Ready to make my way onwards to my sixth and final Central American country, Panama, I took the bus from Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica (1645 colonnes/$4) to the border crossing at Sixaola. The entry cost to get into Panama is $3 payable upon entry on the other side of the very rickety, wooden bridge!
They also ask you for proof of exit and as I had my itinerary for my flight back from Buenos Aires in July, this proved to be sufficient (although they asked if I had a Spanish version of the itinerary?!). A couple I had met at the border were having trouble as they had nothing booked, but they managed to get through once they booked a bus.
I was in two minds as to whether to go to Bocas del Toro, an island on the Caribbean coast, or directly to the mountain highlands of Boquete, two places that I wanted to visit before I got to Panama City where I would take my flight to Colombia. I decided against Bocas mainly for budget and time reasons, having spent some time on islands and on the coast I figured I would head straight to Boquete for some hiking in cooler temperatures.
I took a taxi shuttle ($10) from the border to the bus station beside the Bocas del Toro ferry port and caught the direct bus to David ($8.45) where I could get on a chicken bus to Boquete. First impressions of Panama were that, like Costa Rica, the roads were in great condition. Unfortunately en route to Boquete, there was a LOT of rubbish all along the road sides and landfills were visible along the way. An interesting part of the journey to David was when a young Panamanian boy was sick in a plastic bag which his mother than promptly flung out of the window into oncoming traffic. Nice..!
On arrival at the David bus terminal I hopped on a (souped up) chicken bus for $1.50 that took me to Boquete in an hour. I checked into Mamallena’s, a cosy hostel right on the square where the bus drops you off in town. It was $11 per night for a four bed dorm and there is a huge kitchen and living area, plus free (DIY) pancake breakfast, woop! I finally got a chance to catch up on some blogging while watching Fight Club and later enquired about hikes in the area for the next day. Normally the hostel runs a number of hiking trips to the nearby national park and waterfalls, as well as ziplining, rafting, rock climbing trips and coffee farm tours. Unfortunately the following day all of their vans were bringing people to David so they weren’t taking hiking tours. There was a possible coffee tour going in the morning but as I had visited a coffee plantation in Antigua, Guatemala, I preferred to go on a hike while I was here instead. I researched a local tour company that I could do a hiking tour with and found Hablayapanama, a local organisation that runs Spanish language courses and eco-tours in Boquete and Bocas del Toro. I signed up for the Quetzal Trail hiking tour, ‘El Sendero de los Quetzales’, a 10k trek in Panama’s western highlands connecting the towns of Boquete and Guadalupe.
The next afternoon I took off with a small group, myself and three American retirees (!). Our very knowledgeable guide brought us through the beautiful Chiriquí cloud forest and we spent the afternoon hiking through the Volcán Baru National Park over rivers and streams, exploring the mountains and hills whilst spotting different flora and fauna including a number of the elusive quetzal birds.
The Quetzal bird was sacred to the Mayans and symbolised freedom and wealth. In Guatemala, they are the national symbol and the Guatemalan currency is called the quetzal. Unfortunately these beautiful birds are endangered through loss of habitat and it was hard to spot them on the hike, but thankfully our guide knew the right spots to watch out for them and even had a bird call app on his smartphone so we could recognise their call when they were nearby! Their call is quite haunting, but it also sounds similar to a puppy whining! (FYI below photo is not a quetzal! They were far to quick to snap a photograph, unfortunately)
The trek took about 4 hours (including travel time there and back) and was pretty easy going but quite steep in parts. It was not cheap either at $45 (!), but I figured it was the only tour I was going to do in Panama so I decided it was worth it to spend the money and get a guided tour. Price-wise, I think the ziplining tour I did in Costa Rica was much better value for what you get. However, a German couple I met did the trek by themselves but they didn’t see any birds or get any of the information and local knowledge that we did on our tour, as well as having to pay for a taxi to and from the park and the entry fee. I’m not sure how safe I would have felt doing the hike by myself. Perhaps it’s because I’m not the most seasoned hiker in the world, but I just feel more comfortable hiking with at least one other person and I don’t feel quite ready to go it alone in unfamiliar forests or mountains. Maybe some day!