Panama

April 3 – May 16, 2017.

After 3 months of beach hopping through Costa Rica, we moved on to Panama on Monday April 3, 2017. We didn’t know much about Panama besides the famous Panama Canal and the fact that it was going to be our last country in Central America which meant we had to prepare to ship Silver, our truck camper, across the infamous Darien Gap! 

Border crossing

We left from Punta Uva on the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica and drove about an hour (30km) south to cross the border between Sixaola, Costa Rica and Guabito, Panama. Leaving Costa Rica, we paid an exit tax of $8 USD per person, then we got our exit stamp in our passport and turned in our Vehicle Temporary Import Permit (TIP) to the Costa Rican Aduana (custom).

There is a 1 hour time difference as you cross the border, it’s 1 hour later in Panama.

We crossed over a small bridge, got our vehicle fumigate for $3, our passports stamped by the Panamanian Immigration allowing us to stay in the country for 180 days, our Vehicle Temporary Import Permit (TIP) however was only valid for 30 days. The lady doing the paperwork for our TIP was almost done when she noticed our bikes in the back of the camper, she wanted the serial numbers for each one! Since they were used beach cruisers we bought in Costa Rica, they didn’t have serial numbers. Joe told her 001 and 003 which were the numbers hand painted on the back fender by the rental shop where we bought them. That was good enough for her! We paid $25 for vehicle insurance for 1 month. We heard about a municipal tax but no one asked for it so we just left. The whole process took about 2 hours.

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While Aduana (customs) was doing our paperwork we had to wait outside at the window on the left!

7km down the road, we came to a police check point where the officer asked to see our papers but mostly he wanted to see our receipt for the municipal tax, which we didn’t have. We tried to talk our way out of it but he was adamant and made us turn around. We drove back to the border, found the little shack where we paid $10 for the vehicle and $4 per person, a total of $18 in municipal taxes!

Bocas del Toro (Mouths of the Bull)

Our first destination in Panama was Bocas del Toro, a popular island chain, off the Northern Caribbean Coast of Panama. We had to find a secure parking space for Silver. Thanks to the application iOverlander, we knew that we could leave our precious house on wheels at the Fire Station of a small town called Almirante, where we took a water taxi to the islands.

Isla Colon – Bocas Town

Our fist stop was on on the main island called Isla Colon where Bocas Town, the capital of the province of Bocas del Toro is located. It’s a central hub with many restaurants, shops, nightlife, beaches and where you can catch tour boats to the other 8 main islands of the Archipelago.

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From Almirante, where we left Silver, we took a water taxi to reach Bocas Town. It took about 40 minutes and cost $6 per person.

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Leaving Amirante we saw a lot of poverty, a stark contrast with the Islands.

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The Tourism office in Bocas Town is a good representation of the colorful Caribbean style clapboard houses, most of them are not as shiny and bright as this one!

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As in many small Caribbean Islands, hotels and restaurants are built on stilts over the water

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This was one of my favorite buildings in Bocas Town. Buena Vista Restaurant.

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While in Bocas Town we stayed at the Surfari B&B run by a very friendly and helpful Canadian couple.

Isla Bastimentos – Red Frog Beach

The second island we visited was Isla Bastimentos. When we were in Costa Rica we met a young couple just coming back from Bocas del Toro, they told us about this beautiful little resort called Palmar Beach Lodge where they had a wonderful stay, on a tranquil beach with crystal clear waters so we decided to go see for ourselves. The Lodge offers a free boat shuttle from Bocas Town.

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Once you reach the small dock on Bastimentos island there is a 15 minute walk through the rain forest to reach Palmar Beach Lodge, if you need help with your luggage, they’ll carry it in a wheel barrel.

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Big intersection!

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The bar/restaurant of the Palmar Beach Lodge was very welcoming!

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Outdoor space, right on the Beach!

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We opted for a Bungalow for a 2 night stay.

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Palmar Beach Lodge offers a range of accommodations, a popular option is the Safari Tent!

