Alright … I’m Back! Here with Travel Stories Panama – Part 2! Who else is excited? Today I am going to tell you about my time spent in Santa Catalina.
I was, when I boarded the bus to Santa Catalina!
We decided to take the local bus, since it’s the cheapest, easiest way around and I feel like it is always nice to mix with the locals. You’ll have the full travel experience, learn something on the way and might even make a friend or two.
Neither off us was above the age of 25 so renting a car was out of the question. I found some offers that would rent out a car if you were 21 and had your license for at least a year but most were 25 or above or would have you pay extra for any younger driver. We’d also have to pay for gas.
I am not sure about the laws about camping in Panama, so you could save on hostels but please check that first to avoid any legal troubles.
I’d also suggest having at least two drivers; just in case. Also: drive safely. As always.
Going by bus in Panama
Now: Infrastructure and public transport in Panama is a little tricky. There isn’t really a net of rails so getting from point A to point be is easiest by bus. Travelling will take up a lot of time and you might have to wait and change a couple of times.
There’s no real schedule, so that makes navigation a bit hard. It is hard to find a current table – especially in English (Spanish is highl encouraged) – and the busses don’t really keep to it anyways. They tend to wait a while for possible late travellers and it’s no problem to tell them that you are still waiting.
Generally busses leave most stations on a 1/2 to 1 1/2-hour basis.
I’d also always reccomend talking to the drivers – knowing Spanish is really helpful! – they know about their rout and are usually very helpful. Some will even drop you off right at your hostel/hotel if it’s on or near their regular route. Just ask politely.
So: Plan ahead and be aware of that. Especially since you do not want to get stranded or in case you want to travel by daylight.
This might be my German genes coming through but: Be there early (and rather wait a while), ask around, don’t be afraid to communicate, carry enough money, look after your stuff but don’t freak out!
Santa Catalina is basically one street and a beach. What doesn’t sound very appeailing to urban dwellers and adrenalin seekers is actually quite relaxing and calming – at least for a couple of days. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend staying longer than three days. That’s me so, and I’d always suggest booking two to three nights and the adjust your travel plans accordingly. If you like a place there’s no harm in staying longer than planned. Travel at your own pace.
That one street solely exists of a couple of hostels, restaurants and dive centers. There are a couple of local abodes but most inhabitant tend to live a little further away from the center. Honestly: I’d do the same.
Now you could walk down that lonely road o get to a tiny strip of beach. It’s quite nice just to put your feet into the water, go swimming or just have a look. There’s some palme trees and a relatively new ruin that looks quite charming if you’re into lost places. I also saw a horse standing there which probably belongs with one of the locals.
You could also turn left and walk through the forest oand over some plains to get to the actual beach. You’ll probably meet some surfers along the way, you could bring your own board (if you have one) or rent one at one of the many places. There is a surf resort directly at the beach so you won’t necessarily have to bring one. Just get it there.
Since I’m more of a scuba diver and less of a surfer I can’t really tell you about surfing, though.
Santa Catalina – Dog county
So on our first day we decided to go to the beach. The weather wasn’t to great – you really never know in the tropics – so we didn’t really do anything. It was nice to get out of the room and catch some fresh air, though.
Now, it is quite normal for animals to just walk around freely: Cats, dogs, chicken, sheep, even cows …
So: As we were walking – minding our on business – this huge brown fuzzy dog broke through the bushes and headed towards us. Now since I have a dog and had another before I feel like I can read the quite well and I am not particualrily scared of them. Please do not be nervous when around stray dogs (animals). Most animals communicate more through body language than sounds and will notice you being nervous and might see that as a sign of aggression. Don’t be too bubbly as well: Remember, you do not know these animals, their circumstances, their health status or their relation to humans.
My experience with the dogs around Santa Catalina have been all around positive, though. Some are very careful and a little nervous but not aggressive.
The dog joined us on our walk and followed us wherever we went. I pet him a couple of times, played a little. It was a pretty cool experience and it made me feel right at home.
After a while to smaller dogs joined us. They went on to play with the bigger dog, fight a little, then follow us around as well.
A fourth dog joined shortly after.
They’d walk all the way to the beach with us – they’d followed some surfers on their way down but we met back up after a while.
We didn’t go wimming – the water was very cold that day – but dipped our feet in a little, threw some sticks then watched the dogs play with each other.
The water was quite far out when we arrived. The tide is incredibly noticeable.
As we wanted to walk back the water had risen and a little pool had built up between us and the mainland street. One of the smaller dogs wasn’t able to cross anymore. Their whole demeanor reminded me of my pup at home so I quickly picked them up and carried them across. I wouldn’t reccomend doing that since it is a little risky … Especially if you are not familiar with dogs and don’t know how to read them.
All went well and the dog was kind of disappointed to be put down again … We met that particular dog a couple of times after.
Bhodi Hostel – Santa Catalina
Bodhi Hostel lies at the beginning of Santa Catalina. If you’re quick enough and tell the bus driver on time they will drop you of right in front … If not: That doesn’t matter. The official bus stop isn’t far. It’s right outside the only little shop in Santa Catalina, next to a fruteria – a store that sells fresh fruit and veg.
Just hop off and walk back to the village’s entrance.
The rooms were amazing! Probabaly the most luxurious hostel I’ve ever been to.
Wood and natural stones, soft white and creme tones dominate the interior and exterior. If you’r staying with another person and you have some money to spare you can stay in a two-bed-hut outside. If not just book a dorm.
