The Labryrinth of Panama

Well it was time to leave the beautiful Jungle and the Osa Peninsula. We collected our belongings, including one sack of dirty, musty laundry each, and took the ferry (uctual ferry this time) from Puerto Jiminez to Gulfito. We then caught the bus that would take us to the border. The bus dropped us off in the middle of the border crossing area between Costa Rica and Panama. We exited the bus in the rain and headed towards the Costa Rican side to get our exit stamps. At this point, some folks told us that that was only to enter Costa Rica and pointed us towards the Panamanian customs. We walked over there where we were instructed to return to Costa Rican customs to get exit stamps. All of this in the rain. Oh well.

We collected the exit stamps and walked back again to the Panamanian customs. We went to collect our stamps but were pointed to a room to get our bags searched. The door was locked. Go to the other side of the room. Sigh, ok. No one there. We had to fetch a security man. Wait. When the man came in the room he has us unzip one pocket each while he barely faked interest in doing his job. Ok, now you can go….

We went back to the line to get our enterance stamps. Panama requires you to have an onward ticket that proves you are leaving the country. We presented our airline ticket home from Chile that we have purchased for December. Worked for her. We also had to prove that we had sufficient funds for entering the country. She asked if we had 500 dollars. Um… not on me.. but I have a card? OK, show me. Ok… Just seeing a card was enough to appease her. Stamps. Finally.

We exchanged our Costa Rican colones for US dollars (currency of Panama) and went to find a bus to Panama City. At the border, there were no busses, only collectivos (think 15 passenger vans). We bought a ticket to Panama City at 12:15 and the collectivo left at 2:45. Ok, lets get lunch.

We killed 2 hours and returned to the office only to be told that the bus to Panama City was broken down. Great. Luckily, we did get our money refunded and went back in search of internet. No dice. Hmm… what next? We got advice from several people and it seemed our best bet was to take a collectivo to David and then a bus to Panama City. Lets try it. (Pardon my lack of apostraphes and spell check. Im typing on a weird Panamanian keyboard. Also, spellcheck is in Spanish so lots of red squiggly…)

When we entered the collectivo to David, the clock read 4:00. How could that be? Then it hit us. There is a 1 hour time differnce between Costa Rica and Panama. Which also meant, we missed our bus previously. But we didnt miss the bus because it was broken. And because it was broken we got our money back. The universe just loves practical jokes, huh?

Well, we made our way to David and found the central terminal. We bought tickets to Panama City overnight leaving at 10 pm. We had about 4 hours to kill so we decided to look for a laundermat to wash our dirty clothes, now dubbed “our stinky.” We made several loops around the town and asked several times for a “lavandería” only to be pointed to dry cleaners. Hmm.. there must be another word. Well, no such luck so lets get some beers. We went to a local bar, had some Panamanian Balboa and then decided it was time to try once more for the laundermat. No dice. Lets get some food. We stopped in a bar. The locals were pretty amused by 2 white girls with big backpacks and a bag of stinky, but alas, they had no food so we left. We eventually found a restaurant, had a quick bite, and decided a couple more beers would be nice before we boarded the bus. We returned to the local bar and were greeted with 2 free beers on the house. Ok…

The hour and a half we spent at this bar may be the strangest bar experience of my life to date. After we were served our first free beer, the, seemingly, bar owner approached us in broken Spanish and gave us each a bite of cheese. Um… thanks? After the.. cheese… we were each given 2 more beers on the house some of which were given to us before we had finished the one before. They even took us behind the bar and showed us pictures of their family on Facebook. Totally bizarre. Lets go.

