Hitching a Ride to Bocas del Toro
Hours before embarking on a packed Panama City bus for a 12 hour long overnight bus ride toward Bocas del Toro, a feeling overcame me, like a literal punch in the gut.
A day or so earlier, Ramona had become violently ill, forcing us to cancel a “goodbye” evening with some friends from our apartment off of Balboa Avenue. As I finished work and loaded up my bags, I started to feel uneasy, with my stomach growling and turning itself inside out. It appeared I had been stricken with some “light” food poisoning, or in the best case scenario, some traveler’s diarrhea, both not so uncommon occurrences in Latin America. Knowing what this might mean for my next 12 hours, I worried immensely as we cabbed to the Albrook bus terminal.
We had read beforehand that the bus terminal was a bit hectic, and verily, it was a human zoo. In addition to being completely packed, there was a distinct lack of order, or even direction for how to have our tickets accepted before loading a bus. This should not be surprising to travelers in Latin America, but still. After being forced off our originally scheduled bus for some overbooking issue and having to wait 30 minutes in the heat for the next one, we eventually were loaded up and en route.
This autobus adventure showcased some of the more interesting aspects of Latin America to me. For example, the bus driver was clearly suffering from a large stomach tumor, and explained before leaving the station that he needed money for health care to try to stave off the cancer. So, he walked down the aisle and solicited donations before the bus left the station; Ramona handed him a few dollars. In my experiences, there is no stigma in this part of the world for an employee asking customers for donations while at their job, or additionally, for random merchants to walk up to you when eating in a restaurant in an attempt to sell you assorted goods, or ask for money. In the US this would be considered incredibly tacky if it were even to happen at all, but no one bats an eye in the Latino culture. Usually the pressure isn’t so bad, but a few smiles and “no, gracias” are required if you just want to get back to your dinner.
Additionally, during the bulk of the bus ride, many passengers watched videos or listened to music on their phones at a high volume without the use of headphones, or had phone notification sounds coming in frequently. This is a Latino cultural trope I’ve noticed (and Ramona can confirm from her time living in South America) on buses and in other public areas, where residents will crank the tunes and then leave the headphones off, or when at home, prop their doors and windows open. Hey, this reggaeton track is sweet, I think the entire bus or neighborhood will really dig it. Personally, I am highly sensitive to these sort of noises, so headphones are usually a necessity. Sometimes though, one just has to laugh and go with the flow.
These overnight buses in Panama are a bit infamous for travelers in the country in that the air conditioning is cranked up to a record-breaking degree, and this was certainly the case. Informed ahead of time, we were prepared with long pants and jackets, which were absolutely required. Before departure, the bus driver conveyed the best he could with limited command in English, that passengers were forbidden from going “number 2” (or worse) in the tiny bathroom cell in the middle of the bus. Desperate to hold out, my stomach ached, and I alternated between sweating and freezing, concerning myself with arranging assorted Ziploc bags in case I got sick in the frigid, underlit, crowded bus. At stops along the way, neither lukewarm fried food at a side-of-the-road restaurant nor fresh air would improve my condition, but at about 5 in the morning, we had reached our journey’s end (on the freezer bus at least!).
I find the best thing to soothe stomach pangs is a choppy boat ride before dawn; fortunately, this was the method of reaching Isla Colón, for Bocas Town, upon our shuttle arriving at Almirante, a rough port town. Eventually arriving on the island before 7 AM, we dragged our luggage for a bit before catching a colectivo cab to the neighborhood where we would stay for our 5 days on the island. The cute pink house on the water, hammock and friendly cats included…that was ours.
After checking in and quickly unpacking, Ramona and I collapsed in bed for about 6 hours, delaying the beginning of island exploration until the afternoon. Incredibly exhausted and at less than 100% health due to the stomach issue, I hardly noticed as I slept that the house shifted back and forth in the water. Subsequent nights in bed this became more evident, providing an interesting feeling akin to some minor earthquake tremors, and a new experience, never having slept on a (house) boat.
If making the trip to Bocas by overnight bus, I think it is useful for a travel party to block off about half a day after arrival to recuperate and regain their bearings. On a voyage between these two areas of the country again, we’d likely consider the simplicity and time savings, and take a domestic flight instead. But hey, we made it, and saved a few bucks in the process.
