Amidst the high rises, the traffic, and the slums lies a gem in Panama City. It is in fact, the lung of the city.
A few days ago, Matt and I went to the Metropolitan Natural Park / Parque Natural Metropolitano de Panama for a short hike. The fact that you can hike in the city was pretty awesome. Even more awesome though?
The animals that we saw!
When we first entered the park, there was a pond to our left full of very curious turtles. If you know me, then you’ll know that I just LOVE turtles. Basically, my love affair started on a cruise through the Eastern Carribean when my mom, sister and I went snorkling. I think we were off the coast of St. Thomas but I was a total tourist for that week and I can’t remember where we actually were. Anyway, during our snorkling adventure, I came across a magestic sea turtle who was eating sea lettuce all alone.
It was love at first sight – and my love for the sea lettuce eating sea turtle has expanded to a love for every turtle. Even normal pond turtles.
Which is what I think that the turtles at Metropolitan Natural Park were. Possibly they were red ear sliders because they had some red on their ears. But to be honest, I’m probably making up the name of them.
Anyway, these guys were awesome! They were so curious. They poked their wise old faces out of the water when we were near, and swam-shuffled up to us! It still makes me smile and laugh thinking about them!
I’m not totally naive, and realize that there is the possibility that they’re frequently fed by humans and have thus become accostumed to humans…and associate us with food. Still, I like to think they’re simply curious.
One animal that we saw was definitely not fed by humans. At least judging by how scared one of them looked when we were near.
Matt and I had been walking through the park for about 2 minutes after we hung out with the turtles (and missed a sloth in the tree above, whoops), when we heard this sort of chirping noice. We both thought it was a bird. What the heck else chirps?!
Geoffroy’s tamarin, that’s what!
These little tiny monkeys were up in the trees, chirping and chitter-chattering away.
Until about 5 minutes ago when I was reseraching for this blog post, I’d never even heard of a Geoffroy’s tamarin. It’s such a cool feeling when you see an animal that you don’t know the name of. It instills a sense of awe and wonder. It’s basically what I imagine children feel like every single day until they grow up and get bored with the norm. That’s why I think it’s important to travel!
This first-hand realization that the world is still a mysterious and intriguing place is pretty powerful. Do I sound like a mad-man right now?
Anyway, as we continued our hike, a little 4 legged creature ran across the path behind us. It was about the size of a little pigglet. I don’t know what it was, but maybe it was a capybara or a lowland paca. It was a quick little guy and had no intenion of being seen by humans. I didn’t get a picture of it, so no, you’re not overlooking it in the picture below!
Besides the benefit of giving city dwellers a break from the concret jungle, the forest in the middle of the city is home to so many animals, and types of plants, and the trees help clean the air and give oxygen. Every city should have one!
To get to Metropolitan Natural Park / Parque Natural Metropolitano de Panama, we took a taxi for about 15 minutes from the Marbella neighbourhood and it cost us $4 one way.
We wrote another post on this, but it was filled with lessons learned and commentary from our personal journey. Since alot of people have been visiting that page for what I’m presuming are the actual directions, I figured that it was time to write something straightforward and quickly helpful. Something you can save to your phone if need be!
Here we go.
First, Get Yourself To The Border
This is so easy you have no idea — unless of course you’ve done it before. From where ever you are, take a chicken bus to Rivas. Once you’re at the bus station in Rivas, guys will probably be shouting at you/shepparding you/asking you “where you go?” And they might even be psychic and ask if you’re going to the border. Reply yes.
Or tell them, “the border”. Specifically, the name of the place is Peñas Blancas.
You can also take a taxi directly to the border from Rivas. We’d just finished a boat ride from hell, so when a taxi driver offered to take us, we agreed. It’s obviously more expensive this way, but for us, it was worth it.
Go Through the Border
This is a straightfoward(ish) process as long as you follow the herd and go where people point you to. Like all things in Nicaragua, we found that people are amazing and will help make sure you get to where you need to be.
That said: when you arrive at the border, there will be guys trying to help you fill out your customs form. The guys are NOT official, they will expect a tip (propina), and you don’t need that form yet. You’ll be given one to fill out later, at no charge.
For help getting through the border, Along Dusty Roads has a great deal of information. However, they do suggest that it’s nearly impossile to get to Monteverde/Santa Elena from the border without a night stop over somewhere. This isn’t true. Keep reading to find out how we did it.
