Boca Chica

Pacific coast paradise

So much of our travel these days is pre-planned. We book flights, figure out a route, reserve a rental car, book hotels, buy a guidebook, read Trip Advisor. And yet, some of the best travel moments happen spontaneously and often serendipitously.

Today, for example. We leave Boquete and quickly miss our exit from the 4-lane divided carretera. We could keep going and arrive at the same place, but have enough time to turn around, retrace our steps and get off the main highway in favour of a small country road. If not for that, and a series of other happenstance decisions, the day would have gone very differently.

We follow a truck and horse trailer for a long time, until we pull out and pass. At an intersection a half hour later I call for Craig to stop so I can take a photo of the sign for the Pan-American Carretera, but he can’t until it is safe, around the corner and a few yards down the road. I get out of the car and notice the same truck and trailer pulling off the road into a large open area. I hear Spanish over a loudspeaker and can make out the words “caballo”, horse, and “vamos”, let’s go, and “caballero”, horse man. I think maybe it’s an auction. And that it might be interesting to have a look.

The security guys at the gate speak not one word of English, but we manage to ask “podemos passar?” and buy a day pass for $3. Turns out it’s a rodeo. We arrive in time for team calf-roping. Not our favourite sport, watching calves get half strangled by some very skilled caballeros. In fact, I’m rooting for the calves and cheer every time a rope misses.

The security guys call out for us to stay as we are leaving, but when we say we are heading to Bocas Chicas, they both nod and say “playa es muy linda”, the beach is very beautiful. We drag out our pat Spanish compliment “disfrutamos mucho”, we enjoyed ourselves a lot, and they break into huge grins.

Nowhere did we read or hear about the Gualaca rodeo. Could not have planned to be there. Saint Christopher, the travel god, led the way. We just followed.

Boca Chica, our destination, is an hour further along, on the Pacific coast. The town is fairly primitivo. A fishing village at best. A few tourists. A couple of restaurants, but according to Ericka and Herbie, the owners of our lodge, only one worth eating at. Fonda Lily & Katy has a few wooden tables set up outside where chickens, dogs & cats roam and a horse is tied up next door. There is no menu and only two items on offer: lobster or fish. We opt for the fish “a la plancha”, on the griddle. It comes with french fries and a small salad. The fish is delicious. They call it makerala, but it tastes more like trout than mackerel to us. The fries are a bit greasy and could use more time in a hotter fryer. But, beggars can’t be choosers.

We’re staying high on a hill at the Boca Chica Bay Eco Lodge  The lodge overlooks the bay, which is at the end of a river estuary and is dotted with islands. It’s a breathtaking view. There are blooms and birds, including parakeets, in the garden. Howler monkies in the trees. Geckos on the walls. Scorpions that we hope to not see hiding in the shadows.

We get to know the other ten guests staying at the lodge as we all gather in the pool in the heat of the day. Travel stories and tips are shared. Talk invariably turns to American politics and the lunacy of the late-night tweeter in charge. Is there any where on the planet where one can escape his reach?

Herbie & Erica are great hosts and a wealth of information. Because of them we go to a Saturday morning Hatha yoga class that is held in the prettiest setting, outdoors, under a 200 yr old fig tree on a ridge overlooking the bay. Everyone in the class is extremely friendly, warm and welcoming. All ex-pats.

They take us to a tiki party that night at the hotel next door and introduce us around to all of their friends. Yes, more white ex-pats. All interesting, well-traveled people who hail from the far reaches of the globe. Fascinating to hear all the stories about how they ended up here. Over and over again we hear the same theme: the climate, the environment, the people, the stability of the currency (Panama uses U.S. dollars), the central location. Many came to visit friends who lived here or came on a vacation and were smitten. Not hard to see why.

Sunday morning we spend on the estuary, kayaking with Sue, the yoga instructor, and a couple from Nevada. Besides miles and miles of mangrove shoreline, we see many birds, some fish and two crocodile. Now I know why we were warned not to swim in front of our hotel, which is also on the estuary.

