Central America #3: Bocas del Toro, Panama

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Exploring Zapatilla island

The journey from Boquete to Bocas del Toro wasn’t supposed to take that long, but naturally it did. I caught a bus to David at about 9.30am from the back of the main square for a couple of dollars, but unlike the bus which had brought me, this one trundled along pretty slowly, attempting to pick up passengers at every turn which meant we got into David at about midday.

I was sure that on my previous visit to David bus terminal I’d seen buses with Bocas del Toro written on the front. This wasn’t the case. After walking up and down and round in circles following a series of contradictory instructions from locals, I finally discovered that the bus I needed was the one to Changuinola, which would drop me off at Almirante, from where I could take a boat to the island archipelago of Bocas del Toro, also the name of the state to which the municipality belongs.

If memory serves me correctly, the journey took around three hours and cost about 7 USD, a tidy saving when considering that shuttle buses from Boquete direct to Bocas would cost in the region of 30 USD. There was just enough leg room on the microbus for me not to get hamstring cramp. A young local asked me if we’d passed a particular petrol station at one point. As if I knew the area. At least I was blending in, probably due to wearing jeans instead of shorts, trainers instead of flip flops, and not sporting a Neanderthal beard like the average male traveler. Inconspicuous.

The bus dropped me off at a spot next to another petrol station and from there I took a taxi for 1 USD to the docks from where I could catch a speedboat to Colon, the biggest of the islands and the one where most hostels and hotels are situated. The trip costs 6 USD each way, and you get a dollar discount on the way back if you keep hold of your outward ticket. Crammed into the boat with our life-jackets on we sped across the water amidst rather spectacular views and arrived at our destination after about half an hour. Upon disembarking I was swarmed by people asking me if I had a place to stay or was interested in a tour the next day. One kid offered to take me on an island tour the next day for the inflated price of 35USD, hoping to catch out the newbies who have no idea about prices. I lied back to him and told him I’d find him at the docks the next morning.

I had been recommended to stay in Hostel Hansi by Irma, as it provided private rooms at a good price, and thankfully it was only two blocks away. Unfortunately, you can’t pre-book as they operate on a first-come-first-served basis, and when I arrived they didn’t have any singles for 13 USD. Only doubles for 25 USD. Such was my fatigue and unwillingness to traipse around looking for other accommodation, I acquiesced and paid the most I would in the trip for a night’s rest.

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Bocas Town main street

To compensate for that, I decided to buy in food and cook myself a huge plate of sausage pasta, which provoked a middle-aged Russian lady to lick her lips at me and declare that she loved men in the kitchen. I politely smiled back at her. Afterwards, I took a quick wander in order to secure a place on a snorkeling and island-hopping tour the following day, and went round several agencies to compare prices. With experience you know on first impression which tours are actually worth it and a bit of pre-Googling tells you what price you should pay, and when one guy was so desperate for my custom that he dropped the price from 40 USD to 20 in a matter of seconds, I had my doubts.

I instead found a tour with an agency called Under Sea, which included an extra activity, Deep Boarding, as well as sloth, monkey and dolphin watching, open water snorkeling and ride to Zapatilla, reputed to have the best beach in the area, so I bargained down from 45 to 39 USD and headed back to the hotel to catch up on some sleep. It was something of a comfort to have a private room and exclusive bathroom, and despite music booming out until the early hours, I managed to get a long night’s rest and felt refreshed for the next day.

There were no single rooms due to be available in the morning so I moved out to a different hostel, Heike (11 USD), and into a shared dorm room. They also offered me the free pancake and coffee breakfast, which I duly took them up on. Then I went to the tour agency for about 9.30am to meet up with the rest of the people on the excursion, which happened to be a Canadian couple and a bunch of Spanish people being chaperoned through Central America by a Spaniard who ran tours half the year as his business.

We weren’t let down by the promise to see dolphins, but it was at such a distance that we could only see a few fins periodically bobbing up and down. Next stop involved observing sloths sleeping in trees on another island and they were, as reported, extremely slow. Their name in Spanish translates as ‘lazy bear’, a tag well-justified. Soon after, we moved out to open water and were all given some snorkeling gear. Along with another young Spanish girl, I opted for a life-jacket tied round my shoulders as I don’t trust water! I had no idea how to use the equipment and kept spluttering with mouthfuls of water, but the guide explained what to do and I eventually realised the technique was not to bite the mouthpiece, but to cover it with puckered lips. After a while you stop concentrating on how to breathe with just your mouth and time flies as you float around in the water observing stuff beneath you. I saw some brain-like plants and a few fish swam by nonchalantly.

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Dolphin fin

Somewhat at ease in the water now, we headed off to start the DeepBoarding activity a few hundred metres away. It basically involves tying plastic curved boards with hand grips to a rope and tugging them along with the boat. You simply angle the board down to immerse yourself in the water and up again to surface. You stay in the water as long as your breath permits, as for this activity you just use the goggles and nosepiece of the snorkeling equipment. I slowly grew in confidence and submerged myself deeper and for longer each time, and definitely felt the water pressure in my ears. Whilst doing the activity it felt quite fast, but when observing the second group do it, I realised that the boat must have been moving pretty slowly.

