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With a rental car through Panama (part 2) - a round trip with ups and downs

On our rental car round trip through Panama, we experienced both real highlights and major disappointments. Here we give tips for a successful Panama trip and recommend places, accommodation and restaurants - as always honestly and without being paid for it.

As we reported in our last Panama blog, we spent four weeks traveling in the Central American country. After the magnificent Panama City and the unspectacular Santiago de Veraguas, we made our way to Bajo Boquete. We were almost certain in advance that we would like it here.

From Santiago de Veraguas to Bajo Boquete

Our next destination was the town of Bajo Boquete, or "Boquete" for short, which is located at an altitude of 1200 meters and is said to be one of the country's tourist highlights. Every year in January or February, the Feria de las Flores y del Cafe takes place in Boquete. Boquete's coffee beans are said to be the best in the country and the most beautiful orchids are also celebrated and exhibited there with the Festival de las Orquidias - we were able to get a picture of these extraordinary cultivars (we know unfortunately, how quickly orchids die here).

The climate in Boquete is very pleasant. It is warm during the day and gets cooler at night, so you can also look for accommodation without air conditioning. We opted for the Boquete Garden Inn just outside the city and were not disappointed. We stayed here for four nights in one of the best accommodations of our entire trip so far. The rooms are set in a beautiful tropical garden, the room service is great, there is a small thermal pool and the breakfast was excellent.

We can recommend the Boquete Garden Inn in Bajo Boquete without reservation

From Boquete you can go on a few rather expensive excursions:

  • Trip to the Volcán Barú volcano: For 125 dollars (and more) per person, you are picked up at 4 o'clock in the morning and set off with a small group over bad roads to the highest point in Panama at 3500 meters above sea level. The journey is strenuous but the experience is said to be outstanding if you have never been on a volcano before.

  • Rafting: In the immediate vicinity of Boquete Town is one of the allegedly

  • world's best white water rafting spots. 65 dollars per person

  • Guided jungle tours: There are some wonderful hiking trails through the jungle around Boquete. You can visit these on your own or with a guide. There are impressive waterfalls, many birds (e.g. quetzal), sloths and great flora to marvel at.

  • Coffee tours: If you are interested in the origins of this vital hot drink, you should take one of the countless tours to a coffee plantation. Around 40 dollars per person.

We didn't want to spend that much on our excursions and spent the whole three days in Boquete taking it easy. We went to:

1. the city park of Boquete: The park is right on the river, has a pond and lots of places to relax and picnic.

2. Parque de Boquete: In this garden area there are some small stalls and restaurants, lots of plants and colorful figures. We also visited the orchid exhibition there. Admission 2.50 $ per adult

3. Pipeline Trail: The so-called Pipeline Trail is about 25 minutes up the mountain outside Boquete. Here you walk for around 1.5 hours through the jungle to a beautiful waterfall. Entrance fee 5 $ per person.

Eating out in Boquete is quite expensive, but the Boquete Garten Inn has vouchers for a few partner restaurants. We used them twice at APIZZA and got a free drink with every pizza. The pizzas there are not particularly large, but they are very good. If you have a kitchen or are generally self-catering, you can breathe a sigh of relief: there is also a large REY supermarket in Boquete.

From Boquete to the Bocas del Toro

Bocas del Toro is a province in the northwest of Panama and comprises six larger and numerous smaller islands in addition to the mainland. The Bastimentos Island Marine National Park is a national park that includes large parts of the island of Bastimentos, many smaller islands and, for the most part, marine areas. The "Bocas" are said to be very popular with tourists, which is why we didn't want to miss out on the long journey over the mountains. First things first: we could have saved ourselves this four-hour journey and the expensive water cab.

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The Bocas are sold everywhere in Panama as a Caribbean island paradise, but in our opinion this is just a facade. Even on the long and quite strenuous drive along the mountain road, you pass through areas affected by poverty. At least the view was great. The last 60 kilometers before the extremely unattractive port city of Almirante are full of potholes and take longer than necessary.