Wanting a dip in the ocean, we head to the beach. There’s little parking other than on the beach, where most of the locals have driven their vehicles and unloaded their picnics. So we do the same, drive onto the beach and park. After all, when in Rome …

We are at Playa Hermosa, literally translated as beautiful beach, and no doubt it would be if the tide wasn’t low and therefore almost a kilometre out. We persist and walk through the muddy flats to the shoreline and into the water. It’s not even tepid.

At 35 degrees and full-on humidity, we are dripping in sweat and in need of a refreshing swim. So we carry on deeper, up to our mid-thighs, heading for a rocky outcropping where we can leave our gear and dive in. The tide turns, the waves start coming at us and the bottom gets muddy and rocky. No amount of yoga gives us the balance needed to stay standing and we start  to stumble. “Here give me your camera” Craig says helpfully just before he topples and falls in. Both cameras, his and mine, go under water.

The car key is in Craig’s back pocket and now wet. Battery operated, we worry that the car will not start. Not only will we not be able to get back to our place, but the tide will come in and swamp the car. Oh, and his cell phone is in the glove box. Not that it would be much help, but at least we could call Ana, the lovely rental agency representative who gave us her cell phone number “para una emergencia”, and tell her what happened to their $35,000 vehicle.

Mercifully the car starts. We blast the a/c and hold our cameras to the vents in an attempt to dry them, but I can already see salt residue forming so even if they do dry, no doubt the salt will corrode the delicate internal parts.

We are extremely dependent on our cameras. Not sure we can travel without them. Do we a) abort the trip and go home, b) carry on just using Craig’s iPhone, c) make a trip to David, the closest city, and buy a new camera?

We ponder these options, go for a swim in the pool, pour some wine and pray that by tomorrow the cameras, or at least one of them, will be dry and working. Keeping our fingers crossed!

Of course, neither works at all. Both are kaput. Dead as can be. The travel gods give and they take away. We decide to carry on with our plans to go to some of the islands as there are others going along to share the cost of the boat. We use Craig’s iPhone. The photos are ok.

The day of island hopping in the Golfo de Chiriqui takes us to pristine, deserted beaches covered in fine white sand. Muy tranquillo. Rather than know the names of these postcard perfect pieces of tropical paradise, we imagine we are discovering them for the first time, much like the crew of Gilligan’s Island.

Crystalline water full of fish. We snorkel and see a huge sea turtle, following it and the current until I realize we’re a long way from the where we started. By the time we are about 200 yds from the beach we are tired and the current is so strong that it doesn’t matter how hard I swim I make no progress whatsoever. And the waves are pushing me into the rocky outcropping between us and the beach. Luckily Herni, the boat captain, sees that we are in a spot of trouble and comes to our rescue.

Later, sitting under the coconut palms, we wonder if we should be allowed out of the house, much less the country, without supervision. Two rookie mistakes in as many days! At the final island, Boca Brava, where we stop for a late lunch, over cold beer, we thank Saint Christopher for our good fortune.

The next morning we drive to David, the second largest city in Panama, home to a Panafoto store, and only an hour away. Even better, the photo store is on the east side of the city, the direction we are coming from, on the right side of the highway and well signed. In other words, we have no trouble finding it. They carry very few cameras, but – thank you travel gods – they carry exactly what we want. At good prices. 

We celebrate over lunch in downtown David, where it is slim pickings for restaurants. A few very scary looking places in run-down hotels facing the main square. The best of the worst options is a cafeteria crowded with locals. There’s a lunch special for $2.95 that is actually pretty tasty. Rice, beans, chicken & salad. 

We are back at our lodge pool by early afternoon, celebrating our successful shopping trip. And reflecting on the stupidity that led to the trip in the first place. Life is about learning lessons and travel has a way of dishing up lots of opportunities for just that. 

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