sea and sky and a small strip of beach

Bocas del Toro, Panama

I have struggled to write this post. I think because I have mixed emotions about Bocas del Toro. We discovered its beauty and were privileged to share the experience with my sister, Crissey, and her friend Chris. It is also very dirty and there are frequently water bottles and plastic bags floating in the middle of the ocean, and larger amounts of trash lining the shore especially in Bocas Town. I think this reality has made me sad, disappointed in humanity.

Our time in Costa Rica came to a close and we were all excited for our 9-day exploration of Bocas del Toro, Panama (which almost didn’t happen). The archipelago is just south of the Costa Rican/Panamanian boarder in the Caribbean Ocean.   I had some friends who recommended we do a tour there from Costa Rica and after looking at pictures online Jacob and I decided we wanted more than a day to explore. As an added bonus, my sister and her friend decided to meet us and explore the area together for a few days.

Tip #1: You will be harassed at the Panama boarder and potentially barred entrance if you do not have a return ticket to your country of residence. BUT keep a smile and it just might work out like it did for us.

The Story: For $37/person, we booked a shuttle company (CarribeShuttle) to drive us to the Panamanian border, instruct us through the border process and then literally walk us across the bridge into Panama, drive us to Almirante, Panama where we would catch a ferry to Bocas Town. We had our hotel information and flight out of San Jose printed for evidence that we did not plan to stay in Panama indefinitely.  All went as planned until we arrived at the Panamanian boarder office to have our passports stamped. Jacob seems to have taken on the role of “keeper of the passports” and our general family representative. Perhaps it is my reliance on his better Spanish skills but more likely it is because he feels protective of us as the Dad. So, as we are standing in line, Jacob is trying to converse with the official behind glass who seems to be questioning Jacob in a way that sounds like there is a problem. As I move closer, I hear them decide to switch to English (Jacob is still learning) and the gentleman explain that our paperwork showing our flight out of San José to Lima is not sufficient for the Panama visa requirements. We need to show evidence of an airline ticket back to the US, our country of residence. Holy s*$#! What? Jacob stressfully massages his temples and says, “Is there nothing we can do? There must be something”. Oh no. I start drafting the email to my sister in my head “I’m sorry you came all this way, we won’t be able to meet you”. I must have been having this conversation with her in my head for awhile because all the sudden, Jacob is laughing and joking with the man and we are being asked to stand in front of the camera, as entrance requires photos for their computer records, and the gentleman behind the glass is telling us about the festivities expected in Bocas Town that weekend. Jacob is so charming and no, we didn’t pay him off. I’m still not exactly sure how he convinced the man to change his mind; you’ll have to ask Jacob. Of course, I’m not sure he knows either.

Tip #2: Weigh your priorities on where to stay and then be ok with the decision.

The Story: I am sitting at Indi, a restaurant in Bocas Town waiting for the bartender to bring me the café con leche I ordered. My stomach is doing flips with excitement at both the oceanfront scene I am looking out on as well as the solitude that was granted to me by my family. It takes a little while to discover the beauty of Bocas del Toro when staying in Bocas Town. I have awareness that I am viewing my surroundings from the lens of a privileged white woman from the United States and the shock of this area compared to the bliss we experienced in Costa Rica threw me for a loop. Bocas Town has houses in shambles, trash on the streets and in the ocean. The people do not seem as friendly as they were in Costa Rica. When walking on the main street, the restaurants, hotels, bars and tourist shops barricade the view to the ocean. The absolute beauty of this place is hiding behind the vast storefronts that line the street.

Buildings of Bocas Town along the water
Bocas Town

I cannot find the island feel. There is no public pier or place to sit and enjoy the water without making a purchase. The closest beach is a 20-minute walk, polluted with trash and overrun with sand flies, we did not stay there for more than a few minutes during our initial exploration of Bocas Town. We chose to stay in Bocas Town thinking that it would make getting groceries and other things we might need easier. There are accommodations on the other islands but we would need to take a water taxi to Bocas Town for supplies, which, for a family of 4, can get expensive.

So, as I sit here it is no wonder I am in such awe as I take in the scene in front of me. My heart feels so full as I watch the fishing boats and water taxis fly across the water. In the distance I can see the Isla Bastimentos about ¼ mile away thick, jungle forest fills the island and colorful houses dot the shore. To my left is the next closest island of Carenero, it seems like I could probably swim there from here it is so close. What is most striking to me during trips on the water to explore, is how huge the sky appears; nothing but sea and sky with dots of green islands that are dwarfed by the vastness. The sky is usually filled with giant, billowy thunderhead clouds that are gray and white and make an amazing painting at sunset. This is really a beautiful place, a simple life here. Bocas Town has its charm especially at night with the loud cacophony of music being played by groups of people in the plaza; seemingly a competition of who can play their favorite the loudest ends up as one confused sound. It baffles me why they don’t get together and make one large party and take turns with the music, but alas, there is my foreigner lens again. When we arrived, the school down the street from us was rehearsing their marching band performance for the upcoming Bocas Day Parade. This is a big deal for this community. All the school marching bands in the area compete for the large cash prize. There are even adult groups that compete on the last day. It was two full days of snare and base drums marching down main the street. We would have missed that part of the culture if we hadn’t stayed in Bocas Town.

Tip #3: Barter for the right price on water taxis and go to BiBi’s on the Beach for lunch.

