Over the Panamanian border

Bocas

15 March

Crossing the bridge between Costa Rica and Panama
Crossing the bridge between Costa Rica and Panama

The best decision I made today was to get the shuttle to Bocas del Toro rather than taking the public bus, negotiating a taxi and then getting the boat. I was picked up at the hostel and, after collecting several more passengers, was transported to the border, where we had to queue for about an hour in the sun on the Costa Rican side, so that we could be stamped out. In our group, were several Canadians, an English lady and her son and an Israeli but we were joined by another group of Eastern Europeans to go into Panama (obviously something to do with the shuttle organisation).

We walked across the bridge into Panama, where the immigration proved a lot more pedantic than the Costa Rican side as the somewhat arrogant Israeli (who didn’t have an onward flight) and, unfortunately, one of the Canadian couples found out. Hopefully, they managed to sort out the problems but I continued on another shuttle so will never know.

The Panaman side of the border was a little tricky so I was glad of the guidance from the shuttle driver.

Ferry at Almirante
Ferry at Almirante

Once on the road to Almirante, just looking at the housing, roads and general unkemptness, it was quite obvious we were in a different country and back in true Central America. There are a lot of large banana plantations on both sides of the border and on the Panamanian side, many people were living in shacks along their edges.

Ferry point at Almirante
Ferry point at Almirante

The drive to Almirante took about 45 minutes and we were left at the jetty to catch the boat to Bocas. This part of the trip took another half an hour during which time I started talking (or rather shouting above the engine) to the English lady, who it turned out, spends her whole time travelling and assured me how easy it is to travel alone! As it happened, we were staying in the same hostel so shared a collectivo (mini bus) to it, as it was a little way out of town.

Bocas from the ferry
Bocas from the ferry
My room in Bocas
My room in Bocas

We were greeted by the Argentinian manager, checked in and shown to our rooms. The hostel itself had a lovely outdoor communal area and my room was rather like a coloured (lime green) cell. Luckily, I won’t be spending too much time in it. The ensuite consisted of toilet and shower at one end but no basin, which was quite interesting!

Bocas main street
Bocas main street

I dumped my pack and took a walk into town, in search of something to eat and drink and then sat in the park for a while. On continuing with the walk, I bumped into Helen (who spotted my hat!) and had a chat to her before continuing with my meandering.

Bocas, the main town on Isla Colon, which is one of the group of islands called Bocas del Toro, isn’t at all as I expected it to be, which was yet another tourist/backpacker town. Whilst there are a lot of hostels and cafes, there is a lot more of ‘real town’, particularly where the hostel is located, so the tourist part does not dominate to the extent that it does in Puerto Viejo and other places.

Park in Bocas
Park in Bocas

On my way back, I spotted Carolyn (the English lady) and Karim (her son) in a cafe so sat and chatted with them for a while. He was very quiet but became quite animated when I asked him what he did in London. Apparently, he is an ice hockey player, and has spent the last 6 years on a project trying to promote ice hockey in Algeria. (Shades of ‘Salmon fishing in the Yemen’, for anyone who has read that book.) I thought it was quite an unusual occupation anyway!

By the water front in Bocas
By the water front in Bocas

I continued back to the hostel and later on continued my conversation with Carolyn in the bar. She certainly seems to have travelled around and has almost persuaded me that it is not difficult and the best place to stay and meet people is in dorms (although I am not totally convinced of that one!). Whilst chatting, Karim discovered a cockroach in their bathroom, (bringing back memories to me of a friend who had made a huge fuss about a cockroach in our room in Bhutan) and the Argentinian dispatched it with a machete, a form of annihilation that I might have to consider for home, it being far more environmentally friendly that the insect spray I would normally use!

Bocas

16 March

We had booked a boat tour to some other islands today, so got a taxi into town and went for coffee before boarding the boat. This was owned by Paco, who was helped by his small, very serious young son.

On the boat
On the boat

After a slightly overcast start, the blue sky appeared as we headed towards Dolphin Bay, where, along with about half a dozen other boats full of people, we were able to see a few dolphins playing. The scenery was beautiful and it was a good day to be on the water.