Welcome to Costa Rica! Now it’s time to go to Monteverde / Santa Elena from the border
Like you, we couldn’t really find ANY information on how to do this. We figured there had to be a way without going to San Jose first or spending the night somewhere. Just look at a map and you’ll what we meant! And by George, you can do it. Here’s how.
Step 1: Start your border crossing bright and early.
Aim to be at the border for when it opens or you will be in a huge line, and you risk missing the last bus to Monteverde in the same day. Yes it sucks waking up at an ungodly hour, but it’s worth it!
Step 2: Buy a ticket from the public bus counter at the Costa Rican border to Cruce Sardinal.
You’re going to have to trust me when I say that the bus ticket counter will be obvious once you pass through the Costa Rican border. If you use the toilet before you cross, look through the fence to your right and you’ll see the ticket counter.
Don’t use the Tica bus, use the public bus! It might be helpful to let the ticket agent know you want to go to Monteverde. The ticket cost us about $6 USD (you’ll pay in colonies) – the price is posted and listed on the ticket.
Step 3: Get off the bus at La Irma
This isn’t half as straightforward as it sounds because Cruce Sardinal isn’t a bus station. It’s in the middle of the road by a gas station. After being on the bus for about 1 hour 45 minutes, we suggest that you ask the driver where you need to get off to go to Monteverde. They likely won’t volunteer this information so keep asking.
#TravelTip: pre-load Google maps on your phone before you do this journey, that way you can follow along using your GPS. The second bus will take you through Juntas, so you’ll need to change buses BEFORE Juntas. Step 4: Walk across the street to the bus stop, and get the next bus.
This is the second and final bus. It cost about $3USD. Get on this one, and you’ll go straight to Monteverde/Santa Elena. Remember when I said to start your border crossing early? Well, that’s because the last bus of the day comes sometime between 2:30-3:30pm.
So, there you go, public bus from the border to Monteverde is possible, is relatively inexpensive ($9USD per person), and took around 5 hours with waiting time. Plus, it ends up with a stunning bus ride from La Irma to Santa Elena/Monteverde.
San Blas…archipelago of more islands than days in the year, hidden off the east coast of Panama. A place where desert island is more than a saying, it’s a way of life. White sand, turquoise water, thatched huts with sand floors…
It’s a dream come true and we wanted to go there.
But we didn’t want to tour paradise. We wanted to love it.
Also…we didn’t want to pay $199 or $299 for a tour for a few days. If you’re in the same boat (ha no pun intended!), fear not. We managed to do it a little bit cheaper with the help of our awesome hostel, Posada 1914.
First of all, you’ll have to decide what island to go to. We went to Franklin’s. Basically, we chose Franklin’s because it’s the only name I could remember when the Posada receptionist asked us which island we wanted to go to. Also because somewhere deep in my mind was the memory of reading about someone’s experience at Franklin’s and it seemed to be positive.
Because we didn’t go to any other island, I can’t recommend anything else. However, after hearing stories from another traveller as well as from a guide from Barefoot Panama, I would say to stay far away from Starfish Island. It has horrible sandflies!
Honestly, every island has both glowing and negative reviews online…
San Blas is kind of like that: awesome but awful in the same breath. I’ll tell you more about in another post.
Once we decided on our island, it was time to make arrangements — all of this was done 2 days out. It’s low season now, so there was loads of space on every island. But in high season, it’s best to make arrangements as soon as you can to avoid disappointment, or worse, be forced to sleep with the sandflies.
To get to San Blas — Guna Yala / Kuna Yala — we had to take a jeep and then a boat. I’d read so much about how you MUST take a 4X4 and I basically thought it was BS. People are overly cautious and/or need way too much comfort.
I believe that a little danger keeps the old heart pumping longer and that everything is uncomfortable when it’s 1000 degrees and humid so who cares. I’d rather save the money than pretend to be comfortable.
After making the journey both ways, I’m now in the you-must-take-a-4X4-camp. The road on the mountain isn’t fantastic. It’s steep in places. Chunks of road are washed out and there’s potholes deep enough to get you to the other side of the world.
Anyway, on the way there, it was evident that the 4X4 wasn’t for comfort or luxury.
The speedometer didn’t work.