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Red Frog Beach! It gets it’s name from the tiny (less than an inch long) Red Frogs found only in this part of the world!

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I was looking for the frogs but could not find any so I asked one of the workers. We walked a little bit in the jungle and he found this one (more orange than red) hiding under a large leaf, apparently their numbers have decreased tremendously since the construction of a large development nearby. Very sad because this particular specie (Oophaga Pumilio or Strawberry Poison Dart Frog) is only found on this island.

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We walked about an hour from our Lodge to Polo Beach a secluded part of the island. The beach is named after it’s owner, Polo, who we met along the way. The story is that he sold the beach for 1 million dollars to a development company but he can stay there, in his little beach shack, until he dies. In the mean time he sells beer and lobster (if you’re lucky) to the few people who visit his beach.

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Polo Beach has a coral reef keeping the water calm and providing good snorkeling and awesome swimming…

When we got back to the Lodge, we could tell something horrible was going on, even though there was a good amount of people, it was very quiet… then we saw a young man lying on he beach. People were performing CPR on him trying to bring him back to life… after what seemed like an eternity they finally gave up… they covered his lifeless body with a white sheet waiting for the police or emergency services from the main Island to come and pick him up. He had drowned, taken by the rip current right there amongst other swimmers! The mood was somber to say the least. I think everyone was in shock trying to comprehend how one minute you’re having the time of your life and the next minute it’s all gone!!! The sea can be so beautiful but also so dangerous…

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Polo Beach

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After 6 fun days on the islands, it was time to get back to Silver!

Hornitos

We left Bocas del Toro and headed inland towards the mountains, on the way we stopped for the night on the side of the road next to this little restaurant where we had dinner.

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These kids were playing soccer next to us and were curious about the camper so we invited them in.

Caldera Hot Springs (Los Pozos)

The natural hot springs, renown for their healing properties, are located within a private farm where four undeveloped pools of mineral water with different temperatures are easily accessible along with the Caldera river to cool off. To get there we had to cross a wobbly suspended metal bridge and drive through some rough roads. We arrived pretty early so we had the place to ourselves for a few hours until a few locals showed up. We decided to spend the night and camp for free in the field where we had parked.

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Joe loves relaxing in hot springs!

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The hot water was rolling down the rocks, even the river had a few hot spots.

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I prefer the cold water of the river and warming up on the rocks heated by the sun!

Boquete

After months of beaches and warm weather it was a nice change to visit the highlands of Panama. The town of Boquete is located at 1,200 meters (3,900 feet) above see level, providing very comfortable weather, warm days and cool nights, making it a popular spot for Canadian and American expats.

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The town itself is not particularly pretty, but the surrounding mountains, rivers, Baru Volcano National Park, coffee plantations, the abundance of flowers along with good restaurants, markets, cultural activities and hiking options make Boquete a nice place to stop for a while, especially during Semana Santa (holy week) a very busy vacation time in Latin America where we try to be camped up and avoid the crowded beaches.

While in Boquete, we camped for 9 nights (April 10 – 19, 2017) at Pension Topas, a small hostel owned by a German fellow and his Panamanian wife. It’s walking distance to town  for groceries and restaurants. While we were there it was very dusty because they were redoing the City sewer system and a bit noisy from all the activities for Semana Santa.We paid $12/night for a camping spot with electricity, bathrooms, shower, a small kitchen and good wifi. Can’t complain about that!

We spent a lot of time at the hostel because Joe had a head cold and I took advantage of the good WiFi to update our blog.

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Boquete, view from the fairgrounds across the Caldera River.

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There is still a few clapboard houses left around Boquete but unfortunately the new buildings lack the charm of these beautiful wooden structures.

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We where in Boquete during the annual Orchid Festival, a spectacular flower celebration held in April at the fairgrounds, a short walk from the hostel.

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The German owner of the hostel where we camped, Pension Topas, is a big fan of Tintin, a popular series of Belgian comic books and motorcycles!