Dolphin watchers
Dolphin watchers
Dolphin
Dolphin

Paco didn’t speak English so the day proved to be interesting on the translation front, particularly at the next stop, which was at a restaurant where we could pre order lunch to have on our return 4 hours later. This proved quite difficult to convey, particularly to a Frenchman, who didn’t understand at all even when Carolyn and I tried in basic French to explain. Luckily, there was a Spanish girl aboard who spoke some English and was able to translate back and forth.  This proved very helpful later when an argument ensued about whether we were stopping to snorkel or not (snorkelling being part of the tour) as a couple of German girls didn’t want to sit on a boat for an hour whilst we snorkelled when they could have been sunbathing on an island. This was an interesting approach to a group tour! (They were always the last back on board at each stop as they were maximising the sunbathing time so didn’t really endear themselves to anybody.)

The sky is not always blue!
The sky is not always blue!

Whilst at the restaurant, where only a couple of people had ordered the rather expensive meals, the sky had darkened and we had more than a few drops of rain, which was a bit of a sudden change. The weather remained variable until we returned to Bocas but it was probably fortunate as we would have been quite burned by the sun, otherwise.

Boardwalk through the bush
Boardwalk through the bush

Our next stop was meant to be snorkelling but this was postponed so that the Germans could sunbathe when we stopped at Zapatilla island, of which there were two, named appropriately Zapatilla 1 and Zapatilla 2. On Zapatilla 2, we walked along the shore and then back along a board walk through the bush. They are uninhabited islands and part of the Bastimentos National Park. The walk was perfect for the hour or so we had on the island before we were picked up and taken to Zapatilla 1. There wasn’t a lot of beach on this island as the sea kept rushing up. However, we walked along a little way and then went swimming (or rather stood in the water and chatted!)

Just another Caribbean beach
Just another Caribbean beach

Having waited for the Germans, once again, (the Canadian couple on the boat were all for leaving them behind, an idea with which I tended to concur), we then got the opportunity to snorkel for half an hour. The coral here was a bit more colourful than in Honduras.  However, whilst there were a number of fish, they didn’t seem quite as varied as the ones I had seen before.

The boat
The boat
Spot the starfish
Spot the starfish

Next, it was back to the restaurant where most of us lounged around and ate the supplies we had brought with us whilst those that had ordered meals, ate them. The sun was shining again though and it was very pleasant sitting on the jetty chatting to the Canadians, of whom I seem to have met a large number so far on this trip. They are obviously all desperately trying to escape their delightful winter temperatures!

The last stop of the day was at Sloth Island, where we (i.e Paco the boatman) spotted a couple up in the trees doing what sloths do best, which is to sleep. I have been told that they sleep 23 out of 24 hours a day. I was strongly tempted to throw something at them to see if they moved but managed to resist the temptation.

Waterfront hotel in Bocas
Waterfront hotel in Bocas

We got back to Bocas about 5 and adjourned to the coffee shop for a much needed coffee before heading back to the hostel. I have now done this 2 km walk several times and at a certain place there has been a smell that I have assumed was a pile of rubbish somewhere nearby (there being piles of rubbish everywhere in Central America, including environment conscious Costa Rica). However, tonight I discovered the smell was coming from the morgue. I would have thought that they would have had refrigeration in this climate but may be not……

House on waterfront in Bocas
House on the waterfront in Bocas

This evening we attempted to find the local restaurant recommended by the hostel manager. It was supposedly 200 – 500 metres away (estimates varied) but by the time we had walked a couple of kilometres, we decided we had missed it and asked for directions from a man who was inexplicably sitting by the roadside in the dark. Yes, it was only 200 metres from the hostel but it was closed and there were no signs, which is why we hadn’t seen it. It was a good walk though, if in the dark, by the sea and under an almost full moon.

