Panama is the final country in our trip through Central America. We entered through the northern border along the Caribbean Sea. This border crossing was rather remote in relation to any major cities, therefore there were minimal commercial traffic. There were a lot of tourists that were passing through, probably visiting the various Caribbean beaches along Panama and Costa Rica.
We were a little unlucky, since we arrived at the same time as a bus, so the immigration line on the Costa Rica side was very long. I pulled out my camping chair and sat in line, moving every 10 minutes, while Adam sought shelter from the sun in the car. After a couple hours, we finally made it out of Costa Rica and into Panama. The process through Panama was relatively straightforward, but we encountered a couple issues, which we didn’t realize until we hit a checkpoint 15 minutes out from the border. We had to drive back to correct the mistakes. The young soldier at the checkpoint asked us to bring back some girls. I wanted to tell him to be prepared to be disappointed, but my Spanish is not that advanced.
Our destination was the islands of Bocas del Toro, but we were running behind that we missed the last boat out. This meant that we had to find accommodations in Almirante, a small port town. There was really nothing there; it is not a town that caters to tourists and foreigners. It was really a port to ship out bananas. At least I assumed so, after seeing a lot of Chiquita marked shipping containers. The town was buzzing with energy from the up coming presidential election. People were holding up campaign signs, flags, and chanting.
We asked around looking for a hotel. We found one of two hotels in town and it was pretty run down. Even worse, they were asking for $38 dollars a night for a two bed tiny room with no windows. We were cheap, so we passed on it. We grabbed dinner downstairs and discussed our options. Either eat the cost for the room or look for a camping spot somewhere.
We drove to the police station to ask them if we could camp in their parking lot. After some pleading they said no. We drove out of town in the middle of night looking for a protected spot on the side of the road but couldn’t find anything. We finally drove back into town and encountered a gas station. I asked the attendant if we could camp there, and he gave us the okay, as long as we camped in the corner next to a tanker. A little fuel fumes didn’t hurt anybody.
The next day, we awoke to a sprinkle of rain and a couple folks staring at us behind an adjacent fence. We packed our things and headed back into town looking for a place to securely park the Subie while we are on the islands.
We eventually found out that the local fire department has a secured parking lot we can use. It’s more of a backyard with some cars there. We actually saw a Honda Civic from California parked there.
We walked over to the boat docks and booked us the next speed boat to Bocas.
Boy was the boat fast! The water was also flat. It felt like we were gliding over the water. Unfortunately, it was also raining, so I didn’t have a great view of the boat ride over since the canvas covers impeded my view.
A little under an hour, we arrived.
The town was an amalgam of tourists and locals, leaning toward the younger, backpacker crowd. Everybody rides bicycles or walks. There are vehicles on the island but they are not the predominant form of transportation since the island is pretty small.
We checked into the Heike Hostel and decided to treat ourselves to an air-conditioned dorm.
We had the rest of the afternoon to kill so we rented some bikes for $5 for the entire day. These are one of those beach cruisers with the wide handlebars and large comfy seats. It was also a single speed. Anyways, we heard that the Boca del Drago is a nice beach which is across the entire island, totaling about 17 km. Why not?
Well, it because the biking over there was tough! There were hills. Lots of hills. Adam, being the machine he is, didn’t struggle. I, on the other hand, felt like my legs will simply burn off. I drank through almost all of my water 2/3 of the way there. After about two hours, we finally reached the beach.
It was definitely worth the grueling bike ride over. We got word that there was a party area farther down the beach around a couple bends. We decided to head over there. We could the music before we saw the crowd. Eventually, we saw a couple people in the water, then farther down, there were more folks in the water. We walked around the final bend and encountered a huge group of people on the beach with the music blaring. We found a secret beach! Apparently, almost everybody took a boat to get this beach. We biked. We grabbed a couple beers and relaxed for an hour.
We needed to return our bikes by 6 pm and it was getting late. I bought a gigantic bottle of water in anticipation for the bike back. The ride back was not as bad, but it was still tough.
Just in the outskirts of the town, we saw a bar that served locally made beer. We stopped in to find the place crawling with Americans. We eventually found out that the couple who own the place moved from Denver along with their little kid, to run the brewery and tavern. They brew a couple beers on the island and supply some other craft beers from Panama City. We had a sampler, all of which were great. Adam was giddy to see a local brewery.
We returned our bikes with a couple minutes to spare.
The next day we booked a boat tour around the islands for a cool $25. By 10 am, we were out on the open ocean heading to a lagoon, to observe some dolphins. We saw a couple those little guys swimming around, but they were so stealthy. I managed to snag a couple pictures of blurry flippers and splashes, nothing exciting, but it was nice to see those guys swimming around. We then boated to another island where people can buy lunch. We bought some cheap sandwiches to avoid the pricy food at the restaurant. We eventually head out to a small remote island with an incredible beach. Its exactly what you think it looks likes. Adam and I wandered around for a couple hours, mingling with some people there.
Eventually, we had to leave the beach so that we can get some snorkeling in. The little reef we snorkeled in was pretty cool. I saw some fish, messed around with a couple sea cucumbers…
We headed back to the island where we were staying.
Later we found out that they the country is not allowed to serve alcohol to keep the locals sober for the upcoming election on the following day. Luckily, Adam and I were able to convince a local convenience store person to sell us beer. She put the six-pack of Miller Light (it was Adam’s choice, not mine) into a plastic bag and put in the far corner of the store. We went up to the front to pay for it and walked all the way back to retrieve it. It felt like I was 18 again.
The next day we headed back to the mainland.