In Central America/ Travel

Traveling to Bocas del Toro, Panama

Isolation. The only hint of life in coastal Panama came from the acuaticos or water taxis shuffling tourists from the mainland to the archipelago chain of islands known as Bocas Del Toro. The sun set during our 30-minute ride from mainland Almirante to Bocas Town. Then, it was just us and el capitán of our rusty little lancha as we drifted a few minutes further from the main island of Colón to Carenero. No roads, no cars.

We pulled up to a dock, pitch black. I could see hints of a pavilion of sorts with a hammock. Clearly we were supposed to get out of the boat. But go where? It became clear as we marched over the 100-foot or so wooden walkway over the quiet sea toward what little light we could spot. Finally, we had arrived. Welcome to Hotel Tierra Verde.

“Utter Silence”
The entrance to Hotel Tierra Verde looking just a tad sunnier than our pitch black arrival.

The entrance to Hotel Tierra Verde looking just a tad sunnier than our pitch black arrival.

Moving from stone step to stone step, our hosts greeted us out on the patio.

“You made it!”

“I hope that wasn’t in doubt,” I thought to myself. But considering we just barely caught the last acuatico of the day thanks to some incredibly unsafe maneuvering by our cab driver from the border, I suppose there was a point in which our arrival could have gone either way.

Having survived the day on Nature Valley bars, we were quick to drop our bags, clean up, and get back out the door to the nearest restaurant. Luckily there was Bibi’s on the Beach, just a five-minute walk away from our hotel. Even in this brief walk, you get a sense of how rugged it can be on Carenero. There was no glitzy path or signs like you might find in other tourism-fueled towns. There was simply sand, a few houses owned by locals or traveling surfers, and crabs large enough to rustle the surrounding bushes.

Bibi’s appeared just as our hotel did — out of nowhere amidst the darkness. Sitting down, we were alone.

“We’ll take all the food and beer, por favor,” we were both thinking. Luckily we toned down our stereotypical American appetites for a simple plate of Chicken Criollo to go with our respective bottles of Balboa — one of Panama’s national beers and the favorite of our server. Balboa, like most things in Panama, is named after conquistador Vasco Núñez Balboa. His namesake beverage proved a hint stronger and darker than its Tico counterpart in Imperial or even the American water-beer heavyweights.

Sitting on the patio out on the sea, we finally had a moment to take in our surroundings. On Carenero, it was complete and utter silence. Below, a sting ray could be seen through the clear waters cruising around thanks to the restaurant’s lighting. The transport was exhausting, but Bocas had already made itself worth the trouble.

“Mixing It Up”
Quiet pedestrian and bike traffic early on this Saturday morning.

Quiet pedestrian and bike traffic early on this Saturday morning.

The next morning, we headed into Bocas Town for our first real walk around the small Caribbean city with no plan in mind other than a noon yoga appointment with Laura Kay at Bocas Yoga.

It doesn’t take long to feel like you’re in a beach town. But Bocas is, thankfully, not some gaudy tourist resort where travelers are left isolated in a fort with their silly island drinks. Here, locals were clearly mixing it up with guests of Panama. You could, however, easily see the dichotomy between the so-called “haves” and “have nots.” Gringo tourists were aplenty, marching down Main Street (or Calle 3) with backpacks half their size, passing by the local bocatoreños selling their wares along beautiful Parque Simon Bolívar — another common namesake in these parts. Though Panama did recently rank first in the world in Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, so who’s to say who’s doing better?

Hostels, hotels, restaurants,  and tourists shops line the streets of Bocas Town center, open and ready to serve. Drivers and trip leaders track you down.

Hotels and hostels galore in Bocas del Toro.

Hotels and hostels galore in Bocas del Toro.

“Hola! ¿Cómo está? ¿Inglés? What’s the plan today, man?”

The aggressiveness can be a bit off-putting, but you have to understand that this is their livelihood. Plus, be thankful that the money seems to be going to the local economy and not, let’s say, some foreign corporate chain bordered off from the community.

“The Old Good Times”
Locals can see the development heading their way.

Locals can see the development heading their way.

With nothing but time, we walked a bit off the main strip to find a different kind of Bocas. Here you find an even greater contrast between the freshly painted caribbean-style wooden buildings of Main Street and the homes of bocatoreños in the backdrop of ongoing development projects. But Angie Whittemore of Bocas tourism, who graciously helped plan this little Panamanian adventure, tells me that most locals welcome the tourism after the banana economy crashed at the turn of the 20th Century thanks to the “Panama disease,” which issued a devastating blow to Bocas. The fungus wiped out an entire type of banana from the world, outside Asia.

With that behind them, Angie strikes an optimistic tone.

“Looks like tourism is going to put Bocas on the map again and they [locals] want the old good times to come back,” she said.

Tourism came slowly but surely to Bocas starting the 1980s.

“It all started when Tito Thomas, owner of Gran Hotel Bahia, the oldest building in Bocas Town and ex-headquarters of the old United Fruit Company started brining groups from the old Canal Zone [US military personal] on planes to Bocas for the Feria del Mar,” Angie explained.

Backpacking Bocas - JoeBaur

Backpackers followed suit in the following decade, and even tourism favorite Costa Rica started marketing the island chain as a destination. Angie herself came in the 90s when there was just one disco, a supermarket, and a handful of hostels.

“After the US military left in 1999, Panama started investing a lot more in tourism and Bocas started growing as more expats started moving to Bocas, opening businesses such as restaurants, hotels, and tours.”

