The first 10 or so metres of Panama, in some ways, provided a pretty apt description of what was to come. I walked precariously across the infamously rickety Sixoala bridge connecting Costa Rica and Panama and soon found myself being investigated by a noisy stray. The dog barked loudly a few times before settling next to a pile of old building materials and falling asleep. I took a picture, turned around and was immediately greeted with the warm words bestowed upon anybody who makes it across the bridge – Bienvenidos a Panama (Welcome to Panama)!
After strapping my bag to the roof of a shuttle bus and attempting to have a chat to the sweaty driver, who was belting out the vocals to the barely audible Latino Pop on the radio, we make it down to the coastal town of Almirante.
Half an hour later and I find myself skimming across the Caribbean Sea in an overcrowded boat with all sorts of characters –headed for the beautiful archipelago of tropical islands that sit just off the Panamanian Coast – Bocas Del Toro. We pass other speedboats as the afternoon sun dips and the coastline of Isla Colon, Bocas’ main town, draws nearer. As I disembark and head into town, searching for somewhere to stay, the cacophony of sound that is Bocas town started up and didn’t finish until after I had left. Straight away, I could feel and hear the difference between buzzing Bocas and the uber laid-back Puerto Viejo that I had just left.
Bocas Del Toro (literally meaning Mouth of the Bull) is a chain of six tropical islands, lying several kilometres off Panama’s Caribbean coastline. It is also one of the most charming and beautiful places I’ve ever been. Each island and each town found throughout has its own appeal – from the gorgeous Red Frog Beach on Isla Bastimentos, to the friendly, laid back Isla Caranero to the ever-so-casual atmosphere in Bocas town on Isla Colon, the main island. Surfing, diving, mouthwatering Caribbean cuisine and dense tropical rainforests are but some of the reasons why tourists have been flocking to the islands over the last few years. I found that despite the obvious over-catering to tourism, there was still an underlying authenticity that could be found by wandering the brightly coloured neighbourhoods or eating in local restaurants. The 12 000 permanent citizens are friendly, gregarious and full of island fever. But somehow, also completely relaxed and easygoing. Water taxis are a couple of US dollars at most between the islands and the bars are full of locals and backpackers alike.
I spent just over a week in Bocas, and as the saying goes – the longer you stay, the harder it becomes to leave. After lying in a hammock on the beach for most of the previous week in Costa Rica, the time had come to clean up my act – so I had a shave, shook out all of the sand from my backpack, rented an apartment and enrolled in a week of Spanish classes at Habla Ya Panama. Classes ran every morning from 8 to 12 with a break halfway through – during which time the empanada man would turn up without fail and students would make the most of his 75 cent chicken pastries. The staff at the school hailed from all over Panama and were great to practice Spanish with. Habla Ya also offers excursions through the school – really good ways to see the rest of the islands.
My apartment sat several blocks back from the water in a local part of town that was stereotypically loud and it was the sounds of the neighbourhood that had me feeling entirely at home, but also pushed me to the brink of insanity. Every morning at dawn, the 20 or so roosters across the road would begin to crow. Soon we discovered that there was some sort of cock fighting / egg laying operation going on under the cover of darkness. The thumping bass of local Reggaeton music would be heard all day and night – coming from either the illegal bar behind the apartment complex or from the house across the road.
Kids played soccer in the street before and after class until it was too dark to see the ball. Hearing screams and loud banging noises at all hours was perfectly normal and you know what, it all began to feel strangely homely after a few days.
The walk to my Spanish classes passed several schools and the international airport – which had holes in the fence and a baseball field at the end of the runway. Old colonial style houses with peeling paint and built on stilts are all over Bocas town. Piles of litter lie scattered down the streets – even more so after Benicio Del Toro had been through with his crew on the set of his latest film. Lovable stray dogs chase each other through the streets all day long. At times frantic and at other times completely tranquil, I could definitely see why people extended their stay in the bubble that is Bocas.
Despite only being there for a short period of time, I managed to squeeze in quite a bit. Here’s a couple of the more memorable experiences:
Saint Patricks Day was spent at the Aqua Lounge, an institutional hostel for backpackers, complete with hammocks, swings, trampolines and best of all –cut out areas of the outdoor decking. Perfect for a dip to cool down from the relentless sun. There was no Guinness but the Panamanian beers – Atlas, Balboa and Panama – went down perfectly. Tequila shots were served with a chaser of ceviche juice – strangely satisfying!
A couple of nights at the infamous Barco Hondido, a large open air bar that sits right on the water and features a sunken boat, were good fun as well. I may or may not have swam above this boat on my last night. The outdoor wooden deck sways with the tide and the tunes continue into the wee hours of the morning as locals and tourists alike dance the night away.
Sipping rum and coconut water (new favourite drink!) direct from a coconut on Starfish Beach – a relaxing bay on the north of Isla Colon, popular with families. Groups of children splash around in the water as adults are either catching some sunrays, tucking into some delicious grilled chicken cooked right there on the beach or floating in the clear water, above many of the protected starfish. I cant say I’ve ever had to watch my step when wading into an ocean before because of the huge numbers of starfish!
Snorkelling and coral surfing above some stunning reefs was incredible as well. We saw shipwrecks, giant crabs, bright tropical fish and an incredible ecosystem beneath the surface. “Coral surfing, what’s that?”, I hear your say. Imagine yourself being pulled behind a boat, holding onto a carbon fiber paddle that you can tilt to dive or rise depending on how deep you want to go. The aerodynamics of it (well not really “aero”) mean, that if tilted correctly, you can do crazy spins and revolutions while skimming over the top of some of the amazing underwater scenery. If anything, its an exercise in breath control but also loads of fun.
Sounds strange – is awesome. A video to come shortly!
Bocas Del Toro was the perfect place to soak up the charm of Panama’s Caribbean identity. Cheap, relaxing and one of those places that really grows on you. There is lots of local flavor to be tasted and genuine life to witness, but I can definitely see how mass tourism is slowly taking over. That being said, it is so completely welcoming that tourism is almost expected in a place that idyllic. I met some amazing people, improved my Spanish and had a ball in Bocas before the end of my trip. I spent the last couple of nights in Panama City, exploring the gorgeous streets of Casco Antiguo (Old Town) and sipping cocktails on a rooftop bar. As the sun dipped on my Central American / Caribbean adventure, I couldn’t think of a more perfect setting.
And I made sure that I grabbed a bottle of Panama’s finest, “Abuelo” rum for the long flight back to Australia.