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Mark & Christine, Canadian Overlanders from Montreal! They follow more or less the same itinerary as us. So nice to bump into them from time to time!

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We camped in the small yard of the hostel next to Christine, while Mark was in Canada for 6 weeks. The benefit of a slip on camper is the option of leaving the camper while using the truck for exploring or repairs!

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I met Julie Maude and Karelle two young backpackers from Montreal touring around Central and South America. Karelle reminded me so much of my niece Catherine… after chating we found out that her parents lived in the same condo community as my father in Montreal! Such a small world! It’s nice to see young adventurous girls living out their dreams!

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We had a wonderful dinner and evening with Christine at Art Café owned by a very friendly and inspiring American couple. Onion soup, Escargots, Crêpes and Wine!

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Semana Santa (holy week) Parade on good Friday!

David

Panama is known amongst Overlanders as a good place to buy tires because of the price and availability of different brands and sizes. With only 21,000 miles of use on ours, they were still in good condition but we didn’t want to take the chance of not finding the right tires further down South. Our friends Doug and Fran from Calder Escapes were ahead of us, we knew they were going to replace their tires so we asked them to look for our model while they were there. After doing some on line research and the info given to us by Doug & Fran we decided to get new shoes for Silver at Auto Centro in David. We went from TOYO LT295/70R18 Open Country Xtreme A/T II 129/126S 10PR to TOYO LT285/65R18 Open Country A/T II 125S 10PR. Close enough!!! We bought 5 tires at $260 each + 7% tax installed plus $50 for alignment. We could probably have sold our used tires for a good chunk of change but there was a guy anxiously waiting, he finally walked up to Joe and asked if he could get our used tires, Joe said yes and a few minutes later a taxi showed up to load the tires! We definitely made his day!!!

Norman, a British expat who lives near David had reached out to us through social media and invited us to his house. After being kicked out of a mall parking lot, we took him up on his offer and spent 2 nights in his beautiful garden, near a river.

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A rare picture of the interior of our camper. Believe me, it doesn’t always look this clean, tidy and clutter free! Since it’s a popup camper everything has to be put away when we put it down!

Norman was a farmer back in the UK, he has quite a menagerie and he experiments with a multitude of plants.  Amongst many things, he raises quails to sell the eggs. Quail eggs are extremely popular all over Latin America! Norman has plans to sell his property to become an Overlander …

Update: I recently saw pictures on Norman’s Facebook page of him and his wife in Alaska!!! Bravo Norman you did it!!!

Rincon Largo

We were having a few electrical issues, Norman took us to a mechanic that he knew not to far, in Rincon Largo. When we need repairs done, we either camp at the mechanic or get a hotel room. In this case we camped at the mechanic which was located on a quiet country road. There, we met another family of Overlanders that were also getting some work done on their Bus.

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Not to glamorous but this is definitely part of the Overlanding Lifestyle!

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Meet The 5 Apples. French family who bought and converted a Bus in Cambodia where they lived for the last 14 years before hitting the road in 2015! They toured around Cambodia and  Thailand before shipping to Australia then to the US, Canada and Central America!

On Sundays most people don’t work in latin America, it’s Family Day. Neil, the mechanic,  and his family invited all of us to go for a swim! We all got in his wife’s mini van that she uses for school transportation, with some snack and drinks. We had a blast swimming in the nearby river!

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After four days at the Mechanic, with just a few of our issues solved, we said goodbye to Neil. Our friends Mark and Saskia were waiting for us in Las Lajas Beach. Time with friends is more important than some electrical malfunction!!!

While passing through the town of David, we bought another 30 days of Insurance for our vehicle and extended our Temporary Import Permit (TIP) for another 30 days at the  local Aduana (customs) office, to give us enough time to get ready for the Shipping process. Joe always likes to show the Aduana guys, his Retired Customs badge and credentials, they always get a kick out of it!