Neither did the suspension.
We could feel it every time the driver put his foot on the gas, even just a little. And we could feel practically every pebble that we drove over.
So really, the 4X4 isn’t for comfort, it’s to make the journey possible.
I hope I didn’t lose you. That was a ridicilous but necessary aside.
The jeep cost us $60 each. A stupid high price, yes. I agree with you! But, it’s the going rate and the $60 was return. So really, it’s $30 a trip. If that’s still too high…The drive itself is about 3 hours, so you could think of it like $10 an hour.
Plus, the driver stops at a grocery store so you can buy water and food to take to San Blas, and go to the bathroom, get a coffee, and stretch the old pins a bit.
Make sure you buy water. There is no water on the island! The shower is salt water. Coffee was made with boiled rain water.
How much water do you bring for 2 people for 2 days? That question weighed heavily on my mind the days leading up to San Blas.
We brought 12 litres of water for 2 days. I drink abnormal amounts of water so that was a perfect amount for us – we had exactly 1 litre left for the journey home.
I’m getting ahead of myself here. Back to getting picked up.
Our driver was extremely professional. He got to Posada 1914 (our hostel, remember) early to pick us up. Let it be known that early is a freakin miracle here, and also considering that we were meant to get picked up at 5:30am. That’s what time everyone going to San Blas gets picked up at.
As in, FIVE THIRTY IN THE MORNING. I don’t care where in the world you are, that’s just so early. There’s no way roosters would be cockadoodle-doing at that hour and neither should we.
It was still pitch black out for heaven’s sake.
Luckily or amazingly, we were ready a little early.
After we pretend drank our too-hot coffee that the overnight (probably a vampire) receptionist made for us, we piled into the jeep. We were pretty surprised to find an extra row of seats in the back.
There was no leg room, and there was no way all of my 5’1 self was going back there. No way no how. We were here first!
Besides it didn’t matter. We were the only ones in the car.
For 5 minutes.
Of course, having a giant jeep all to ourselves would be way too good to be true (kind of like having a working speedometer in Central America) so our driver went around to pick up lost souls/additional travellers.
There were too many people to fit properly in the jeep. This being not Canada, I figured we’d all be expected to cram ourselves and all our luggage/groceries into the jeep. As I was cursing the fact that I wore my new dress (which was a stupid decision), I was preparing myself to sit on Matt’s lap for 3+ hours…and was mentally apologizing to him in advance for crushing his legs. I was also praying to the air conditioning gods because there is hardly anything grosser than random person sweat touching you.
But none of that happened, thankfully! In Panama, stuff like that hasn’t happened to us. Even most cars have seat belts that work (mostly, kind of, at least more so than Nicaragua).
Remember when I said our driver was professional? Well, upon realizing that there was more people than seats, he called another jeep. And he (and we) waited all through sunrise for the other jeep at arrive. Longest “5 minutes” of my life.
During this 40 minute period, I fought the urge to get out of the car. I didn’t want to lose my spot and be forced to sit in the crammed back seat.
I was able to hold down the fort and watched as the tallest guy in the group break his femurs in half then contort his body to fit in the comically small back seat.
Once he was snuggly packed in there, I casually stretched my legs out completely vertically.
Just joking. I didn’t do that.
There was a part of me that felt bad for the guy. He was at least 8 feet tall and not at all suited for such a small environment. And being the small person that I am and have always been, I really should have taken my rightful place in the most undesirable seat in the car.
That’s how it works for short people.
But screw that. I was going to be selfish. I was rather enjoying having 2 extra feet of leg room.
So with everyone piled into the jeeps and no (hu)man left behind, it was time to take off.
The drive was uneventful so I spent most of my time trying to work out:
how you drive with a speedometer that doesn’t work
how you know when you need to get gas when your gas gague that doesn’t function
what the conversation would be like if you got pulled over for speeding, “No, I don’t know how fast I was going, officer. My speedometer always says 0km.” And if that’s a legitimate excuse for speeding.
and wondering if it’s legal to drive a car in that condition in Canada
I also spent alot of time worrying that at any point, the tall dude in the back was going to ask me to switch seats with him. I obviously would have even though I didn’t want to.
Before we got to Isla Franklin, we incurred two more fees, adding up to $22 a person, which we handed over to our driver and he delt with. I assume. I never saw the money exchange hands.
