I have a bad tendency to generalize countries that are geographically close together. Panama was no exception since I have also been to Guatemala & Costa Rica but I should have learned my lesson based on the fact that every country we visited in Africa was vastly different from the other. I had no real expectations of Panama though, we went towards the end of wedding season so I hadn’t taken more than a few minutes on Pinterest to do research. I was busy and planning this trip was put on the back burner. Luckily with the help of who I was traveling with and a few random hostel goers, we were able to piece some plans together after the first day. It was a quick 10 day trip to make it through an entire country. Two days was more than enough to spend in the city. No, we did not visit the canal, although we did see it from a hill, I felt that was sufficient enough.
We then took a 9 hour overnight bus ride to Bocas del Toro. 9 hours was indeed a bit rough but after a couple Balboa, I slept pretty well. The worst part is arriving at 7am, exhausted with no bed to sleep on until about noon. A nap was necessary. The town of Bocas is more of a party city, a place that is fine for one night but I wasn’t keen on partying for more than one night with a slew of college kids (does that make me old?).
Regardless, Bambuda lodge was recommended to us while we were there; it is located on Isla Solarte, with nothing else near it the only way to get there was via boat. This lodge offered delicious food with an amazing pool overlooking the water. Despite being eaten alive by sand flies, it was downright lovely in every way.
After a couple days at the lodge we made our way to Palmar tent lodge which was a 10 minute walk from the drop off dock near Red Frog Beach. Roller suitcase not recommended! Every hostel we stayed at was very different from the last, this one likely being the most unique with the use of tents, rain water for running water, & solar power. The beautiful beaches were quite amazing and with hot enough weather for me to actually want to get in, a rare occurrence. The rain was amazing to fall asleep to, the way it hit the tent above my head was soothing, I think I actually have an app based on the sounds I experienced there. Although I could have done without waking up next to a crab above my face on the mosquito net after a rainy night.
We took a 3.5 hour shuttle to Boquete to stay for only 1 day. We didn’t have any intentions of hiking but it was raining non-stop there so that would have likely prevented us from doing so anyway. The volcano is said to be quite the trek but also worth a visit. The highlands had a vastly different feel to them, from the culture to the weather (much cooler). The showers at the hostel were even heated! We walked around the entire city taking the opportunity to eat when it was rainy, played an hour of pathetic pool, & had a few beers at the Boquete Brewery before heading to David. David was just a 1 hour & $1.75 ticket away, the closest thing to a chicken bus as I have ever been on. Then… another 8 hour, overnight bus ride back to Panama City before we had a morning flight back to the states. That one was a bit rough but not too terrible as I ended up sleeping the entirety of both flights back.
With exception to the constant moving from city to city every few days I felt that the trip was overall low pressure and easy. We followed the path that most backpackers took and never felt obligated to over plan or cram too many things into one day. It certainly helps that it was mid-season and not overrun with people. Overall, Panama was moderately priced, very accepting of Americans (maybe too accepting?), a bit touristy, and easy to travel. There are many expats there, which I can understand but it definitely takes away from the authentic culture & experience of Panama. I do appreciate the wide variety of climates and culture that Panama has to offer. If I find myself back there again I would like to pursue the less beaten path of Panama.
My Top Recommendations for Panama :
Red Frog Beach – A beach I never saw overrun with people and one of the most beautiful that I have experienced in this world.
San Blas Islands – Personal favorite spot of Panama. Palm trees, blue water, and seemingly an escape from reality back home.
Bambuda Lodge – It certainly has a young/hostel vibe but the landscape and exclusivity of it is makes it worth staying at. We spent days just lounging by the pool here.
Bocas del Toro
Red Frog Beach