Panama in 20 Days (Part 5)

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Fujifilm X100 – f5.6 1/220 ISO200 – Shot from the plane when we were arriving in Bocas Town.

This is part 5 of 5 part series of our travel to Panama. Click here if you want to go to part 1.

Bocas del Toro

Bocas del Toro is an archipelago off the Northwest coast of Panama in the Caribbean Sea. It’s becoming an increasingly popular ecotourism destination with a vast biodiversity to explore. Adventure lovers will find plenty of activities to do as well, from scuba diving to snorkeling, surfing to hiking.

We were in doubt whether we should go to Bocas del Toro or not. We had some issues to find a suitable hotel that accepts children under 6-year-old, we also had to book an extra flight from Panama to Bocas del Toro and back only available through Air Panama. All I have to say is that it was well worth it, even though we covered just a small fraction of what we could have done there.

Aerial view of Bocas del Toro

Fujifilm X100 – f5.6 1/320 ISO200 – Bocas Town at Isla Colon. Shot taken from the plane.

Bocas del Toro water taxis

Fujifilm X100 – f5.6 1/1000 ISO200 – Bocas del Toro water taxis take you from island to island.

Bocas del Toro street

Fujifilm X100 – f5.6 1/60 ISO640 – Bocas Town main street.

We stayed at Red Frog Beach Island Resort on Isla Bastimentos, a 15-minute water taxi ride from Bocas Town on Isla Colon. Bastimentos is one of the largest islands in Panama, a National Marine Park encompasses a large portion of the southwest side of it. Most of the beaches are located on the western side, including Red Frog Beach. We opted for a 3-bedroom villa and we had a very nice stay there. The villas are far away from the reception and restaurants, they have golf carts for rent so you can move around the resort easily.

Red Frog Resort Marina

Fujifilm X100 – f5.6 1/1000 ISO200 – Red Frog Resort Marina.

Red Frog Resort Villas

Fujifilm X100 – f5.6 1/500 ISO200 – Red Frog Beach Island Resort Villas.

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Samsung GX–10 with Schneider D-XENON 18–55mm F3.5–5.6 – f8.0 1/500 ISO400 @18mm – Red Frog Beach

La Loma Chocolate Farm was on the very top of our list of places to stay in Bocas del Toro, but they don’t accept children under 6-year-old. Fortunately, we could visit the place since they have a chocolate farm tour for people who are not staying there, which I highly recommend it. We spent half a day there, including lunch, and it was very nice. Henry, the owner, explained the whole chocolate making process, from cocoa plantation to chocolate tasting. Needless to say that my daughter loved it.

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Fujifilm X100 – f4.0 1/60 ISO320 – Parking Lot at La Loma.

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Fujifilm X100 – f5.6 1/60 ISO500 – The ever so popular Red Poison Dart Frog. They are very small, it’s easy to miss it.

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Fujifilm X100 – f2.8 1/60 ISO2500 – Preparing the chocolate.

We hired a tour to Zapatillas Cays as well. They offer beautiful beaches, clear waters, coral reefs and small forests. We were hoping to have a similar experience such as we had in San Blas a few days before. But, in my opinion, despite the fact that Zapatillas Cays are also in the Caribbean sea, there is no comparison between the two and I prefer San Blas by a large margin. The weather didn’t help much either since it was cloudy most of the day.

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Samsung GX–10 with Schneider D-XENON 18–55mm F3.5–5.6 – f8.0 1/200 ISO100 @43mm – Zapatillas Cays

Wildlife is easily spotted when wandering the resort. We saw sloths, monkeys, alligators and a vast diversity of birds. As you may guess, bringing some telephoto lenses is a must If you plan to visit Bocas del Toro.

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Samsung GX–10 with Sigma 70–300mm F4–5.6 DG Macro – f10.0 1/50 ISO400 @210mm – Young hawk.

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Samsung GX–10 with Sigma 70–300mm F4–5.6 DG Macro – f10.0 1/250 ISO200 @190mm – Sloths are easily spotted around the resort. We saw many of them during our stay there.

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Fujifilm X100 – f5.6 1/75 ISO200 – Red Frog Resort aerial view.

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Fujifilm X100 – f5.6 1/80 ISO200 – Ships arriving at Panama Canal.

