Bocas Town, Panama
The mountains could hold us only a few days before we had that itch to get to the beach again. Bocas Del Toro on the surface of it, offers a similar experience to San Blas, tropical isolated islands but with a Caribe flavor. Our journey began by boarding a shuttle bus with Mary, and a family from the U.S. Twisting mountain paths, cloud forests and changes of temperature as we climb and fall through altitude. A couple of hours in and we stop in a small port town for snacks and bathrooms. Two kids offer to polish my shoes. ‘Shouldn’t you be in school’ I think. Then I realise it’s a Sunday. Rebecca gives them some small change anyway, much to my dubious frowning and makes some instant best friends. ‘Thank-you’ they chirp and go take a break in the restaurant.
We pile into the van and there’s some dispute about A/C, no A/C, open windows and winding roads from the U.S family but we’re all soon comfortable and twisting our way toward Bocas Town.
Christopher Colombus actually explored the area in 1502 and gave it the name Bocas Del Drago. The archipelago of islands was a haven for pirates. They built ramshackle lodgings here and ate sea turtles. Surprisingly the Spanish weren’t all that interested in the area given the lack of gold (der.. Pirates?) but decided to move in when a bunch of French colonists showed a bit of interest. And predictably all the European diseases moved in as well. In the late 1800’s Bocas developed a pretty robust banana industry, providing work for many Africans recently liberated from slavery. Jamaicans joined them, and today it’s still a flourishing industry. You might have seen ‘Chiquita’ bananas in the shops at home? Well there’s a good chance they’re from Bocas.
At the port we all pile into a small motor boat, some of us don life-jackets. I’m too cool for one so I leave mine on my lap. We pass the shanties on the banks of the port with outhouses built out over the water and soon we’re flying past mangroves to the open mouth of the ocean. Mountains in the background, sun shining, cool sea breeze. Beautiful. There’s a maritime version of Snoop at the helm. One arm on the wheel, oversized baseball cap and plenty of silver jewelry adorning his expensive t-shirt. ‘Laaaaid back.. with my mind on my money and my money on my mind’ I sing to myself..
Over to Isla Colon and the township of Bocas Del Toro. The water at the port is surprisingly unpolluted as we disembark. We instantly get a taste of the Caribbean in the town. But it’s kind of different and weirdly familiar. There’s broad streets and not all that many people around, like a country town in Australia. And there’s these colonial style buildings with wonderful broad wooden verandahs, like a typical Queenslander. Add to that the palm trees, town squares and a smattering of urban-chic style restaurants. There’s enough hippy travelers and ex-pats here to be Byron. It’s just the rastas, where do we place them? Dark faces and broad smiles hidden behind a jungle of dreadlocks, moving rhythmically like seaweed in an ocean as they walk. ‘Smoke?’ they might say as they pass. ‘Yeah sure man, I like to party’ I’d say in reply. No. That’s a lie. That sort of stuff can be really dangerous. ‘It’s only unsafe here when people buy drugs off the wrong people’ our hostel owner says.
Jenny owns ‘Panama Paradise Saigoncito’ bungalows and she’s heavily pregnant with her second child. We absolutely loved the place, a big room for 3 people complete with kitchen and bathroom and a fantastic verandah to just hang out on at night. Jenny’s paid a lot of attention to detail and there’s colourful lights, candles and hammocks strewn up all over the place. It was a half hour walk into town but she offers free bikes.
We never actually got around to getting them though because they were in-town and we were always off busy doing something. We felt pretty out of place here because cars and pedestrians are a second and third place to cyclists. Not those wanky cyclists in their form-fitting lycra and designer helmet’s with milky latte holders and bum-bags full of muesli bars; no these cyclists are just general town folk. Pedaling at a cruisy pace; ‘rush’ is not a word that exists here. The bikes are these retro swept frame things, with low-seats and white-wall tyres. I want one. They’re so cool looking, you can even get away with having a basket on the front. Which would be perfect for the times I’d pop down to Newport village to get a bottle of wine, loaf of bread, or sacrificial rabbit.