There’s always the question of finding the right mix of development while maintaining the soul of the existing community when you talk about tourism. While you can only learn so much with two full days, Bocas at least seems to be doing it infinitely better than other tourist towns I’ve visited over the years. For that, they deserve a lot of credit.

Yoga Epiphany
Heading into a session with Bocas Yoga.

Heading into a session with Bocas Yoga.

The grey skies of the morning had turned to rain toward the end of our aimless jaunt around town. Luckily it was just about time for our session at Bocas Yoga.

Housed in a two-story wooden house painted light purple with a beautiful painting of a deity underneath a simple wooden plank with “Bocas Yoga” painted on it and surrounded by trim composed of the Panamanian flag — like just about every other establishment in town,  we met owner Laura Kay on the front patio. Laura, whose father was in the US military, was born in the canal zone, and thus has dual citizenship. She moved to Bocas eight years ago while the studio was being constructed over two years.

Our session was unlike any yoga session I had ever done before, from India to back home in the States. That’s because we did partner yoga, myself sitting across from and facing Melanie. Or as she would be referred to for the duration of our session, my “beloved.” It was admittedly difficult for both of us to maintain a straight face. We’re not exactly the type to refer to one another as “beloved.” But when in Bocas Yoga, I suppose.

The purpose of partner yoga, I’m guessing from recollection, was to mirror the person across from you. This came to me as a yoga-esque epiphany. Why aren’t classes always taught this way? After all, it’s easier to look at the person across from you for help in hitting a pose rather than contorting your neck to find the teacher in the front of class, especially when you’re already contorted from, y’know, doing yoga.

In Hammock Heaven.

In Hammock Heaven.

Encroaching on the late afternoon, we purchased a six-pack of Balboa and headed back to the hotel for a little relaxation out on the dock, watching the acuaticos zip back and forth across the sea. Here is when I discovered my love for hammocks. How have I not embraced this before? The gentle swing, the light suspension, the comforting cocoon when the sides begin to slightly wrap around you. Now add a caribbean beer on a humid afternoon, and you’re in the proverbial Heaven.

Adding to the enjoyment was watching a group of neighboring bocatoreño kids out on the adjacent dock, spending their time diving into the water and fishing with nothing more than a string and a plastic bottle for a reel. Nice to know we have a recycle-friendly community here.

Two neighboring kids fishing like MacGyver would.

Two neighboring kids fishing like MacGyver would.

This goes back to what we were talking about earlier in regards to Panamanian well-being. Who’s doing better? The American kid playing video games all afternoon, cursing at inanimate objects because they got sniped in an online game of Call Of Duty, or the bocatoreños turning their surroundings into a better playground than Toys ‘R Us could ever imagine? I know who I want to hang out with.

The night was spent back in town where we caught a fire performance in between power outages. I don’t know what it is, but the fearlessness of swinging flaming balls like nerf balls or hula hooping an engulfed hoop is pretty freakin’ impressive to me.

Then, just before calling it a night, we luckily stumbled upon a local band equipped with a variety of drums and bugles entertaining passersby in the middle of Parque Simon Bolivar. Simply put, it was a blast watching them. You could sense that everyone, the musicians especially, were enjoying every beat, bouncing from side to side to the encouragement of the crowd. The music in the video at the top of this entry comes from their impromptu performance.

Of course the fun sputtered out once the cops showed up. Okay, I don’t know for sure that it was the cops. But the bugles came to an awkward crescendo and the drums fell silent as soon as a couple of gentlemen sporting uniforms came wandering in. You do the math.

Playa Zapatillas

Playa Zapatillas - JoeBaur

Our final day on the horizon, we awoke to crystal clear blue skies and a powerful sun just in time for our planned tour around Playa Zapatillas. Evidently a couple of Naked And Afraid contestants had to call it quits after suffering from one too many mosquito bites in this area. Naturally this is where we decided to spend our day of relaxation.

Of course we were guided to a much safer, more scenic slice of the rainforest. But of course this wasn’t without first awkwardly bobbing around for 30 minutes or so in Dolphin Bay in search of good ‘ole flipper. This consisted of about six or eight speed boats motoring around the bay after a glimpse of an elusive dolphin. I spent more time imagining the dolphins below touring with other dolphins around the bay to look at the ridiculous humans floating around like a bunch of drunks than I actually did seeing dolphins. But what could you expect a dolphin to do with a bunch of boats speeding after it as soon as it comes up for air? Strike a pose? Dolphins are smart. They’re not going to make like a Kardashian, throw a fin to the hip, and toss their, I guess, blowhole back for the cameras.

Moral of the story: Skip the tour and find another way to Zapatillas. Because the beach itself is definitely worth the excursion. When you do go, make sure you have snorkeling gear. Much like the wonderful world of hammocks, I had been missing out on snorkeling. This whole having the ability to breathe whilst underwater was a foreign concept to me, and one which I now love. Truth be told, I could’ve spent hours just staring at the Bocas seafloor. Alas, we eventually did have to get back to civilization.

Time is cruel, but especially so during travel. Every trip seems to come and go too quickly. Bocas was no exception. Our final night was spent once again dining on the sea, capped off with some chocolate made — or so the menu said — by the nearby indigenous community. A sweet ending to Bocas that is, I truly hope, simply the beginning to further explorations and a better understanding of this incredible country.

Disclosure: I participated in this trip with assistance from Bocas Travel and Hotel Tierra Verde. As always, all opinions remain my own.

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