Conclusion

The main goal of this trip was to spend some quality time with my family, and I can easily say we have accomplished that. As a photographer, even though I had taken some photos that I’m proud of, I would love to come back to Panama focusing on travel photography as a project. There are so many places I want to revisit and taking my time to photograph properly. Panama is an excellent destination for photographers, from the Caribbean beaches to the Skyscrapers in Panama City, from tropical forests and wildlife to street photography in Casco Viejo, you wouldn’t regret spending some time there, I didn’t.
There are some places that we planned to go and missed for a variety of reasons, here is a short list that I leave as a suggestion so you can do your own research if necessary:
– Panama Viejo, the remaining part of the old Panama City – We have tried to go there twice and it was closed;
– Boquette in Panama’s green mountain highlands.
– Isla Contadora in the Gulf of Panama;
– Portobelo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site near Colon.

As a grand finale we spent the last three days at the Hard Rock Hotel in Panama City, relaxing by the pool and drinking cocktails.

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Fujifilm X100 – f5.6 1/30 ISO800 – Checking in at Hard Rock Hotel.

Thank you for reading and if you have any question, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment, I really appreciate it.

Panama in 20 Days (Part 4)

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Samsung GX–10 with Schneider D-XENON 18–55mm F3.5–5.6 – f8.0 1/80 ISO100 @18mm – Isla Pelicano is a very small island within the San Blas archipelago.

This is part 4 of 5 part series of our travel to Panama. Click here if you want to go to part 1.

San Blas

Paradise is the first word that comes to mind when I think about San Blas. With white sand and palm trees surrounded by crystalline turquoise water of the caribbean sea, these desert islands, untouched by civilization, look like a masterpiece of a great painter. My eyes have never witnessed anything like that and we were all thrilled with this unforgettable experience.

There are 378 islands within the archipelago and they are part of the Comarca de Guna Yala, a semiautonomous territory of the Guna Indians. If you enter the San Blas area, you have to obey their rules and tradition. Tourists can’t move freely around and the best alternative to get there is using one of the Guna’s shuttle services that take you from Panama City to the Caribbean coast, where travellers are met by Guna boatmen who ferry them to the islands.

We took a slightly different approach and decided to drive ourselves to San Blas. We met a Brazilian friend who lives in Panama City for many years. She gave us the contact of one of the indians responsible for making the transportation to the islands. We exchanged some messages via WhatsApp, half in English, half in Spanish, and I was unsure that he fully understood our plan. Nonetheless, I assumed we had the basics sorted out and we also had an agreement about the price for taking us to two islands of our choice. We followed the recommendation of our friend and opted for Isla Pelicano and Piscina.

From Nightmare to Paradise

The day before the scheduled date, we heard about a Navy statement to avoid sailing in that area with small boats for the next five days or so due to strong winds and big waves. I immediately sent a message to our boatman asking if we should postpone our trip. He said that we shouldn’t be worried because it was a beautiful sunny day there and he was sure the weather will stay the same the next day. We took that response with a grain of salt, but decided to go anyway because it would be very difficult to schedule another date to visit San Blas if we were going to wait for those five days.

We woke up early next morning with a positive thinking that everything would work out, packed our stuff, food and drinks and took the road. This time my X100 stayed safe at home and I took just the GX–10 which I have no regret using it under harsh weather conditions, sand and salty air.

It took us about one hour to drive from Panama City to El Llano where we take the road to Puerto Carti. Although this 30-Kilometer road is mostly paved, you must have a good four-wheel-drive car, as they are the only vehicles allowed to pass the border cross station into the Comarca de Guna Yala, where you must stop to pay the tourist tax. The reason is simple, there are passages with running water on the track, steep climbs and hairpin turns with sheer drops that will make you feel like on a Roller Coaster. We knew this in advance and rented the car accordingly.

There are beautiful landscapes along the way but I couldn’t stop because the road is too narrow and I was going to block the cars behind me. Now I regret that I haven’t taken any pictures or video, even if I had to do it from inside the car.

When we were nearly there, the sky got completely overcast with dark clouds and within minutes started to rain. Suddenly a silence took place in the car and I could see the disappointment on everyone’s face. I thought to myself, the trip is ruined. Out of nothing my 4-year-old daughter started to chant a Brazilian music to stop the rain, and soon everyone joined her singing pretty loud. It was a fun moment to relax a bit, we have a lot to learn from our kids, definitely.

Puerto Carti - Departing to Isla Pelicano

Samsung GX–10 with Schneider D-XENON 18–55mm F3.5–5.6 – f7.1 1/40 ISO200 @18mm – Puerto Carti.

