Panama - David, Santa Catalina, Panama City

Trip Start Jan 03, 2013
Trip End Jul 21, 2013

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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

We caught the morning bus from Puerto Viejo headed for the border. On the bus, we met a young Swedish guy called Alben who reminded us very much of Willy, the Austrian we met in Nicaragua. Alben had decided to skip Bocas del Torro due to the weather forecast of rain all week. After discussing our plans, we decided to do the same, and head straight for the pacific where sun and waves were waiting. The border crossing was simple, although we had a precarious walk across a bridge filled in with planks, covering some dodgy holes. We caught an expensive mini van taxi to Almirante, where we needed to catch the bus to Panama's second city, David. We jumped on a mini bus for the 4 hour journey to David at lunchtime and soon realised that Panama was one hour ahead of Costa Rica. We were joined on the bus by Alben, two Spanish guys, and a really nice Canadian guy called Carman. Despite some high speed driving, the journey was beautiful as we climbed high into the central Panama mountains and cloud, passing waterfalls and rainforest. As we were approaching the top, we could see the blue sky ahead of us and within minutes the sun was shining. We were all pleased to see blue sky having not seen it for over 10 days!

We arrived in David early evening, and despite being tempted to continue our journey towards Santa Catalina, we decided to stay a night and went searching for a hostel with Alben. After 30 minutes lugging our bags, we found a hostel called Purple house. They only had dorm rooms but we took it anyway as it was only one night and we had had enough of walking. We ate at a local cafe that night with Alben and enjoyed some cheap beers at the hostel. We had arranged to share a taxi to the bus station with a German couple early the next morning. They were also headed to Santa Catalina

After a restless night in the dorm, we caught a taxi to David's bus terminal with the German couple, Benny and Issy. We were there earlier than originally planned and caught a big double decker bus. Although this looked like luxury it was a very unpleasant 3 hour journey as the air conditioning was on overload! We were all freezing in our shorts and t-shirts. Alexa even got the foil emergency blanket out to try and keep warm. Thankfully we arrived in Santiago and warmed up quickly in the sunshine. We met Carman at the bus terminal and the 5 of us got the bus to Sona. In Sona, we decided to get a taxi to Santa Catalina (it was $3 more and meant we would get there before the bus had even left Sona).

We drove into Santa Catalina and immediately liked the feel of the place. The sun was shining and we were dropped off at the place where Benny and Issy had booked, right by the beautiful big surf beach. Ourselves and Carmen wandered around trying to find somewhere to stay and we checked in to the hostel next door. It wasn't ideal but was close to the beach and at least we had somewhere to stay for that night.

As we thought we might stay here for at least 4 more days, we decided to walk to see if there were any better options available. After asking a few places that were out of our price range, we stumbled upon a place that was perfect. For $24 a night we got out own apartment (with kitchen and bathroom) - amazing! We promised we would be back in the morning and walked into the town to check it out. It had a nice chilled village feel to it. We headed the 1km back to the beach and Sean enjoyed a surf on the small waves whilst Alexa had a dip then chilled on the beach. It gets dark that much later here because of the time difference so we were on the beach till 6ish.

Early the next day, we moved to our new accommodation at Donde Viankas. It was perfect and even better than we remembered, all for a bargain price. Sean rushed out for a surf at the point, famously one of the best/longest right hand point breaks in Central America. Alexa went off with Carman to buy some more supplies to make the most of our kitchen while we have one. The food was surprisingly cheap and Alexa stocked up. Afterwards she made her way down to the point to watch the surfers and try to spot Sean. Despite being crowded, he enjoyed some great waves including 2 of the best rides so far on the trip.

We headed back and went to the beach with Carmen for some late afternoon sun and waves. The waves were small and fun and Sean was tired from the morning so helped Carman on his learner board passing on a few tips.

We enjoyed a few beers on the balcony as it was getting dark. We headed out to dinner at a local pizzeria and met a group of Germans (Guan and Nadine), Austrian (Sabrina) and American who we had dinner with. It was a really fun evening and the pizza was delicious.

We decided to sacrifice other places in Panama and stay in Santa Catalina. We had been on the move for over 2 months and felt like staying put. This place seemed ideal - great waves, beaches and weather.

The next 5 days followed a very similar pattern: cooking our own breakfast and lunch with Carman using the delicious fresh fruit and veg available, chilling on the beach in the sunshine, drinking smoothies, Sean having at least one surf and spending the evenings at lovely restaurants with people we had met followed by drinks on our balcony. We loved it and felt very at home in this friendly Panamanian coastal village.

One hot afternoon but we decided to hire a foam surf board for Alexa to try again! Sean obviously was a better instructor than the guy in El Salvador as Alexa managed to stand up a few times! Success, although a bruised knee, salty eyes, and ear ache may mean Alexa is not cut out for surfing.

