Saturday, April 18, 2009

Bocas del Toro, Panama

Getting to Panama is a fairly easy trip from Costa Rica. Many people make this trip when their visa is about to expire and they need to get out of the country for a few days [ie. get their passport stamped and be allowed to stay for another 90 days]  We didn't need that but had heard a lot about Bocas del Toro, an archipelago of six main islands (and many smaller ones) off the northern coast of Panama. (look at the top left hand corner)
Since Brrrian, Neto and I were already in Puerto Viejo (30 minutes from the border) it should've been quick and easy to get there, right? Well folks, I had my first Latin American breakdown (not bad for being here a year) at the border of Costa Rica and Panama. We left PV at 930am. You arrive at the border city of Sixola and get off the bus, pass through Costa Rican immigrations for an exit stamp and walk across a long rickety bridge to enter Panama.So far so good. That was easy enough.. but then came the immigrations line in Panama.
We waited for about one hour and when we finally got up to the window, they told us that to enter the country they need to see a return bus or plane ticket. Ugh! So I had to walk to the bus station and buy 3 bus tickets. Next time at the window, they tell us, you need to get a tourist stamp in the office next door! UGH! I was so frustrated. When I walked into the tourist office I had to let the guy know what a CLUSTER this border operation was.  I know I surprised him by going off, but I couldn't hold it in. 

"If there is not going to be a person to guide people, can't you at least put a sign up? " 

As a matter of fact, I was so frustrated I started crying right there. cry cry cry. Take that! His demeanor changed a bit - I think he felt bad for the crazy crying Americana.

We finally got our passports stamped and got in a taxi and it was over. Done. (later that day a "monthly visitor" came by and I was relieved to have an explanation for my breakdown...oh! the joys of being a woman)

I have to say I did not research this trip to Bocas very thoroughly. I had the Lonely Planet travel guide, but hadn't really read it yet.  I think both Brian and Neto were thinking, why are we traveling into Panama?  We had to take a bus (to Sixola) to a taxi (to Changuinola) to a ferry (to Almirante) and then a water taxi (to Bocas) to get to the islands. In the taxi on the way to the ferry we had to stop for banana crossing. HA! A conveyor belt of bananas.
It was quite a process, but we all agreed it was well worth it. The biggest island in Bocas del Toro is called Isla Colon, and this is where most hotels and restaurants are. Brrrian made an executive decision that we go to a smaller, less developed island. He picked Isla Bastimentos, and we were so glad that he did. We didn't have a reservation (shocker!), so we just took the 8 minute water taxi ($3 per person) ...and our driver pulled up to different hotels and yelled for the owners to see if they had space available. The second place we stopped was called El Jaguar. It was clean, it had hammocks on the front porch, it was purple and it was $20 for the room. Sold!
On the island, houses are built on stilts in the water and the "driveways" are boat docks. There are no cars on the island. You walk or take a boat. Walking out of the back of El Jaguar leads to the sidewalk that meanders through the community.
One of the first things I saw on the island?
That's right! Parrots! Amazon Parrots! Just hanging out in trees and on wires. love it.  Our room was painted bright orange, 2 single beds and our own bathroom.  It had a swinging window out to the porch which we left open at night so we could keep it breezy and wake up with the sun.
Ernesto was the first to use the baño in our room, and it was so funny because when he flushed the toilet you heard him yell, "no way!" That's right folks, right into the ocean. (boy, do I have a funny sure you can imagine) Needless to say, we didn't go swimming there.

We spent the rest of the day lounging in our hammocks and enjoying the scenery. 

Here is El Jaguar himself. A cool guy who liked to hang out and talk.
This is the dock in front, and even though we weren't able to get in to the water, you can see how nice the view was.The history of Bocas del Toros is really interesting. (and i'm not a history buff)  In the early 19th century, blacks from America and Colombia were brought as slaves and then stayed when slavery was abolished in 1850.  In 1890 the banana industry took off in Bocas and this is when Jamaican blacks came.  Although many of the Indian populations were killed by the Spanish, the Guyamis Indians still inhabit the islands.  They live in wooden thatched huts with no electricity or running water, they survive by fishing and farming, and travel by wood carved canoes.  This explains the mix of people and also languages:  English or Spanish, which was fine, but sometimes they would break into some island dialect with each other, and I was lost.  Also fine. 

The banana industry still thrives and makes up the biggest work force on the islands.  It is owned by Chiquita.  Ever heard of them?