As we didn't want to take our rental car to the island of Colon - after all, we wanted to drive on to another, car-free island - we had to park the car somewhere in Almirante for nine days. Here we recommend Gia's garage. You can book a parking space for several days with Gia via WhatsApp. Gia is extremely friendly and speaks very good English. We paid 3 dollars per day. Very fair!

OUR TIP: Be careful at the entrance to Almirante! There are - as Gia called them - "chasers" on the road here. They wait for new arrivals as soon as they enter and try to lure tourists somewhere very pushy. You shouldn't fall for this under any circumstances. Even if the chasers follow you on your bike for a while, you should never stop if you don't want to be scammed.


Isla Colon and Bocas Town - a far cry from paradise

The ferry port of Almirante is inconspicuous and tiny next to all the Chiquita containers. This seems to be one of the main transshipment points for the yellow curved fruit. The crossing to Isla Colon and the main town of Bocas Town costs 10 dollars and includes the return trip - you have to show your passport for identification. The passport numbers are noted down. We were relatively happy to leave the ugly Almirante on one of the small, uncomfortable water cabs. It would have been better not to come here at all.

After a humid 30-minute journey, we docked in Bocas Town. Even at first glance, this town doesn't look anything like the tourist magazines and lifestyle postings describe it. Caribbean, yes - but here you encounter the worst side of the Caribbean. The streets are dirty, as are the cars. Many houses are dilapidated and we had the impression that a tropical storm had recently swept over the island. Far from it, because it always looks like this here.


Isla Colon was a flop

We took the public bus cab to our accommodation La Luciérnaga Big Creek, a small bed and breakfast five kilometers outside the unattractive island capital. At least here we felt comfortable. The owner, Carlos, an Italian, gave us the most important information about the island and the accommodation and left us to our discreetly simmering dissatisfaction. We had five nights ahead of us on this island - we wanted to make the most of it.

The best thing about Carlos' accommodation was the spacious rooms and the communal outdoor kitchen. We were able to cook something here and save money, as the prices on Colon are absolutely overpriced. As it rained almost continuously during our stay, we were only able to visit the highly overrated Playa Bluff, apart from our shopping. This beach is beautiful to look at in places, but you shouldn't go into the water here as the waves and currents are dangerously strong. Disappointed, we took a cab back to Luciernaga for 15 dollars.

The other beaches that were within walking distance were not even nice to look at and, like the rest of the city, were quite dirty. Again and again you can see sewage pipes leading from houses and hotels into the sea. You don't like swimming there anyway.

On our first trip to Bocas Town, we discovered the Méren Pool Club & Restaurant. Non-hotel guests can also use the pool here and we went for a drink. However, the concession is not enough to go into the pool with the children, as a dip in the refreshing water costs $20 per person. No thanks!

Off to San Cristobal - from the frying pan into the fire

After four mostly rainy days on Isla Colon, we moved on again. Our next stop was the island of San Cristobal. As we had always wanted to spend the night in a water bungalow, we had already booked four nights in the El Clandestino accommodation in advance of our trip. We were really looking forward to it, but were very skeptical after our stay on Colon. And rightly so!

Even the journey there was not as expected. We couldn't find a good public transport connection between Colon and Cristobal. The reason for this soon became clear to us: there is none. When we asked the operators of the Clandestino, they sent us a small, desolate water cab. Cost: 60 dollars. Gulp.

Endlich angekommen, wurde uns bewusst, wie schlecht wir uns über die Unterkunft informiert hatten. Wasserbungalow klingt ja erstmal ganz wunderbar. Der Bungalow selbst war schon etwas baufällig. Das Badezimmer lag halb im Freien und nicht nur das Duschwasser, sondern auch der Kanal liefen direkt ins Meer ab, keine 10 Meter von jenem Platz entfernt, an dem man ins Wasser geht. Zu unserem Zimmer gehörte eine Terrasse mit Steg. Leider war die Leiter die ins Wasser führte kaputt und wir mussten improvisieren. Die Umgebung war traumhaft (siehe Bilder) aber das Wasser war zum Baden nicht geeignet; der Boden war übersäht von tausenden Seeigeln, es gab Quallen und Seerochen... und den immer wiederkehrenden Gedanken an das Kanalrohr.