The first was a $20 fee to enter Guna Yala. This is a semi-automous region in Panama that is, you guessed it, run by the indigenous Guna people. Sometimes it’s referred to as Kuna Yala and the people as Kunas. I think that’s because the G and K sound in Spanish are so freakishly similar no one can tell the difference.
The second fee was a $2 port fee. I really don’t understand that one because there wasn’t much of a port. It was more just boats lined up along the river bank. I suppose the fee covered the use of the toilets — by which I mean solely the porcelain bowl. Toilet seats are overrated anyway.
After getting attacked by tiny biting flies, and noticing that one of the boats was flying a flag with a swastika, we borded our boat to paradise.
First, let me tell you about the flag, which wikipedia so helpfully explained to me. It’s got nothing to do with the Nazis and was used by the Guna people before the Nazis usurped and ruined the symbol. The flag the boat was flying was the flag of the Guna revolution.
To see their flag and to learn more about the history of the symbol and why they changed it, visit Earthcircuit.
The 40 minute boat ride to Franklin’s cost $20 per person for a round trip. I don’t know if it’s worth it. It seemed expensive and greedy because how else would we get there? There wasn’t exactly a second option.
But alas, you must’n forget that all of these things — toilet bowls, and well organized boat rides through turquoise water — have been set up so that visitors can experience the idillyc islands that are San Blas. We demanded it.
There were 6 tourists on our boat including Matt and I – everyone was paired off. In front of us was a couple who spoke a load of different languages to each other. And behind us was a German couple.
Being the anti-social gem that I am, I didn’t talk to anyone but Matt. To be fair, no one talked to anyone.
We all just sat there in complete horror as the boat pulled up to the first island. Oh my god, please don’t let this be my island, we all thought.
The island was shocking.
Look, I’m sure some people — maybe even you — are going to think I’m a horrible person for what I’m about to say. But hear me out.
We were greeted with a view of homes that edged the water, homes that looked like the inside of a ripped open garbage bag.
Homes that were made of a mixture of plastic sheets, tin, and palm leaves. They were falling apart – or maybe they were never really together. There was NO SPACE in between the homes. They were practically touching each other.
And there was garbage everywhere!
At one point after Matt had been looking down into the crystal clear turquoise water, he learned over to me and said “there’s a garbage reef below us” in a sad and horrified whisper.
But really, these islands are literally in the middle of nowhere so where would garbage go?! I mean, sewage went into the ocean…you could see the toilets hanging off the end of docks so why wouldn’t garbage go there too?
Every one of us on that boat was hoping the same thing: please don’t let this be my island!
Thankfully it wasn’t any of ours. Matt and I and the very nice German couple carried on to Franklin’s and the multi-language couple went somewhere else.
The boat ride started off beautifully. Then it got super wet and I couldn’t see out my eyes anymore. However, the ride back to the mainland a few days later was dry and sunny so I’ll use that experience to describe what I would’ve saw and would’ve thought.
There was a vast expanse of turquoise sea as far as the eye could see. Off in the distance, you can make out the outline of mountains.
Peppered through out the sea are tiny islands.
Some with white sand. Some with seemly endless supplies of coconuts.
Some inhabited. Some not.
All in paradise.
Recap getting to San Blas Island
1) Choose your island. We picked Franklin.
2) Take a 4×4 jeep for $60 round trip to Guna Yala (Carti dock)
3) Pay the $20 entrance fee to the territory and the $2 port fee
4) Fight off biting flies while you wait for your boat
5) Sit back and enjoy your $20+ (round trip) boat trip
Total for getting there (and away): $102+*
*Some islands are further away and thus coat more to get to.
EXPECTED TO ERUPT. WHEN!?! That’s what I want to know.
Okay so I’m actually unclear as to whether this is an extinct or dormant volcano because different sources say different things. The Smithsonian Institute says there’s currently “a geothermal exploration program…underway to evaluate the energy potential of the caldera.” (Read more here.) That doesn’t mean much to me, but maybe it means something to you?
Who cares, it’s still freaking cool and the entire time we were there, I was hoping El Valle wouldn’t blow it’s top — and us — into the heavens.
When Matt and I were there, we stayed in the belly of the beast, by which I mean in town but in the outskirts at Kare Lodge in a safari tent that was imported from South Africa. Oh ya, Glamping in a freaking volcano in Panama!