We boarded the overnight bus, thankfully smart Claudia grabbed a sleeping bag to use as a blanket last second, and slept through the night. We arrived in Panama City at about 4 am. Well, lets kill some time. We walked through the largest bus terminal Ive ever been in, grabbed some coffee, read a bit, played War with a deck of cards, and waited until about 6:30 to leave the terminal. We had a hostel we were tring to find in Casco Antigua, a historic area of Panama City. We went to board a bus that had “Panama Viejo” flashing across the front screen and attempted to board it. The bus driver quickly pointed us back inside the terminal to purchase Metro Cards. They wont just take your quarter. You have to buy a metro card (which costs $2 just for the card), load it, and scan it to board the bus. Ok…

We got the card (thankfully, we just needed one for the two of us) and waited in line for another bus towards Panama Viejo. We rode the bus for awhile, unsure of where to exit. Eventually, the bus stopped and we were told to exit. As luck has it, we found a lavamatico (ah, hah! thats the word for laundermat), a place to eat, and an internet cafe. Well, of course, the lavamatico wasnt open. Lets get breakfast. By the time we had eaten, Success! We could wash the stinky!!! Lets go buy detergent at the store. Task one, check. While the stinky was in the wash, we went to check the internet cafe. Not open even though the hours stated it should be. Walk back to the lavamatico. Oh, shoot. Lets go buy dryer sheets. Flip the stinky. While the stinky was drying, a different internet cafe was open. Search Hospedaje Casco Viejo. Task 2, check. Hurray! No more stinky!!!! We rolled the clothes and packed the bags .We decided to get a few groceries while the store was handy. By the time these seemingly simple tasks were said and done, Claudia and I had walked back and forth all with our big bags… 5…6 times in this little strip mall. Basically, as per usual, we were a parade. Well, we eventually boarded a bus and with the advice of local passengers, were advised were to get off in Panama Viejo.

We took their instructions and eventually arrived at a tourist ruins site. This is not where we wanted to be. Frustrations rising, we asked the man working the gate about Casco Antigua. Ya, thats not the same as Panama Viejo. In fact, its on the other side of the city. Another bus, but this time a little more confidence. We went all around the city and took the bus towards Mariscos Mercados.


If you want to go to Casco Antigua, the popular destination for us backpackers, take the bus towards Mariscos Mercados. Do NOT listen to locals sending you to Panama Viejo. Youre Welcome.

Finally, we knew we were in the vacinity of the hostel. We began walking in what we thought was the right direction. A policeman saw us and asked where we were headed. He began to give us directions, changed his mind, and escorted us to the hostel.

Lets just recap the last 30 hours which is all this very lengthy post consists of so far. Puerto Jiminez – Golfito by ferry. Bus Golfito to border. Border confusion. Enter Panama. Missed the bus because we didnt realize the time change. Actually, didnt miss the bus because it was broken. Collectivo from border to David. Strangest bar experience to date. Bus David to Panama City which arrived at 4 am. Metro Card confusion. Touring the city unintentionally by bus. Washing the stinky. Arriving in Casco Antigua finally. Police escort to the hostel arriving at about 2 pm.

Nap time.

That evening, we walked around a bit a saw the beautiful night city scape. We went for pízza taking Luchys recommendation we recieved at Bello Horizonte Jungle Hostel. Delicious! (Thanks, Luchy!)

Beautiful Panama City… worth the struggle???

We did a little research with a good internet connection for places to volunteer. We found two options. First, we noticed an ad online for Captain Jacks, a bar, restaurant, and hostel in Portobelo, that accepts volunteers to work in the restaurant in exchange for a place to stay and possibly alligning a boat ride to Colombia. We also found a host on near Pina, Panama, that accepts volunteers to work in the garden, do light housekeeping, and arts and crafts projects in exchange for accomodation. Both of these locations are about 2 hours by bus from Panama City on the Caribbean coast and about an hour and a half from each other. We decided to check out Captain Jacks first in hopes of finding out about a boat to Colombia.

