Monday, July 26, 2010

Our Panama Adventure

We arrived in Bocas Town on Wednesday, July 14. Unfortunately, our luggage hadn’t even made it to Panama. Nevertheless, we dropped our carry-ons off at Hotel Olas and ventured out to explore Bocas Town.

Bocas Town, the main digs in Bocas del Toro, an archipelago off the northeast coast of Panama, offers a slow-paced, relaxed lifestyle to Panamanians and Anglo ex-pats alike. The streets are lined with stores and casual restaurants that open and close at their owners’ whims and with hostels and hotels all with their own docks into the bay. We arrived during a quiet period, when backpackers were limited in their ground movements by union protests in the nearby province and when Bocas seemed to be half-asleep, drowsy from the heat and salt water surrounding it. This, I knew immediately, was the ultimate beach adventure, the kind of place where flip flops are the only footwear; sand, water, and wind are inescapable; and no matter what your propensity to keep track of time at home, absent any real sense of schedule.

As we got to know Bocas Town more, we learned that its residents consist of poor Panamanians who live comfortably by their standards and sub-par by ours and of “gringos,” white citizens of elsewhere (the US, England, Australia, Holland) who found the lure of Bocas’ beaches and ease so appealing that they never went home. Most of the business owners in Bocas are gringos, but despite this trend there is an immense variety in cuisine and a local feel to the operations. Even with the strong presence of foreigners, I still found many opportunities to converse in Spanish and was proud to be able to communicate about nearly everything in a language I feared I had lost.

On Thursday, without swimsuits with which to visit the beach, we took a water taxi to the Butterfly Farm on Isla Carenero. Though the ads we had seen indicated that it would be open, we found the farm deserted. We walked around the unlocked portion of the farm and met a number of caged animals, including a deer (whose name, we later learned, is Bambi), some ducks, a host of brightly colored frogs, and a few wild turkeys who were not only uncaged but seemed to follow us everywhere we went. Eventually, a man appeared, and in Spanish he informed me that the man with the key was on his way on a bicycle, but he was at a birthday party and it could be a while. I spoke with him for a while and he walked us around the caged animals again, but the time came for us to meet our water taxi back to the main island, so we bid him goodbye and stepped amongst the crabs along the dock to head back. Later, we explored the periphery of town and encountered the “Batido Bus,” where we enjoyed delicious smoothies in lawn chairs on top of the bus itself. After, when we stopped by the airport (an airstrip on the outskirts of the small town), our luggage had arrived, and we happily carried it to our hotel. Our real adventures could begin!

Some Floridians we met tending the bar at another hotel in town recommended we find George at Casa Verde, the hostel across the street, and ask him to take us on one of his boat tours. Boat tours are the main way to do things in Bocas del Toro—each day, dozens of small boats depart Bocas Town for the various beaches, snorkeling spots, and parks on the other islands. On Friday morning, we found George, a dark Panamanian with a Jamaican-like approach to life, and joined him and two female teachers from Florida on a day trip. We stopped at Boca del Drago, aka Starfish Beach, and found hundreds of large, beautiful starfish in the shallow water along the beach. Next, George took us to his “cousin’s” house, suspended on stilts above the bay between islands, where we ate the sandwiches we had brought and had fresh coconut provided by a random fisherman with a machete.

On Saturday, we met up with George again and this time were joined by a few couples from various European countries. We headed to Red Frog Beach, a nature preserve and possibly the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen. Pete taught me how to float with a wave that’s about to break, and for lunch we enjoyed delicious burgers from an American-run grill on the beach. Meanwhile, Panamanian children who had gone into the forest and captured bright red poisonous frogs (the beach’s namesake) approached us and showed us their treasures. Afterwards, we piled back into the boat and went to Hospital Point, where I snorkeled until I couldn’t snorkel anymore. We saw incredible coral reef and a huge array of fish. One of the things I was most impressed with about Bocas del Toro was the variety of fish I saw there—even in shallow waters, clownfish join sardines and starfish along with hundreds of other types I could never name.

Saturday afternoon, we moved to our second hotel, a bed and breakfast called Bahia del Sol on Saigon Bay, on the outskirts of Bocas Town in a quiet, but very low-income, area. Bahia del Sol was incredible—the house is large with high rafters and a porch that opens right out onto the bay. There, we could relax on hammocks or with our feet dangling off the dock and watch the sun set over the Carribean. Our hosts, Jack and Lee, were friendly but respectful of our privacy, and offered fantastic recommendations based on their four years residing on the island. After spending a little time enjoying our new digs, we headed out to check out Aqua Lounge, the main party spot in Bocas. Aqua Lounge is a bar built right over the water, with a diving board above a cordoned off section of the bay. Braver than I would ever be, Pete tried out the board, in his clothes (we didn’t think to wear our swimsuits), and loved it so much that he did it again immediately after. A bunch of drunk people diving into a bay connected to the Carribean Sea seemed like a recipe for disaster, though, so after watching a few more water taxis unload groups of hostel-dwellers, we jumped in one and returned to our hotel.

We decided to lay low on Sunday. By this point, Pete and I both had serious sunburns, despite regularly applying SPF 70, and we wanted to enjoy our fantastic bed and breakfast. Pete worked with Jack (one of the proprietors) to get a fishing rod set up, and he set out to see what he could catch off the house’s dock. I brought my book to a hammock in the shade and left it only to respond to Pete’s exclamations of “I caught something!!” to photograph it and cringe while he unhooked it. Pete was fairly successful—he caught a blowfish and two or three other smaller fish. We also enjoyed dropping the bait in near a group of squid and watching them ink every time. In the evening, we took a long taxi ride along the beach (literally, it drove in the sand right next to the water) up to La Coralina, an isolated hotel and restaurant far out on the main island. We spent a few hours there enjoying their spectacular views and delicious food before calling it a night.

On Monday, our last day in Bocas, we took another boat tour, this time with a service called “Jampan” (Jamaican-Panamanian) run by a Canadian. Our tour guide was a local, born and bred in Bocas, and brought us first to Islas Zapatillas, some of the furthest islands from the main set and now a nature preserve where 7 countries have filmed their “Survivor” TV series. Near one of the islands, we set out snorkeling and saw even more beautiful reef than we had previously. Though we were not far from the coast of the island, Pete came face-to-face with a sizable shark, and we quickly swam back to shore to avoid serious injury. The island itself had a trail from one end to the other, so we followed it hoping to see interesting animals or maybe an abandoned Survivor set. Though these wishes were unfulfilled, we did see many, many crabs, lots of husked coconuts, and some of the most lush and stunning forest I’ve ever seen. Reaching the beach on the other side, we dug our feet into the sand and enjoyed the walk along the perimeter back to where we began. After Zapatillas, we headed to another snorkeling spot called Coral Cay. Deeper and further offshore than the other places we had snorkeled, this spot offered much larger fish to be seen and deeper reefs to explore. Our guide warned that there may be jellyfish, and not more than 10 minutes after we began snorkeling, I told Pete something was biting me. Jellyfish! Thankfully, we were heading to a restaurant for lunch next, so I waited patiently for vinegar from the restaurant instead of asking someone to pee on me to stop the stinging. The restaurant was also on stilts free-standing in the sea, and it was there that I not only recovered from my first ever jellyfish incident but also had the most delicious, fresh lobster tail I could ever imagine.

After returning from our final Bocas outing, Pete and I took in the island calm on the porch of our hotel. Venturing out to try one last restaurant among the many in town, we recounted all the wonderful experiences we had had and all the fun stories we could bring home with us.