Another day, we took a snorkelling trip to Coiba National Park. You can dive here but after much discussion, we decided to snorkel as it was half the price and many people have said the snorkelling was amazing.

It was a 1.5 hour boat ride to Isla Coiba but it was a smooth ride with the sun shining. We spotted quite a few pods of dolphins, some just by the boat, rays jumping out the water and lots of flying fish. We went past beautiful secluded beaches on the Panama mainland before pulling into the islands. They are protected and a UNESCO world natural site.

The lush green islands with white sand beaches and turquoise seas were stunning and it looked like paradise. We couldn't wait to get in the water. We stopped at a small island first and went in the sea with the snorkels. It was beautiful - we saw a turtle, white tipped reef shark as well as many big and colourful fish. After the brilliant start, the next snorkel site was a little disappointing as there was a strong current meaning there was less fish which were deeper so we couldnt see them and the visibility wasn't that good. We didn't stay in the water that long so went to Ranchero island for a chill and some lunch. It was stunning, crystal clear waters and palm trees lining white sand. We had lunch and enjoyed a swim. We also saw massive footprints from the 5m crocodile which lived on the island. We went to the next snorkel site which was just off a tiny island. We were allowed to explore by ourselves so we went off. There were so many giant sea turtles and it was amazing swimming with them, as well as all the fish. We also saw another shark. We stayed there for a few hours before the journey back. It was a great day and saw probably the most beautiful beaches of our trip so far

On our last day in Santa Catalina, we took a walk down the beach, exploring a little further down the wild stretch of coastline. It reminded us of beaches in England, particularly Cornwall and Whitsand Bay where we got married. That evening, we ate at the hotel restaurant, enjoying some great cerviche, fish tacos and a few beers with Carman, Chris and Juliet (another German couple we met) We were also joined by Tabia (Swiss girl) who was staying at the hotel. She was also a surfer. It was a nice evening and good way to end a great week in where we all agreed was our favourite place so far. Tomorrow we were heading for Panama City, apparently the most cosmopolitan in central America.

We said goodbye to Santa Catalina and got the 8am bus to Sona with Carman and Sabrina. We all felt a little downbeat about leaving the place we had enjoyed so much over the past week. At Sona, we all caught the direct bus to Panama City. The 6 hour journey went quickly as we read and slept. Alexa finished a whole book in the time! We said goodbye to Sabrina at Allbrook bus terminal and got a taxi with Carman. Unfortunately the hostel we had been recommended were full, but we walked around the corner and found a decent hotel within budget. We enjoyed the Internet and some TV (we had been without for a week!) and went for a 'grill' dinner at a local restaurant. It was a mistake as we were given a variety of unknown grilled meat to eat. It wasn't good at all, but did the job before heading back to the hotel for our last night in Central America.

Our first stop in Panama City was Miraflores Locks, on the Panama Canal. We enjoyed a good view of the Pacific side locks, where all ships pass through and were lucky enough to see 2 huge cargo ships pass through. We learnt some interesting facts about the canal, its history, and how important it is for world trade. It takes 8 hours for a ship to get from the Pacific side to the Caribbean side of the canal. We enjoyed a 3D video, and also a self guided tour, before heading in a taxi to the Causeway. There we enjoyed good views of the Panama City skyline, which was littered with skyscrapers and office buildings. Later on we agreed that this part of the city reminded us of Dubai, maybe a little less polished! After walking part of the way back, we jumped in a cab to Casco Viejo, the old town of Panama, and a popular destination for tourists. It was impressive, with attractive architecture, and a nice atmosphere. Unfortunately there was lots of renovation work being done so we didn't get to see the area at its best.

After lunch at a locals cafe, we had a quick escort from a policeman to a pharmacy, which was located in the rougher part if town. We then jumped in a cab to Albrook Mall to kill some time and enjoy some air conditioning! We ended up buying some shoes and a pair of flip flops from a surf shop which was offering a 50% discount. Why not! Carman wasn't around when we got back to the hotel and we were a little worried until he arrived just before 5. We said our goodbyes to Carman, who we had spent every day with for the past 9 days! After a quick taxi to Albrook bus terminal, we finally found the correct bus for the airport and set off in good time. The traffic was bad as it was rush hour, which worried us a little, but we arrived at the airport in good time. We checked in, enjoyed a quick but pricy dinner, and boarded the flight to Cartagena, Columbia. Our stay in Central America was over, and we were looking forward to part 2 of our trip, in South America.

There is so much more to see in Panama but we felt so happy in Santa Catalina and didn't want to leave. It is a diverse country, less expensive than Costa Rica with just as much to offer, and the people are very hospitable. We will definitely come back at some point in the future, and explore more of the country.
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