We took a bus from Casco Antigua in the morning back to the Gran Terminal. About a 5 minute bus ride. Wow…

From there, we inquired about the bus to Portobelo and were told it was $3.50 each. We put $7 on our bus card and went to board the bus. We swiped the card on the platform which cost $.10 each for some unknown reason and boarded our bus. It quickly became obvious that we were going to have to pay for the bus with cash. Le sigh…

We had to change busses in Sabanitas to head to Portobelo and got the pleasure, once again, of parading around with our big bags on a crowded bus. An hour later, we arrived at Jack’s.

We checked into the hostel and grabbed a few beers. Jack’s is a popular spot in the small town of Portobelo among backpackers and sailors. We met several people that had boats and learned much about the sailing lifestyle. Zach, currently helping Jack, was among these people. His family from Texas has been sailing for 2 years, all 8 of them. Talk about a different life!

Our new friend, Zach. Livin the dream.

Anyway, we felt the situation out and decided to see if the helpx host was available to have volunteers instead of working at Jack’s. In the mean time, we enjoyed our stay in the small town.

Portobelo is home of the annual Christo Negro festival. This was painted on a bus… I don’t think it was intended to be funny…

The next day, we sent out our email request and crossed our fingers. While we sat at Jack’s, I struck up a conversation with a Canadian sailor, Glenn. He, unfortunately, had his dingy motor stolen while in Portobelo. He had just made the voyage from Cartagena to Portobelo with a group of backpackers. Once his affairs were resolved, he was heading back to Colombia. He gave me his contact info and told me to email if I was interested. Hmm…

Later that day we took a small boat across the bay to visit the fort ruins. Portobelo was invaded by the Spaniards in the 1600s and the canons still remain. Groovy. We spent just over an hour exploring the three levels of the forts.


From the second level



All the defense this fort needs…

Well, by the time we returned, we had a confirmation email from Carlos, the host in Pina. Well, let’s give it a shot. We spent the night and headed out about noon the next day. We had to take the bus to Sabanitas where we got groceries, catch a bus to Colon, and a third bus towards Costa Abajo where we were instructed to exit 2 km outside of Pina. With big bags and groceries, the struggle was real.

Many people tried to assist us with the directions but, unfortunately, we were dropped off on the opposite side of Pina which have us a 4 km walk. Great.

Well, we off we go. Eventually we found the house named Ishq and met Carlos, our host. We got a tour of his home and also met Bolish, a volunteer from Hungary. Carlos has a beautiful home nestled on the picturesque Caribbean Sea shore.

View from the house we volunteered at in Panama. 4 hours of work in exchange for a bed!!

During the tour, we immediately noticed a huge board game setup. Carlos was excited to explain Memoir 44, a strategy game with historical accuracy. Unique about Carlos’s set was that every game piece had been hand painted and decorated. Carlos told us that the game pieces took nine weeks to paint with rotating volunteers. The soldier’s race, outfits, flags, tank camouflage, weaponry, everything had been researched. We were beyond impressed.

History Buff and Board Game Nerd’s love child, Memoir 44
Incredible, immense detail. Literally, one of a kind.

Claudia, Carlos, and I collaborated on a spaghetti dinner and then Carlos, eager to play, taught us the game. After his win, we slept like rocks.

In total, we spent Monday through Friday at Carlos’s house. The work we did was quite simple, mostly housekeeping, taking care of the dogs, and a bit of  grounds keeping. While at Ishq, we contacted Glenn about possibly sailing to Colombia with him. He charges $375 and spends 7-10 days crossing with bonus days on the San Blas Islands. Most sailboats are upwards of $500 and cross in 4 days. Cool!

Saturday morning we made our way back to Portobelo and boarded the boat that would take sail Monday. Goodbye, Panamanian circles. Woof!

Well… we’re off! To the Sea!


2 Comments on “The Labryrinth of Panama

  1. Pingback: 13 Ways to Start Seeing the World on a Budget | Infinite Geography

  2. Pingback: Central America. 6 Weeks. 4 Countries. $2650. Part 5 – How to Plan a Trip to Central America – Infinite Geography

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