Bocas del Toro: Chill time

It was around 11am on my third day that it hit me, sitting on a fast boat roaring across the bay, enjoying a beer and some tunes with new friends… This place is a bloody good tickle. 

Initially I hadn’t planned to even go to Bocas. My sights were set on some sun in the San Blas archipelago, or alternatively on one of the Pacific islands. You can even do a camping tour on the Survivor islands in the Pacific now. But hey, the weather was less than optimal in Panama City, most of my planned excursions had evaporated and I needed out. So, 5 minutes on the web and I’m all booked for the very next day. Air Panama, take me to the beach. 

Flying to Bocas really is the best option- Otherwise you face at least 12hrs buggering around with a bus from Panama City, then a boat from the unlovely port of Almirante over to Bocas town, the de facto capital of the islands, situated on Isla Colon. With a flight, you’re there in an hour. Done. Prices vary according to availability between $100 and $130. I paid the latter having booked the day before.

I arrived at Albrook Airport waaaay earlier than needed. It’s tiny and genuinely you can get away with turning up half an hour before your flight without major risk. In a piece of unplanned performance comedy a series of aircraft presented themselves, in order of size- The first looked like a private jet but took 5 passengers, Guna tribespeople, from the departure lounge. The next looked reasonable however ours was actually a pretty big Fokker F50 as above. (Credit-Airplane-pictures.net)

Bocas Airport (Credit:pecksen.com)

Bocas Airport was a predictably small shed… Luggage simply pushed through a glory hole into the arrivals room. Simple! No need for taxis here, just wander down to the main street in the delicious Caribbean sunshine. I’d already booked Palmar Beach Lodge prior to coming, however I hadn’t managed to time my arrival with their free shuttle, so simply had to take a water taxi on the short hop to Isla Bastimentos- Going rate about $10. Job done.

It tuned out that this was a good move. Even on subsequent visits I didn’t find much to recommend Bocas town, and indeed on my arrival it was just getting geared up for “Filthy Friday”, the madferit day long pub crawl with, let’s be charitable, a bunch of dickheads. As it was, I was checked into Palmar and hammock-bound within the hour.

Dorm at Palmar- Brilliant, non-creaky bed and USB chargers.

Home for the rest of the day

Palmar Beach Lodge has an awful lot to recommend it. Restaurant and bar on site, everything can be put on a tab. Right on the beach, with jungley surrounds for the accommodation blocks, 10 bucks a night for the dorms and most importantly a good dog, Aria. Now, I didn’t hit it off with Aria at first, the owner explained that she sees a LOT of tourists passing through so is a bit meh about casual acquaintance, however by the end of my time there she was a very friendly pooch.

I’m not the best at relaxing, but I managed it pretty well- Yoga every morning at 9 and evening at 5, breakfast and lunch somewhere in between, and plenty of chilling/exploring in between. It’s really nice to find a place that isn’t COMPLETELY filled with smartphone zombie children- There was a great bunch that I met on the first evening and whom made for good evening entertainment from then on. This, this is my happy place.

And after all, you’re here! Red Frog beach is one of the best known on Bocas del Toro archipelago, a vast expanse of white sand which sadly does get mobbed in peak season/on holidays. I joined a clean up crew on my first morning, simply because it seemed a good thing to do- And because it gets you a free beer in exchange for a bag of rubbish!

Crabby McCrabface

A morning of beach-combing naturally developed a raging appetite. Keen for some variation I wandered to the restaurant at the other end of the beach for some bargain Menu Del Dia action for 7 bucks. Mustn’t grumble. And then obviously the standard lounger/hammock/bar/repeat before retiring to the bar for the evening.

Bocas for me was all about true relaxation time and making great new friends from all around. I love the diversity of people you tend to meet in places like this- Janka from Germany, Jared and Marixa from Aspen, Colorado, Andrew and Meghan from Canada, people all over the place. And also bizarrely, in the exact same dorm as me, in the exact same hostel on the exact same small island in the Caribbean… A guy called Sam from Bristol. This wasn’t lost on the staff who took great delight in confusing us at every opportunity. Sam, if you ended up with some of my bar bill I apologise!