I wanted to do a dive here, as it’s listed as one of the best places in Central America for it. We stumbled up to La Buga dive center, set right on the water looking out to the nearby sparkling Cayo Caremero island. We spent heaps of time in the cafe here. It was great. Plenty of great food, great music and chilled people around. Plus the dive center has a little Jack Russel ‘Chula’ who after flinging himself off the jetty and into the water, snaps his jaws at the bait fish for a good half hour before swimming back to the shore, running through the shop on the jetty and jumping off again. The dive shop also has a green parrot ‘Pinata’ who sits on a nearby branch, chewing banana’s, bread and seeds and whistling at patrons. He was rescued by the dive crew after being savaged by a dog and now spends his days subtly keeping to himself.
We took in a trip to ‘Playa de Estrella’ or starfish beach, on the other side of Isla Colon. Accessible by van, then either a 30 minute walk around the coastline or 5 minutes in a boat. There’s little sand to lie a towel on but the white sand drops into calm, lapping, turquoise waters that on better days hide a plethora of starfish. We saw a bunch of school fish but spent most of our time wading between the beach and the calm bay where you simply soak away the hours. The beach disappeared into jungle for the most part, with the exception of a few beach bars blasting reggaeton from sound systems powered by generators. Kind of annoying actually, and certainly disruptive, but eventually we wandered back, through the coastal path, admiring the pristine environment and nearby islands. Past a decomposing dolphin, bobbing up and down with the tide, torn apart by vultures, and back to the small township to get the bus back.
We also took in one of those all-aboard tourist day-trips. We flew through the mangroves, like we were hot cops in Miami Vice to where the bay opened up, and scouted for dolphins. Not finding any we were dropped off momentarily at a restaurant set up out over the water. No-one ordered anything so we jumped back in the boat and zoomed off to a nearby snorkeling site, where everyone rolled out of the boat with their masks and snorkels on and flipped around over some of the best soft-coral I’ve ever seen. Next we hit Isla Bastimentos and Red Frog Beach.. so named for it’s Strawberry Poison Dart Frogs, evidently highly toxic but a wonder to see. We wouldn’t have known though as they weren’t overly obliging that day and didn’t come out to say hello. We had enough time to grab lunch at a nearby restaurant and a quick swim in the horribly turbulent beach.
We made one final stop for some snorkeling but the visibility was so bad, most people lasted a few minutes. ‘Oh God.. I’ve dropped my snorkel’ said one lady ‘Thats the second time.. honey can you go get it’. Her skinny husband looked under the water perturbed. It was a good 7 or so meters to the bottom. ‘Phh.. good luck mate’ I said in my head and paddled off.
The diving was much better, though the visibility wasn’t hugely improved. The crew was great with some really good equipment. I saw a nurse shark, a beastly barracuda, a moray eel and a bunch
of other great marine life. The volcanic rock made for some great formations and coral walls as well.
The days usually ended with some terrific storm clouds blowing in, changing the stifling heat of the day into steamy but breezy nights, generally accompanied by a serious tropical downpour. We had rudely questioned the absence of Jenny during our stay at the hostel. Rudely because it turned out that whilst engaging in some business near the Costa Rican border her water broke. She got herself on a bus and to a nearby hospital, had a healthy baby girl and got on the bus back home. She was at work the next day. Probably grinding stones with her face to make crockery or something tough like that.
We took a beach trip on our last day; taking the advice of the boatman we hired, he took us to a secluded little paradise on Bastimentos island. The boat trip itself was just magic, flat Caribbean sea, rocky outcrops loaded with palm trees, crystal clear water and warm sunshine. We landed up on the yellow sandy shore, stepped out and grabbed some snorkeling gear. ‘Don’t go too far and leave your gear on the boat’ he warned us, in delectable Creole English. “ ..’ear me now, dem thievin mon from dere jungle come ere and be stealin’.
But we saw no sign of the thievin mon.. He was probably in awe of his natural surroundings like we were. Snorkeling was good for 200 meters off the shore, up until an offshore break. Little outcrops of volcanic rock with Sting-Rays lurking underneath; schools of little reef fish. It was beautiful. We sat around on the beach for a bit, enjoying the beautiful weather, the cool water at our feet and the isolation and natural beauty of our surroundings. Why leave? Why would you? But we were hungry. And Rebecca wanted a latte.