This is not a cheesy title. I assure you. We were in the jungle and we definitely experienced enough thunderstorms to justify the use of ‘rumble’. We spent 4 days in Bambuda Lodge on Isla Solarte, Panama and this is what we got up to…
So, let’s start at the beginning. We left Panama City and the San Blas islands behind to make our way up to the North of this amazing country!
Transport in Latin America usually involves buses, buses and more buses unless you’re feelin’ fancy, in which case most cities are just a flight away. The whole of Central and South America is ridiculously well connected but it just depends on how well you can tolerate the lack of organisation/lower quality vehicles. Luckily, the three of us are well versed in backpacker transport and the night bus to Almirante was a no-brainer.
As you already know, we failed to get our tickets in advance (organisation hasn’t been invented here yet) so we had no choice but to buy our tickets on the day of travel. When we got to the counter there was no-one there and 4 people waiting – the only option was to wait it out. The queue began to grow and eventually a woman showed up when there were about 20 people in line. After serving 2 customers, she decided it was time for another break and we watched her leave the counter and go and sit down with her friends for a chat. You can only imagine how this played out…. 3 hours later we had tickets. Not for a sold-out West End show, Glastonbury or the Olympics, but for a shitty bus in Panama 👍
When we tried to get on the bus 10 minutes before it’s departure we were told that our tickets weren’t valid and we would have to walk to the end of the bus station, buy a travel pass for 10 cents and load our ticket onto that. Shout out to the super helpful counter lady who DID NOT TELL US ANY OF THIS INFORMATION. Turned out we weren’t the only travellers in this situation and one of the workers decided he’d buzz us all in without cards if we paid him 25 cents each. I respected his hustling and also could not be bothered to walk any further with my backpack so the latter option it was!
The benefits of a night bus are 1) they’re super cheap and 2) you can save on accommodation for the night. The downsides: 1) you probably won’t get any sleep and 2) there’s always that little bit of risk involved when it comes to safety (cue shoving everything valuable you own into your underwear).
We’ve also discovered that in Latin America there seems to be an unofficial law stating that all night buses must be kept at sub-zero temperatures throughout the journey. Forget the Zika virus, death by air conditioning is the real threat here.
After stopping a few times and being forced to evacuate the bus with all our stuff (I wasn’t joking when I said you get no sleep), we finally arrived at Almirante bus station. Outside there were a few pick up truck taxis charging $1 per person for a ride to the port – they always ask for more at first but it’s really easy to bargain the price down and the more people you can get into a car, the cheaper it is (and also the more illegal, yay).
At the port we paid another $6 for a boat to a place called Bocas del Toro. There were about 30 of us, all with gigantic backpacks and suitcases, being crammed onto a tiny boat. Alice compared our situation to that of a refugee – considering we knew our destination and had our valuables safely stowed in waterproof carry ons, I think we were a little far off that mark but it was still absolutely terrifying.
It was 4am in the morning and everything was pitch black. To make things even better, there was a ton of rain with flashes of lightning left right and centre. Sitting in a jam-packed boat in the middle of the sea is exactly how not to wait out a thunderstorm. There’s a fun (really obvious) piece of advice for you! I’m going to try and tone down the sarcasm now…. promise.
When we got to Bocas we asked if someone could take us to Isla Solarte – a few boat drivers were happy to take us at 8am which would have meant sitting around on the dock for a few hours but luckily, we scored an immediate lift at 6am. Little did we know that the reception at the hostel we were staying at wouldn’t open until 8am anyway, so sitting around was an inevitable fate.
We arrived at the dock of Bambuda Lodge and trudged up the dozens of stairs with our backpacks. Luckily, the hostel has a ton of outdoor seating and chill areas, which made the wait for reception to open much more tolerable. When a staff member finally appeared, we were told that we wouldn’t actually have access to our room until 2pm – once again we were playing the game of ‘see how long we can go without a shower’ (and we’re getting scarily good at it).
