Coming to Panama from Costa Rica, I was initially struck by how much more run down it is. Isla Colon, the gateway to Bocas del Toro, at first glance, feels like a place you want to leave, but give it a few days and it grows on you.
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Where I’ve Been
Currency = Balbao, however the US dollar is widely used.
Very good. Especially if you’re from the US or Western Europe you’ll notice how much more run down this area is than what you’re used to. There are stray dogs everywhere. Some areas feel just shy of unsafe, others feel upscale, and others feel tropical. You may even meet some Jehova’s Witnesses that will try to convert you. For self-discovery I found that the shift I encountered from my initial judgments about Isla Colon (from run-down beach town I wanted to escape, to curious town where it’s easy to meet people and has so many interesting areas) helped me begin to question my own internal and external judgments. Plus, allowing yourself some time on beaches with nothing to do other than admire the scenery and walk around does wonders for inspiring reflection.
Very Good. In Isla Colon I stayed a few blocks off the main area – that main area seemed very safe (police patrol and lots of people) but it’s very noisy due to all the restaurants and bars/clubs. Because the streets leading away from the center were quiet, I thought they were unsafe. However, my hotel managers told me it was very safe, and, as it turned out, they were right! Streets are well lit, and I didn’t encounter any problems.
Authentic. This place doesn’t have any pretenses. They do want to encourage tourism – in fact, fresh off my boat ride, a guy named Nino said he’s help me get a cab, and was true to his word. He first gave me lots of information about the town and tried to have me sign up for one of his tours. So there’s a mix of feeling like people are helpful and feeling like their helpfuless is done in hopes of financial gain. Other than this, though the actual center of Isla Colon is pretty touristy, if you get away from it, you get to experience things that feel really authentic.
Buses. Curiously, though Panama is poorer than Costa Rica, their roads are infinitely better. Taking a bus to anywhere you want to go is the way to travel. I used the Caribe Shuttle but if you want to go to someplace like Boquete, there are local buses you can get from Isla Colon. There are also flights if you want to go to Panama City. Definitely sign up for the STEP program to know which areas are not safe. Though I didn’t encounter any issues, there are definitely areas of Panama that are reputed to be dangerous.
It’s inexpensive! Compared to Costa Rica, Panama was like winning the lottery in terms of how far money goes. The only exceptions are if you need something like sunblock, or, as I found out, needing to buy a top I could swim in that would also sheild me from the sun. Most food is affordable on a budget, unless you splurge at one of the better restaurants. There are many, many hostels and budget hotels in the area, and laundry washing was about $3 for a huge bag.
Depends. If you stay in luxury accomodations and eat at finer restaurants, expect to tip somewhere around 10%. The taxi I took from the center of Isla Colon to my hotel cost $1. I was so shocked, I could not handle giving the driver less than $2. The driver seemed equally shocked that I would give him such a good tip. I learned that taxis don’t expect a tip. Restaurants do expect tips in the area of 10% of your bill.
Very Good. The toilets were all western and clean. Sometimes I’d use a facility on an island and it was perhaps less desirable, but overall the bathrooms were good.
Insects, Rodents and Reptiles
Moderate. Mosquitoes did come out at night, but I didn’t encounter any rodents or reptiles.
Passport, Visa and Entry/Exit Rules
Kind of Crazy but it Works. It’s always a good idea to check the US government website (or your country’s local government if not the US) for in-depth information as well as the Panama’s embassy website. I crossed the border by bus from Costa Rica. I had to buy an exit ticket, show my passport, walk across a bridge with my luggage, show my passport again, smile (because when I asked how much it cost to enter Panama the immigration officer told me it cost a smile) get a stamp, done. So, no visa required! If you come direct from the US you may have to show proof that you have enough money to pay your way, especially if staying for a while.
Health, Water, etc.
Moderate. Apparently it is safe to drink the water in certain areas of Panama. However, the Bocas del Toro area is not one of them. That being said I did have drinks with ice in them (smoothies) and was ok. Check the CDC website for recommended vaccinations. I received the Hep A, Hep B, Typhoid vaccinations.
Warm all year. Depending where you are there may be a sunny and rainy season. Temperatures remain near the 80s all year round.
Essentials to Pack
A bathing suit, sunblock, and mosquito repellant are basic necessities. Sunglasses will go a long way.
How to Make Friends
I went to the Tequila Bar in the center of town every night. It was way more mellow than some of the other places, and I ended up getting friendly with some of the locals there and the main cook. It was 6-months old when I was there, wonderful place! Generally speaking, because Isla Colon is so small you’re likely to keep running in to the same people every day and they can be very friendly!
What to Do and See
Playa Estrella (Starfish Beach) is amazing. I’ve never seen starfish “in the wild” and there are so many! Definitely take a few boat trips and see the nearby islands like Zapatilla and Red Frog Island (yup they’re there but hard to find.) If you go to the Tequila Bar eat a burger, and if you get friendly with the cook, he’ll make you something awesome not on the menu. (Or, it might be on their menu by now, but, yum!)
Where to Stay
Hotel CalaLuna – A few blocks off the main drag which means a much more peaceful sleep! The owners, from Italy, are lovely and helpful. Rooms are spacious and even have a nightstand! Bathroom was ample with a nice hot shower!