Life Nomadic: Fifteen Essential Tips for Panama

Only a week remains in my two month stay in Panama, so I thought it would be useful to condense everything I’ve learned here to make it easier for future travelers.

Panama City is one of my favorite places in the world. It’s a perfect blend of “frontier spirit”, as Todd calls it, comfortable city life, good prices, and nearby cities and towns to explore. In list form, here are my recommendations for Panama:

1. When in Panama City, check out Casco Viejo before you decide on a place to stay. It’s a two dollar cab ride from anything in the city and it feels like a totally different country. Manolo Caracol, located in Casco Viejo, is considered to be the best restaurant in Panama, despite only costing $20 for the prix fixe menu.

2. The best place to go outside of Panama City is Boquete. The weather is cool, there’s tons to do, and it’s the total opposite of Panama City – perfect for a break.

3. Grocery shopping in Panama City is excellent. El Rey, Super 99, and Riba Smith are the main grocery stores. Riba Smith has the best selection of healthy foods and American and European imports. Organica, located in Paitilla, is an expensive store that has even more health food imports.

4. Don’t try to live in Paitilla or Pacifica. These are the the super gringo areas, which sounds like a good thing but isn’t. Cangrejo, Marbella, Bella Vista, and Obarrio are the best areas downtown. I personally wouldn’t want to stay anywhere farther out, except for Casco Viejo from #1.

5. Don’t pick up Taxis in front of hotels or malls. Walk down the street. If you ask the price, they know they can rip you off. If they try to barter the price up front, they’re trying to rip you off. Get in the car, and pay $2 for the ride as long as it’s within downtown.

6. Try patacones. They’re delicious fried plantain chips.
7. The only coffee shop with wifi is NY Bagel near “cabeza de Einstein” on Via Argentina. There are a few internet cafes that have wifi for .50-.75 per hour. The one at Via España and Via Argentina has really fast internet (for Panama).

8. When you arrive at the airport, go upstairs to the departure gate dropoff area. The taxis there will charge you less than the ones downstairs. Shoot for $15, negotiate up front.

9. Rental cars are only around $20 a day, which makes them great for road trips. Thrifty on Via España is a good place to go.

10. Finding good apartments is very difficult. Craigslist and VRBO are good places to start, but they are expensive. I rented a room from Michael (lirpa1966 at E-mail him and he may have something for you too. Just don’t book my room next winter!

11. The hostels in Panama City are pretty bad. I’ve stayed at a few and wouldn’t recommend them. Casa De Carmen is somewhere between a hostel a hotel. Great place, decent location, and decent prices.

12. Bocas Del Toro is probably not worth visiting unless you’re really into surfing. If you are into surfing, it’s a must do.

13. If you like beaches, go to the San Blas Islands. Any hostel will get you in touch with the right people to make it happen. It’s real remote island living with real indians. Highly recommended.

14. If you are a vegetarian, you MUST go to Casa Vegetariana next to Manolos near Casa Veneto. You will eat there every day. For special occasions, check out La Novena across from Happy Copy on Via Argentina. Arturo will take care of you!

15. It is possible to swim in both oceans in one day. We did it in 89.5 minutes, ocean to ocean. Can you beat us?

Panama is one of the first places I’d recommend to anyone. Consider visiting, and use these tips to make your trip even better.

Life Nomadic: The Wonders of Boquete, Panama

We woke up the next morning, eager to see what Boquete looked like. We spent all day driving there from Panama City the day before, but by the time we got there it was too dark to see anything.

“Wow. It’s paradise here.”

It was. Whenever I imagine paradise, I think of a white sand beach with perfect blue water. But then when I get to such a beach, I get sick of it within hours and want to leave.

This was different. Boquete is in the Panama highlands and is bordered on two sides by mountains. The result is year round perfect temperatures (if not perfect weather), and the feeling of being nestled in some secret valley.

My first thought was of Galt Gulch from Atlas Shrugged. It was exactly how I had imagined Ayn Rand’s utopia.

If you go to Boquete, and you really should, I recommend staying at Hostel Nomba. I’m normally not much of a fan of hostels, but Nomba was really clean, everyone there was friendly, the location was perfect, and the owner, Ryan, was unbelievably helpful.

A lot of people had cars around town, but we also noticed that some people had horses instead. I’m not talking about horses for recreation, I’m talking about daily driver horses for transportation. They tied them up outside of cafes, just like a cowboy might.

Neither Todd nor I had ridden horses in ages, but we decided that we absolutely had to find some horses to ride.


We asked Ryan if he knew where to rent horses. Sure enough, he did. He gave us directions to his rancher friend in the mountains and told us to tell him that we were his friends.

The paved road became a dirt road, which led to a rickety wooden bridge that looked as if it may not be intended for cars. The idea of a rental car plummeting into the river below was too hilarious to pass up, so we went across it.

No plummeting happened, but immediately after the bridge was an impassable (yes, we tried) incline covered in huge rocks. We parked the car and started loading our backpacks with snacks and water to continue on foot.

