Monday, February 17, 2014

My favorite places in Panama

Top things to do in The Republic of Panama

San Blas
As shown in the video there are several ways to experience San Blas.  1) Rustic hostel like bungalows/camping 2) As part of an adventure tour with a charter cruise of the islands and 3) As part of sailing adventure on a boat to Colombia.
For all of these options your best bet is to stop by Luna’s Castle and/or Hostel Mamallena, even if you are not a backpacker.  The reason being is, whichever San Blas island you chose, or whatever boat to Colombia you pick, your experience will depend on who is going to share your island or boat.  These two hostels in Panama City are the top places for booking so even if you are not staying there you will want to drop by.  Hostel Mamallena has its own tour agency,  Panama Travel Unlimited and is a reputable company.  I lifted the following from their website and it has the most accurate information about San Blas as you can find:
The San Blas islands, or Kuna Yala, comprise of 365(one for everyday of the year they say) islands located along the Caribbean coats of Panama.  Granted semi independence in 1925, the Kuna Yala is run by an elected Congresso.  Some 40 islands are inhabited and run by a chief who is a representative to the Congresso.  The Kunas have managed to fiercely retain their culture for over 500 years, despite repression by first the colonial Spanish and then Panamanian governments.  Life in the islands is still very traditional, many live as their families have done for generations.  The Kunas guard their San Blas islands by only allowing Kunas to own property within their areas.  Foreign, or Panamanian , owned businesses are not allowed.  Only some communities have running water and cooking is still often done over open fires.  Most people still sleep in hammocks in communal areas inside their huts.  The women still wear brightly coloured clothing, wide skirts and multi-coloured beaded bracelets wrapped the whole length of their lower legs and arms.  It`s not uncommon to see Kuna women dressed like this in all parts of Panama.
Franklin’s: Well known over the last few years by the hostel and backpacking crowd in Panama, Franklins has become one of the places we send backpackers to the most and rarely get complaints. They have a number of cabins and a beach on their half off the island. The island is small but split into 2, although it is hard to distinguish any divide and it seems to be no problem to wander around the islands fringes in the shallow surf. They charge $26.00 per person per night for dorms with 3-5 sharing or $60 for private rooms for two, this includes three simple meals a day, snacks and water you have to either bring it or buy over there. You can organize tours to other islands from $3-$10 per person, just ask Franklin. The boat to and from the island is $10 each way. The island is generally one of the cleanest. There is some very good snorkelling in and around the shore. With plenty of Star fish, Sting rays and more….
Robinson’s: One of the original places in San Blas for backpackers and the hostel crowd, although the location is different to the old Robinsons as they moved to a larger island near the original. This island is larger than Franklins but still relatively small. There are three to four groups of Cabanas and about six Kuna families living on the island. They charge $20.00 per person per night for dorms, or $50 for private cabins for two, including three meals a day, snacks and water you have to either bring it or buy over there, there is a tour to the local Community included in your stay, and others can be organised for a cost. The boat to and from the island is $10 each way. This island was, and still is, popular with backpackers but Robinson seems to have very bad phone reception so don’t be surprised if we have trouble trying to contact him.
Ina’s: Ina is the Nephew of Robinson, although at times you wouldn’t think it….., it boasts the usual shacks with sand floors. It is located just up the beach from Robinsons. Some cabins are shared, some are private. They cost $22pp for dorms and $50 for private rooms for 2 people, including the usual three meals a day, snacks and water you have to either bring it or buy over there.  Ina can arrange many tours to Islands like Dog or Estrella so just ask him and arrange a price when you are there. The boat to and from the island is $10 each way. This island is more built up than Franklins but is much bigger and has decent beaches. At the moment Ina is one of our top picks as the reviews coming back about the family and the food have been very positive, but things in San Blas are never consistent and this could change at any time. 
Eulogio’s Place: One of the original homestays on one of the main Carti Islands. They’ve recently built an upstairs part to their house which has good airflow, but is still very basic. This is the best way to experience Kuna culture if that is what you prefer instead of lazing on a beach, but do not expect to be there alone, it’s like a hostel. He charges $30 per person per night, and includes the usual three basic meals per day. The main town has a number of small stores where you can buy snacks, drinks and so on. Food is basic and toilets are placed over the sea. Includes daily tours to the local beach islands where you can spend the day swimming, snorkelling and lazing on the beach. Some of these islands have nothing but a local family, a couple of cabins and palm trees. In the afternoon you’ll return to Carti for the night. Eulogio and his brother Germain are great guys but just watch that they don’t try to overcharge you! They are pretty well known for it
Eulogio also arranges accommodations on the stunning Hook Island for $45 per person per night in simple private cabins for two with decent toilets and bucket showers. Hook Island is one of the more untouched islands, very clean and great snorkelling, you will often see fisherman pulling in a catch on the reef around the island. It is less developed and very quiet compared to the other islands and recommended for couples mainly.
Charter Boats and Boats to Colombia
Recently the Kuna Indians banned foreigners without permits from operating in the San Blas islands.  Ship captains change and information is updated continuously.  For that reason you should contact Panama Travel Unlimited and it wouldn’t hurt to drop by or email Luna’s Castle to ask the names of boat captains… then google the hell out of them.  Then ask, at both locations, if they have booked people.  Sometimes captains wait for a full boat and the passengers that are waiting are hanging out at one of these hostels in Panama City.  Drop by and try to meet them to see if you can spend five days on a small boat with them.
The Lost and Found
My favorite hostel and top hostel from The Lonely Planet and Tripadvisor.  Not so much a hostel as a location in itself where you can do a lot of the tours you can do in Boquete but at a fraction of the price.  Their coffee tour is much more authentic and less touristy than ones you will find in Boquete.  It can be used as a base in lieu of Boquete to explore the Caldera hot springs and the Gualaca river canyons and for much cheaper.  It is nicely situated as well, breaking up the long trip from Panama City to Bocas.  There is also nothing like the free treasure hunt that makes hiking and animal watching an adventure even for those who don’t like hiking.  Have a look at their top ten video on their website. (It’s stung together with mostly footage from me.)
Often referred to as “Panama’s Galapagos”, Parque Nacional Coiba was established by the Panamanian government in 1991 which protected both Isla Coiba and its surrounding waters as a national park. The legislation also allowed for the penal colony on Isla Coiba to continue operating since its presence was considered a deterrent from development. The penal colony has since closed and the park was expanded in 2004. July of 2005, Coiba was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A Biological Research Station has been constructed and the park now charges an entrance fee to visitors to help fund park protection and maintenance. ANAM, the Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente or National Authority of the Environment, helps monitor and protect the area.

Bocas is hardly off the beaten path so I have few secrets to share.  There’s no end to information on Bocas if you google it.  It is filled with backpacker hot spots and cheap hostels and there are a lot of things to do in Bocas.  The spots you see in the video are Mondu Taitu hostel and Aqua Lounge, both in the top five places to party.  A great spot to learn to surf without being self conscious of gawkers is Chica Surf Adventures.  But there’s a catch.. women only.

Thursday, February 13, 2014