Panama in Three Movements: Bocas del Toro

If you’re interested in our budget, we spent about $1200 for all of our accommodations, meals and in country travel. Not a bad deal. We saved by sharing a room in Boquete, and planned on sharing a condo in Bocas as well, but our hotel rooms there were about what we would have spent on the condo. More on that story, later.

We also saved by taking the local bus between Boquete and Bocas. I highly recommend that. The buses were clean  and seemed safe. We packed a lunch, but the bus did make a 15 minute bathroom/food break, too. I would have done it between Panama to Boquete/Bocas to Panama, too, if we hadn’t planned already (and paid) to fly.

Speaking of public transportation, once we arrived by bus in Almirante, we had to take a water taxi to the island grouping that makes up Bocas del Toro. It was raining, we had our big bags and we had no idea where to go, but the guys at the bug depot kind of shoved us in a taxi that took us to the water taxi.

After about 45 minutes on the water, we arrived in Bocas town. From there we found a local water taxi to take us across to the smaller island where we were staying in a condo called Casa de Tortuga. We were excited to see the place we recognized from the web page peaking out at us.

Nearly everything about the condo ended up being a disaster. We were dropped off on the dock, but the door from the dock leading to the beach was locked and no one was around. Eventually Nate figured out how to climb around it, and we all followed suit, heaving our backpacks along with us.

The condo was incredibly hot when we arrived, and so were we, so we were pretty miserable. We also learned “fully furnished” meant one old pot, some grimy silverware and some plastic plates. Not really the place where we’d be cooking the gourmet dinners we imagined.

Nate and Kelley decided to go for a swim on the tiny patch of beach next to Casa de Tortuga. I went for a walk around the island to wrap my mind around spending the next 3 nights in that hot, dusty condo. I took the key with me and locked the door as I left.

Walking north on Isla Carnero, I found the tiny town, made up of wooden houses on stilts and open sewer ditches. I found a small general store and paid way too much for an avocado, some crackers and a bottle of water. I trudged back to the apartment, determined to make the best of it.

When I arrived, Nate and Kelley were in their towels on the second story balcony of the place, waiting for me. I took out the key and slid it into the lock. Nothing. I jiggled it. Then Nate jiggled it some more, fruitlessly. It was locked tight. Attitudes went south.

I ran downstairs to try to find a phone to call the owners. I didn’t find a phone, but the man from the nearby gas station (perched over the water for the boats) offered to call the owners. Apparently they lived an hour away, but they would eventually send someone to get open the door.

The three of us went on another walk in the opposite direction around the island while Nate opted to wait. When we eventually returned, the downstairs neighbor was removing the door casing to pop the lock. “Don’t lock the bottom lock,” he said as he left. “Just lock the top.”

Something that might be good to have labeled in your rental house.

The swimmers hopped in the shower before we flagged down another water taxi for a nice dinner in Bocas.

When we returned that night, we discovered the water was off. “Oh well,” we thought. “It will be on in the morning.”

It wasn’t on in the morning. We griped about what to do and finally Kelley leaned over the porch and asked a local guy walking by if the water was often off. He said it was, and that it would probably be on later in the morning. We headed off to the beach for the day, another water taxi ride across to the main island.

When we got home that evening, the water was not on. Our salty, sandy crew was not happy. At that point, we decided we were leaving the next day. It just wasn’t worth it anymore. We felt a bit mislead by what we saw on the website. We didn’t want to pay for a place where we couldn’t bathe, where we couldn’t prepare meals and where the owner didn’t seem to care much about making his business a success.

We found a hotel in Bocas that let us check in early. They gave us a low-season deal, and our air-conditioned, impeccably clean rooms cost $60/night. We checked in and took some long-awaited showers before heading out to this little dock.

Here we negotiated for one of Bocas’ standard water tours. There are official tour operator businesses on the main drag, but we’re cheap, so we went to the local fisherman cooperative. I also felt like I was helping someone support their family by using local people rather than the expat run businesses.

The usual price for the tour is $25/person, but with some bargaining we paid $20/person. We really felt like bargain aces when the guy we gave our money to told us not to tell anyone else what we paid. Can you tell I’m proud?

We headed out on our boat, stopping at Dolphin Cay where dolphins apparently breed. We saw several, but it was awkward watching all the tour boats zoom over to each spot where the dolphins surfaced to give their customers a closer look. I’m sure it’s not conducive to peaceful breeding.

Finally we headed out to snorkel. The boat pretty much stopped in the middle of ocean and told us to jump out. I was a little unsure about how I would do swimming, but I had no problem floating in the right position. The boat driver provided us with  masks, so they weren’t the greatest, but they worked.

Snorkeling was… amazing. This spot had brilliantly colored coral of every shape and size. I’ve never wished more for an underwater camera so I could show you. There were aubergine purples, magenta reds, mustard yellows, chartreuse greens, royal blues… I started making a list in my head and then quit because there were just too many. There were cone shapes, cloud shapes, lacy shapes and lava shapes. I could have spent hours, floating on my stomach, gazing down at the spectacular coral. But eventually I got tired and had to swim back to the boat.

Above is just a peak of some coral in the shallower water close to where we stopped for lunch. That’s as close to a picture that I have.

Our boat stopped at this dock so we could get some lunch. Most of our group went to the inland restaurant, but we and a few other budget-minded travelers ate sandwiches on the dock.

Next we snorkeled in another part of the island archipelago called Hospital Point. The waves were rougher, though, and the water was murky We couldn’t see much. Finally we headed to an island preserve with a beach known as Red Frog Beach for an hour of body surfing (the guys) and  reading (Kelley and I).

To finish off a great day of adventuring, for dinner we went (clean and thankful for running water in the hotel – going without always makes me feel more grateful for what I usually take for granted!) to an open air restaurant. Of course, that’s the night it poured buckets, but it was fun anyway. We were under a little thatch roof, but our poor waitress was running around between tables with an umbrella.

Snorkeling had been so amazing the day before, that we arranged with some guy to take us out on his boat the next day for more. We told him we wanted to go to places other than where we had been the day before – the general tourist spots.

He delivered. It was a drizzley day, but still warm enough for the water to be bathtub comfortable. The water was choppy, though, and our driver couldn’t anchor the boat directly above the coral. So he anchored at a small wharf on the nearest island, and we jumped out of the boat and swam maybe a hundred feet out to the coral.

The mud alongside the boat was incredible. It was 8 inches of sucking goo. On our return trip, Kelley lost her shoe in the mud, never to be seen again, despite Nate’s repeated dives and mud fumbling. RIP green Croc.

The second spot our driver took us to was the snorkeling highlight of us all. We anchored in the middle of the water, and we jumped out into a wonderland of sea life. At this spot, the water was deep enough so that we didn’t feel like our legs might kick and crush the coral below us. The coral itself wasn’t as colorful as the painted coral the day before, but there were hundreds of fish and other creatures. The four of us swirled around for a few hours, eagerly absorbing the wonder and beauty of the world beneath us. What made me sad was the evidence of man among all that beauty: pipes, plastic and beer cans were sprinkled along the sea floor.

2 days of having a snorkleking mask pressed against our faces gave us all attractive rhinoceros lumps on our foreheads. The picture doesn’t even do it justice.

The snorkeling in Bocas was incredible. By wheeling and dealing, sacrificing and sharing we got the experience for a less than normal. Because we are budget travel rock stars.


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