“Hola! Me llamo Didimo!”

I looked up to see a short Panamanian rancher’s face smiling at us. It was Didimo, Ryan’s friend. I introduced myself and explained that we wanted to rent some horses.

No problem, he said. He had to leave for an hour, but there were hot springs on his property that we could soak in while we waited. Hard to complain about that.

After a short soak and a swim in the freezing cold river nearby, Didimo galloped up on his horse. He took us to some horses nearby and explained how he loved his animals and always treated them and fed them well.

We mounted our stallions and he lead us towards the woods. I had no idea if we were going to be walking around in circles in a pasture, or if we’d actually get to have fun.

Any reservations I had were put to rest when I saw the trail we were about to climb. It was narrow, rocky, and so steep that I’d be hesitant to climb it myself. To be totally honest, I had no idea that horses could even climb rocks like that.

For two hours we climbed through mountain trails, galloped through open fields, and walked along the banks of the river. Occasionally we’d stop in a pasture to play with other animals. Of particular interest was jumping on and riding a water buffalo bareback.

Didimo was the perfect guide. You could tell that he was delighted to show us around and was really proud of his animals and his land. We hadn’t worked out a price ahead of time, but after the ride I was willing to pay just about anything. He charged us almost nothing.

To go ride horses, soak in the natural springs, or just hang out with Didimo, talk to Ryan at Hostel Nomba. Didimo doesn’t have good cell phone coverage out there. I also imagine you could just show up and he’d be happy to have you.

I could talk about Boquete all day long, but I’ll leave you with one more great off the beaten path thing to do in Boquete.

The next day we were eating lunch at the Hostel, not sure what to do with the day. Ryan offhandedly suggested going to Paradise Gardens, a wildlife rescue shelter.

Great recommendation. The awesome thing about places like Panama is that they don’t have the same problems with people suing over everything, so there are often times less regulations. This was the case with Paradise Gardens.

We made friends with one of the volunteers, and he took us around personally and let us inside a lot of the cages. We played with a giant parrot, a lemur, a two toed sloth, and even a jaguarundi. At the end, after the center had closed, we stuck around and helped take care of baby owls by feeding them and warming them with our breath.

The grounds themselves are designed by an expat stone mason and his wife. They’re covered in beautiful flowers, stone walkways, fountains, and cages full of wild birds being rehabilitated.

The whole experience was magical, and well worth the $5 donation they ask for.

If you go to Panama, you must go to Boquete. It’s my new definition of paradise, and feels like a whole new country hidden within Panama.

Life Nomadic: The Pan Panama Road Trip Begins!

The best adventures are the unexpected ones.

We sat at La Novena, an amazing Vegetarian restaurant on Via Argentina in Panama City. We order the same thing every time. Soup of the day, avocado salad for me, almond and pear salad for Todd, and whole wheat pasta with eggplant and tomato. We ordered it so much last year that when we returned the chef already knew exactly what we wanted.

After a predictably amazing dinner we stood in front of the kitchen chatting with the chef, Arturo. He used to be an engineer, and it shows in his meticulous preparation of the food.

Next to him was one of his employees, chipping away at the shells of dark brown beans, putting the cleaned bean in a small tupperware container.

“Que hace ella?”

And that’s when our education on the making of chocalate began. From a town near the Costa Rican border, called Al Mirante, came the raw cacao beans. Then they fermented them, roasted them, chipped away the shells, and ground them into cocoa powder.

Amazing. Todd and I are huge fans of dark chocolate. Anything above 85%. Can we try one of the beans?

The beans were delicious. We’d had both tried packaged cocoa nibs back in the states, but this was something different. They were barely bitter, just an overpowering chocolate explosion with a subtle fruity flavor.

We were hooked. Arturo put some of the beans in a cup for us to take home and Todd and I resolved to make the twelve hour drive to Al Mirante try to visit a chocolate plantation.

After dinner we headed to an internet cafe. A quick search revealed that Thrifty would rent us a car for only $8.10 a day.

“At that price, let’s just get the thing for two weeks and go everywhere.”


We instant message our friend Vince, who is also in Panama, to see if he wants to come.

“Where are you planning on going?”

We never plan. We just go and let the adventure unfold ahead of us. The rental car wasn’t available the following morning, which had already put an annoying delay in our adventure.

From meeting fellow travelers during our time in Panama we know of a bunch of places that are worth visiting. David, Boquete (our first stop), Bocas Del Toro, El Valle De Anton, and of course a stop in Las Tablas for Carnaval again.

And so now I write this from the car as Todd drives like a madman through the Panamanian frontier. I occasionally glance up to find us in the oncoming traffic lane as he passes a car. Besides going relatively lightly on the horn, he’s adopted the Panamanian way of driving.

Thus begins the great “Pan Panama Road Trip” of 2009. Stay tuned as we go everywhere in Panama and let you know what can and can’t be missed. If you’ve been to Panama and want to suggest somewhere not on our list, let us know and we’ll probably go check it out.