When I first set foot on Panamanian soils in 2008, it was brief. A day trip from a cruise around the Caribbean, I was there for less than 10 hours, but even since that moment, it is the one place I have been desperate to go back to.
Maybe it is the hippy air here in Central America (the smell of dreadlocks, baggy pants and crummy years-old bracelets up to the armpits) affecting me, but I feel such a connection to Panama. Everything about this beautiful place, from oddball Panama City, unlike any other Central America capital with a skyline of skyscrapers, to the immense and dense rainforests that blanket the country full of jaguars, quetzals, coatis and kinkajous. I love it all. It was the place I was most desperate to reach when I went travelling last Autumn, and the place I was most disappointed about missing when I broke my leg.
June 11th we crossed the border into Panama, perhaps I was happier to be leaving Costa Rica than I would have been, had a girl on our tour not been mugged at knifepoint (they also said they had a gun, but we hope that was just to make us more frightened rather than being true) just a few steps from our hotel in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. I had been a few paces ahead and luckily, having my hotel key ready, was able to open the front gate and get safely inside. I could do nothing but gawp, I didn´t even scream, neither of the three if us did, we were all too shocked to do anything but watch as they disappeared down the street with her bag. It has certainly left us with a bad taste in our mouths. I have found again, that the Lonely Planet has missed the mark and is trying to be too righteous instead of facing the facts. A week before we reached Viejo, a man was shot when he refused to give his phone to thieves, and the same day my friend was mugged, a couple were held at gunpoint in broad daylight, losing everything valuable but their passports. Unsurprisingly, they hopped in the next taxi to Panama without even looking back. Yet the Lonely Planet claims that Viejo is a safe place, it just has a bad reputation purely because it is a Black Caribbean town. SO apparently we are just hulking great racists and everything is actually in our imagination.
After an hour driving from shady Viejo, we reached a scene I have become familiar with since I started my travels. As you near a border, the semi-tarmac, semi-dirt track road suddenly becomes lined with cargo trucks transporting all manner of things, including illegal immigrants undoubtably. You then have to run the gauntlet of not getting flattened by these beasts as well as avoiding the hundreds of oppertunist lay abouts which target these tourist rich areas, and the touts, trying to exchange your currencies at ridiculous rates. It is almost a relief reaching passport control and being interogated by the officials.
Once we were stamped out of Costa Rica, the no man´s land which stood between us and Panama was a 200ft bridge over a murky river. A large, rickety metal contraption, the planks of wood were rotten and loose, beneath my feet I could see the fast moving water, and every so often, one of the sleeping giants we had seen waiting paciently would roar past us, all 18-wheels spinning, pushing us and our loaded backpacks precariously against the rickety frame. Trying to avoid vertigo, I fixed my sights on that familiar blue, red and white starry flag (no, not the star spangled banner!) that waved to me invitingly on the Panamanian side.
As we drove to the port, we soon learned that games of ‘yellow car’ here were pointless and painful, as for some reason, it seems to be the favourite taxi, bus and van colour here. Then after a 20 minute speedboat, we finally arrived on the island of Colón in the archipelago of Bocas del Toro, aka THE place to be in Panama.