The complex itself was very manageable and as you couldn't enter the island behind it, there was no alternative but to lie around all day on the terrace or in the small restaurant. At least Christopher, the interim chef and operator of El Clandestinos, was very friendly. The owners were currently in Belgium and were planning to sell the complex for a high price anyway. So why should they bother with the guests?

The list of complaints is even longer and has no place here. However, one thing should definitely be mentioned (and should have been on the booking page). As you cannot leave El Clandestino (cheaply) during your entire stay and the rooms have no fridge and no air conditioning, guests are dependent on the food in the hotel. To be fair, we have to admit that Christopher is a great cook, but the portions were a little too small for 20 dollars per person (even for children). The Clandestino joins the list of overpriced experiences in Panama.

Bereits nach der ersten (fürchterlichen) Nacht, haben wir beschlossen nach der zweiten (ebenso fürchterlichen) Nacht frühzeitig abzureisen. Was waren wir froh als wir weitere 60 Dollar ärmer (Wassertaxi) und von Sandfliegen völlig zerstochen, bei Gias Garage ankamen und endlich weiterfahren konnten. Wir mussten unsere Reiseplanung dafür etwas abändern und umbuchen.


From Almirante to Las Lajas

After all, we had two more days after the Bocas raid and decided to plan two more days in the coastal town of Las Lajas between Almirante and our originally planned stay in Chitre. As a result, we also rebooked our stay in Chitre and took a cheaper Airbnb in Pedasi. We almost recouped the additional costs of the two extra nights and saved ourselves two days of overpriced food at El Clandestino. Especially on longer trips, you always have to be flexible, reschedule and make compromises. This time we were lucky twice again.

The drive from Almirante to Las Lajas took almost four hours, but at least we went from bad weather to good weather. The Las Lajas Residence made up for the last seven nights on the Boca. We had a spacious room with a clean bathroom and air conditioning, a very good breakfast (highlight: Ramona's homemade muffins and cakes) and a pool. We didn't need much more than that.

Las Lajas Residence is located half a kilometer to the right of the Panamericana and just outside the village. There are several shops and good restaurants with fair prices, such as Naturalmente Pizza. The topped slices of dough are prepared by an Italian and taste delicious.

The wide beach at Las Lajas is beautiful but not outstanding. Unfortunately, some of the parking fees for beach visitors are absolutely overpriced (e.g. 20 dollars per car, no matter how long you stay).

Not a pony, but a great resort

If you want to visit Las Lajas on a round trip and also want to use the beach, we recommend the Show Pony Resort accommodation at the end of a cul-de-sac with a pool and private beach access. We paid a visit to the resort and spoke to the friendly owner from Canada.

An absolute highlight of the Show Pony Resort is the "room" nicknamed El Palacio, "The Palace", in this bungalow up to ten guests can easily spend the night and really enjoy their vacation. We have taken a few pictures for you. Day guests can also enjoy the resort's pool and beach area for a fee of 11 dollars per person. This is also common practice at other hotels at Playa las Lajas. Personally, we would rather solve this with a consumption voucher: If you want to use the resort you have to pay 15 to 20 euros and then spend it in the restaurant. But that's just a tip.

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From Las Lajas to Pedasi

We had originally planned to spend the night in Chitre, but due to the additional costs incurred by leaving the Bocas early, we wanted to save money and take cheaper accommodation. The first of these was in Las Lajas, the second in Pedasi on the Azuero peninsula. There we found a fantastic vacation villa with its own pool at a great price on Airbnb. Only the drive there was a little longer, but we had already made up for that with the stopover in Las Lajas.