The Story: There is so much to explore in Bocas and the only way to do that is by boat. On our first day we tried to get the lay of the land on the cost of taking water taxis. The closest island to Bocas Town is Isla Carenero and, as I said a moment ago, you could practically swim there so when the boat driver said we would need to pay $5/person round trip that seemed ridiculous. Indeed, it was. Our last day in Bocas we went to BiBi’s on Isla Carenero to have lunch, a beer and Squirt (remember Squirt?) We paid $1.50/person one-way and $5 for all of us to get back.  We asked a tour operator with Red Frog Beach Resort how much it should cost us to get to the resort on Bastimentos and she told us t $7/person one way. Later we learned from my sister it should only cost $4/person to reach the Red Frog dock or $3/person for the Old Bank dock. One of many reasons I am grateful Crissey came out.

Lesson here: BARTER!

I have to give a shout out to Bibi’s on the Beach on Isla Carenero. It is a little restaurant that has a few seats inside but most of it is a large deck that extends over the water. We had lunch here, which was one of the best we had while in Bocas. Jacob and I shared a platter of Pulpo (octopus) that was sautéed with onions in a smoky sauce reminiscent of teriyaki and came with long, thin, crispy plantain chips. The scene is so beautiful with the long view of sea and sky that I love so much about the area. We rented some kayaks for $5/90 minutes and paddled around the shore, the water so clear you can see the reefs below which are dotted with yellow and orange starfish. It was a perfect way to spend our last day in Bocas.

Tip #4:  Share an adventure with a sibling and do a boat tour

Amy and Crissey smiling on a boat with a beer
I love this girl

The Story: Quinn’s birthday and Crissey’s birthday are one day apart. What a birthday celebration it was! A man who works on the property where Crissey and Chris stayed also takes guests out on his boat for a tour of the area. Genaro is a very sweet and generous man from Panama. He is a descendant of one of the indigenous tribes in Panama and came to Bocas for a better life than the $2/day indigenous people are paid at his home on the main land of Panama.  The oppression of indigenous people seems to be a theme so far in our journey.  A topic of further investigation for another time perhaps….

On our boat ride, we saw sloths sleeping at Sloth Island, watched dolphins leaping from the water, held starfish, relaxed on an uninhabited island, and snorkeled in crystal clear water. My favorite was pulling up to a small wooden canoe inhabited by a boy no more than Quinn’s age. Genaro asked him where his father was and the boy pointed down into the water. Suddenly, up popped Dad with his snorkel and mask attached to his face. Genaro spoke very fast Spanish to him and then informed us we could buy two lobsters for $2.50, which we happily enjoyed with garlic infused butter made in the guesthouse kitchen at Chris and Crissey’s accommodations later that evening.

I can’t think of a better birthday for anyone, let alone a 6-year-old girl. Quinn was in heaven.Quinn on a boat with hair flying

I am so very grateful for my relationship with my sister. When she told me that she and Chris wanted to come meet us in Panama I was blown away and so excited. They stayed on Bastimentos in a little cabina owned by a woman who lived on the property in a bigger guesthouse. It had no hot water, no air conditioning and no fan. My sister, who hates camping because of bugs and dirt, is going to stay where? I could tell she and Chris were embracing it all and having an adventure all their own. On the day of their arrival, we met them for “happy hour” at Red Frog Beach. Jacob, the girls and I went zip lining there earlier that day and planned it so that we could meet them after for drinks.   I could not believe my eyes when they walked up off the beach. I kept pinching myself that my sister was actually there with me in Panama.

The girls were giddy with excitement to see their Aunt CC. My most favorite part of our time together in Bocas was when we both ended up back in the boat during the snorkeling portion of Quinn’s birthday party, because we both kept seeing so many jellyfish. The warm waters, due to the El Niño, are causing more jellyfish to populate the area. Those dang things are very cool to see gracefully floating in the water but the fear of them got into my head.   I kept thinking I was getting stung so I quickly swam Quinn (who was using a boogie board to stay afloat) and I back to the boat to safety. Crissey had the same fear and joined me shortly after which gave us an opportunity to share a cold beer and giggle like I can only do with her.

Looking back on our time in Bocas del Toro I wouldn’t change a thing. The area is really extremely beautiful. The trash, poor plumbing and infrastructure are due to the nature of a developing country. I don’t want to “look past” these differences but instead see it as a whole. The hustle of tourism and contrast of poverty with amazing natural beauty are what make up Bocas del Toro. As we stood on the dock waiting for the ferry back to Almirante, we ran into Genaro. Crissey and Chris left a few days before us and so we did not get to see him after the birthday boat ride. He stopped and spoke with us until it was time for us to leave. He said he saw us in town a couple of days before and called out to get our attention but we were oblivious. We gave hugs and heartfelt well wishes as we departed.   Perhaps it is not the people who were less friendly but instead my first impression of the area that had me viewing our surroundings in Bocas Town through a negative lens.  I am keenly aware of my privilege of being an educated, white, middle-class woman from the United States and often find myself feeling shame for having the means to go on this journey.  I am trying to find the balance of being proud of my own hard work and choices that got me here while also staying humble, gracious and respectful of all the people and places I meet and visit.  The colorful Caribbean island community of Bocas del Toro is beautiful from the people, to the houses, to the natural world and definitely worth a visit.  I’m glad we went.