Bocas del Toro – settling into the beach life

Bocas del Toro is a small archipelago off the Caribbean coast of Panama. After a 12 hour journey on the world’s coldest bus and a quick hop on a boat, we arrived on the main island, Isla Colon. Along for the ride were the Swiss couple and the Italian girl from our San Blas group, as well as some guys that we met in the immigration queue back in Capurgana. Central America’s a hell of a lot smaller than South America and there’s pretty much only two routes to travel – up or down – so we knew we’d be bumping into people a lot more often around here.

We checked into our hostel, Heike, and hit the sack. It had been a sleepless night and we were in much need of some rest. Besides, Bocas is one of those places where the pace of life is SLOW and it’s kind of expected that you’ll spend your days lazing in hammocks or on the beach. We were just trying to fit in with the locals! That evening was another quiet affair, with some lychee martinis and Californian rolls at a cute little cocktail and sushi bar.

Hostel Heike - Bocas del Toro

The following day and we were feeling a little more sprightly so we decided to hit the beach with our new friends. There are several beaches on the main island, but the better ones are on the surrounding smaller islands. We’d heard good things about Red Frog beach on Isla Bastimentos so we jumped in a water taxi for the 20 minute ride over. It’s a privately owned beach so you have to pay to go there but it’s only $3 and it’s well worth it.

Ok, it’s not the powder white sands of Thailand or La Miel but it’s still a very nice beach with clean sand, good waves and a volleyball net for those who are feeling more active. Personally, I’m of the opinion that the only physical activity that should be undertaken on the beach is turning from your front to your back or vice versa but the others certainly had fun with the volleyball until it got stuck up a tree! If you want something a little more desert island-ish then head out to Cayos Zapatilla, where they filmed Survivor.

Red Frog beach - Bocas del Toro

There was a big group of us down there, mostly from our hostel but a few others too, and we spent an enjoyable afternoon sunning ourselves until our boat came to pick us up at 4.30pm. Then it was back to the hostel to shower and change before a quick bite to eat and drinks at the Sunken Ship bar, so called because of the shipwreck sitting beneath the decking which you can swim down to if you’re that way inclined. It was  ‘Ladies’ Night’ so it was free drinks all round for the girls, yay!  After a bit of a boogie on the dancefloor, Rich and I left at a rather respectable midnight, whilst some of the others jumped in a water taxi to Aqua Bar for a few more hours of partying. The funniest story I heard the next morning was of one guy thinking the dock went further than it did and walking straight into the water!

Sunken Ship Bar

Day three and things were relatively quiet as a lot of people seemed to be nursing hangovers from the night before. Rich and I decided to check out one of the beaches on the main island and hopped on the local bus to take us there. The journey is supposed to take around an hour, but ended up taking considerably longer since the driver had to keep stopping every few minutes to let someone on or off. A number of times it would stop to pick someone up, close its doors, travel no more than 10 metres, then stop to pick somebody else up. Why the people at the side of the road couldn’t stand together is beyond me but it became rather tiresome as the journey dragged on and on.

Finally, we arrived at the beach and hopped on a launcher to take us the rest of the way. It was a cute little spot with loads of starfish and very few people, but unfortunately the weather wasn’t as good as the previous day. It didn’t rain but it was pretty cloudy and it was only on the way home that the sun finally started to make an appearance.

Starfish beach - Bocas del Toro

That evening and it was another big group dinner, this time at a local Thai place. Despite having run out of green curry, it was still a delicious meal, marred only by the fact that we left our camera there at the end of the night. Unfortunately we didn’t manage to get it back, despite being the last ones in the restaurant and going back to the place first thing in the morning. Hmmm.

Anyway, despite the camera incident, it was a fun few days and a great taste of the laidback vibe we’re hoping to experience more of as we near the end of our travels. Next stop and it’s a hop across the border to Puerto Viejo accompanied by the Stef, Stef (the Swisses), Paolo (Italian) and Josh (Alaska).

