The two sides of Panama
What we enjoy when we travel is a matter of personal taste, of state of mind, and of having the right company (including being solo). I spent a month in Panama and I still can’t make up my mind whether I really liked it or not. There were a lot of things to do in Panama, and truth be told, I found some places amazing, while I thought that others were a bit overrated. It was almost as I actually visited two different countries. Each was beautiful in its own way, but for a number of reasons I liked one more than the other.
I think that there are two sides to Panama. I don’t just mean geographically – that is quite obvious: one side faces the Caribbean Sea, and the other the Pacific Ocean. I actually refer to the overall vibe that I got on one side as opposed to the other. The two sides could not be more different: both beautiful, one is packed with tourists, vibrant, lively; while the other is a lifetime away from the all the buzz.
The funny thing about me is that I am hardly bothered to go off the beaten path. My idea is that if a place is considered to be a tourist attraction, it’s because it is “attractive.” And if it is thought to be attractive, I want to see it. I am not fussed by the heavy presence of tourists, really (well, unless it gets out of hand). I usually end up off the beaten path because I either get lost or I get frustrated with places that are meant to be beautiful but that for some reason don’t give me what I am looking for – either an image, a feeling or whatever makes traveling great.
Of all the places I visited in Panama, two are really worth mentioning as they do represent perfectly the dichotomy I talked about, the two sides of Panama that I saw. One of them is Bocas del Toro, and the other one is Playa las Lajas.
Getting to know Bocas del Toro
Most travelers that go to Panama make a beeline to Bocas del Toro as soon as they arrive in the country. I admit to being guilty of the same sin. Bocas del Toro is located on the Caribbean side of Panama, almost on the border with Costa Rica. It is a 12 hours journey from Panama City, by a combination of boat (to/from Almirante) and bus. I had read about Bocas del Toro, I saw documentaries showing a beautiful archipelago of tropical islands, and I was intrigued. It was my number one place to visit in the country. I was sure I’d love it.
What I somehow didn’t register through my extensive reading (call this being selective about what information we deem important and what not) was that, being on the Caribbean coast, even though it was supposed to be the dry season, it may still rain a lot. And sure enough, it did.
Despite the rain, during my time in Bocas del Toro I managed to properly explore the archipelago: I visited the most famous white sandy beaches such as Red Frog Beach and enjoyed the clear waters of the Caribe; I hiked around through muddy paths; I invested some money in going snorkeling and seeing some interesting marine life and dolphins; I sipped cold beer by the waterfront at sunset; and I enjoyed a bit of the nightlife of Bocas Town – though to be fair it seemed mostly geared to a younger crowd of barefoot surfers.
Yet somehow, despite everything, I didn’t feel at ease. It may be the fact that I had to rely on buses, taxis or boats to get to the nearest beaches, when I have always been used to walking to the beach (I know, it’s my fault for being spoiled); it may be the fact that I could not look past the piles of garbage on the streets and on the beach (garbage disposal is an issue in the archipelago); it may be the fact that it was really crowded; it may be just a matter of my state of mind at the time.
So, after 5 nights in Bocas Town, I moved to Isla Bastimentos, where I stayed 5 more nights. This is much smaller and quieter – there aren’t cars on the island, and the main village only has one dirt road cutting through it. I found it more pleasant than Bocas Town. But I encountered pretty much the same issues I had in Bocas. The only area with affordable accommodation options was far away from any beach (it was either a hike through the muddy forest or a boat ride to get to the nearest one), and there were few dining options – making it very monotonous after 2 nights there. But at least it was quiet.
Admittedly, Bocas del Toro is really beautiful, bit for some reason it just didn’t do it for me. After 10 days of attempts of falling hopelessly in love with it and looking for the tropical paradise it was supposed to be, I decided to give up on it and move somewhere else. I went through my travel guide and picked Playa Las Lajas – which had gained just a short mention there. It was about half way between Bocas and Panama City and if I really didn’t like it, I could make my way to the capital.
Ending up in Playa Las Lajas
Playa Las Lajas is at about 7 to 8 hours from Bocas del Toro, or at about 6 and a half hours from Panama City, on the Pacific Coast of Panama: the bus only goes to the road intersection in Las Lajas, the nearest village at 10 km away, and then it is a quick taxi ride (or a hitch) to Playa Las Lajas. It is still Panama, but it feels on a wholly different planet.
I spent 5 blissful days there, kissed by the strong sun (no sign of rain or even clouds there: when the Pacific Coast says it is dry season, it actually means it), walking, biking and relaxing on an amazing beach that was literally at my doorstep (no bus, bike, or boat ride needed to get there), and swimming in the warm waters of the Pacific Ocean. I enjoyed the rhythm of the tides, observed crabs digging holes in the sand, and stood breathless in front of the sunsets that only the Pacific Coast can offer.
Playa Las Lajas is a 20 km long sandy beach, lined by palm trees, with no real village in sight. There isn’t much in terms of tourism infrastructure: a few upper scale hotels and resorts, one hostel, lots of simple and very cheap cabanas by the beach which can’t even be found on booking engines, and some mid-range hotels – each with an on-site restaurant or eatery
But for as bare bones as it was, I enjoyed it. There were a lot fewer people around – the occasional tourist walking along the beach, a few others enjoying the warm ocean water. Most people around where Panamanian tourists, and a few foreign ones – French, Americans, Spanish. The lack of crowds in Las Lajas also meant that the place was much cleaner than Bocas. That was in and of itself already a good reason to make me enjoy it more.
The pace of life at Playa Las Lajas was slow: someone climbed a palm tree to fetch fresh coconuts, while people below were staring, cheering and more importantly waiting for a fresh coconut. There were no shops, no artisans market, no surfers walking around barefoot, nobody pressing me to buy a tour, book a room, or any other service.
Yes, Bocas del Toro had the white beaches and the clear waters, the trendy bars and restaurants, the shops and the nightlife. Yet I fell for a place that had little to offer other than its pure natural beauty and that was completely no frills. I loved it because it was soothing and relaxing and that was just what I needed.
I found my tropical paradise in Playa Las Lajas.
Bio: Claudia is a former human rights lawyer and academic who abandoned her career to follow her passions, which has brought her across 4 continents and has involved rafting down some mighty rivers, zip lining across canyons, and hiking to the craters of active volcanoes. Through her blog, she shares a lot of travel tips, a few travel stories and the occasional rant.
You can read more of her stories @ My Adventures Across the World