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Bocas, Portobelo or San Blas?

Florida
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Bocas, Portobelo or San Blas?

We are 2 adults and 2 17 y.o. teens and we're trying to decide where to go to take surfing lessons and snorkle. Based on the reviews of Panama's beaches, it sounds like we want to be on the caribbean side for both activities. However, the only surfing lessons posted in the threads were by LN for the Panama Surf School at El Palmar Beach.

We will be in Panama a total of 12 days (excluding travel days in and out) around ~6/29 through ~7/12 and we will be renting a vehicle (4WD). Since we live in Fort Lauderdale, the beach is not a priority for us other than a day to fool around with surfing and snorkling.

Our primary locations to visit are Volcan/Boquete, El Valle and Panama City/Portobelo. The reason I group Portobelo with Panama City is because it's close enough to not require significant travel time.

Bocas?

Do we go to Bocas as a side trip from Boquete? I'm not exactly sure of the route. One of the threads I read said to leave Boquete and pass through Volcan/Guadalupe/Cerro Punta on the way, but that doesn't look right on the map (it looks like the opposite direction). We could start on the Volcan side, wind up on the Boquete side and then out to Bocas. That's 8 hours round trip, 11 hours from Bocas to El Valle, and 13 hours from Bocas to PC (does that sound right?).

San Blas?

We're probably looking at $1,500 to $2,000 for 4, just to snorkle (I'm assuming there's no surfing). However, the lure of 100's of deserted islets, crystal clear blue water and coral reefs sounds like a something out of a storybook. My only concern is whether it's worth the added expense. We did this in Honduras when we went to Roatan. The beaches were gorgeous and the snorkling was okay (water was fantastic, but very little fish). But, there were several untreated sewer ditches that drained across the beach and into the water.

Portobelo?

From what I've read, the coral reef there provides for good snorkling and I believe there's also surfing, but I don't recall anything specific in the threads. This may be our best option in regards to time and expense, but I just can't get the image of a deserted islet out of my head.

Any input is greatly appreciated.

Jim

Atlanta, Georgia...
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for Colon, Isla Grande, Portobelo
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1. Re: Bocas, Portobelo or San Blas?

There are two excellent surfing locations; Bocas on the Caribbean, which also offers warm water and very good snorkeling on a number of reefs. There is also Pedasi and Santa Catalina on the Pacific side. (And, of course, LN's recommendation for El Palmar, which is just west of Coronado. Pedasi is at the tip of the Azuero Penninsula. Santa Catalina is just west of the penninsula. Santa Catalina is about a 7 hour drive from Panama City, and much closer to David. Pedasi is 5 to 6 hrs from the city. Not much snorkeling at either location.

As for getting to/from Bocas, it's not a side trip from Boquete. Almirante is a good 3 to 4 hours from Boquete. And, from there, it's a half-hour water taxi ride to Bocas Town. To get to Bocas from Boquete, You first have to drive south to the Panamerican Highway, then go east and then go back north to get to Almirante. There is no way you're going to get to Bocas by going to Volcan and Cerro Punta. Again, going from Boquete to Volcan/Cerro Punta, you drive south to the highway, head west, pass David and then go north to reach about the same lattitude on the other side of Volcan Baru, Panama's tallest mountain. Volcan/Cerro Punta could be done as a long day trip from Boquete, as they are only about 2 - 2 1/2 hours apart.

Forget Portobelo, except as a niceday trip from Panama City. There is no surf there. The snorkeling is not nearly as good as it was in years past. It's okay, but certainly not worth the $25+ per person you'll have to pay Scubapanama to take you there for an hour. (That's assuming you'll need rental gear.) The town and the forts are still worth seeing. Just don't let the locals con you into paying to park at the fort or anywhere else in town. It's public and it's free. They will also try to con you into paying $20 per person for a "tour" of the bay. Forget it. The only thing to see are the forts on the other side of the bay. Offer to pay a total of $10 for the water taxi ride -- for all of you -- to and from the forts. The Kuna women between the church of the Black Christ and the customs house still make the best quality molas in Panama. And, La Torre is still has excellent Panamanian creole at very reasonable prices.

I can't offer any first hand advice on San Blas. Just read carefully the posts and threads. I think your concerns are probably right. I also understand that the San Blas reefs have been pretty well decimated by over fishing.

Buen viaje.

Florida
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2. Re: Bocas, Portobelo or San Blas?

Thanks, gb.

What I'm thinking is to head straight from PC to Volcan. Do the east side of the mountain, Guadalupe/Cerro Punta, and then send my wife ahead to Boquete, with or without the boys, while I grab a guide and hike to Boquete.