Las Lajas

Our fiends Mark & Saskia, a British couple we met in Mexico but got to know better in Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, reached out to us, we agreed to meet in Las Lajas Beach on the Pacific coast. We spent a week (April 25 – May 2, 2017) at Johnny Fiesta’s Hostel hanging out with cool people, swimming, reading, day drinking but overall not moving to much because of the extreme heat!

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We could have camped directly on the beach, across the street, but for just $10/night at Johnny Fiesta’s we had electricity to run our 3 fans all night and access to refreshing showers!

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We met a wonderful family of Australian/Canadian traveling with their 3 adorable kids. The Schutte Family: Alicia, Paul, Zaire, Adelina and Nyssa. We hope to visit them in Western Australia on day!

La Isleta

We heard about this restaurant that apparently was a great culinary experience in an enchanted decor by a river where we could camp. We emailed them a couple days before to make a reservation, which we rarely do. It turned out to be a peaceful location by the river but the culinary experience was a big disappointment. But our hosts were so nice and friendly, one of them even sang a couple songs during dinner, which made up for the lack of gastronomy!

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Hanna, Mark & Saskia’s vintage Hymer motorhome and Silver parked by the river at La Isleta.

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This young Swiss couple Benoit and Tessalia showed up on this modified tandem pulling a mini trailer with all their stuff. They rode this crazy looking thing from Alaska to Argentina! Schnellyss.com

Coronado

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We spent two nights at the Express Inn and Camping in Coronado about an hour before Panama City. Everybody is waiting and getting ready for shipping! Brits, Germans, Australians and us. We tore up the grass coming in and out! Sorry…

Panama City

We arrived in Panama City on May 5th, 2017 which marked our 2 years anniversary of being on the road, 26,500 miles and 10 countries! We celebrated at Danilo Jazz Club in the historic district of Panama with our friends Mark, Saskia and Doug.

Panama City has been dubbed the Miami of Central America and we can see why … City by the sea with it’s lineup of Condos, Hotels and Financial buildings and a melting pot of cultures. What strikes us is the contrast between old and new with the colonial town and the ultra modern skyscrapers but most of all the contrast between extreme poverty and obnoxious wealth … You may fall in love whit it or want to leave the moment you arrive but one thing for sure, it won’t leave you indifferent!

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The most cosmopolitan capital in Central America, a regional hub of trade, banking and immigration and home to world famous Panama Canal.

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The Biomuseo located on the Amador Causeway is more famous for it’s colorful building designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry then for it’s content which focuses on the natural history of Panama.

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Beautifully restored church in Casco Viejo, the historic district of Panama City. It was designated a World heritage site in 1997.

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Coming back from the Police Inspection we had to do on the truck for shipping, we had our first tire blowout in 2 years on the road! We hit the curb when making a tight turn during morning rush hour traffic on a narrow hilly street in a sketchy area of Panama City! Joe got to work with his bottle jack and air lug wrench under the watchful eyes of two friendly druggies … while I was keeping an eye on the truck and diverting traffic. In less than 20 minutes the job was done and we got the hell out of there. We had to replace our brand new tire!!!

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Hasta luego Mark & Saskia hope to see you on the other side of the pond one of these days! They were shipping back to the UK. Farewell dinner at The Fish Market in Casco Viejo.

Panama Canal

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Miraflores lock is one of the three locks of the Panama Canal.

The Panama Canal is an artificial 82km (51miles) waterway that connects the Atlantic Ocean  with the Pacific Ocean. It cuts across the Isthmus of Panama and it is a conduit for maritime trade. In 2016 a third larger lock (Gatun) was inaugurated to expand the canal to allow transit of larger ships. Work on the Canal first started in 1881 by France, but had to be stopped due to engineering problems and high worker mortality rate. The United States took over the project in 1904 and opened the canal in August 1914. One of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken. The US continued to control the canal and surrounding Canal Zone until the 1977 Torrijos-Carter Treaties provided for handover to Panama. After a period of joint American-Panamanian control, in 1999, the canal was taken over by the Panamanian government and is now managed and operated by the government-owned Panama Canal Authority. It takes 11.38 hours to pass through the Panama Canal. As of 2012, more than 815,000 vessels had passed through. Source: wikipedia

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Don’t worry Joe is not really piloting the ship! It’s the virtual reality simulator in the Canal Museum!

