Somewhere in Latin America: 365 Islands

Manuela de Mendonça is a 23 year old geographer, traveller, writer and runner currently backpacking  through Latin America.

She is documenting her adventures across the continent and sharing her experiences of food, history, culture and nature with us. Expect to read about ancient temples, local restaurants and the best places in the world to go walking.


26 November 2018 Somewhere in Latin America: 365 Islands

Visiting Central America even for as little as 8 days is ample time to visit more than a few places and there is no question that spreading your time across several places is worth the effort. Combining Costa Rica with Panama will give you several different cultural flavours in a short space of time; it’s a popular combo for everyone from backpackers to families to senior cycling tours.

Both countries are blessed with two coastlines: the Pacific and the Caribbean. You can cross the border on either coastline and also inland at Paso Canoas, Rio Sereno or Sixaola, but if you are hiring a car you’ll have to leave it behind and pick up a new one on the other side. If you’re on a relatively short trip or want to cut down on travel time then it’s easy to fly between the capitals which will take just a matter of hours.

There are a few must-see places. For a trip of 8 days, you’d have to sacrifice one of Costa Rica’s coastlines after flying into San Jose. The Pacific is a mecca for surfers and wildlife watchers, with tiny surf towns bordered by rainforest. On the other side you’ll find some of the best seafood around and unruffable Caribbean culture.

If you’ve got two or three weeks you’ll have time to visit both coasts and explore some of the interior. I recommend staying in La Fortuna, hiking in the foothills of the Arenal volcano with hot springs and waterfalls to explore as well. Cerro Chirripo in Costa Rica is the second tallest mountain in Central America, where you can see both coasts from the peak on a clear day.

“You have good energy,” my taxi driver tells me. “Keep it up, people want to share it.” I am on my way to the border with Panama heading for Bocas del Toro and the San Blas islands.

Bocas del Toro is a chain of islands off the northern coast surrounded by coral reefs. There are beaches of pristine white sand where you can snorkel with starfish immediately offshore. The main island, Colon, has everything you need including a pharmacy, several supermarkets and ATMs, but has earned itself a reputation as a party town. If that’s not your scene, there are beautiful hotels to the north of the island and on Solarte and Bastimentos, the two other main islands.

There’s one more archipelago that’s earned its stripes as one of the most beautiful in the world. Draped over the top of Panama’s northern coast are the San Blas islands, of which there are supposed to be 365, one for each day of the year. These are still governed by the indigenous Guna Kala people and their tourism industry reflects this. The San Blas islands couldn’t be more different from Bocas del Toro which are distinctly westernised. San Blas is immersive, there is no WiFi or phone signal and accommodation is much more rustic: backpackers can sleep in hammocks.

Travelling south, you are likely to end up in Panama City with a visit to the canal. Depending on the costs of flights and weather patterns, the route can be done in reverse. From Costa Rica you can head north into Nicaragua (NB. check Foreign Office travel advice) or fly up to El Savlador or Guatemala and explore other parts of Central America. From the San Blas islands there is a 4-day voyage by sea to reach Colombia and to explore South America from there. But that’s another story.



Previous Blogs:

19 Nov 2018  Somewhere in Latin America: Costa Rica by Bus

12 Nov 2018  Somewhere in Costa Rica: Ethical Wildlife Watching in Manuel Antonio

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