When we finally arrived at Puerto Carti the view was quite underwhelming. The infrastructure is pretty basic, the water has no resemblance of what you expect from the Caribbean sea and the rain was not helping the place to look any better. As soon as we got out of the car, the Guna taxes began. You have to pay for everything, I mean everything, from parking to the restroom. I paid yet another tourism tax and I couldn’t even understand exactly why. They expect tips for anything, even to point me to where was the guy I have the arrangement. Be prepared with a lot of small bills if you have the intention to go there.

Puerto Carti

Samsung GX–10 with Schneider D-XENON 18–55mm F3.5–5.6 – f7.1 1/50 ISO200 @18mm – Puerto Carti is where the boats leave to take the tourists to the islands.

I asked the boatman about the rain, he said every morning is the same thing, it rains for a few minutes then stops. And sure enough in a couple minutes there was no more rain. Within 45 minutes, we were all in the boat ready to leave. The helmsman was a man of few words. I asked him how long it will take to get us to Isla Pelicano. He said around 30 minutes, in Spanish of course, and we didn’t hear his voice anymore until we arrived at our destination.

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Samsung GX–10 with Schneider D-XENON 18–55mm F3.5–5.6 – f7.1 1/160 ISO200 @18mm – The helmsman made a short stop at Carti Sugdrup, a small Guna village, to refuel.

Those 30 minutes seemed like an eternity. Suddenly that navy warning we ignored made a lot of sense. The sea was very bumpy and the boat was going really fast jumping over the waves and hitting hard back on the water. We were all scared, I held my daughter’s arm firmly because I was afraid she could fall off the boat. My mother-in-law was terrified and asking me to talk to the helmsman to take us back. When she gave up this idea, because it will take longer to go back, she started to pray out loud.

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Samsung GX–10 with Schneider D-XENON 18–55mm F3.5–5.6 – f7.1 1/125 ISO200 @40mm – Carti Sugdrup at distance from the boat.

As we got near a group of islands, the helmsman slowed down, the water was calmer and we finally realize the reason we were there. I couldn’t believe my eyes with that magnificent view of those desert islands. The different tones of the water, from dark blue to bright turquoise, have to be seen to be believed. Paradise, we were in paradise.

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Samsung GX–10 with Schneider D-XENON 18–55mm F3.5–5.6 – f8.0 1/250 ISO100 @18mm – Isla Pelicano.

When we finally get off the boat at Isla Pelicano, we were welcomed by two Guna indians. Each island has an owner, but not necessarily they live there all the time, only when there are tourists. They offered food, drinks and some handicraft items and, you guessed, charged once again more tourist taxes. We were the only tourists there for hours, it was like a private island for most of the time we spent there. We were having such a nice time that we decided to skip our visit to Piscina.

Isla Pelicano - San Blas

Samsung GX–10 with Schneider D-XENON 18–55mm F3.5–5.6 – f8.0 1/400 ISO100 @45mm – The different hues of the water is remarkable.

We scheduled with our helmsman to pick us up at 4:00 PM. He arrived 15 minutes earlier and was a little drunk. He kept drinking beer all the way back to Puerto Carti. Luckily we had more passengers on our way back helping to keep the boat on water. Once we get there, we quickly packed everything and left in time to cross the border control station before it closes at 5:00 PM.

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Samsung GX–10 with Schneider D-XENON 18–55mm F3.5–5.6 – f8.0 1/200 ISO100 @18mm – The warm crystalline water of San Blas is something I will never forget.

It was quite an experience to spend a day in San Blas and I will do it again if I have the chance.

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Samsung GX–10 with Schneider D-XENON 18–55mm F3.5–5.6 – f10.0 1/100 ISO125 @18mm – My wife and daughter relaxing under a palm tree.

Next and last part, we are going to talk about Bocas de Toro. Please, if you have any question or just want to leave a comment, use the comment section below. Thanks for reading.

Panama in 20 Days (Part 3)

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Fujifilm X100 – f8.0 1/550 ISO200 – Ship crossing Miraflores Locks

This is part 3 of 5 part series of our travel to Panama. You can check part 1 here.

Panama Canal

The Panama Canal is considered one of the seven wonders of the industrial world by the American Society of Civil Engineers, it connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through the Isthmus of Panama, creating an important shortcut for ships to cross between oceans and avoid the lengthy travel to the southern tip of South America.

Being an engineer myself, I was really eager to see this marvelous engineering accomplishment since we arrived in Panama City. The idea was to visit both sides of the Canal, Miraflores Locks on the Pacific side and Gatun Locks on the Caribbean Sea side. From there, we would stop by Amador Causeway, on our way back to Panama City, to contemplate the sunset and have a nice dinner in one of the many restaurants there.

