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59. Bocas del Toro

Panama

It was a simple crossing into Panama, and from the border we caught a bus and a boat to the main island in the Bocas del Toro archipelago. It wasn't the tropical island getaway we imagined. The town was full of rundown clapboard houses and basic accommodation facilities, all surrounded by murky water. It definitely pulled off the chilled out island vibe though, so much so that it felt like time was going backwards. If we ever returned, we could be staying on a different island.

A big plus for the island was its cheapness. Coming from Costa Rica we noticed a distinct difference in prices for everything from transport and accommodation to food and tours. This included alcohol. We spotted a small bottle of gin for about $1.50 in a supermarket. Along with coconut water, tonic water and a few limes, we knew how we were spending our afternoon.

 

Dinner on the first night was at a Mexican joint, owned by an American expat. He was training his 11 year old son to be a waiter. I don't think I had or would ever have such attentive service again in my life. He stood on guard like a soldier, ready to pounce the moment we required the slightest bit of assistance. It was sweet to see a son trying to make his dad proud. Pity the food didn't live up to the standards the boy had set. When you order a salad and it is 90% carbs, cheese and raw garlic, you don't want to check out the rest of the menu.

 

Diving was on the schedule for the following day. Being back on the Caribbean coast we were expecting great things. They were not delivered. Visibility was terrible unless we were close to the surface, however all the cool stuff was deeper down. The first site followed a vertical coral wall, our first wall dive, which was brimming with fantastic coral species. The colours were incredible, some looking like long strands of electrical wire, others like tinsel wrapped tightly around other coral. However this was only seen in shallow waters, which we probably could have seen while snorkeling. Other animals intermittently encountered included lobster, crabs, stingrays, lionfish (beautiful, even though they were venomous and a threat to the environment), plus a giant, old turtle shell, resting gloomily on the seafloor. There weren't many fish to see.

 

The second site was a shipwreck, also a first for us. It was a fairly small boat but we could swim through a few compartments into dark, claustrophobic rooms where I kept banging my oxygen tank ("Don't knock your tank!"). This was the highlight of the day for me. A nearby reef offered similar animals to the first dive, with again not many fish on offer. I wondered where all the hype for this place came from.

 

For lunch we stumbled upon a Western-style cafe that knew how to make salads. Kale, beetroot, tzatziki - salad heaven! Danny wasn't sold on the place until he spotted Vegemite. This little cafe on an island in the Caribbean Sea sold Vegemite. At $20 for a small jar he couldn't really justify buying it, but he did manage to order a cheese and Vegemite toastie (his favourite meal). This was the highlight of Danny's day.

In the afternoon we hired some ridiculously cheap bicycles and headed out to the other side of the island, in the hopes of finding a swimmable beach. After contending with the sand-filled paths that our bikes refused to drive through, we found a small, popular surf beach that looked extremely inviting. It was lying to us. The whole sea floor was covered in rocks, which were impossible to walk on without reef shoes. So much for swimming. We checked out the one bar on the beach but it must have been catering for millionaires only, given the prices of their drinks. Instead we forced our bikes back towards town, stopping briefly at a beach that contained actual sand. Unfortunately the water only reached knee-height, so swimming again was off the menu.

The beaches weren't overly inviting.

Danny discovered a brewery on our trip out to the beach and he was adamant we were stopping on our way back. Danny can't remember something I say five minutes ago but if he spots a brewery, he could probably give you the GPS coordinates for it a year later. I wasn't excited about sitting around watching Danny drink beer, so when the sign said "closed" I silently cheered. My celebrations didn't last long. The owner, another American expat, was inside and opened up just for us. Thanks. The brewer and Danny were like lost beer brothers, having almost identical opinions about everything beer-related. I could see this was going to be a long afternoon. To my surprise they also brewed a ginger soda, which was fantastic. What was even more surprising (to me anyway) was that it tasted better without the rum than with it (what was wrong with me?). Danny limited himself to three beers (including a mango beer, for something different), before I could drag him away from his little paradise. 

 

Our final day saw us on a snorkeling tour, hoping to see a little more than what the diving offered. With small, green islands popping out of the water in every direction, it was becoming clear why Bocas del Toro was so popular. First stop was Dolphin Bay, with roughly a thousand other boats also taking tourists out for similar tours. Every now and then a fin would poke out of the water and a dozen boats would speed over, hoping to get a close up view. Of course the dolphins then moved along to a different spot, and the whole charade would start over again.

 

Zapatilla Island was next, which was everything you imagine when you think of a Caribbean island. Approximately a kilometre long, covered in trees, no buildings other than a couple of shacks, white sandy beaches, turquoise waters, reefs located straight off the short - it was heaven. We snorkeled for an hour and a half, swimming over reeds, reefs and rocks. Numerous small and medium-sized fish of a variety of species swam by, many of which we had never seen before. Crabs, lobster and urchins were also present, waiting to pinch or sting us if we put our foot down in the wrong place. It was a hundred times better than the diving. 

After a quick stop for lunch on another island it was then out to Coral Cay for more snorkeling. As the name suggests there was plenty of coral, but we were not warned about the jellyfish. They were so small we didn't see them until they had already stung us. Luckily their stings didn't burn too badly - it was more of an annoyance than anything else. Still, it would have been nice to have a heads up.

 

Lastly drove past Sloth Island, where we glimpsed four sloths hanging out in the trees. They weren't doing much and didn't plan on putting on a show for our benefit.

 

Back at the hostel we got chatting to the other guests, one of whom had been travelling for a while (i.e. A-grade hippy; he may have been under the influence of certain substances). He was disjointedly explaining a little show he had put together and wanted our opinion: should he call it a "cacao ritual" or "cacao ceremony"? I couldn't give him an answer with a straight face. We tried so hard to take him seriously and pretend that what he was doing was fascinating. Showing us the muddy water that we were expected to drink did not help his cause.