I think we payed aroun 11$ or 12$ a night. I found that to be quite average in Panama.
The hostel was very nature based and sustainable and it is all about relaxiation and enlioghtenment through travel. That also means: No WiFi, cold water. We didn’t really consider that when booking and were a little surprised. Don’t let that scare you off: The days spent there were some of the most relaxing I ever had!
The no WiFi-thing is good for slowing down but a little hard to handle if you don’t have your ongoing travels booked.
There is a Red-WiFi-spot right outside the door.
Red Para Todos – Internet for all is available all throughout the contry. There’s several free Wi-Fi-spots , easily recognizable be signs. Everyone con log on. Please be aware that open WiFi-spots aren’t necessarily the safest network options!
Breakfest was included: You’d get freshly made pancakes, syrup, coffee, tea and some fresh fruit.
The fresh fruit and sweet syrup would attract tiny little bees. There are all sorts of bees in the rainforest! Most of them are a lot smaller thatn our Eruopean honey buddies and they don’t have stingers. You can touch them or have them crawl on your hand without no danger at all.
Trash is being separated.
There are some hammocks outside to relax and the staff was amazing and very helpful.
Bodhi hostels is a chain in Panama so you can stay in several hostels across the country.
Panama Dive Center – Santa Catalina
Panama Dive Center is the Base I went to Coiba National Park with. They offer daily trips for certified divers with two to three dives a day. You may also book a whole PADI-class to get certified or a dive to try-out but I wouldn’t do either in Coiba. More on that in a minute.
It’s most definitely not because I wasn’t happy with the service or my guide or the dive – I most definitely was – but because the site itself is a little … tricky.
The center is run by Germans and the staff speaks Englisch, German, Spanish and French. Their website is available in those languages as well.
I think it is very important – in general but especially when diving – that you can communicate well with the people you’re with and that you feel comfortable and confident. I had that at Panama Dive Center. The place is very light and open and they have a cat and a dog that’ll greet you when coming in!
They facilities are clean, the gear is great and they will take care of everything for you! As soon as you get out of the water the staff will was and clean your gear for you (Super weird feeling since I am so used to doing everything myself!). The owner also lended me her gloves since I asked and they didn’t have any for rent. Amazing service, no less.
I’d still reccomend checking out the other centers around Santa Catalina. As I said: Feeling comfortable IS important – especially since your life can depend on it – so check out your options. What felt great to me might not for you.
Coiba National Park
Oh my god. Coiba National Park consists of a couple of island and – most importantly – the reef.
Now, when I’m saying reef I don’t mean coral reef. I’m talking about a rocky reef here. That means the fish and animal you’ll se will be completely different from what you may expect: I saw turtles, barracudas, morray eels, starfish, triggerfish and several small swar fish. The highlight – and the reason I was looking forwards to Coiba so much – are the sharks. Oh my god do I love sharks. They are beautiful, elegant and they shimmer gorgeously blue in the light.
Now: Don’t get scared. Sharks aren’t as bad as their reputations and the sharks around Coiba are only black-or-white-tips.These are smaller and not very aggressive. In the correct season you might as well bump into hammerheads or bull sharks but those are extremely rare!
The currents at Coiba are incredibly strong. When you go out in the morning you never know what visibility will be like and it might cnange any second and from spot to spot. You can sometimes see or feel that happening underwater as well: Sometimes cold water will come in, sometimes there’ll be some more plankton floating by. At times we had to hold on to some rocks to not get dragged out and swept away.
While the currents are partially responsible for forming the national park and they’re what attrackts the sharks . they also carry in some unwanted visitors: There are jellyfish all around Coiba. I got lucky and didn’t bump into any, but some people haven’t. They’re mainly harmless but it will sting and stay on for a while. Most boats carry vinegar in case you got stung.
Remember that I said don’t do your licence at Coiba? That’s why. The spot isn’t easy. And while all that is very compelling and beautiful I feel like it would frustrate freshman divers.
Don’t worry: You can also go snorkelling. You’ll have lunch on he beautifull white-sanded beaches of the emerald coloured islands.
The main island used to be a prison so Coiba is also said to be haunted … I just thought I’d through that tidbit in there. My camera cut out right when we stepped onto it so make of that what you wish … It also means that I – sadly – don’t have any pictures to show you.
Ghosts and sharks aside: You might also get lucky and bump into some whales. We heard (!) them underwater) and drove by a mum and child on our way back. Just keep your eyes peeled! Be aware, though: It’s not always whale season.
La Vieja Panaderia – Santa Catalina
After a long day out in the sun you might hear your belly rumble a little … Don’t fret: There’s plenty of good food around Santa Catalina. I’d suggest having a look around.
If you don’t want to go searching, how about I help you out: La Vieja Panaderia is located directly across Bodhi Hostel. It is a hostel itself – yet it doesn’t offer many rooms – a backery (Spanish: Panaderia) and – in the evenings – a pizzeria. The food was quite good, yet not the best pizza I’ve had in my life.
What I really loved thogh, was their bread. Oh my gosh! If you’re getting tired of pancakes and bananas, how about you hop on over and get yourself some freshly backed bread rolls, muffins or – my personal favourite – cinnamon rolls. If you’re early enough all of those might still be warm.
They also offer lunch packages and sandwiches in case you have something bigger planned and still need something to eat.
Most Coiba trips will have their sandwiches for lunch.