9 day family travel in Panama

A quick flight from Colombia and we arrived for our 9 day family travel in Panama.  We arrived without much of a plan and actually booked our accommodation for the remainder of the trip in Panama city.

Surprisingly when we mentioned Panama was on the travel list, we got lots of shrugs and comments of ‘I’d skip that one’. We only have time for a short visit, but it had me intrigued! Was it that bad!?! 

Our first difficulty was trying to pinpoint the areas to visit. There’s not a huge amount of information other than the Panama canal and Bocas del Toro! As I dug deeper I found names like Anton Valley, Boquete, Playa Venao, Playa Santa Clara, Santa Catalina. 

Generally, I found the country to have lots of Americans, especially retirees – think Spain for Brits. I guess it’s the fallout of the Panama canal. But it was very easy going and geared towards the American market.

As a fallout from this lots of people speak English here, which was a welcome rest from the very poor Spanish I was attempting in Colombia!

 

9 day itinerary in Panama

With only 9 full days in Panama we decided on the following itinerary:

  • 3 nights – Panama city
  • 3 nights Boquete
  • 3 nights Bocas del Toro

It was a steady pace and allowed a full day travel across the country from Panama to David and onto Boquete with exploring & relaxing time in between. 

Getting to and from Panama

Although Panama is right next door to Colombia the land crossing is too treacherous and unsafe. Therefore the only option for us was to take a 5 day boat journey through the San blas Islands or fly! I opted to fly! Keith opted to take a boat… I won! 

If flying you need to show outward travel from Panama, however, we only had a flight out of Costa Rica with no bus booked yet. After a mini argument we were allowed to progress without booking anything.

Crossing to Costa Rica, on the other hand, has much easier land access. There are two border crossings: Sixaola or Paso Canoas. 

When we left Panama, we used Caribe shuttle service for $30pp to cross the border at Sixaola and take us to Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica. Very easy! There were no exit fees either (but there is if you were travelling from Panama to Costa Rica🤷🏻‍♀️).

 

Currency in Panama

I’m going to mention currency purely because Panama mainly uses USD. They have their own currency but ATM machines give you US dollars. It’s 1:1, but just worth noting. 

 

Getting around Panama

Aside from the main route between Panama city and David there isn’t much information about buses to other areas. I gathered from research to reach some beaches requires a change of 2 or 3 buses. This helped make our decision not to veer too far off the track! 

There are regular buses leaving to David, you don’t need to book online but arrive at least 1 hour before the bus is scheduled to leave to purchase your ticket. 

The buses all appeared to be double deckers, but ranger in terms of their quality. Unfortunately ours was a bit worn – not the most luxurious but perfectly fine. We were also unfortunate to get a flat tyre which took an 1 ½ hours to resolve! Let’s not get into the state of the on board toilet!! 🤢

We made it to David late at night and did a mad dash onto a local chicken bus to transfer straight up to Boquete. Easy enough, if a little late arriving!! 

Panama City

Places to stay in Panama city

Quite a few reviews mentioned booking a place in Casco viejo old town. But when I delved deeper into the reviews I wasn’t so keen on the idea. Where tourists are, opportunists are! 

Instead we booked a lovely hostel through hotels.com called Panama house bed & breakfast near the city centre. We had a slight hiccup and so spent 1 night in Baru lodge when our room wasn’t quite available. But the owner was very apologetic & it all worked out fine!

The hostel was slightly unusual with a resident parrot and a pool table, which the boys enjoyed.  It wasn’t far too walk to the metro, but actually we found walking was easy enough and also taxis were fairly cheap. It seemed to be in a nice area and I had no issues walking around in my own or with the kids.

Things to do in Panama city

Metropolitan natural park – based only a short distance outside the city we spent a few hours meandering around this small but quaint park. We’d read mixed reviews before we left and weren’t overly hopefully of finding much but we’re looking forward to stretching our legs.  

We saw only a handful of people while there, but more importantly we saw lots of wildlife – including my first sloth (actually first 3!!).  

We also saw a Jesus lizard, agouti and monkeys. We weren’t expecting that!  Our route lead us through some nice trails and eventually we got a nice view of the Panama canal and Panama city. A very worthwhile adventure and highly recommended. 

Just remember to walk slowly, it’s not a race and listen out for movements. 

Albrook Mall – after our visit to the nature park at walked down the road to Albrook mall! It was huge! We just wanted to pop in and grab some lunch and escape the heat. But wow, it went on for miles!! A shoppers paradise!

Casco viejo old town – not as amazing as Cartagena, but still an enjoyable place to wander around. There are a few coffee shops and souvenir shops.

We walked up to the Panama canal monument and around the side streets.

But it’s actually quite small and we have definitely been spoilt by Cartagena. Don’t expect to spend all day here, but it’s nice for a visit.

Walking around Panama city – we spent a morning just walking around the city. It wasn’t that exciting, there’s no real focal point so I wasn’t overly impressed!

If you fancy stretching your legs further, there’s a couple of nice long walks around the area, such as:

Cinta Costera 3 bridge – the Race for Life walk was taking place along this route. A great place for a stroll and view of Panama city.

Promenade walk – stretching from the old town to the CBD. Along the way you will find a few parks, gardens and monuments. 

Panama canal – everyone who mentions Panama also mentions Panama canal. They go hand in hand and obviously while here – you have to go. Or not in our case! To be honest, we were not that interested in watching boats travel through the canal, especially for $20 per person!

The fee is for a visit to see the Panama canal and also includes a museum visit. To be honest we ticked this off by watching a short video (suitable for the kids) about how the Panama canal was created. 

