Bocas del Toro

island idyll

It’s 600 kms by land and 40 minutes via Air Panama, from Panama City to Bocas del Toro, but the cultural distance is immeasurable. From sky scrapers to crashing waves, broken concrete to sandy sea shores, terrazas to beach bars. From the urban jungle to the real jungle. What a contrast!

The day starts with a panicky jolt when I see a very small plane on the airport runway. I’ve not bothered to take Gravol, thinking the flight would be in a decent sized aircraft. While Craig searches for a plastic barf bag, I gobble some ginger tablets and try to calm my nerves. All for naught as a slightly larger, albeit turboprop powered, Fokker 50 shows up. The flight is smooth, the bag unnecessary.

Bocas del Toro (mouths of the bull) is the name of the province, the archipelago of islands, and the capital city of this area on the northwest Caribbean coast of Panama. Bocas town is on Isla Colon, named for, you guessed it, Christopher Columbus, who sailed the seas around these islands in 1502, looking for a sea passage through the isthmus.

The Hummingbird Resort is aptly named. The lush gardens surrounding the thatched-roof bungalows are teeming with hummingbirds. Several large green parrots. Various other birds we have yet to learn the names of, monkeys, sloths and colourful butterflies as well. Hibiscus, bougainvillea, oleander, lantana, verbena, heliconia blooms too. An oasis. Crashing surf across the road. Signs warning of dangerous rip tides and killer waves mean we have to use the swimming pool to cool off.

It is eco-friendly, off-grid. We drink filtered rain water. The electricity is all solar. The food local. We feel virtuous, as long as we can forget almost everything else about our lifestyle, especially the air travel.

Betsy & Garry, the owners, could not be more friendly or helpful. Ditto for their staff, Olivia & Manuel. The food is nothing short of gourmet. Truly exceptional!

Just 7 kms, the drive to the resort takes half an hour owing to the sandy road surface and the waves that occasionally break over the road but mostly because the taxi drivers stop to converse with each other as they pass, through their open windows, blocking the road. Our driver waits patiently, never honking, saying humorously “blah, blah, blah, hablan beaucoup”.

The locals speak an interesting patois (not patio, as my spell check seems to prefer). Spanish mixed with English, some French thrown in, with a Jamaican accent. Makes it tough for us to work on our Spanish. Craig especially. After a taxi ride during which the driver is worried he will get stuck in the sand, Craig helpfully wants to tell him buena suerte, good luck, for the return trip. What he says is buen provecho, enjoy your meal. We laugh on and off all evening after that one. Not sure what the taxi driver thought. That we speak some kind of weird patois is my guess.

The taxi rides are always interesting. The driver will pick up other fares while we are en route and do errands along the way. One day we get into a cab that is coincidentally going to our resort with supplies. There are already two Brits in the car along with the driver’s young sons. We drop the Brits off, pick up ice for the resort and in the meantime the son in the back seat with us has fallen asleep standing up, his head wedged between the window and the driver’s seat. The cabbie asks if we will lay him down so he doesn’t hurt his head on the rough road. I end up with him drooling on my bosom for the rest of the trip.

Although it rains the second day, mostly drizzle, one brief downpour, the island is experiencing a drought. No rain fell in January when it was expected and now is the beginning of the dry season. Some of the resorts on the smaller islands have had to cancel guests’ reservations because they have no water.

So rather than complain about a rainy day, we enjoy some down time reading, sleeping, playing Scrabble, watching the wildlife, conjugating Spanish verbs. Eat, drink, repeat.

The next day, Thursday, dawns sunny and warm. The sky is azure and cloudless, the sea aquamarine and calm. I mention all of this because it is the day we’ve scheduled to scuba dive and weather is important. I take a new drug called Vomistop. No doubting what that is for?! It turns out to be unnecessary as the boat ride to the dive site is about 10 mins and the site is within the large bay formed by the surrounding islands and not the open ocean. YAY!!

Diving is a lot like skiing in that by the time you gear up you are pretty much exhausted. Plus it is blistering hot. Getting into the water is a relief and the weightlessness down at 50 feet is sublime. We see all kinds of fish, coral and vegetation. Myriad colours. The second time down is a wreck dive, to a sailboat intentionally sunk to stimulate coral, which attracts fish. Large schools of them scoot around us. A couple of barracuda cruise by. A lobster and moray eel peek out from under rocks. A manta ray emerges from the sandy sea bottom.

Our dive master, Callie, is a quintessential island dude. The photo says it all, “mon”. The perfect blend of conscientious and fun, he keeps a close eye but lets us explore the reef a bit on our own. He likes to scare us by making the sign for shark.

The surfer, backpacker, Bob Marley vibe on the island makes us feel old and young at the same time. Slender, tanned chicas in their bikinis, flaunting their perky butt cheeks, with their tattooed, muscled, dread-locked boyfriends stroll by on the beach and in an instant we are reminded of our age demographic: senior.

A water taxi to Caranero Island takes less than five minutes and lands us a short walk away from Bibi’s restaurant where we wait more than an hour for lunch. It’s fresh and tasty when it finally arrives, we have no where else to be, and … we’re on island time, mon.

The islands ooze Caribbean charm. Saturated pink, yellow, turquoise, magenta and lime green on the buildings. Rum and coconut based drinks on offer. Ask Craig about the pina coladas! Tie-dyed clothing for sale. Not many tourists. Locals going about their business. Kenny Chesney’s song about “no shirt, no shoes, no problem” is apropos.

We spend the last day hiking through the jungle north of our resort to a series of beaches. Here the water is calm and swimmable, the beach palm fringed and deserted. The last stop is a coral lagoon where we snorkel and try to not think about the1950s horror movie about the creature from the black lagoon. The blue lagoon is more like it, although we look nothing like Brooke Shields and her blonde, buff costar.

The day is like every traveler’s dream of a perfect beach day come true and we are hard pressed to think of a more perfect tropical paradise.

It would be easy to spend more time here and we kind of wish we could. But a rental car waits for us on the mainland and there’s a hotel reservation in Boquete, a highland town a day’s drive away. So leave we must. We’d love to come back. It is a stunningly beautiful place. But there are other places on the list, particularly in this neck of the woods, that we still want to visit. So it’s probably “adios”, and not “hasta la vista”.




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