Unfortunately, the plan didn’t work out as we thought. When traveling with four other adults and a 5-year-old child, we should expect last-minute changes in the plans and adapt ourselves to the will of the majority. No one else wanted to take the one-hour drive to Gatun Locks after visiting Miraflores Locks as planned, and I also had to give in the opportunity to extend the trip from Gatun to Portobelo to visit the ruins of the Spanish Colonial fortifications, considered a UNESCO World Heritage site. Our Amador Causeway stop was also ruined because we arrived there too early to wait for the sunset.

Our visit to the Panama Canal boiled down to just Miraflores Locks, the closest to Panama City and the only one that has a visitors center with a full view of its operation. So, if you have to pick just one of the locks to visit, this is the one to go. It also includes a museum, a movie theater and even a simulator that put you on board of a ship crossing the channel. We arrived there around noon, after a short visit to City of Knowledge just across the road, in time to watch a cargo ship cross the channel. The observation deck was a bit crowded but still manageable to watch the whole process.

Miraflor Locks

Fujifilm X100 – f8.0 1/550 ISO200 – Miraflores Locks main building, it’s possible to see the expansion of the third lane under construction in the background.

Panama Channel

Fujifilm X100 – f8.0 1/600 ISO200 – Left view of the Miraflores Locks from the observation deck.

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Fujifilm X100 – f8.0 1/750 ISO200 – Miraflores Visitors Center observation deck.

I’m glad I also brought my GX–10 and a tele lens, along with the X100, for a few close-up shots.

Gates at Panama Channel

Samsung GX–10 with Sigma 70–300mm F4–5.6 DG Macro – f8.0 1/1000 ISO400 @70mm – One set of the Miraflores gates.

Panama Canal

Samsung GX–10 with Sigma 70–300mm F4–5.6 DG Macro – f10 1/100 ISO100 @93mm – These little guys keep the ship from hitting on the walls.

Miraflores Locks - Panama City

Samsung GX–10 with Sigma 70–300mm F4–5.6 DG Macro – f8.0 1/2000 ISO400 @100mm – Ship leaving Miraflores Locks.

Amador Causeway

We decided to go to Amador Causeway on the following day for the reasons I already mentioned before. Although I visited Miraflores Locks and Amador Causeway in two different days, I still think it’s a good idea to go to both Locks in the same day, including a short visit to Portobelo and ending the day at Amador Causeway. It’s totally doable and a good plan for a day while you are in Panama City.

Amador Causeway is a breakwater that extends more than three kilometers into the Pacific Ocean connecting three islands: Naos, Perico and Flamenco. To understand what Amador Causeway really is, it’s better to see it from above.

 

There are beautiful sights of the Panama City skyline from different points of Amador Causeway. On the opposite side, there is the Bridge of the Americas, the entrance of the Panama Canal from the Pacific Ocean, where you can see the ships passing by.

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Samsung GX–10 with Schneider D-XENON 18–55mm F3.5–5.6 – f7.1 1/125 ISO200 @45mm – Nice view of the Panama City skyline from the marina.

Amador Causeway

Samsung GX–10 with Schneider D-XENON 18–55mm F3.5–5.6 – f7.1 1/60 ISO100 @50mm – Nice sight of ships transiting the channel and the Bridge Of Americas in the background.

The causeway is packed with restaurants and bars, you can also rent a bike or a motorcycle. My family rented one of these 4 seat bikes and went from one end of the causeway to another. I took the opportunity and decided to go walking to give myself some time to photograph.

This time, since I knew from the day before what to expect, I took just the GX–10 with kit and tele lenses to have the wide-to-telephoto range covered and put them in a small Lowepro bag.

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Samsung GX–10 with Schneider D-XENON 18–55mm F3.5–5.6 – f8 1/30 ISO100 @21mm – Bikes for rent.

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Samsung GX–10 with Schneider D-XENON 18–55mm F3.5–5.6 – f6.3 1/20 ISO400 @23mm – Amador Causeway sidewalk.

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Samsung GX–10 with 70–300mm F4–5.6 DG Macro – f10 1/320 ISO400 @190mm – There were handreds of pelicans flying and fishing.

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Samsung GX–10 with Schneider D-XENON 18–55mm F3.5–5.6 – f7.1 1/200 ISO400 @55mm – Ship heading out to Ocean Pacific accompanied by pelicans.

In part 4 I will be covering the turquoise water and white sand of San Blas in the Caribbean sea.