 

The next part of the tour entailed staying on a small island, Zapatilla, for a couple of hours to chill out. Great in theory if it hasn’t just started to rain buckets. Indeed it was colder on land, what with a swirling wind and showers than in the gloriously warm water. Nevertheless, I still explored the island, which took about half an hour to walk around. When the boat returned returned for us, the rain had still not abated, so the forty-minute ride backed to Colon was a wet and shivery one, my trauma exacerbated as I desperately needed a pee.

After cooking and eating a huge plate of scrambled eggs (while I could still be bothered preparing food), I got chatting to a couple from the UK and we headed out to a bar called Selina, which also operated as a hostel. It had a great view looking out on the seafront with a couple of swings and floating mattresses, though the place was definitely gringo central, as all the staff seemed European or North American. The four cans of beer went quite quickly to my head, serving to accentuate my complete loss of alcohol tolerance.

Returning to the hostel I bumped into a German guy also staying there who purported to have been traveling for the best part of three years. As the weekend also happened to be the annual celebrations for the region’s founding date, we watched the back end of the band parades, which to be frank were quite impressive.

After that we took a walk around the square where I picked up a beer for a dollar, less than half the price than in the hostel, before checking out Iguana, a bar where foreigners and Panamanians appear to hook up, evidenced when I saw one of the Spanish girls from the day’s tour looking very romanced with the tour guide and a scraggly long-haired German hitting on one of the hostel staff’s friends. We hung around there for a while, but the German was itching to get some me-time with a rather eccentric and loud Moroccan woman who’d tagged onto him, so I left them to it and headed back to bed at 2.30am.

The following day I rose at about 8am, keen to make the most of the day and had some good banter with the hostel staff. In general, I had found the Panamanians to be very approachable and easygoing, especially in Bocas. The plan for the day was to rent a bicycle and explore the entirety of the island, so I picked up a one-gear specimen on the street corner for 6 USD for the day from a man called Rasta. People had told me it was impossible to navigate the whole island in a single day, but I’m always keen for a challenge, so I ignored their warnings.

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Rasta and his bike rental

I first headed to Playa Bluff which you reach by just going in a straight line along the road from the main part of Bocas Town, and rode most of the way down the road and then unpaved trail, before doing a stretch on the beach, which taught me that you can’t ride bikes on sand. So I pushed it for a while. The beach is pretty, but quite short and thus not sunbathable, as the tide will come in from time to time to tickle your toes and wet your belongings. I decided to cycle as far as the coastal path would take me, but it abruptly ended at a gate declaring further beaches as private property, so I headed back to the main road and towards Boca del Drago, on the other side of the island and a mere 13.5km away on an up-and-down bumpy road.

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Playa Bluff

The ride was indeed testing, especially with just one gear, and the vicious potholes in the road emptied my basket now and again and served to mush the bananas I was carrying. The white towel which still bears banana mush stains has taught me not to transport this particular variety of fruit on long and arduous cycles. It took me about an hour and a quarter to get to my destination, though I spent a lot of time grunting up the inclines. Remarkably I only passed about 15 or so vehicles on the whole ride and just a handful of houses.

Boca del Drago is famously home to Starfish Beach, where you can see the rare animal, but are warned not to touch as human contact kills them. Unfortunately, to get there involved walking through shallow water and ponds so I had to lock my bicycle to a tree and hope that it wouldn’t get stolen. I got to the beach within 15 minutes, and it was indeed pretty and even apt to lie on. For the brief time I was there, I didn’t spot any starfish, but I was admittedly in a paranoid rush to get back to my bike. Thankfully it hadn’t been thieved, so after downing a coca cola and a bottle of water I set off back. On the way I bumped into two couples staying in the same hostel as well as the woman who’d sold me the snorkeling tour the previous day. Just the first of many times I’d re-encounter people I’d previously met. Small world indeed.

That evening I went to watch the Panama vs Costa Rica football game with a few people from the hostel and was quite disappointed to find that barely any of the locals were out watching it. We ended up viewing it in a bar next door to the hostel where a couple of locals generated a bit of atmosphere, especially when the game kicked into life as Panama almost came from 0-2 down to equalise the match.

The following day I intended to head back to Starfish Beach and spot some of the little creatures while soaking up some rays, but mid-morning non-stop drizzle put paid to that and with a couple from the US, I hastily made a dash for it towards Costa Rica, the border of which was less than a hundred kilometres away. As it happened, I saw a whole bunch of starfish in the docks as we were boarding the speedboat back to the mainland, so it was written in the stars that I had to leave on that day.

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Starfish at the docks

We got a shared taxi to the border, where the Panamanians charge you 6 USD to leave their country, and then a local bus from Sixaola, the Costa Rican border town, to Puerto Viejo, the next stop on my trip. I had a good chat to the taxi driver about football and how he was an ex-player for the national basketball team.

Bocas del Toro was certainly pretty, and perhaps one of those places where someone on a longer trip might spend some more time. There are plenty of beaches to explore, though I couldn’t see them all, and it was the first place on my trip which might be considered tourist-central, despite the swathes of locals who had come for festivities over the long weekend.

People are easy to meet, easy to talk to, and the whole traveling lark was a doddle, for now.

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