If I can't hike, do you know what the mountain dirt roads are like from Volcan to Boquete? I loved Iceland, but my wife had a hard time with dirt roads and unbridged river crossings. The roads were like driving on tank tracks and the rivers were roaring glacier melt. When we were in Honduras, I saw what a rain storm washout looked like on the side of a Central American mountain taking out trees and boulders and the road.

The plan in Boquete is rafting, zipline, coffee plantation, horseback riding, hammock, cold beer. Very possibly in that order.

Sounds like Bocas has what we're looking for along with the small islets that San Blas has. Do I have that right? I just have to come to grips with the fact that it makes a portion of our trip backtracking. But, everyone has nothing but good things to say, so I'm thinking the only thing I have to lose is just some time if it's not for us. My only concern is it appears to be a party place and I'd like something I can kick back. What do you recommend to be away from crazy?

From Bocas, we plan on heading to El Valle. Is the drive ~11 hours? Is there anything in between, or should we just drive through?

El Valle will mainly be hiking, biking and I'm sure my wife wants to be caked in mud at the spa. But, we plan on being there on the weekend to catch the open market.

From El Valle, it's back to PC to do the Canal, old town, fish in the lake. To me the whole PC/Colon/Portobelo area is all one and easily accessible from PC with a vehicle. PC will be our base and I'm not exactly sure where we'll stay, but I think we need to break PC into two segments. One with a car, where we would stay outside the main city downtown area, and one where we're in the city sans car.

Other than the traffic, is it really that bad driving in PC? It looks a lot like Old San Juan, PR, and I was able to drive there. But, if it's like the town of La Linea, Spain, on the border of Gibraltar, it's like a rat's maze. I got lost and had to find a local car to follow them out. I'm not planning on driving in PC, but in and out on day trips if I can. What do you think?

Thanks again,

Jim

LN
Panama City, Panama
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3. Re: Bocas, Portobelo or San Blas?

PC is nothing like Old San Juan. It is more comparable driving to Miami.

Since you have been there, however, and seen the fabulous still intact sites;

incredible architecture still standing; you will be bored totally in Portobelo area. I wouldn't suggest it as a day trip at all. Not much to see, not many restaurants, boring really (sorry gb).

For staying in PC I suggest La Estancia B & B. Love it there and always stay

there. You can read my review for the place also.

B & B LaEstancia on Ancon Hill-the highest spot in Panama City. They will arrange transportation very easily for you also. It is a no frills place, great breakfast, wonderful open common areas on several levels AND wonderful wildlife - you can see monkeys in the trees while eating breakfast on the patio, and resident sloth and exotic birds in the trees nearby.

Also wonderful views of the entire city from their open balcony/common area and the Bridge of Americas over the Canal which is spectacular; especially at night when it is lit up in all its glory.

There is a reason B & B LaEstancia stays near the number ONE spot for accommodations in all Panama City! I have stayed there many times, and you can also read my review on the place! They have two family suites on the lower level.

tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g294480-d317633…

B&B La Estancia - Website:

www.bedandbreakfastpanama.com

Casa 34, Quarry Heights, Cerro Ancon

Tel. +507- 314-1417 Fax. +507 -314-1604

I also recommend their tour company: http://www.panoramicpanama.com/

They have nice vehicles, speak English and are on time!

Atlanta, Georgia...
Destination Expert
for Colon, Isla Grande, Portobelo
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4. Re: Bocas, Portobelo or San Blas?

A lot to comment on. Here goes:

First, there are two ways to get to Boquete from Cerro Punta -- one by road, one on foot. The road is just what I described -- go back to the Panamerican Highway, pass David and go north to Boquete. There are no jeep trails that connect to Boquete. On foot, you cannot take the Quetzal Trail. It is still closed. You can climb Volcan Baru from Volcan and go down the road/trail to Boquete on the other side. The climb to the top of the 11,000+ ft. peak is about 10 hours. The way down is about 5 hours. Most people camp overnight on the summit. Of course, you should definitely go with a guide. You'll also need a warm bag on top. It gets down to 30 degrees at night. But, the view at sunrise is spectacular.

The jeep trail road down the mountain is like hiking on a steep, washed out creek bed. A lot of large, loose rocks. The 4WD trucks that bring supplies from Boquete have to use winches going up and down in places.