Panama City – the richest capital in Central America

Back on dry land after our San Blas trip, we head straight for Panama City. We’re not planning on stopping in many of the capital cities whilst in Central America as the vast majority of them are grey and soulless, some of them downright dangerous. But Panama City is different. For a start, it’s a hell of a lot richer, something which is evident the moment our car approaches the metropolis, as we set eyes on the shiny, modern skyscrapers and expensive waterside apartment blocks. There’s been a huge amount of American investment in the city, and even Donald Trump has made his mark.

But there’s another side too, in the charming yet slightly decrepit houses and cobblestone streets of the Casco Viejo, the old town. Here, you can witness what Panama City was like long ago, before it grew into the international trade hub it is today. A wander through the streets takes you past old churches, cute plazas and several small museums. You can also get a great view of the new financial district across the water, a reminder of how much things have changed.

The Old Town

Having settled in to our hostel and freshened up after our three days at sea, we headed into town to meet the rest of the crew for a few drinks and something to eat. After a great meal at a little Italian place and several bottles of wine, we headed to the bar at Luna’s Castle for some more drinks, including a few rather strong caipirinhas. With all the best intentions of getting up and going to the canal the next morning, we headed to bed around 2am.

More of the Old Town

Unfortunately, Rich wasn’t feeling quite so hot the next day, not due to the alcohol but something he ate. So we decided to opt for a lazy day with a little late afternoon shopping for some new clothes – mine were all starting to look a bit tired and worn and we’d heard there was a bit shopping centre up by the bus station. Thankfully, after our unsuccessful bikini hunting trip in Ecuador, where everything was either extortionately expensive or hideously tacky or both, we had rather more luck and I managed to get a nearly a whole new wardrobe for a little over $50.

That evening and we hooked up with the Darien Gapster guys again for dinner. This time, we tried out a great little on the Amara Causeway, which connects four small islands to the mainland and was constructed using the earth that was dug up to build the canal. Unfortunately it was an open air setting and we hadn’t banked on rain. Although the food was good, and cheap too, we spent a large portion of the evening running for cover and trying to find somewhere to eat our food where we wouldn’t get wet. Still, we had fun.

Having failed to get to the canal that morning, we decided to head down the following day. The guys that had managed to make it had been disappointed as they hadn’t got to see any boats going through so we decided to try in the afternoon instead. We’d heard that boats start coming through from 2pm so we got there around 1.30pm, had a quick look around the museum and then bagged ourselves a good spot, ready for the incoming ships.

Miraflores Lock, Panama Canal

We were in luck. Two huge boats were lined up and ready to enter the lock. For the next hour, we watched and waited as they slowly made their way through, guided by small train-like vehicles from either side, went down the first step of water, then the second, and finally passed out the other side. I think Richard was more excited than I was but it was still an extremely impressive feat of engineering to witness.

Panama Canal cargo ships

The next day and we were off to Bocas Del Toro, on the coast. There was some confusion over whether the buses were running or not as there were reports that the road had been closed but after a wasted trip to the bus station to change our tickets we were reassured that everything was ok and off we went. Some of the guys from our San Blas trip was also headed up that way and we all piled on the bus for a long and very cold journey.


San Blas – Colombia to Panama the scenic route

San Blas, Paradise islands, white sands, small Caribbean towns and local indigenous tribes

The San Blas Islands are a small archipelago that run from the Atlantic border of Colombia along the Darian coast of Panama. It’s a popular but not common destination due to its remoteness, and if you Google San Blas you’ll see why we chose the border crossing at sea rather than by air. Paradise islands, white sands, small Caribbean towns and local indigenous tribes. We will be camping on a deserted island one night and staying in a local Kuna tribe village the next.

