I've been somewhat intrigued with Panama for several years now, without knowing why or where this interest originated. It's strange, but Panama seems to get a bit overlooked in the travel circuit (or maybe that's not true, it's just that I haven't heard much about traveling there). But having now visited almost every country in Central America (El Salvador - you're the last one standing!), I'm so glad that we saved what I now think of as the best for last.
Two places in particular pop up when you start to research Panama; Bocas del Toro and Boquete. We wanted to plan a trip that included a few more unexplored places, and after an over night in Casco Viejo (a revitalized neighborhood on the outskirts of Panama City that perfect for an overnight stay before or after a flight) we bussed it up to Santa Fe, a small mountain town in the middle of a cloud forest.
When I was a kid, I was very passionate about the rain forest (I mean, who wasn't)? So I started a "save the rain forest fund" which over the course of its short tenure raised a total $5 from my grandparents who may have thought my industrious nature made up for my unique fashion sense and need of braces at age 10. Long after they forgot about that $5 and I forgot about my mission to save the rain forest, I worried - what would I do with that money? I couldn't spend it. That would be so wrong. So it's still sitting in a white folder with handwriting that reads "for the rain forest" at my parents house. I checked two years ago, still there. Spencer wasn't surprised by this at all, he was equally passionate about the beautiful and essential landscapes that we learned about in school. Spending time in Santa Fe was exactly as I imagined the rain forest to be - cloudy, rainy, green, alive, dense, with an areque (rainbow) every single day. It was perfect, and beautiful, slow, and quiet.
For a town as small as Santa Fe, we found ourselves lost a lot. Upon leaving the bus station we walked up a road to our hotel with our matching backpacks (ha! not cute) until it ended (not at our hotel). A sweet lady pulled over and gave us a ride 600 meters in the correct direction. After dinner at this amazing Cambodian restaurant (what??) we got lost again, walking home was a challenge in a town with zero street lights and limited patience. After walking down the road, past the gate to our hotel numerous times I was planning how to most comfortably sleep in the street, and found a nice, grassy driveway, then looked up and noticed the sign to our hotel. Life was wonderful again. Our next few days in SF involved a lot of walking on trails and enjoying the scenery. Next, we moved on to infamous expat retirement spot/coffee planation mecca: Boquete.
Boquete was...visually charming, for sure. But we didn't plan this one right. There are a million different excursions, hot springs, waterfalls, and hikes advertised around town - each requiring a tour and an investment. We were stingy and bitter about the fact that we couldn't walk out our door and up a trail (or maybe we could? but we couldn't figure that out) so we did a big loop walk from Boquete to another village and around to town again. The town itself had a surprisingly industrial feel and the restaurants were mostly silly interpretations of what expats might like. No, I didn't love it. But like I said, we would do it differently next time (rent a car and stay outside of town) and I think Boquete would have a much different feel in that circumstance. From Boquete we moved on to Bocas del Toro.
Spencer kept saying "we're going to Boca," unintentionally like an old Jewish lady, and indeed, we did end up on a beautiful beach. Bocas del Toro was completely not as I expected. This place does get a lot of attention so I assumed it would be a bit built up and potentially over crowded. Nope. Not at all. It's perfect. By far my favorite spot in Central America. You have to take an old water taxi everywhere, and there isn't a big infrastructure of tourism. You want to do something, you go to the bar of whatever hostal you're at and ask the bartender to call his friend to set something up. That's how we ended up on the coolest adventure of our trip. The bat cave!
10 years ago, our guide found this cave. He and his friends explored it for two weeks, and then officially decided it was too cool not to share with other people. So he picks you up in a boat, takes you through 45 minutes of dense mangroves where you'll see sloths in the trees and caiman in the water, and when that opens up, you exit the boat and start walking through the jungle until you see the entrance of this incredible cave.
For three hours we walked, crawled, and swam over two miles through this insane cave. And it was no lie, there were bats. A lot of them. There were also spiders and who knows what else crawling around, but so what? It was awesome. A total adventure - scary, creepy, exciting, and beautiful.
Snorkeling near Isla Zapatillas, we saw dolphins from our boat, and many other colorful creatures beneath the water (well, Spencer did at least, I mostly floated since my snorkel and mask didn't work, but it was very relaxing).
We got to see Panama. Some of it, not all of it. There is so much more. But this glimpse was enough to want to return right away. Any takers?