We also watched a boat (from Panama botanical gardens viewpoint) travelling through the hills. 

So, in my view – when in Panama, you don’t necessarily need to see the actual Panama canal. Maybe if you were on a cruise ship sipping a cocktail 🤔

Boquete

Boquete is situated on the other side of Panama, a mere 7 hour bus ride away. But as we were stuck for time and wanted to visit bocas del Toro we opted to push through and Anton Valley (it got mixed reviews anyway)

Unfortunately our bus had a few issues and we arrived a couple of hours later than expected. It was fine though and we managed to catch a ‘chicken’ (American school bus) up to Boquete from David before they stopped.

Places to stay in Boquete

We took a chance and booked a new listing on Airbnb in the area. It was a rush but it was also advertised as a nice 2 bed apartment, Casa Blanca, and for a good price.  It didn’t disappoint. The apartment was just outside the town and we were offered a good price as they were just opening and wanted to encourage people to stay.

In fact when we arrived the American owner and manager were there to greet us, show us around and had bought us essentials! We kept them informed of our late arrival and as it was a Sunday and things were closing they had bought us bread, milk, cheese, tomatoes, wine and beer!! I can’t rave about this place enough. We have not received such amazing service – just what we needed! 

To top it off the apartment was perfect – freshly decorated, comfortable and well equipped. The beds were comfortable, there were 2 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms! Just fabulous 🙌

 

Things to do in Boquete

We had planned more walking but our long day took it’s toll and we were feeling a little wiped out. So with such a nice apartment, we just had an indoor day with a little walk around the town!

The next day we went to the lost waterfalls. A nice, but sometimes steep explore into the Panama mountains.

There are 3 waterfalls to visit and one group we saw had a little swim. There description was ‘rather refreshing!’.  We didn’t see any wildlife but we did enjoy getting out to explore. 

 

We were going to grab the shuttle bus, but realised that a taxi was 8,000 whereas a shuttle was 3,000 each!  The driver agreed to come back and collect us 3 hours later (and he turned up!).

We enjoyed this area, and would have liked another day here (mainly because of the apartment!), but we had our Panama Travel shuttle booked and we were off to the beach!

Bocas Del Toro

We booked a shuttle for $30pp to take us direct from Boquete to bocas del Toro, including the ferry.  

There is a chicken bus and collectivo from David, which is cheaper but longer. After our last bus experience, we just wanted to get there. 

Places to stay in Bocas Del Toro

Things were a little pricier on the island and so we booked a room at Sun havens apartments and suites. It had a small kitchenette and ensure bathroom, but it was basic. The lady who runs the place was nice, but appeared somewhat harassed! 

Things to do in Bocas Del Toro

Soooo many tours you can do. But at $25 pp minimum we were in search of braves but at a cheaper price. And actually we found it!

Red frog beach – 

We booked a water taxi the day before for $6pp (we’d read that it was usually $8).  A lady joined us the next morning when we departed at 9.30am and we had our pick up planned at 1.30pm. I mean it’s only a beach with not much else around. Bring a picnic as there’s a few bars, but no shops.

We had a quick 20 minute, smooth ride over to Bastimenos island where we were dropped off.

 

 

You have to pay $5pp at the hut to enter the beach.  

And if you ask the guy nicely he’ll point out red frogs to you as they can be hard to spot. They are tiny!!! But we saw a few 🙌

The beach was beautiful, quiet with white sand and rolling waves – the kids dove straight in.  There is another beach further round the headland to the right, but the kids were happy so Keith went off for a walk.

Starfish beach – Another day, another beach! There’s really not much else to do here! This one is accessible by bus from the main place, see the attached timetable.

It only took 45 minutes, cost $2.50 o/w & we were dropped off at Bocas del Drago. From here you need to walk 20 minutes along the coastline to reach Starfish beach. You can get a $1 taxi if you prefer.

For the more energetic amongst you it is possible to hire a bike and cycle the 1-2 hr route.

To be honest, when we arrived we were  a bit of a disappointed. What little beach we saw was filled with shacks and restaurants. It was a bit overdone. But we did find a quieter area towards the end of the beach and lay out our sarong.

The reality of starfish beach aren’t quite the same as the picture postcard. It’s nice enough and we were able to find starfish, but mostly in the deeper areas.  If anything it was cheap and good for a play in the sea while in Bocas del Toro. 

Toms place – I just had to mention Tom’s place. Our room wasn’t available when we first arrived so she suggested we go for a drink and food at times place! It was packed with locals and travellers and the prices were very reasonable.  The boys had something to eat and it was tasty too. 

 

Conclusion

Panama ain’t so bad! Ok, it doesn’t have the high profile of its neighbours – I think the today board need to up their game here!  Much reliance and attraction has been geared towards the Panama canal. But if you aren’t sitting on a luxury cruise ship sipping a cocktail I really don’t see the appeal of seeing it up close! We heard the stories we briefly see a ship passing on the distance above the houses – tick!

Panama city was a city like any other, but we did enjoy the botanical gardens walk. 

We also really enjoyed the area of Boquete. It was easy to access and felt a bit like a ski village. It was a local town with a warm feel and some nice walks around the area.

And I’m so glad we changed our route to enjoy Bocas Del Toro and the islands. It’s a very laid back and nice area! The tour’s were a tad expensive, but actually the taxi hops to red frog beach and starfish beach weren’t too bad.

I’d definitely visit Panama, and would be interested to see more of the Pacific side (when the weather improved).

 

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