We booked this hostel because it had rave reviews online and seemed to be a ‘one-of-a-kind’ experience. When you first arrive you’ll feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, you’ll see signs saying ‘beware of crocodiles’, get eaten alive by mosquitoes, step around a million and one bullet ants and see some gigantic spiders. Although your first instinct may be to get back on the boat and never return, just wait it out – we promise it’s worth it. I think this may end up being our favourite accommodation of the whole trip. I know, I know – bold statement considering that we’re only on destination number 3 but it’s just absolutely insane. The whole thing is completely off-the-grid meaning that the electricity comes from solar power and all the water is collected from rainfalls and filtered for drinking/washing purposes. Anyone that knows me will know that this kind of sustainable eco-living is right up my street. Save the planet, right?
There’s also no shops or restaurants on the island so you just eat/drink at the hostel and add it to a tab. The tab idea is super convenient because you don’t have to faff around with money every day but it’s also really dangerous when you just start ordering 3 courses for every meal because it feels like it’s free…
We ended up hanging out with one of the owners, Dan who happened to be good friends with our previous Panama City hostel-staff pal, Daniel. Everyone in Latin America is called Dan apparently – we’ll keep you updated with how many more we can find.
Bambuda Dan is originally from Canada and sold his old business to move to Panama and start up some hostels with his friend, Tom. It’s inspiring to see how people just take risks to do the things they are passionate about and escape the 9-5 office trap that we have a habit of falling into.
He was travelling for 3 years before he found Isla Solarte/Bambuda and urged us to keep adventuring for as long as possible before getting real jobs so that we can figure out where our hearts are – something I love to hear! He mentioned that his friends were stuck at home with families and full time jobs and going through the classic ‘mid life crisis’ but I couldn’t help but notice how one-sided his opinion was. The thing is, you can either travel forever and see the world or you can settle down with people you love and have stability. I haven’t really met anyone that’s mastered both yet (if you find anyone, send them my way – I need to learn this sorcery!) but I think there’s always gonna be ups and downs with whichever life you choose to live. It can get lonely being a full-time nomad but it can also be difficult to imagine what you might have missed out on by settling down too soon. Hmmm, I’ll leave that thought for now and focus on what we got up to:
This was a day of admin and organisation – nothing worth blogging about minus the fact that we successfully booked our transport to Costa Rica!
When we were able to check in, we freshened up and headed back down to the common area where we were informed that it was party night with 10$ unlimited sangria and a trip to Isla Bastamientos to chill out in a reggae bar.
I bypassed on the sangria because I spent $10 on dessert instead (if you’re surprised then you don’t know me well enough at all) but Alice and Abbie made the most of every free refill.
A boat picked us up from the hostel and our driver was a crazy carribbean guy with dreadlocks who said he’d be out partying with us because it was his birthday. We were dropped off at ‘Bubba’s House’ to the sound of Bob Marley and the smell of marijuana… welcome to the Carribbean. Definitely more of a chill out bar spot than a club, Bubba’s offers live music and plenty of salsa dancing. We even asked a local to teach us how they dance – it’s all in the hips apparently. Alice and Abbie have a theory that mixed-race genes instantly equal danceability but I think they gave it a pretty decent shot and the three of us giggled the night away.
At the end, the live band started singing happy birthday to our boat driver who was absolutely hammered at this point. It’s funny how the rules of ‘don’t drink and drive’ are completely ignored if it’s your birthday and you’re driving a boat. Also, funny that we take precautions for malaria but think it’s fine to get a ride home with an intoxicated stranger. Minus points to us for lack of common sense but plus points to us for still being alive.DAY 2
We were keen to do a day trip and there was a brochure filled with adventure tours to see dolphins, sloths and orcas that sounded amazing. The problem is, these things are never guaranteed so you could end up paying a lot of money for nothing. Alice also pointed out that if we failed to see a boat in the Panama Canal, the likelihood of seeing rare ocean life was even less promising. We were all in agreement and decided to have free fun instead.