Colon- Shipping Silver from Panama to Colombia

The only break in the Pan-American Highway, between Alaska and the tip of Argentina, is a 66 miles (106 km) stretch of land between Panama and Colombia called the Darien Gap.

The infamous Gap which consist of extremely dense tropical rain forest and a network of rivers where the only people you are bound to meet are human traffickers or drug smugglers. Only a few adventurers mostly on motorcycles have successfully crossed the Gap with an incredible amount of gear and the help of the local Kuna community as guides and a team of people to push and pull their vehicles!

There use to be a ferry but unfortunately it closed a few years ago. The only way was to put Silver on a cargo ship. There is three shipping options: Container 20 or 40 footer, RoRo (roll-on roll-off) where the vehicle is driven onto and off the ship and Flatrack, a container with sides only on the short sides. Each option has pros and cons for security, cost, time at sea, and ease of process!

We chose the most stressful but secure option: a 40 foot High Cube Container. We were suppose to share the cost of $2,030 with another Overlander traveling on a motorcycle but he got held up and could not make it on time, we could have waited to find someone else but everything was booked and we were eager to move on.

We have been dreading this moment for some time! Does our XPCamper fit in a container or not? Well, it took some maneuvering, backing the truck onto a flatbed, taking air out of the tires and airbags, almost busting our awning … but YES we are happy to report that it does fit in a 40′ HC container! Once inside the container Joe had to climb out of the side window of the truck where he cut his leg on the deflector, then jump on the hood where he burned his hand, then crawl on the floor of the container under the truck to realize that he didn’t fit because taking the air out of the tires had lowered the truck. They had to use 2 bottle jacks to lift the truck enough for him to come out! That was a complete nightmare to watch because they had some crooked pieces of wood under the jack and I thought that the whole thing was going to collapse and crush Joe.

After hosing himself down and a change of T-Shirt, Joe had his smile back and was ready to lock up that container door with the help of Boris Sr.

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The Panama Canal Train was a great option to get from Colon back to Panama City. It follows a picturesque path along the Canal, passing through rainforests alongside the Canal’s locks,  historic Gaillard cut and Gatun Lake.

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The shipping crew: Americans, Ryan & Laughlin from The Duck Notes and German, Karlheinz. After a stressful day, it was nice to unwind on the train, have a few beers and talk about our future plans for South America!

Now that our vehicle was securely resting in a container waiting to be shipped to Colombia, we had to get there. Our options were to fly to Colombia, get a hotel room and wait for Silver to arrive at the Port of Cartagena on May 17, 2017 or a five day sailing trip through a chain of Islands in the Caribbean. It was not a hard choice to make, sailing it is!

There is a multitude of private sailboats that offer the crossing from Panama to Colombia for almost the same price as air fare. Their primary clientele are backpackers so it is by no means a luxury trip and once you leave the San Blas, the last day and a half, the seas can be pretty rough and it is highly recommended to take some motion sickness meds!

San Blas islands

Guna Yala aka San Blas Islands located off the northeast coast of the Isthmus of Panama, an archipelago comprising of approximately 365 islands and cays, of which 49 are inhabited and governed by the Guna indigenous (formerly Kuna). It is part of Panama but it’s an autonomous region/province.

Interesting fact: Guna families are matrilineal, with the groom moving to become part of the bride’s family. The groom takes the last name of the bride as well!

For us The San Blas was PARADISE! Crystal clear water with small islands surrounded by white sand beaches, coconut palms and coral reefs. We only spent 3 days in the islands but we would have easily stayed a month or two! Swimming, snorkeling, catching and eating fish and lobster, exploring the islands and discovering the Guna culture, waking up with the sun and sleeping under the stars!!! Overall it was a wonderful experience even though the open sea crossing was not the most pleasant.