Bocas Town is the capital of the Bocas del Toro Panamanian province, which consists of the entire 9 island archipelago, plus a large section of mainland rainforest. Within Bocas Town (or simply “Bocas”) there are a decent amount of amenities to make a vacation go smoothly. There are a variety of lodges and vacation homes, mostly outside of the town proper, but at worst, a 15-20 minute walk into the town center, or a short bike ride, or a cheap colectivo cab. Convenience stores, banks, laundromats and other essentials are ready accessible. There are some solid (but not spectacular) restaurants serving freshly caught and prepared fish and sushi, as well as Mediterranean and other international food. We ate at a solid pizza joint (La Italiana) while watching the Super Bowl; there is even a brewery in town these days. Many of the bars and restaurants are perfectly located on the water or in stilt houses, and water taxis are readily available for $5 to $10 USD should you want to hop around and visit a place not on the main island. The notion of island living became fascinating to me, in particular, as I imagined local families potentially spending the majority of their life on these islands. This hit home as we encountered an awe-inspiring brass brand lead a funeral march through the streets with hundreds marching in the procession, crossing the entirety of Bocas Town.
There are some limitations to the island life here. Tap water is not guaranteed to be present, and is definitely not drinkable if available. There is no waste management service, so plastic water bottles and other garbage tends to pile up until someone decides to boat it back to the mainland, or more frequently, simply chuck it in the water. Our hosts (originally from the Netherlands) attempted to do their part by building an elaborate water filtration system for the neighborhood and implementing some basic recycling methods, but they are fighting a losing battle. Poverty is high, so a watchful eye and the usual precautions should be kept when getting cash at a cajero automático (ATM), or using a fancy phone or camera, particularly after dark. Vigilance must be performed when locking up one’s living quarters, to prevent against entry by literal pirates (thieves arriving by small boat). This all said, other than the pirate protection, these are pretty much standard fare when traveling.
This being mostly a vacation for me with only a sporadic day or so of work, Ramona and I were able to relax and somewhat pace ourselves. In addition to investigating the town and surrounding areas, we set out to check out the various beaches on the main island.
Isla Colón Beaches
Playa Istmito/Playa Bocas
This beachfront is right on the Bocas Town isthmus and is easily accessible from anywhere in town. Thus, it is quite popular with the locals; we witnessed pickup baseball games and soccer teams training on the beach. There are a few basic restaurants/bars scattered along the shore. It’s okay for a quick swim, but the water is a little dirty, and you may have to step over some garbage along the way. Really, the proximity to Bocas Town is the best thing going for this beach.
Holding a bag of sandwiches and beer, the colectivo cab driver gave us a weird look when we asked to get dropped off at Big Creek, about 5-10 minutes up the road from Playa Istmito. So, uh, there is really not much of a beach here. Fortunately we salvaged the situation by claiming an unoccupied dock to sit on and eat lunch at before taking a quick swim, followed by a lazy stroll back into town.
Bluff Beach is a large beach on the northern part of the island, primarily known for its great surfing. We heard it was simplest to avoid taxis and head to the beach by bike. Conveniently, there are numerous shops in town (including grocery stores) where one can rent a bike with basket by the hour, or for an entire day, which seemed to run somewhere between $5 and $10 USD.
So, the two of us stocked up on some drinks and snacks, mounted our grocery store rentals, and set out for the beach. You’ll be on paved roads for a fair spell before encountering some loose sand that is difficult to power through on a single speed. Still, it’s a pretty enjoyable ride along the east coast of the island. Along the way are a few lodges and a couple of basic restaurants or bars if food or refreshments are needed.
A little over an hour later and 5 miles in, the edge of Bluff Beach was reached. There aren’t any amenities here, other than a single garbage can, sparingly used.
Ramona and I were enthusiastic to arrive at the beach, and it definitely delivered. The overcast sky, brewing storm, epic waves, and pristine golden sand made this a bit of an otherworld experience. Riptides here are rather strong and swimming too far out did not seem wise, but being virtually alone on the beach, we relished in the serenity as we ate our packed lunch and read on our Kindles for the afternoon, dodging the incoming tides (sometimes successfully).
On the bike ride back, we also cruised past Playa Paunch, which was now in full use by local surfers (the beach was practically non-existent due to the tide on the ride in).