We got prepped to go on a massive hike to a place called Hospital Point but as soon as we stepped out of the door a thunderstorm hit and we were greeted by torrential rain. After much deliberation, we decided to put on some wellies and go anyway. The boots were rented from the hostel but we had a bit of a fiasco when we realised that 90% of them belonged to the BFG and the other 10% of them had holes in. Alice may also need a dual leg amputation after wearing them with no socks/trousers and slicing the back of her calves (forget Hospital Point, we need an actual hospital)
I bet you’re thinking ‘surely, this story get’s better’ but I’ll let you know right now that it doesn’t. We began the hike and freaked out at the first hurdle – walking across a slippery log. Little did we know that the rest of the path would be ten times worse. It was just a marshy, muddy, swamp – which led us to question why ogres would choose to live somewhere like this. Do they actually like swamps? Or do they just like their own company and know that other people won’t voluntarily go to a swamp?
I’ll let you ponder that one.
Back to our hike, Alice fell over approximately 20 times and I lost one of my wellington boots in a giant, oozy mud hole. We also heard a snort and saw a pig emerge from behind a tree which, for some unknown reason, Abbie thought was a lion and tried to run back through the forest in sheer terror. To put the cherry on the cake, this story ends with us going the wrong way and not reaching Hospital Point (the famously, gorgeous viewing platform) but instead sitting on a grey pier on the other side of the island wondering where the hell we went wrong.
This may all sound a bit depressing but I can assure you that we laughed more than we cried and we were all quite glad to get some exercise and explore the jungle. I’ve realised that when things don’t go to plan, the outcome is entirely dependent on attitude. When the three of us are together, we always seem to find a silver lining for every grey cloud and I know that this whole trip would be nowhere near as fun or spontaneous without them. Solo-travel isn’t always the best thing, after all… DAY 3
The hostel rents kayaks and stand up paddles for a small fee and, on the first day, we swore we’d take advantage of this offer. By day 3, we still hadn’t got round to it and even though we all wanted to get out and do something, none of us could muster up the energy to put our books down and move from the sofa. Every hour or so, one of us would mention kayaking and pray that noone else would respond – this continued until 4pm, I repeat: 4pm, when we finally forced ourselves to move. We weren’t exactly raring to go and looked a bit zombie-esque trudging down to the dock to get the kayaks but as soon as we were in the water and paddling along, our sparks ignited and we were back to our giggly, energetic selves. Lesson learned: always go out and play!
I’ve been kayaking a few times before and I usually just sit back and let someone else do the work because it’s really not my number 1 talent. This time, however, I managed to do a pretty decent job (shout out to my new kayak coach: Alice Williamson). We paddled through mangroves and jumped in when we found a nice open spot. Abbie was terrified at the fact that there were reef sharks in the area and decided to protect herself in a slightly unconventional way: she wore her flip flops to snorkel. Me and Alice almost drowned from laughing – it’s a well known fact that sharks quiver in the presence of flimsy sandals… All jokes aside, we spotted some jellyfish and by some I mean a million of them and swiftly paddled away to save putting the ‘wee works on a jellyfish sting’ theory to the test.DAY 4
This was one of those days where you don’t actually achieve anything but still feel like you’ve run a marathon. We checked out of the hostel after breakfast and settled the tab – only to then go and buy about 7393030 more food items and have to re-open it again… classic. We decided to hang around for the day even though we were no longer official hostel residents and set up shop by the pool after playing a competitive game of table tennis. After a few hours of solid relaxation, we called a boat taxi and waved goodbye to our beloved Bambuda! So, our next destination isn’t too far away this time. We’re just hopping on a boat back to Bocas del Toro to spend a few days there before catching a ride to Costa Rica. Hopefully if I can score some decent WiFi you’ll be reading about all of this sooner rather than later but hey, this is Latin America – nothing ever gets done on time! Hasta luego ✌️