I had great intentions for spending a few weeks exploring the entire span of Panama. In fact, following a few weeks of travel in Costa Rica, I was hoping to travel clear down to the Darien Gap near the Columbian border just to say that I have been there (because many travelers avoid this spot). However, after clearing the quiet Costa Rica border of Sixola, I “got stuck”….or maybe just “got lazy” counting down to my final days of travel. The truth is that I only saw two hot spots in Panama. I know! Terrible, right? I am not doing my backpacking community justice. However, read on to find out why. It is due to a bit (A LOT) of rain and a little love affair with a mountain village.
The Costa Rica-Panama border at Sixola was ‘oh so easy. Opting for the slightly pricier, but much quicker option of a shuttle and boat to Bocas del Toro, I arrived on the island and was wandering around hostel-hunting by 3 p.m. Now, I had heard many positive reviews about Bocas during my three months in Central America. Greg, the Swede, spent six weeks on the islands. Caran, the German, came for one week, found a teaching gig, and lived here for two months. And Toren, the Canadian, came for two nights and stayed for nearly six months. A writer for Conde Nast referred to this destination as “the seductive, sleepy islands…with a laid back spell.” So I had high hopes that I would LOVE Bocas and that I might meet a local, fall in love, and want to move back here permanently. But I didn’t. (I did not love Bocas nor did I fall in love with a local…just to clarify.)
First of all, it was raining nearly the entire time. Rain in Bocas equals flooded streets, and flooded streets are not just aqua from the heavens mixed with encroaching seawater. Oh no – it includes sewer stuff and the ever accumulating trash clogging the drains and streets of Bocas. Now, I am no princess or a high maintenance gal for that matter. I backpacked through India for goodness sake so I can certainly roll with the punches. But, I don’t even know if most domiciles in Bocas had septic systems. In fact, when we boarded the water taxi to Bocas, there was a dandy little row of outhouses lining both the port and starboard of our canal. Just…ew.
Plus, and I will be honest, I was winding down towards the end of my travels (two weeks left) and I had a case of un-wanderlust. I was just tired of planning, researching, packing and repacking, catching buses, and all of the other things that we backpackers complain about (when we really shouldn’t complain because we are traveling after all). Though the weather was crap, I had semi-clean sleeping quarters with a decent kitchen, a local market with yum veggies, a path for running (even in the rain), and a good Wifi connection. The idea of sitting on a 12 hour bus to Panama City was not appealing. So I didn’t budge, and it rained in Bocas, and I stayed.
That is not to say that I didn’t have my adventures. For instance, Tuesday afternoons was when the cargo boats arrived with fresh produce, and I stood in line with the locals for over an hour to stock up goods that cannot be found in the supermarkets (i.e. avocados and eggplant). I also ran along Avendia H to Playa Bluff and Playa El Istmito nearly every evening. It was a scenic avenue where kids played soccer in abandoned concrete basketball courts and leagues of men sat on rocking chairs while drinking beer and gossiping.
When sunny, I am told that Bocas offers endless possibilities for fun in the sun: boat excursions, SCUBA diving, snorkeling, beach time, island exploring, and bike riding. There are a multitude of water taxis available for exploring nearby islands and beaches. One morning, a few hostel mates and I took a $1 taxi to Isla Carenero, just 200 meters across the bay from Bocas town. It was a dingy village where wooden houses stood on stilts over waterlogged, heavily littered ground and dogs were chained under porches. We left Isla Carenero soon after we arrived and spent the afternoon drinking tea and playing scrabble.
Still, though I could not SCUBA dive (poor visibility) or visit the famous Red Frog Beach (choppy waters and thunderstorms), I enjoyed the cadence of Bocas del Toro, or rather the “laidbackness” of the locals. There was no hurry, and everyone I encountered was polite, friendly, and had a smile to offer.
(I have 100% faith that my experience would have been absolutely different had the weather cooperated. Do not let this deter you from visiting Bocas del Toro! And I would actually like to return in the dry season to experience some proper beach exploring. )