A Backpacker's Introduction to Panama
Central America in general is one of the world's best kept secrets when it comes to travel. To be perfectly honest, I did not intend on traveling to Panama on my trip - after spending a month in Costa Rica, I had planned on heading to Nicaragua. While I am sure Nicaragua too would have been amazing, I am so glad that a last minute whim took me to Panama instead. The country has a lot to offer travelers both culturally and visually, complete with diverse landscapes, excellent food, and cheap drinks. There really is something for everyone in this amazing country.
The Lost and Found Hostel
This hostel is a must-visit spot for backpackers, keeping in mind that getting there is part of the adventure. Easily the best way to get there is by bus from David, unless you happen to be traveling with someone who knows the area. The hostel is neither marked on the road nor is it an actual bus stop - make sure to tell the bus driver when you get on the bus that you need to stop at the Lost and Found Hostel. Don't be alarmed when the driver stops at a seemingly random spot along the highway - that's where you are supposed to be. There will be a sign pointing you towards the path, and it's about a twenty minute hike up the mountain and through the woods on sporadically uneven paths. Just when you are sweating from the heat and cursing your decision to cart your belongings with you on your back like a turtle, you'll finally arrive at the hostel, and the spectacular view of the Panamanian Cloud Forest will take your breath away, and you'll see the Lost and Found Hostel nestled on the side of the mountain.
This hostel truly has everything to offer to its visitors. Due to its isolation and complete lack of proximity to a grocery store (or anything at all, really - make sure to prepare accordingly), the hostel offers a selection of groceries and a kitchen for the guests' use, as well as providing the option for a delicious cooked meal at dinner time at a reasonable price. The hostel also offers decently priced and incredibly diverse tours, maps for guests who are interested in hiking in the area, a treasure hunt, a bar with a well-stocked assemblage of games for visitors' use, and a movie loft, as well as playing host to some of Panama's resident wildlife, including a honey bear (or Kinkajou). As an added bonus, most guests tend to stay for a few nights, so it is very easy to become acquainted with fellow travelers at the Lost and Found.
One thing to note - because the hostel is located in the mountains, the temperature is a bit cooler than you'll find in the rest of Panama, so having a sweater and jacket in tow, especially for the evenings, is necessary.
Waterfalls in Panama
Waterfalls, no matter what country you happen to find yourself in, are always worth a visit. They're often hidden away from the more mainstream tourist sites because they often take a little bit of work to get there; however, the journey is half of the fun.
The Lost and Found Hostel offers excellent tips on how to find some waterfalls in the area. Finding them is a bit of a challenge - the maps are hand-drawn, which is definitely interesting - but you can often catch a ride from the hostel to the drop off point along the highway, where you'll get directions to find the waterfall.
Spend the afternoon at the falls with your friends - you'll likely have the entire place to yourselves. Bring some food, bring some drinks, and you will experience a gorgeous, relaxing, and secluded afternoon away from the blazing sun in one of the most scenic locations imagineable.
Organic Coffee Farms
A coffee tour is undoubtedly one of the highlights of traveling to Central and South America. Many of these farms are small, family owned operations that function with absolutely zero pesticide or machine use. The farmers work the land by hand and are extremely proud of everything they grow - from coffee to chocolate to sugar cane to pineapples and mangoes.Their enthusiasm and pride in what they do makes participating in one of these tours incredibly educational and inspiring, as well as very tasty, as most tours will include a lunch with the tour. Taste sugar cane squeezed straight from the stalk, roast your own coffee beans, and drink real hot chocolate made from locally grown cacao beans.
The Lost and Found Hostel offers a great tour in this respect. The owners know the farmer personally and maintain a great relationship with him. The tour is incredibly hands on and involves a lot of participation on the part of the visitors.
Bocas del Toro
For a taste of the Caribbean, Panamanian-style and at a relatively cheap price, head to the province of Bocas del Toro. The mainland boasts an incredibly lush rain forest, but most visitors head to the islands - and for good reason. The province has a large array of islands just off the coast, in which renting a car is completely pointless and complicated. Once you are on the islands - usually starting with the main island, Isla Colon - everything is within walking distance, and the other islands are easily accessible by water taxi for roughly two dollars a ride (if you really don't want to walk, there are taxis on the main island for very reasonable prices).
Isla Colon is an excellent introduction to the islands of Bocas del Toro. Here, you'll find a good selection of hotels and hostels in any price range, amazing and diverse restaurant options (essentially all of which have incredible seafood options), and grocery stores, if you prefer to cook your own food. In addition, any tours that you might want to participate in are offered from Bocas Town, including SCUBA and snorkel tours and excursions to other islands.
Another island in Bocas del Toro that is well worth a visit is Isla Bastimentos, where Red Frog Beach is the destination of choice. The island is quieter and more relaxed than Isla Colon, containing several beautiful beaches, forests, and coves. The island is easily accessible by water taxi from Isla Colon, and getting to Red Frog Beach involves a brief jaunt along a path through the jungle, where if you're lucky, you might spot caimans or red poison dart frogs. The beach itself is stunning, complete with a bar, beautiful sand, and perfect blue Caribbean waters.
Panama City is where everyone wants to go when they think of Panama, largely due to the draw of the Panama Canal. The Canal is, of course, well worth a visit (and the prices reflect this popularity), but Panama City has a lot more to offer its visitors than this one attraction. The Old City is absolutely gorgeous, complete with beautiful architecture in various styles, including Spanish Colonial, and many excellent restaurants. The area is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and was originally envisioned as a walled city to protect its citizens from pirate attacks. Luna's Castle is a hostel that is ideally located in the Old Quarter - Casco Viejo - but make sure you print a map of the area with the address for the cab driver, because cab drivers in Panama often do not have GPS.
San Blas Islands
Panama's San Blas Islands are still nearly undiscovered by the tourism world, and anyone who has visited them hopes that they stay that way. This region of Panama is an archipelago consisting of about 375 tropical islands, the majority of which are uninhabited. The islands that are occupied are inhabited by the native Kuna people, who still live a very traditional lifestyle (with some modern exceptions, indoor plumbing not being one of them). Most accommodations are made of natural materials that are found on the islands. The islands' most common currency is coconuts, so be careful not to touch any without permission while you are visiting.
Organized tours are the arguably the best way to see the San Blas Islands. Tour companies often have agreements with the Kuna people, who will provide accommodations for tour groups and sometimes will provide meals, usually fresh seafood and coconut rice. In general, the islands are quite small - it is usually possible to walk the entire circumference of an island in under five minutes. You will be hard-pressed to fine more beautiful, natural beaches or water so clear anywhere in the world.
If you are feeling particularly adventurous, a tour of the San Blas Islands is a great way to travel to Colombia. There is no land bridge between Panama and Colombia, so if you are planning on traveling between the two countries, the options are either to sail or to fly. The price of both is about the same, but by sailing through San Blas to get to Colombia (which takes 3-5 days, depending on the tour), you get another great story to include in your adventure.
Of course, Panama has even more to offer to visitors than what has been discussed in this article. One guarantee is this - Panama is an amazing country, and no matter what travelers choose to do and see while they're there, they will not be disappointed.