It was AMAZING! In fact, I really think that staying at Kare Lodge made our experience in El Valle even better.
It was pretty special waking up in the morning, stepping outside, having a teapot of coffee on the deck and looking up at the caldera of the volcano. We felt a deep connection to nature.
When we arrived, we didn’t really know that much about El Valle or what there was to do so we followed Conrad’s advice about things to do. (Conrad owned and operated the lodge.)
He suggested hiking India Dormida (The Sleeping Indian) — we did that and loved it.
It was about 1.5 hours up and 1 hour down, steep at times but thankfully never too muddy. The view at the top was incredible of course, but even better were the sounds.
On one side of the path you overlooked nothing but forest and it was completely silent. On the other side of the path,you overlook the town and you can hear trucks and dogs barking. I found that really incredible — one path, two completely different worlds.
Matt managed to catch our hike and our dip in the hot springs on film. Here they are!
Other things that are totally worth doing:
Wandering about town
Eating bruschetta at Bruschetta
Visiting the butterfly sanctuary
Stopping by the little museum beside the church
There’s tons of outdoor activities in El Valle, including hikes to waterfalls and around the caldera at various places. With the beauty of the landscapes, the freshness of the air, and all the adventures to be had, it’s easy to see why it’s such a hot weekend destination for Panamanians and travellers alike.
— Cyn and Matt
We didn’t know what bus to take so we started asking. Bus drivers kept pointing us in different directions. It felt like we were ping pong balls, going back and forth, back and forth. Or maybe we were hot potatoes!
When we finally found the mini-bus that had “Parita” very clearly painted on the front windshield, we took our seat. Easy breezy. Not breezy at all actually, it was very hot.
As we were sweating it out in the back seat of the mini-bus, and as Matt was downing his Coke (for the caffeine, we weren’t successful finding breakfast) a woman started talking jibberish — I mean Spanish — to us.
I guess we looked like we didn’t belong. Or that we were lost. Or confused. She was asking us where we were going and when we told her Parita, she asked if we didn’t mean Las Tablas (a beach nearby).
No, no we reassured her. We were going to Parita.
A look of surprise and genuine curiosity appeared on her face, as if to say “What could Parita — a teeny tiny town basically unknown to outsiders and Panamanians alike — have for them? Surely, they should be going to the beach.”
She told us we needed to take a taxi once we got to Parita. We knew that and agreed with her.
“Si”, yes, as if those two letters, that one syllable could convey everything we wanted to say.
Thank you so much for your help! We know we need a taxi but we don’t know where to get one. Could you let us know? Also, how much should it be? Sometimes people try to rip us off and we don’t have a lot of money. Where do we get off the bus? We’ve never been here before.
But, Si would have to suffice.
Even though we were able to get our point across, our best Spanish is pretty horrific. And as a result, I think the woman we were “talking” to was a little concerned for us.
When we got to Parita, she took us under her wing.
First she had us sit in an outdoor living room type thing. It seemed to be attached to her house. She told us how she had a student from Quebec living with her, so she must’ve been used to wildly rubbish Spanish (hopefully the student didn’t come equipped with a full Spanish vocabulary)…and also trustworthy…
She was really nice to us, and patient as we said “si” a million times to what I’m sure were not yes or no questions.
I have even more respect for people who’ve moved to Canada and are trying to learn English. It’s really hard to learn another language. And it’s really lonely and frustrating when you can’t get your point across – thankfully Matt and I have each other because a man oh man, if I was going at this alone…yikes!
As the woman arranged a taxi for us, she bought me a banana. How nice!
Well, I’m not exactly sure it was a taxi she had arranged…after all, a silver car eventually pulled up and taxis in Panama are yellow with black and white checks.
This was more like someone she knew who had a car.
Despite the very evident un-taxi taxi, we hopped in. The guy took us to Sarigua National Park after he dropped the woman at her home (whose outdoor livingroom had we been in?!).
Our driver was jabbering away at us like we could understand him. And maybe if we’d been studying our Spanish and practising like we were supposed to, we could’ve understood more than just his body language and laughter.
At any rate, I just kept repeating that I don’t understand. And he’d laugh either out of actual amusement or frustration.
I eventually just pretended like I couldn’t hear him.