It’s always sunny in Bocas del Toro
Almost as soon as we said “hola” it was already time to say “adios” to Puerto Viejo. A short bus ride to the border dropped us off at the old, silver painted bridge that separates Costa Rica from Panama. It was one of my favorite border hopping experiences yet. To cross by foot everybody has to walk over an old steel bridge. This was previously the only physical path available to cross by foot, by car, or by train but was now kept company by a newer bridge for vehicle traffic off to the side. New stamps were donated and we were soon reunited with peanut butter from a grocery store right next to the immigration office. We hadn’t seen affordable peanut butter in about 2 months and didn’t leave without a jar of jiff in tote.
The van left us at a small dock where waited for the next boat to take us to Bocas. From the sturdy wooden platform I caught a glimpse of what it’s like living on the salty waters of a Caribbean lagoon. Almost every stilted house possessed the ubiquitous wooden fishing boat parked dockside. Time was passed watching kids fishing from their front porches on that hot, lazy day. Naturally the boat taxi service fit as many bodies as humanly possible into our vessel before setting off. En route we passed gigantic Chiquita Banana carriers with what must have been hundreds of thousands of bananas on board each one. The commercial banana industry had hid itself beyond big fields of banana trees up until this point, and the enormous business that it must be finally revealed itself in tangible, humongous carriers. Once we carried ourselves out of the channel and into some open waters we pulled up to an anchored personal wooden fishing boat for yet another curbside service drop off a la Latin American.
Bocas Del Toro came into view with it’s old docks, weathered buildings, and colorful houses. Our dock was sufficiently worn in to the point of total trust that it has seen bad times and is still standing for a reason. The streets were humming at a casual island pace. A quick scan revealed lots of construction, which tends to mean outside investment in this part of the world. New grocery stores were being built right across the street from grocery stores. The hostel we planned on staying in was owned by the same person Elissa had rented a room from in a previous trip. Since I used the phrase “planned on” you, the reader, can probably guess it didn’t end up that way. This hostel was under renovations, thus changing our plans. Our dorm room score came in the form of Casa Verde (there seems to be an uncountable number of Casa Verde’s in our travels) that came equipped with a much needed AC. Whenever affordable, AC is a huge luxury that to me is worth splurging on once in a while. There is nothing that makes me sleep nicer than when a the window unit is set on “Siberia”. I swear that some mornings I can make out smile lines in the mirror after a freshly chilled night of air conditioning. In this case it was more affordable than other options, sweetening the deal. The Afro Carib owners called us “my love” and the bar/dock/restaurant/live act area had dockside views into the crystalline Caribbean waters. Big red and orange starfish were accompanied by schools educating thousands of fish within spitting distance from the edge. The bar had live music until 10pm every night and drew a small crowd regardless of the acts.
The streets were like any street in a hot, Caribbean island setting. At noon the sun was always very intense and usually resulted in a slow, things can wait kind of pace. Small bodegas, large restaurants, grocery shops, beach shops, and cheap eats all lined the main road through town, which was swarming with full size yellow pickup truck taxis. There also exists a jail that abuts the sidewalk on a normal looking road, with life inside only separated from the outside by a 10 foot fence of the outdoor recreation area. I also noticed that all the larger grocery stores now seemed to be owned an operated by Asians, similar to Belize. Just a few blocks off the main strip the normalcy of the culture were ever present and refreshing to see again. Friendly kids were punting soccer balls at each other, elderly folks wandering about with friendly greetings always ready to roll off their tongues, and salty sun soaked stilted houses as far as the eye could see. Soccer practice was held in the grassy section of the airplane landing strip and each block seemed to have it’s own local tienda.
A trip down memory lane to starfish beach was mandatory. Memory lane is a tricky friend to keep close. She can and often does surprise you and the picture that you painted on a canvas years before. Often, when you take the painted back out to shake off the dust you find that it has, like time, ultimately moved on. On this go around, a taxi trip was much more costly. A 5 dollar return trip on a boat now cost around 20, and the local bus option had been narrowly missed and would cost us a 2 hour wait. A yellow pick up truck cab wound up being the best option, for a return trip of about 16 bucks. The walk to the beach could be described as heavenly. Walking along the water’s edge we were tip toeing in the surf through the kind of palm trees that Corona seeks out for it’s advertising campaigns. Not a soul in sight as hidden bays were unveiled in the bright, Panama sun. That is, until we reached starfish beach. We immediately saw boats anchored, heard the faint sound of Latin American bass, and saw a beach full of sun bathers. Three seemingly long years before, Elissa was one of three people on this beach, surrounded only by orange starfish in the shallow, warm Caribbean waters. The starfish were still there, but people were picking them up out of the water and rearranging them for photo opportunities. Two stands were selling food and beer using a gasoline generator to power the large speakers and refrigerator. Once again, the image of our destination popped with the reality of exposure.
