My first week traveling in Panama!

After a weekend in Panama City, I spent my first full week exploring some off the beaten path sites here in Panama. First, about 2 and half hours north of Panama City to Lago Bayano (Bayano Lake) to visit Pueblo Nuevo, a small community of under 200 people and importantly, bat caves! Then it was off to the province of Coclé to visit 3 potential tourist sites with hikes to various waterfalls.

Throughout my blog and travels in Panama, I’ll break my week down by day so you can get a feel for what’s doable in a day in Panama. Things sometimes move at a different pace that what I’m accustomed to, and it’s important to keep this in mind when traveling through the country.

Bayano Lake

Getting to Pueblo Nuevo & Lago Bayano

At first I was a little nervous for this trip. Ok, maybe a lot nervous. Within my first few days in a brand new country, I was traveling on my own. I had to catch a bus, travel to Puente Bayano (The Bayano Bridge), get off and wait for Miguel, a man I hadn’t met yet, cross the Lago Bayano (Lake Bayano) over to Pueblo Nuevo, and finally get a tour of the bat caves. I had spoken with Chelsea, a Peace Corps volunteer at the site, and she had given me specific directions.

I am always up for an adventure, but I still have some residual corporate type A in me that makes me uneasy, and even a little stressed, when trying to find my bus without a schedule or a route map posted. I had to trust that I found the right bus and that after asking the bus attendant (another new thing I learned here in Panama – most buses have a helper who stands near the door, takes money for the rides, puts your bag in back if needed, and alerts you of your stop), I would be correctly alerted when we came to my stop. I’ve since learned that this is best way to find out information in Panama: just ask. They usually know and there are not enough signs anywhere to really be self-reliant.

Sure enough, after about 3 hours, the bus attendant told me we were at Puente Bayano, and I got off at the correct stop where I waited for my ride across Lago Bayano. The bus stop had 2 kiosks on opposite sides of the street where I got ice cream to mollify the discomfort of the heat and humidity. Our boat driver was a bit delayed and I ended up waiting under a covered area for a few hours before catching a boat across the water. There was a $2 for a charge to use the port (this was new to me, and enforced by a lady that waited at the top of the port area on and off throughout the afternoon) and it cost $3 for a boat ride across to Pueblo Nuevo.

Since it had just rained in the area, I learned another lesson that day. Don’t wear white chucks into the smaller communities in Panama. Roads or even paths don’t exist, and there’s a good chance you’ll be walking through mud. Especially during the rainy season. I’m sure you’re not surprised to hear my white chucks are no longer white. Anyway, arriving in Pueblo Nuevo, I dropped my things in the eco-lodge (a small wooden house with 2 rooms and a bed) and walked to a locals house for lunch. Lunch was typical Panamanian fare – fish, rice, bean soup, and a cucumber salad. Very filling and tasty.

The Bayano Bat Caves

Next – the whole reason I came! The bat tour! Due to scheduling and an illness, the local guide could not give the tour so I received an English speaking tour from Chelsea. She has been living in the community for a year and a half and has given many before, so I was in good hands!

We set out along the river that ran directly next to the eco-lodge and traveled up to the end of the caves at a swimming hole. The caves were something I had never seen before – erie, mystical, and beautiful all at the same time. We came across areas with bats circling overhead, had to swim through portions where the water was too high to hike. We walked through areas with high moss covered rock walls, the jungle and vines hanging down from above. Unfortunately, I couldn’t bring my camera on the tour since mine is not waterproof, but I think that only adds to the mystery and mystical nature of these caves.

At the end, there was a small water hole with two spots to jump in, so we jumped and cooled off in the water. The locals apparently find the water cold sometimes, but it felt so refreshing on the hot, humid day. In all, the tour was about an hour to an hour and a half and cost $7. Since I was the only person on the tour that day, it may have sped by a little faster since we stayed together and could travel more swiftly in the smaller areas of the cave. There are also local tour operators that bring groups to the caves, but I am not sure the cost as they may also provide transportation and other expertise on the area.

Overnight stay in Pueblo Nuevo

I chose to stay overnight because of the two hour bus ride back to Panama City and the risk of not making the bus in time. If you leave on an early bus from Panama City and are able to cross the lake earlier in the day it is entirely possible to make this a day trip, but I chose to stay overnight and make it easier. Plus, I liked the idea of spending one of my first nights in Panama in a remote town with the possibility of hearing monkeys and other animals.

For dinner you either need to bring your own or arrange a meal with a local family for about $4. After meeting Chelsea, she invited me to join her, and I had a wonderful fresh meal of curried vegetables over a potato with a side of coconut mango chutney. It’s amazing how she could prepare such a complex meal with just a gas powered stove top, a little creativity and fresh food. It was probably one of the best meals I’ve had since being in Panama.

At dusk I felt exhausted from the day’s activities, and I fell asleep to a symphony of howler monkeys, frogs and cicadas. It sunk in that I was truly in the jungle. The eco-lodge was a modest two-room house with a raised bed, and a mattress with a mosquito net covering it. It cost $10 to stay the night and it was worth the price to experience a night in what felt like a different world. (Note that there is no electricity in the community, but the cell phone reception was quite good.)

The next morning after a quick oatmeal breakfast we boarded a boat back to the mainland and then waited for our bus back to Panama City. Once again it was easier than I thought, especially since this time my stop was easy to find, as it was the last stop of the route – the Albrook bus terminal in Panama City. Not only was it exciting to have toured the bat caves of Pueblo Nuevo, but I felt empowered that I made it without any issues. The corporate type A stress is slowly but surely subsiding!

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