Unless you are willing to buy your 4WD, don't even think about 4-wheeling in Panama. The good roads are rough enough. And, if you damage your vehicle, you will pay for it. My AmEx insurance won't cover anything that occurs off a paved road. I don't think any other other card companies will do any better. And, the rental agencies won't accept 3rd party insurance. If you damage your 4WD, the rental company will make you pay in full before you can leave the country. To me, it's not worth it.

Yes, Bocas Town has a party element. That's around the square and the restaurants/casinos on the southern tip of the town. It's very easy to get laid back along the north shore where you'll find a few quiet restaurants and small B&Bs. Or, you might check out the more remote places and condo rentals on Bastimentos. Forget Carenero -- it is Mecca for Chitras (mean, nasty, sand fleas) and it is definitely party town. Hopefully, BastimentosJohn will chime in with some recommendations.

I've done the drive from Bocas to El Valle. Yes, it's about 11 hours and you'll feel it. But, I felt it was worth it. If you want to break it up, you could stop in Santiago or drop down to Las Tablas on the Azuero Penninsula.

The open market in El Valle is open all week. If you're looking for indian art and crafts, like molas, carvings and basketry, do your mola shopping at Portobelo and look for the other items in Balboa, at the Artisan Market and the old YMCA building. Your best selections and best quality will be at the Old YMCA building. With so many vendors, you can bargain for the best price. What I saw in El Valle a few weeks ago was highly over priced and mediocre quality. There enough tourists that come through El Valle that the vendors aren't interested in negotiating. If you won't buy it for their sticker price, the next gringo will.

LN and I agree on a lot and disagree on some things. Portobelo is one of the disagreements. I go there a lot, she doesn't. If you like history, Portobelo is not boring. If you could care less ... well, you might follow LN's advice.

As for driving in the city ... Glad you brought up driving on the Costa del Sol. We have a common reference point. The Costa del Sol -- Ronda, Nerja, Malaga and all the little towns in between -- is a breeze compared to much of Panama City. Seriously, you need to know the city before you can drive in it. There are very, very few street signs -- only directional signs (in Spanish) like "Left to Corredor Norte." Typical directions are "You know where the gas station is on the right? Well, that's not it. Go past two alleys on your right and make the next left. Then look for a ...." Many intersections have no traffic lights or stop signs. The traffic is always very, very heavy and the drivers are aggresive. If you don't have just the right degree of agression, you will not be able to negotiate the traffic. Too much, and you're going to get hit. Many of the streets are one way, without any logical sense, and you have to know the maze in order to navigate it. Navigation is by landmarks -- that's why you have to know the city to drive it, to know the landmarks. And, there are some very tough neighborhoods where you don't want to be. GPS's don't understand that and they will route you right into them. Now ... add onto all of this the fact that much of the city and the main arterials are torn up due to subway construction and new under/over passes being built. It only makes the traffic and the navigation worse. I hope I have put enough concern and question in your mind that you will reconsider your thoughts about driving in town.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin
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5. Re: Bocas, Portobelo or San Blas?

There are at least three surf schools in Bocas. One that's run out of Lulu's hotel, another next to the town park and La Buga which is also a diving school.

Florida
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6. Re: Bocas, Portobelo or San Blas?

gb/LN...

I hope you're both still following me. Here goes...

Bocas appears to be our choice. The problem I'm having right now is getting to Bocas from PC on 7/1/12.

We were planning on renting a car and driving, but that puts the cost (rental, ins, gas, parking, ferry) between $575 and $650 just for the car to sit in the parking lot for 4-5 days.

If we (4) fly, the base fare is $320, but I don't have an approximate % to estimate fuel surcharges and I'm assuimng the state tax is 7%. Any idea what % range is for surcharges?

Lastly, I can't find the evening express bus leaving PC on 7/1. The last bus is 6/28 and the next bus is 7/4. What am I missing?

Thanks,

Jim

Edited: 20 May 2012, 20:52
Atlanta, Georgia...
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for Colon, Isla Grande, Portobelo
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7. Re: Bocas, Portobelo or San Blas?

In April, two round trip tickets totaled $474. The subtotal for the tickets (4x $80 each way) = $320. ITBMS is 7% = $22.40. Fuel surcharge = $119. Airport service = $12. Total = $474.

I can't help you with the bus schedule. LN and stxSteve seem to know the bus schedules very well.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin
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8. Re: Bocas, Portobelo or San Blas?

The express bus runs everyday. You need to take the night bus so you can be sure to reach almirante before the last water taxi leaves. You will get there before the first water taxi starts but if you take the day express you risk getting trapped overnight in almirante.

9. Re: Bocas, Portobelo or San Blas?

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