Not discouraged from our Starfish beach experience, we hopped on a boat for Bastimentos, a locals island nearby that had two beautifully kept isolated beaches on the opposite side of the island. After a short skip across the puddle, we docked up and set off into the little village. There wasn’t much to see here except the houses and simple way of life complete with some friendly, curious folks and chickens scratching about. En route to find the path to Wizard beach, we were stopped by the police and strongly encouraged to leave all valuables and money at the station. There have been numerous instances of armed robbery on this walk, and we eventually gave in to their suggestion and left our stuff. After walking just 10 minutes through the jungle we started to see why the water taxis were telling us to pay for a ride around instead of walking. It was rainy season, and we soon were up to our ankles in thick, slippery mud. The path became treacherous after a few more minutes as we began sinking our limbs further into the saturated earth. Some surfers passed us with mud caked up to each of their knees, laughing at our questions about the path ahead. Our sandals quickly became useless, although I stuck it out till the bitter end with my handmade leather thongs which are still kickin’ it all the way from Mexico. Slips and falls were almost unavoidable as we danced on tree roots, the occasional aid from wooden planks laid down, and the slipperiest, slimiest mud I’ve ever walked on. A 45 minute walk turned into well over an hour and half, but the sight of the beach coupled with the deafening sounds of the crashing waves was well worth the effort.
The surf on this beach is intensely invigorating and will test your swimming abilities. I heard warnings about the current here but didn’t take them too seriously until trying to swim. Fantastic exercise or struggle for survival? I’m not sure which I’d pick. After a bit of cardio and relaxing I was began to wonder how we were going to fare walking all the way back through the saturated mess between us and our backpacks once again. A couple from London arrived shortly after and made the decision for us. They couldn’t fathom going back the same way again and convinced us to walk to Red Frog Beach and take a taxi from there with them. So off we were, walking along a beautiful private beach again. Then the beach ended, the jungle began, and we were knee deep in thick, gooey mud once again. This path was much less defined, more muddy, and split off several times leading us towards dead ends with no promise of finding the end destination. I lost my sandal about 1 foot below seemingly solid looking ground and had to reach through the muck past my elbow to get it back. But along the way we found numerous red, orange, and yellow poisonous dart frogs that give the beach it’s namesake. The tiny, vivid, penny sized frogs were not hard to spot hopping along the ground near our muddy feet. We heard a toucan, but couldn’t get an eye on it amidst the thick jungle cover. With a “no turning back now” attitude, we pressed on and once again found solace on a beautifully barren beach. Felled trees covered the shore in ways too beautiful to describe, with the deliciously cool salty surf pounding our tired lower limbs.
After exiting the beach we took a wrong turn and ended up in the Red Frog Beach development that was completely opposite of the old town on the other side of the island. Massive dream houses were grouped together with hot tubs, outdoor pools, and perfectly manicured lawns and gardens surrounding each dwelling. Convinced we were lost, we asked someone for directions and got a thick, American accent response as to where to go. When we found the dock we also found a wide array of large yachts, catamarans, and personal water crafts lining this privately sheltered bay. A clear division of wealth and poverty exists on this little Caribbean island. This invisible line is drawn through the differences between those that choose to retire here and those that have called this place home long before the contractors moved in.
Bocas treated us very well for three Caribbean nights. Late night tropic squalls tempted me out of bed to listen to the rain pound down on the endlessly flat sea in front of my weary eyes. I can still picture the pure white lightening bolts touching down in the near distance, followed by the boom that echoed as if I was in an enclosed empty warehouse watching them touch down on the cold concrete floor. Bocas graced me with some fond memories that I’ll keep in safe storage forever. Now some images are yours to enjoy too!