We arrived in Panama City a little subdued. After five weeks in Barbados it felt like we’d left a loved one behind. Having planned very little, we knew for the next three weeks in Panama that we’d be going with the flow. More excitingly, we had a visitor who would be joining us for a week which certainly helped to soften the blow after leaving paradise. Moo’s mother Soz arrived from chilly England into the stifling heat of the city with as many expectation as us. First up, we of course went to see the canal (I’ll talk about that later) before spending time in El Valle de Anton and Taboga Island.
First up, we were a little shocked to discover that Panama, like Costa Rica uses US dollars as their currency. So while prices looked cheap on the menu (well, I guess they were still a hellova lot cheaper than Barbados) we did still need to be careful not to blow our weekly budget on nice food and boutique hotels.
Moo found a reasonably priced hotel in the city where we perched for three nights. Our first day was spent finding a local SIM card, an artisanal coffee all before day tripping into the old town Casco Viejo (I’ll talk about that later too) which looked seriously beautiful.
In all honesty, we didn’t pre-plan to visit El Valle de Anton or Taboga Island. I half expected we’d follow the gringo trail and laze about happily on the San Blas islands. But adventure awaited! The beauty of online instant booking is that you can pre-book a place to stay with little notice. And if you’re a little cheeky like we are, you also have the opportunity to ask for a little discount – which we often do, by the way!
El Valle de Anton
Based in the crater of an extinct volcano in the middle of Panama, El Valle de Anton was a great place to get a taste of the real Panama. Being sandwiched between locals in the tiny mini-bus from Panama City was our first insight into how friendly, patient and cheeky Panamanians are. Chatting away to the friendly locals, in my embarrassing Spanglish whenever we could, we barely spotted many other travellers during our time here.
Geographically, the caldera is 120km from Panama City (three hours by bus), has a radius of 6km and was formed about 1.3 million years ago.
We caught the local collectivo mini-bus from Albrook station early in the morning and for a measly $5USD each, arriving just in time for lunch.
After that, it was time for the thermal baths.
By three in the afternoon, we could think of no better activity than to enjoy the thermal baths. The hot springs Pozos Termales are located a short walk from town and cost $4 USD. While they are man-made and seemingly a little grimy, our skin did feel amazing afterwards.
Time for dinner! Oddly, something Panama has a lot of is Italian restaurants. It was a little unsettling, but as they say, When in…. you get my drift. We ordered some pizzas – they weren’t bad, nor great – it did go well however with the national Balboa beer.
La India Dormida
The next morning we were excited to hike La India Dormida (the sleeping Indian). If you look at the ridge line from town, it seemingly looks like a lady lying down. We started the walk from our guesthouse and made it to the top within two hours. Starting the walk you’re surrounded by the familiar trickle of a nearby waterfall and luscious forest. Before you know it you’re atop the windswept, jagged grassy top. RIP Moo’s hat.
It was someone’s stupid idea (guilty!) to walk the entire ridge, which had us watching our footing carefully for another two hours as the wind desperately tried to blow us sideways. We made it back in time for early afternoon and promptly visited the fresh fruit and vegetable market and bakery for a homemade sandwich. Delicious.
This photo give you a good idea of how long the ridge is once you’re up the top!
Eating in El Valle de Anton
After our sumptuous lunch, we relaxed the afternoon away before the most exquisite dinner at Casa Florencia restaurant. Yes, it’s Italian! I’d forgotten what good wine taste like. I highly recommend the tempura octopus and of course, the pasta!
We left the valley early the next morning, back to Panama City. Sure, we could have gone bird watching or visited the zoo, visited ‘butterfly haven’ or seen some waterfalls. But to be honest, our interest was waning. The Pacific was waiting.
Seeing the Pacific Ocean again for the first time in nine months was a sight for sore eyes. And while it resembled nothing like the stunning beaches of Sydney, intuitively, I felt a sense of home. But there wasn’t much time for being pensive. Taboga island was calling or should I say the island of flowers (Isla de Flores), it’s more popular name.
With flowers aplenty, the island is mostly popular with day trippers from the city. We were excited to be spending the next four nights on la Isla and look. I know it’s a bit farfetched, but I definitely felt for a moment, if I really squint my eyes like I was back on Procida Island off the coast of Naples.
The best part? Very limited cars, which meant for a peaceful stroll about the island. Locals get around by buggy and only occasionally will you see a car, likely transporting goods or people or both.
Getting to Taboga Island
Just a quick thirty minute ferry ride from the big smoke. I say quick because your mind wanders as you pass literally hundreds of cargo ships along the way. Toboga Island is located in the Gulf of Panama, so if you’re looking on a map, it’s just south from the mainland, most cargo ships will be waiting days at a time to cross the canal over to the Caribbean side.
Despite the island being minuscule, its (surprisingly) home to 1,600 people who all live port side, the other side is totally uninhabited. Miraculously, we still managed to find things to do. Mind you, we read a lot and relaxed plenty in between.
Note: we didn’t swim once on the beaches, they seemed a little grimy, but the pool at our airbnb did the trick. I’d like to take a moment to appreciate our adorable airbnb, Casa Rosie.
Thankfully Moo had done his research to find out that Taboga has limited supplies and barely a supermarket, so we’d brought food for a few meals for our stay. In particular breakfast – it seems nowhere worldwide knows breakfast like us Aussies, we came prepared.
So, what did we do?
Hike to the cross (Cerro de la Cruz)
Needing something to do and two days in, we opted for the short hike along Cerro de la Cruz. Not particularly well kept and pretty rough and ready (but well marked!) this trail takes you out of the port town, and down to the south end of the island.
The ascent is short and sharp (maybe twenty minutes) before you’re rewarded with stunning views of the island, Panama City and the hundreds of cargo ships waiting to be called to the canal or getting their final checks.
Our airbnb host offered us a free ‘tour’ of the island, which involved our driver asking us where we wanted to go. At which point we said…umm you tell us! Given the bunker is located at the highest point of the island and we didn’t fancy the walk (the humidity wouldn’t allow it) we headed there first.
The views from here were incredible (queue feature image!). You really got a picture of what it would be like keeping watch over the country for pirates or explorers looking for respite.
Walking across the islet over to Morro island was next – although it was largely disappointing. The one thing the three of us kept mentioning was the word ‘potential’. The island has SO much potential, it’s just waiting for a few keys players to commit to the opportunities that tourism brings and it would be a hit with local and international guests a plenty.
Morro island was overgrown, the footpath had completely disappeared and despite a map detailing all the things we could see, we just couldn’t get to it for the sake of no-one taking care of the trail. Note the tides if you are planning on bush bashing through this, the islet disappears completely at high tide.
I get it, most day trippers just want to rent a chair and umbrella and sip a beer or two. But not everyone. We saw many tourists walking around, not fit for the beach, who would have probably paid good money to be entertained with some history.
Eating on Taboga Island
You simply must eat at Villa Caprichosa, a gorgeous villa set up out of the way, designed by the famous American-Italian designer Diane Burn. Or if you’re just visiting for the day, Vereda tropical, Playa Honda Restaurant and Calaloo were cheap and local.
If you are here for just the day, and you love coffee like me, I highly recommend visiting Charlie at the Plaza Cafe. He’s always up for a chat, has a book exchange, sell’s local art and crafts and serves a seriously decent espresso!
From Taboga Island, we said goodbye to Soz and were due west, all the way west to the Bocas del Toro archipelago.
Until then xo
Have you been to El Valle de Anton or Taboga Island? What did you think?