San Blas

Once all the crew are together, and rain shower stops, we head just round the coast to an even smaller town called Sapzurro. Here we will spend the night, pack up the boat and meet our fellow travellers. Again, we get lucky with the group, a nice bunch of people, no idiots or small kids. There is a fairly miserable older Spanish couple who decide early on they are not going to help out with any of the cooking or packing and are quickly ignored for the rest of the trip, left alone to get on with their whining. The one surprise of our travels is that the people we get on with the least are not the 18 year old spoilt brats or the perpetually drunk party crowd but the slightly older travellers. Although they want to appear to be coping with the backpacker lifestyle, they continually moan about everything as if there might be a concierge lurking around the corner who might make it all better.  Some people are better suited to cruises, maybe that will be me in a few years and the grumpy old man is in me just waiting to surface – Leah might say that’s already happened.

Sapzurro is barely a town, at best it’s an attempt at a village. The Panama border is literally down a path and over a hill; we’ve heard reports of a stunning beach only a 20 minute walk away so we decide to check it out. To get to La Miel beach (officially in Panama) you first head to the back of the town and then walk up a muddy hill to a passport control at the top. Passport control is a generous description, it’s a couple of young soldiers with guns who write your name in a book and wish you on your way. We meet a couple from Cuba there who came into Panama without either a Colombian or Panamanian visa and were being held in no-man’s land indefinitely. They have been there all day and we later discover all night. We felt bad for not engaging with them, but it’s was not our fight and we certainly didn’t want to get involved.  It probably ended with a couple of nights in a holding cell and a flight home; I’m not sure what they expected as they came with no visas, what a pair of muppets.

La Miel beach, if discovered, would almost certainly sit in any top 10 beaches list.  We’ve read many of these lists on the internet and actually been to  lots of them, but few compare. We arrive late around 4pm with the sun still hot and the beach empty. Think powder white sand, water as clear as Evian and warm too. We waste two hours and remind ourselves how lucky we are.

La Miel - Panama

The next morning we are off.  Our boat is a small launcher. Two motors, a dodgy GPS (that I suspect is not actually working) and 13 passengers, heading off into the middle of nowhere. The first day’s itinerary was a stop for a rest and swim on a small island before another two hours at sea finding our island for the night.

The Darien Gapster - Our boat

En route we pass a place called ‘Scottish Point’ the scene of an attempted invasion by Scotland! No kidding! The invading armada landed here with the intention of taking the coast as their own but most died of Malaria before they got inland. A second invading force was sent, but they too all died of Malaria. They gave up, an amusing attempt at a Celtic empire.

After a small rain shower the sun breaks and we drop anchor off a small island, it’s beautiful and looks like a location from a Survivor episode. There are a couple of Kuna locals on the island who tend the coconuts (it’s virtually their currency) and they sell us a bunch as we settle in with a campfire, tents on the sand and more than a few Coco Locos (coconut water and rum drank straight from the coconut), falling asleep on the beach. If you’re reading this whilst sitting at work, sorry.

Setting up camp on the island

The next day we head out again and have lunch on another tiny island. Again, if you’re reading this at work, look away now.

San Blas - worth the trip

That afternoon we land at our home for the night, another island inhabited by the local Kuna, a fiercely independent tribe who have fought to keep the San Blas theirs. We are far from the orchestrated tourist ‘villages’ of Lake Titicaca. This is the real deal. The island is obviously poor; families live together in a one room hut and the local ‘shops’ are bare. But everybody seems happier that most you see on a morning commute in London. We have dinner cooked by the captain in the backyard of one of the families, known by the crew. Toilets are a hut on stilts over the sea, amusingly proper porcelain surrounded by planks of wood; it empties straight over the fishes.

Local toilets

After the meal we’re invited into the hut of the family and also meet the current village chief. Everybody’s a little shocked by the living conditions, around four kids, and another four family members all in one room in hammocks or a mattress if lucky. No wardrobes, so all clothes are hung from the ceiling and a central fire/cooker means the air is smoky. Slightly humbling, and although a tad voyeuristic it was a genuine invitation to meet and so was an incredible insight into these people’s lives. Leah found a new friend in the backyard.

Leah with breakfast

The next day it rained hard, our short boat ride to the mainland was uneventfully but the walk from the boat to our onward transport left us drenched. Slightly shell shocked from the past few days’ experience (it just didn’t seem real), we get into shared taxis for the rollercoaster ride to Panama City.