoleJourn, I can proudly say I know a little something about this nation and am really glad it’s on my route.
First, Panama, like Ecuador uses the U.S. Dollar as its official currency. It is referred to as the Balboa (Panama’s old currency), but is the same with the exception of a commonly used 50 cent piece. Costs are lower than they are in the U.S., but Panama joins Costa Rica and Belize as one of the more expensive countries in Central America. However, it appears as if Panama can still be considered a budget destination; Lonely Planet estimates you can scrape by on $20-$30 a day and can easily slide into a budget of $55-$65 a day. I don’t know yet how accurate those numbers will be for me, but with a budget of $50 a day, I think (hope) I’ll be able to make it work.
Once my budget concerns were addressed I started in on the fun part; where should I go? Since I will be crossing into Panama from Costa Rica, I started at the border and worked my way down. The places I discovered flew onto my must go list: Bocas Del Toro, Boquete via David, The Azuero Peninsula, Panama City. Now, I am excited to spend time in each and every one of these places, but there are two places that I am particularly curious about: The Darien and The San Blas Islands.
When I first heard about the Darien I did all types of research and found that there are actually only a few companies that will take you into the jungle and only to a few well established outposts. Other parts of this largely untouched wilderness are either too remote, or too dangerous due to guerilla and drug activity in the area. This of course did not stop me from wanting to see it, even if just the touristy parts. But, prices to visit seem very high and well out of my budget. Plus, I saw an episode of Locked Up Abroad that took place in the Darien. Normally I just watch this show and laugh at the stupid people who tape 10 kilos of cocaine to their bodies and then, obviously, get caught when trying to board an international flight. But the Darien episode didn’t involve drugs, just people who ventured into the wrong part of the jungle and got caught up in some craziness. In the Darien’s defense, those people went way off the beaten track and knew it was dangerous but did it anyway. So, I’m not saying it is off the list, but I will have to wait and see how things play out.
Then there are the San Blas Islands or Kuna Yala. This archipelago of around 400 islands off of the Eastern coast of Panama is the stuff of dreams! Seriously, when you imagine yourself swaying in a hammock, with warm breezes brushing over you, white sand beaches and blue/green/clear water, this is the place you were thinking of without even knowing it! And, not only is it perfectly beautiful, but it is also an extremely culturally rich place; the native Kuna people inhabit about 40 of these islands and a visit to at least one village seems to be a must here.
Lastly, once I started paying attention to the logistics surrounding Panama, I realized that an assumption I had been making this whole time was faulty. Planning to travel by bus as I progressed down the region, from Costa Rica to Panama and later from Panama to Colombia, I forgot that the existence of the Darien Gap means there is no land border crossing between Panama and Colombia. The only ways out are to fly or go via boat. I’ll probably fly, but this is obviously not ideal because a flight will be more expensive. Though, it would save me the few days that I had originally planned to spend in transit across Colombia.
So, off I go to dig deeper into what Panama has to offer. I will definitely share what I uncover!