Itchy feet hit all of us at the same time. So, we decided to strike out to the next beach up the coast. A bit of activity to burn off last night’s excesses. Polo Beach is about an hour’s walk, thereabouts, up the beach and then dotting in and out of the forest. Mind the fire ants! It’s a great snorkelling spot with a shallow reef stretching a good half mile out to sea. Or just a ‘sit on the beach and drink rum from coconuts’ spot. And it’s also home to the eponymous Polo, a character who’s lived there for the past 56 years. He used to farm, but increasingly now has chosen the easy life and just cooks fish for any visitors who swing by…

Simple but delicious fare… coconut curried jackfish, beans and rice.

However, Polo’s real party piece is his Coco Locos… A fresh coconut infused with more than a little ron. Dangerous in the extreme. I was struggling somewhat from an over-abundance of sun the previous day so passed, however they received very positive feedback from all concerned. All in all, a bit of a bargain really for 3 bucks a pop. Or 5 bucks as Jared managed to pay! Food too was $3.

Good times… The two Sams and Polo

Polo became broader and more sweary with every sip of rum, ranting about the weather, life and the world according to Polo. It’s at times like this that you realise we really are in the Caribbean sea, with patois more likely to be spoken than Spanish. At least by Polo and his equally sweary chums who turned up on a boat.

Mindful of the long walk back, we bid farewell to the Polo Beach contingent and headed back to Red Frog beach. On the way we came across an armed Police officer on the path- There’s a real tension here between the indigenous population who inhabit the other side of the island and the wealthy property owners outside the National Park, it is best not to walk these paths alone at any time, particularly the path between Red Frog and Wizard beaches. Not alarmism, just a sensible approach. 

Janka, Jared, Marixa and your avid adventurer author

Most evenings at Palmar there was a ‘social hour’ between 6 and 7- Card games/drinking games at a large table in the bar. Sounds wanky, but is a great idea and attracted a good bunch of mainly solo travellers, because drinking alone sucks…

Also, this meant I got to know the volunteers there, as well as some previous volunteers who’d moved on to other jobs nearby. I didn’t need asking twice when one of them proposed an outing the next day to check out his boss’ boat, freshly back from a refit.

The happy place

After a visit to the Red Frog Marina’s supermarket (relatively pricey but extremely well-stocked for such an island outpost) for everyday essentials such as beer and ice, we hit the marina and then out into the bay. Strangely enough, the best snorkelling apots around here tend to be very close to the floating restaurants- I suppose since the fish get fed pretty well! 

Leila moored at first stop of the day. Lovely shipmates also pictured!

So, first foray into the water. Plenty of really cool smaller fish. You have to go out a long way to see the big hitters. But this wasn’t a naturalist tour, it was a thinly veiled excuse to drink a lot on a boat, interspersed with light snorkelling and aquatic shenanigans.

The Blue Coconut is well worth a visit- It’s one of the stops on the Filthy Friday pub crawl, but don’t hold that against it. Aside from that, it’s a great place to hang out for a few hours- Even if you can actually feel your back turning into crackling. The water-borne hammocks help take the heat off a little. There’s food. It’s not historic.

Leila docked up

Cooling down…

By this point everyone was extremely well refreshed and starting on the cocktails. There’s nothing quite like an evening hangover after a day drinking in the sun, so the approved tactic is simply to carry on. This didn’t go terribly well for one of the Canadian contingent later in the evening walking through a patio door (however miraculously avoiding harm!)

Coming back through Red Frog Marina, you really do get a feel of the eccentric expat community. There’s a huge amount of money here, evident from the superyachts moored up, and moreover a lot of people who have escaped either real life or, more likely, international law enforcement. I still wouldn’t rule it out as a place to live though.

Trip to Old Bank 

I definitely needed to do something a little more than beach lazing by this point, so opted to join some of the other hostellers on a tour of the Eco Farm in the highlands. This involved a quick panga over to Old Bank, the main ‘local’ settlement on the island, with a real Caribbean vibe. 