Walking through the community (which consists of one sidewalk that takes 10 minutes to walk start to finish) was interesting.  Lots to observe, island life is at slow pace, and I enjoyed seeing how it all comes together. We stuck out like sore thumbs, but no one seemed to mind. (Least of all me, I like to be an outsider sometimes) Everyone was very friendly.  Ernesto stopped to tickle this little girls feet....
We walked over to a little restaurant called Roots for a seafood dinner.  I was falling asleep at dinner so I didn't join the boys at Feria, a bar just down the street, they apparently were very popular with the locals and had a good time.  As a result, I was up earlier than them. (ps. remind me never to travel alone with 2 boys) It poured rain, but it was so nice.  I went to Seaview for coffee and did some writing and relaxing on a covered deck while the rain came down. By 11am the sun was out, and the boys awake, so we packed up and hiked the 20 minute trail to the beach.
It was beautiful scenery, and Brrian was loving it.  I guess I have been getting used to being in the jungle and seeing all the plants, so it was nice to see what caught his eye.  Check out this crazy tree. Ouch!
We even saw a red spotted frog, which I do believe is poisonous. yikes!

When we came out of the jungle, we arrived Wizard Beach. (yeah! more sand)  We were the only ones there and it was beautiful. Later, some surfers and other sunbathers joined us.  I'd love to learn to surf. It looks so fun! Brian and Neto spent an hour poking at the palm trees with long sticks. We cracked open the coconuts, drank the water and then ate the fruit. That night we took a water taxi into Bocas Town on the main island (Isla Colon) to get dinner and do some shopping.  Believe it or not, shopping was really my motivation for going to Panama.  Ernesto and I went on a trip to the San Blas Islands in Panama before we were married , and I didn't buy a mola! Molas are beautiful fabric artwork, made by the Kuna Indians (who live on the Islands)  I know I could've bought a mola on the internet, but living in Costa Rica, we are just too close to Panama - I had to buy it there. (Im weird, I know) Anyway there is a street lined with vendors and there were so many molas to choose from. I wanted to buy a bunch.I narrowed it down to 2 and Ernesto picked the black one, so walked with three.  Each design tells a story of the Kuna Indians. I plan on framing them to hang in my house...that I don't have. Aren't they beautiful?Another great spot for breakfast on the island is Tio Tom's, which is owned by a really nice German couple. It has a great deck over the water with a lot of plants... just a great atmosphere for enjoying a coffee and a $3 omellette or french toast. Diving and snorkeling are huge in Bocas del Toro. We paid $60 and had this boat and the driver, Maya for the day. He took us to two snorkeling spots. Just riding in the boat was awesome.
Maya is a native of Bastimentos and he knew his way around. Sometimes it was like we were going through a maze in all of the mangroves. How did he find this little tunnel?Our first stop was Coral Caye for some snorkeling.Neto sat out this one because it was in front of a restaurant. He was paranoid about the bathroom situation, but Brrrian and I saw pipes heading inland from the bathrooms, and that was good enough for us. We dove right in. This spot had so many fish, I think they are fed there, because there wasn't much plant life or coral on the bottom.Actually the water was so clear, Ernesto got to see many fish without going in. These are my favorite fish, although not a great picture, you can see how colorful they are. Its called a Parrot fish (how fitting...and its turquoise!)
The next snorkel spot was called Reef Caye and it was amazing! I have been snorkeling in many places and never have I seen the colors that I saw here. I have searched on the internet and can't come up with anything comparable. Im talking about the brightest colors of coral and other things (non-fish): gold, purple, royal blue, red, neon green, emerald green, orange. It was so cool. 

For the afternoon, we were dropped off at Red Frog Beach. Brrrian and Nester were hunter-gatherers again with the coconuts.  I can lay still in the sun forever reading, relaxing, thinking...they need to DO something.This time they came prepared with a bottle of rum. Coco Loco time!
This cute little puppy was running around looking skinny so I shared some of my granola bar with him. Then he wanted to share my blanket too, and I couldn't resist. We used the kitchen at El Jaguar our last night. Bought some beans and made rice and a good salsa (pico de gallo) and then just relaxed on the hammocks.  Yes, island life, I could get used to it.
We hopped on an early water taxi in the morning to start the trek back to San Jose.  They really jam pack those boats. At $4 a person, and about 20 people on the boat...running every half hour? Yes, the Austrian man who owns Bocas Marine Tours has got a good thing going. (and he is also a nice guy- he gave us a ride back to our island at 1am after waiting for a boat for an hour)

And so it was....back over the bridge to Costa Rica.  Home sweet home.  At least for a little while longer.

1 comment:

  1. If your run-in with Panamaniac bureaucracy had you cry-cry-crying tío, zee German Bürokraten would simply drive you mad.

    I'm enjoying your posts more than ever. You seem to have found a voice both informative and entertaining - and uniquely you. Thanks and lots of love.


I enjoy reading your comments. Thanks for stopping by Viva Cindy!


Related Posts with Thumbnails