Padasi is a small, tranquil village on the dry Azuero peninsula.

Pedasi is located at the lower end of the peninsula in the district of the same name and can only be described as a sleepy nest. The further you get away from the Panamericana and drive along the road near the coast, the drier the landscape becomes. The meadows become browner and browner and the air temperature rises. It gets really hot here in the dry season and the people always suffer from a lack of water. Water was also in short supply for us at times and we used it very sparingly - an interesting experience, but one that you don't have to make more often.

Wonderful Airbnb villa

We were immediately impressed by the vacation villa. The open design, the high ceilings, two bathrooms, an eat-in kitchen and the large terrace with a view of the barbecue and the pool - we couldn't have found a better place. The price was unbeatable at 95 euros including taxes, Airbnb and cleaning fees. There is also a washing machine and dryer in the villa and we were able to do all our laundry once again. That also certainly saved us 30 dollars. We are becoming more and more Airbnb fans.

The house is located just outside the village of Pedasi in a fairly new residential complex where mainly US-Americans and Canadians have retired. New or vacant properties can be bought here for as little as 350,000 dollars - if only it wasn't so dry here. At least the infrastructure in Pedasi is good and there are plenty of shopping facilities.

Unfortunately, the beach is also a disappointment. Playa el Arenal would have insanely great potential if it wasn't so unappetizing. There is plastic waste everywhere, not to mention the dog skeleton on the way there. The small island of Iguana is less than five kilometers from the coast of Pedasi and would (supposedly) have a more beautiful beach with turquoise-green water to offer, but the water cabs are simply exorbitantly overpriced at 80 dollars per trip - like many things in Panama.

We spent four nights in our little dream villa and had a really good time before we finally drove on.


From Pedasi to Anton Valley

It's 211 kilometers from Pedasi to El Valle de Antón - the small town built in the middle of a circular volcanic crater. Not actually very calming. It is even more tranquil here than in Boquete, as the town is not on the busy backpacker route. The largest inhabited volcanic crater in the world is ideal for nature lovers, outdoor enthusiasts and stressed-out city dwellers. From here, you can climb the peaks of Cerro Gaital, Cerro Cara Iguana, Cerro La Cruz, Cerro La Silla and La India Dormida on your own - if you like hiking, Valle Anton is the place for you. Probably the most famous hike in the area is the India Dormida. A crater rim formation that looks like a reclining woman and therefore got its meaningful name.

We rented a small self-catering accommodation again, as we still had some food to use up and having our own kitchen is simply the cheapest option when traveling. At Villa San Antonio we had everything we needed and even a small pool again. It was just the right way to wind down before we headed back to Panama City for our last night of this round trip. However, we could have stayed longer in Valle Anton.


Panama left us with mixed feelings. On the one hand, we got to know very nice people and wonderful places. On the other hand, we realized that many locals see visitors to their homeland as a cash cow. Excursions and tours in particular are usually absurdly overpriced. Most tour operators offer little and charge a lot - for us, that doesn't go together. Parking fees are charged at almost every beach and every hiking trail, no matter how small, costs something. Some of the beaches, which are not very numerous anyway, are unfortunately also quite dirty. We didn't want to pay for that and usually turned around immediately.

On the other hand, Panama is more tranquil than its small neighbor Costa Rica. Those seeking peace and quiet are sure to find the place of their dreams here. Only the islands of Bocas del Toro can be safely left out.

Panama City surprised us in a particularly positive way. The modern city with its old core has everything a city vacationer could wish for. You can spend a few days here without getting bored, and the overall price-performance ratio is still good.

We do not regret having visited Panama, but we are also glad to have done so as part of a longer trip. Those who love beautiful beaches should not spend their main vacation here. Those who like round trips will definitely find what they are looking for in Panama. However, Panama is certainly no longer a cheap country.

Our next blog will take you to Los Angeles and Universal Studios.

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