Old Bank village (credit: Fodor’s)

From Old Bank, you just head up the hill. There’s only one path, and that’s where you will find the farm, on the highest point of the island. An uncharacteristic welcome came from within, in a thick Irish brogue. Wasn’t expecting that… The owner is actually an Argentine guy called Javier living there with his Irish wife. Many of these ‘cocoa tours’ are a bit lame, from previous experience in Colombia. Up in the Hill though, a different ballgame…

Javier was previously a professional surfer who bought the land in order to have a birds eye view of the state of the waves on Wizard Beach, far below. However, he overcome the genetic Argentine love of all things cattle and turned the former bare cattle-pounded land into an incredibly fertile, green hub of permaculture, with a wide range of plant and insect species, co-habiting and helping each other. Wandering around in the wake of Javier and his machete, expertly nipping off random leaves and fruits. Staying for dinner starts to become an appealing option once you’ve tasted and sniffed your way through the grounds and the abundant herbs…

Javier… and some cocoa

Chocolate- Grows on trees, don’t you know?

Tasting time- Most important part of the day

After the tour it was reassuring to see that they weren’t stingy about the samples either, with a vast selection of yucca chips, plantain, coffee and most importantly their incredible chocolate brownies, made with coconut oil. Genuinely one of the most interesting tours i’ve done in South/Central America and well worth the entrance fee. Also very gratifying to see a grass roots tourist attraction actually paying more than lip service to conservation, with all sorts of madcap recycling projects around the grounds including walls made out of bottles. In short, the kind of place I’d build!

Afterwards, a quick peruse of the enormous selection of local, organic skincare products and local crafts then back down the hill to Old Bank. There is food on the hill, no doubt delicious and veggie, but it wasn’t quite scratching the ever-present seafood itch that comes  from being in a pristine archipelago teeming with interesting stuff to eat.

Old Bank village

Sure enough, one of the restaurants on stilts over the bay served us up characteristically awesome fish for $5 a pop. There’s no stress here, just flag down a panga when it’s time to go home.

Roots restaurant, home for lunchtime

Honourable mention must also go to Nachyo Momma’s, the beachside restaurant next to Palmar, for a near-historic final evening meal at a very reasonable $90 for three of us including incredible ceviche, probably the best I’ve had in South/Central America, a main course of fish, dessert, cocktails, the whole shebang. A fitting way to end…

And that was pretty much it for my amazing 5 night sojourn on Isla Bastimentos. Final tab paid at Palmar, at a scarcely-believable $230 for 5 nights of accommodation, food, booze and merriment. Absolutely would go back, although in future I’ll leave the beach part of the holiday to the end since, once you’ve been in such an incredible place, the rainy mainland struggles to measure up! Just time to get back to Isla Colon on the free shuttle boat. Next stop: Boquete. 

 

Getting in, getting out, staying safe

Just fly there from Panama City. Honestly, it’s not worth the alternative 12hrs on a bus, then faffing around getting a boat from Almirante to Bocas. The only exception I’d raise to this rule is if you are coming south from Costa Rica. Maybe- There are regular bus connections between San Juan and Almirante, and also some flights.

If you’re going to the south of Panama then there are occasional Bocas-David flights but the most common route is by bus.. Be warned, it’s a hilly, winding road!

Also worthy of note is that Copa Airlines flies from Bocas to Tocumen airport (PTY)- Panama’s main international hub, NOT Albrook Airport that I went from. Remember to leave lots of time for onward connections but this is a good easy option to avoid changing airports if time is tight, or you want to get straight to the beach. PTY’s not really an airport to hang around for ages in, although this may well change since a huge new terminal is currently well under construction.

It’s worth bringing a decent amount of cash to the islands. Not everywhere takes cards, and the places that do tend to load the bill by 5-10%, no biggie but after a slightly awkward time on some Galapagos islands sans cash I tend to prefer the risk of a couple of hundred well-hidden dollars than running out of money.

Stay safe- Bad stuff can happen anywhere, however the paths on Bastimentos Island, particularly in high season, are not considered safe to walk alone. A tourist was murdered earlier this year on the path near Wizard Beach. The islands do feature in major drug smuggling routes and there is definite potential for encountering bad people in remote parts. Alert not alarmed!

 

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