Before leaving Costa Rica, we stopped at a private Mirador (Viewpoint). The Mirador is run by a National Park Ranger and has two short but steep trails to a viewpoint. From there you have a beautiful view of the coast and with good weather we were told you can even see mount Chirripo. What we also saw on the hike were many green and black frogs, nearly completing our animals to see in Costa Rica list! The only ones we didn’t see were Quetzals, the elusive national bird of Guatemala we’ve been on the lookout for since months.
We entered Panama from the small border crossing on the Caribbean coast. We picked this partly to give us the chance to visit Puerto Viejo in Costa Rica, but mostly because it is supposed to be much easier and cheaper with a dog. We have read and heard from folks that crossed through the Pacific border that they were required to pay an additional $100 “home quarantine” fee for each dog, where the Caribbean side doesn’t. We had time to kill before shipping the Landy, so the detour was well worth it to us. We had a slow exit from Costa Rica – it took nearly an hour to get the exit stamp, then a police officer didn’t understand what a canceled TIP document looked like and wouldn’t let us pass until the boss from the Aduana (customs office) came out and told him to let us through. Panama side was the normal Central American chaos, but everyone was nice and we had all stamps and documents in hand in just over an hour.
Most people come this direction in order to visit Bocas del Toro, a group of islands just off the coast of Panama. We considered going, but decided against because we’ve already had lovely Caribbean island experiences (Caye Caulker, Utila) with another to come (San Blas Islands), so the hassle of the ferry hardly seemed worth it. Instead, we drove back towards the Pacific side and up into the mountains. There were plenty of beautiful views along the way, including a giant hydroelectric dam and the reservoir behind it.
We spent 4 nights in Boquete, which is a very pleasant mountain town. It is a popular spot for Americans to retire and we could see why. The climate was pleasant – warm but not too hot during the day, and cool but not cold at night – and the surrounding mountains were green and lush. There is also bit of hiking in the mountains above town. We did two of these hikes. The Hidden Waterfalls hike has a relatively well maintained trail heading to two spectacular waterfalls, then a muddy path that leads to a third. Little dog legs and rainy season don’t mix well with the mud, so we turned around after number two. Then a bit higher is the Trail of the Quetzals. We were able to sleep at the ranger station above town for free and walked a portion of the trail. It had rained a bit in the morning and we knew it would probably pick up again, so we turned around after 2 miles and got back to the Landy just in time to avoid a downpour. We sadly didn’t see any Quetzals, which was our last chance in Central America. On our way back into town, we happened to pass a honey farm and popped in to see what they had. We did a honey tasting, with 15 natural honeys and 10 infused honeys. The natural flavors just come from the variety of flowers the bees visit and some were really unique, like the honey from coffee plants. We walked out with just two jars, though we would have liked to buy 10.
After Boquete we headed back towards the coast which we regretted immediately. Higher temperatures and humidity make it hard to sleep at night or do anything during the day. We thought we should check out some beach camping in Panama and made our way towards Las Lajas. We were making great time on the well maintained freeways which is welcome break from the potholed roads of Costa Rica! Then on the Panamerican freeway heading south, we suddenly came to a total stop. There was a protest in the town ahead and traffic was backed up for miles. This is just a way of life in Latin America – you make your concerns heard through road blocks, and everyone just turns off their engines and waits patiently. We were only delayed about an hour and made it to the beach with plenty of time to melt in the sun.
Next stop was Santa Catalina, further down the coast and gateway to Coiba National Park. On the way we stopped at the Salto Las Palmas waterfalls – free and you can drive right to them! We were still reeling from the budget shock of Costa Rica, so we are flocking to free waterfalls and activities like college kids flock to free pizza. In Santa Catalina, it was once again hot and humid, so we booked a dive tour – best way to beat the heat is on and under water! The dive shop took care of Mitzi for us during the full day adventure to Coiba National Park. The whole day was spectacular. First, the boat ride took as past beautiful undeveloped coastline and we saw humpback whales and dolphins! Then the diving itself we saw a huge variety of marine life: Giant oceanic Manta Ray, turtles, huge schools of fish, seahorses, and reef sharks. The surface intervals were spent on beautiful white sand beaches. It was a perfect day of diving!
Santa Catalina was beautiful, but without another dive day it was too hot for us. Back to the mountains we go! We went to Laguna Yeguada to find cooler temperatures and hopefully some hiking trails We found heavy rain and one short hiking trail, but we also made a new friend. A local police officer and part of Panama’s Nature Police welcomed us and was very curious about our trip and Switzerland. We shared a lot about the climate and culture but he couldn’t believe people live somewhere so far from the ocean and beach! He was also curious about Swiss food, and we struggled to describe what the cheese is like. Even in English or German it would be tough for us to describe hard cheeses to someone that only knows Prepackaged Yellow slices, so in Spanish it was nearly impossible. The next day we left town and stopped in Natá de los Caballeros to see their very old church. It claims to be the oldest built after Spanish colonialists arrived. It is well maintained with a wood interior was unique to see.
Next stop on our journey was El Valle de Anton, also in the mountains but further east. The town has hiking trails, a lovely market, and some restaurants. At this point we knew we needed to start killing time before reaching Panama City, so we settled into a hotel camp with a pool for a few nights. Our shipping partner Alexis also happened to be in the town, so we were able to meet up with him. Our first full day we hiked to La India Dormida above El Valle. Round trip from the car was a bit over 10km with not too much climbing, but it did involve some really steep rock sections that Mitzi was too tired to scramble down. The next couple days in El Valle were quiet, other than a parade through town for the Festival of the Golden Frog. We still aren’t sure what the festival is really about but the local schools put on a good show!
Two nights were spent at another hotel with a pool, down near the coast this time. We were able to meet some other travelers we haven’t seen since Mexico – Roque and Sharon (their blog is at bootsandcoffee.com) Panama is the end of their Panamerican journey as they are planning to live down here.
After two nights we were ready to make our way into Panama City, with a few stops on the way. First we went to Los Cajones de Chame, a beautiful river canyon. We all went for a quick swim, including Mitzi. You know it is hot out when she comes into water voluntarily! Then we took a scenic drive by Altos De Campana National Park, did some laundry at a truck stop, washed the car, and hit the freeway to Panama City! It was Thursday evening so we expected all traffic to be leaving the city, and none entering. Which it was – except all lanes during rush hour were used for exiting cars, and there was no way into the city until around 9pm. There are two main bridges over the Panama Canal near Panama City, one of which is very close to our intended camp site. This was unfortunately the stretch of highway most effected by rush hour… so we ended up having to turn around, head back to the truck stop and spend the night there. After a less than wonderful night, we finally made it across the Canal and into Panama City – more on that to come!