Playa Boca del Drago and Playa Estrella (Starfish Beach)
Starfish Beach is the most well-known beach in Bocas del Toro, by Panamanians and foreign tourists alike. It carries the potential of seeing starfish in the wild, which was enough reason for us to plan on stopping by. A $5 shuttle/van ride (or more pricy personal taxi) from town through the meandering hills and rough terrain nets you at Playa Boca del Drago after about 40 minutes, which is adjacent to Playa Estrella on the northwest corner of the island. Water taxis are also a common option from Bocas Town or basically anywhere within the archipelago, or between Boca del Drago and Estrella beach fronts.
Boca del Drago is a fairly small beach nestled amongst some family restaurants and a boat dock. The beach itself is not very picturesque, though the backdrop of the clear blue water, bright sky, and rolling hills really pulls you in.
Ramona and I were fortunate enough to stake the one small spot at the beach that had a bit of palm tree shade; otherwise, the small beach is very exposed to the sun, and is probably not going to be worth spending many hours there. In fact, most folks that arrived to Bocas del Drago via taxi or shuttle from Bocas Town simply passed right on through to Starfish Beach, which is reached by walking along the ocean for about 20 minutes on a narrow footpath through some mangroves. Unfortunately, like much of Bocas, there is a fair bit of trash along this trail, which puts a bit of a damper on the otherwise pleasant route.
Starfish Beach certainly lived up to its name; it was a beach, and we saw a dozen or starfish in the clear, blue ocean, which was a unique experience. Oh, please avoid being a jackwagon and taking starfish out of the water.
The atmosphere of the beach itself has a lot in common with other touristy areas we’ve visited on our journey abroad in Central America. Lots of folks aggressively selling knickknacks, numerous small family restaurants and bars, a small, overcrowded beach, and plenty of loud tourists and locals. Depending on the visitor’s experience in similar venues, they may be especially enamored, annoyed, or simply used to it. Four months into living in Central America, we thought nothing of it.
The last shuttles and vans back to town arrive around 5 PM, as well as an assortment of taxis, resulting in a mad scramble to hitch a ride, and eventually the forming of a lengthy and surprisingly orderly queue. Eventually, Ramona employed her Spanish skills to negotiate a fairly priced water taxi back to town. On the ride back, basking in the gentle sea breeze, the sun began to set, producing one of the more majestic backdrops I have ever seen in nature.
Boating around Bocas del Toro
Overall, the highlight of this short vacation was a simple boat tour, skipping across the various islands in the Bocas del Toro archipelago. For $30 per person, Ramona and I joined a vacationing Panamanian family and our guide bright and early, first navigating to Dolphin Bay. Our guide spotted the first dolphins coming up, before competing tour vessels arrived attempted to “cut” in front to get a better vantage point. Come on guys, you know the rule: no cuts, no buts, no coconuts.
After the dolphin viewing, the group headed toward Isla Bastamientos, which hosts the national marine park. The island is also home to a beautiful beach with the whitest sand and clearest water I have ever seen. Truly, the incredible visuals are like those seen on postcards. Pedlar Studios should really think about getting into that business.
Ramona has seen some playas similar to this in Puerto Rico, but this was all new to me, reeling me in so that I felt obliged to skip the hiking trail. Despite walking on dozens of beaches in the preceding four months, I was feeling rather giddy in this moment, in this place with an almost otherworldly natural beauty.
In between a stop for lunch at a restaurant on stilts and some some unfortunately subpar snorkeling, the final destination was Red Frog Beach, home to the crème de la crème of fancy resorts in the archipelago. ‘Twas a beautiful beach, but the best part of this stop was spotting the world’s fastest sloth in the trees before boarding the boat to return.
Overall, the format of the tour felt laid-back and unofficial, as though the group was being chauffeured around to different places of interest, though on this particularly gorgeous day, this approach felt great to us, and was completely worth it.
Leaving Island Life
I was impressed with Bocas del Toro as something a little more than “just a beach town.” The ability to easily and fairly affordably catch a boat to a different island for the day, or explore a large variety of beaches makes it a little more interesting than some other coastal vacation getaways. The main island, Isla Colón, is walkable and bikeable, with all of the required amenities, including decent and varied food and drink.
The region is certainly being built up for tourism, though a fair amount of that comes from other Panamanians, as this is one of their primary holiday spots. Moreover, Bocas Town in particular does not feel so much like a tourist town for me when compared to others. As a foreign tourist in this area, it feels a teensy bit “grittier” than some other similar vacation destinations in the region, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. The proximity to the Costa Rican border also makes it potentially convenient to visit both countries in a single trip, increasing the flights and transportation options at the traveler’s disposal. And one does not want to miss the fun of a Central American border crossing. Trust me.