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After a 6am pickup at hostel Mamallena in the Perejil neighborhood of Panama City, we drove 3 hours in a 4×4 SUV to Carti where we boarded one of these small boats that would take us to our Sailboat.

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Our new home for the next five days! Amande a 50 footer Dufour Atoll 6. We paid $550/person  including a little extra to have a private cabin with bathroom! All meals were included but we had to bring our beverage of choice. 14 passengers and 3 crew.

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We had a pre arranged lunch of fried fish, rice & beans prepared by the locals on Chichime, the first and largest island we visited. It had a restaurant, a bar, handicrafts, a small convenient store and a few cabanas for rent.

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Molas, handmade fabric using the technique of reverse appliqué on several layers of cotton. It’s part of the Guna women traditional blouse and the most famous and recognizable Panamanian handicraft.

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Guna woman sewing a bead bracelet directly on my wrist. It’s been more than a year and it’s still intact! Notice the black line on her nose and the beads on her arms, all part of the Guna tradition! Women wear their hair short, another unusual tradition for indigenous.

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Dinghy ride back to the sailboat with Sebastian, our Colombian Captain! (First one on the left with the white cap) Joe his holding Mani, Sebastian’s awesome Spanish Water dog.

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Our first sunrise was one of those magical moment!

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On the second day, we anchored near this small island where only one Guna family lived!

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I think I can get use to this!

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Floating market! Fruits, veg, milk, beer, boxed wine. Fish and Lobster was another boat.

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Isaac (working traveler) and Victor (chef and first mate) grilling beef and sausage brochettes on a coconut fire, another great meal!

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Isn’t this what you have in mind when you think of a deserted Caribbean island?

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Joe is thinking : Should I trade Silver for a sailboat?

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Last sunset in Paradise, tomorrow morning we’re leaving the islands and sailing the open seas, direction Colombia!

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The whole crew posing after a day and a half of open sea sailing! Sad to say goodbye but so excited for the adventures ahead! Cartagena, Colombia in the background! May 17, 2017

Farewell Central America! Hello South America!

Few Facts about Panama:

  • Population: 4.034 million (2016) World Bank
  • Area: 29,119 sq miles (75,417 km²)
  • Capital: Panama City
  • Currency: USD (formerly Balboa PAB)
  • Time spent:  6 weeks and 1 day (April 3 – May 16, 2017)
  • Miles driven: 655
  • Diesel price per gallon: $2.46

I’m sure that by now you have noticed that our blog posts are way behind (more than a year in this case). Even though I enjoy writing it, I don’t want it to become a burden and the internet being what it is in remote areas of South America, I only write when I have a long period of down time and good wifi.

For more current updates you can follow us on Facebook at Joe and Josée’s Journey or on Instagram @ joeandjosee

Next, a new Continent, a new country: South America – Colombia … Stay tuned!

 

6 thoughts on “Panama

  1. Even though you are a bit behind, I still look forward to reading the rest of the story when you do post your blog . There is nothing like travel to make one aware of how similar the peoples of the world are and how friendly they are despite what the news networks . The teeets and all that ignorant posting on social media would let one believe. The world is a pretty small place after all, and thank you for making us all aware of how wonderful it is. Keep traveling!

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    1. Hi Bob, you are so right! Finding how similar we all are and how friendly and kind people really are, has been the most incredible thing about our travels! Thanks for following along!
      Cheers
      J&J

      Like

  2. Hi Joe and Josee, I love reading your blog and all the pictures you post on FB. What a way to spend retirement. And learn about so many cultures. Keep the blogs coming!!!!! Be safe and enjoy every moment. Take Care. Debby

    Like

    1. Hi Debby, so glad you like our blog and following us on FB. Writing the blog is time consuming but I think it will be a good way for us to remember this incredible adventure! We love our nomadic lifestyle and sharing it with our friends and family. Thanks for taking the time to comment, we appreciate the feedback.
      Cheers
      J&J

      Like

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