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Journey Through Panama - James Barkman - #FindYourPath
What do you do if you have a pile of air miles and 2 free weeks in your schedule? Book a ticket to Panama of course, and convince a friend to do the same! In this case, my brother. I packed a couple cameras, a hammock and sleeping bag, grabbed my snorkel and fins and hopped on the plane. I’ve been to Central America quite a few times, but never to Panama and had heard rumors of quite a few locations still relatively untouched by crowds of tourists.
I met my brother David at the airport in Panama. Armed only with a backpack and a couple hundred bucks each, neither of us had any plan whatsoever aside from seeing and doing as much as we could for as cheap as we could. I usually stick to that plan and it rarely lets me down! David had recently backpacked through Europe for a few months and I’ve been living on the road in my van for almost 2 years, so neither of us were strangers to traveling on the cheap.
Once we arrived we did some research and decided to head to Santa Catalina, a small surf town on the Pacific side approximately 6 hours by bus. We quickly discovered that time slows down in Panama, due to the fact that neither myself nor David knew little to no Spanish and bus schedules are nearly non existent. If you miss the bus that leaves in the morning, you have to wait until the next morning. This sort of scenario happened quite frequently, but it’s all part of the experience!
We arrived in Catalina as the sun was setting, and had just enough light left to find a couple trees along the coast to string up our hammocks. We set up camp and jumped in the water to rinse off a day of traveling. Some surfers from a hostel had told me about a legendary surf spot in Santa Catalina, supposedly one of the best point breaks in Central America. We woke up the next morning only to discover that we had accidentally camped right in front of it! We stayed in Santa Catalina for a few days, ate fresh fish and caught perfect waves. I’m used to surfing in the cold water of the Pacific Northwest, so paddling out in board shorts and 80 degree water felt quite unusual!
Another highlight of the trip was spending a few days on the San Blas Islands. The islands are controlled by a self governing indigenous tribe called the Kuna Yala tribe. Only a few of the 365 islands are inhabited, some with small villages and towns, and others with barely any room for a couple palm trees.
Getting to San Blas requires a 4x4 vehicle and is around a 90 kilometer trip from Panama City, much of it through beautiful jungle. I could’ve sworn our driver used to be a street racer. I had no idea a Toyota Land Cruiser could whip corners that fast.
With our extremely limited Spanish vocabulary, we managed to catch a water taxi and get dropped off on one of the 365 islands, some 45 minutes out to sea. We had no idea what to expect, other than being told that the island was "very small”. An extremely accurate assessment, to say the least. Besides the native Kuna Yala man and his wife that lived in his tiny bamboo hut, we were completely alone. With no access to food or water, we packed a few days worth of fresh fruit, water and of course, whiskey.
It’s hard to describe what it feels like to be alone on an island in the middle of nowhere. Definitely some heavy Robinson Crusoe vibes. We snorkeled and explored the incredible coral reefs surrounding the island, swam beside manta rays, got sunburnt, ran out of food, witnessed incredible sunsets, and fell asleep in our swinging hammocks to the sound of wind and waves. The 2 weeks in Panama went by fast, but not too fast for me to learn my fare share of useful Spanish phrases, such as "dónde está el baño”. There were, however, no bathrooms on our tiny island.