It was getting late by this stage, so we hailed a taxi into town and went for a very tasty pizza. Town was buzzing and there were huge numbers of people in the park listening to music. We suspected this may have been a political meeting but it wasn’t obvious. After this, we strolled back (morgue smell now gone so body obviously disposed of), and went to bed, the latest night I have had in quite a while!

Bocas

17 March

Today was one of those unusual days that wasn’t planned and some things worked and some things didn’t. I had only booked two nights in my little green room and then had two nights booked in a hostel in town.

My little green cell!
My little green room!

View from the green cell
View from the green cell
Mar y Iguana Hostel
Mar y Iguana Hostel
Sand road at Bocas del Drago
Sand road at Bocas del Drago

I spent part of the morning on the internet and then packed up ready to leave. However, I started chatting to Carolyn and another English girl and somehow the decision was made to take the bus out to Starfish beach. The Italian manager phoned the bus man for us and said he would be along in 15 minutes to pick us up. I left my pack in their room and we waited and waited for the bus. Two phone calls and an hour later, he finally arrived and squashed us on to the already full bus (but it did mean I got the front seat!). He had apparently forgotten us! He must have been a very forgetful bus driver as we got about 10 minutes down the road when he realised he had forgotten to pick up two school children so the entire bus load of us had to sit and wait for another 15 minutes until someone delivered the children to the bus!

The road to Bocas del Drago was quite interesting, with many pot holes, around which the driver carefully drove, and culminated in a sand track. By the time we arrived, it was well after 1pm and we still had a 20 minute walk along a path (in the midday sun once again) to get to Starfish Beach. The beach is so named for the obvious reason, although we didn’t actually see any star fish, which was quite a disappointment.

Bay near Starfish Beach
Bay near Starfish Beach

There were a lot of cafes under plastic canopies and a very thin strip of beach with lots of people. We were all starving, having come completely unprepared and without food so were forced to pay the price for that one. Carolyn and I both detest crowded beaches, so after lunch we walked back towards Bocas del Drago (where there was a much more suitable cafe, of course) and had a swim along the way where there weren’t any people. However, we were expecting a beautiful white sandy beach and the beach here definitely did not fall into that category, so it was all a little disappointing.

Star fish beach
Star fish beach
Path to Starfish beach
Path to Starfish beach

We got a Collectivo back to the hostel and Carolyn and I got a taxi into town, leaving Karim at the hostel, so that I could check into my next hostel and she could go to the money machine. I had been told to go to the hotel and had presumed that was because it was also owned by the hostel owners.  However, it transpired that the hostel was full so they were putting me in the hotel. This suited me extremely well as it is overlooking the park, has large comfortable verandah and is a beautiful room. What more could I ask? It is my type of place!

View of the park from the verandah at Hotel del Parque
View of the park from the veranda at Hotel del Parque

Carolyn and I then went for coffee and had a very long chat about all sorts of things before she walked back to her hostel and I, having purchased a bottle of wine to accompany my bread and cheese, adjourned to the hotel verandah, where I sat and absorbed the atmosphere around me. It is certainly a very lively place and this was a good end to the day.

My evening spot at Hotel del Parque
My evening spot at Hotel del Parque

Bocas

18 March

Today I did absolutely nothing (and then, of course, was cross with myself at the end of it for wasting the day!). I felt very tired this morning so went for breakfast at the bakery and then sat and dripped on the veranda for the rest of the morning, with music from various sources all around me, and caught up on emails, news and diaries.

View from the verandah of the bakery in Bocas
View from the verandah of the bakery in Bocas
Verandah of Hotel del Parque
Veranda of Hotel del Parque

I adjourned to my room and the air conditioning for a bit of a respite from the heat and humidity at lunchtime and then moved to the hammock on the back verandah to read my book for the remainder of the afternoon. I did chat to a Canadian who put me to shame by saying she had walked about 5km at Bastimentos, so maybe I will have to do that tomorrow.

Hammocks on the verandah at Hotel del Parque
Hammocks on the verandah at Hotel del Parque

I went for a walk at about 5.30pm when it was getting a little cooler and then returned to the hotel for the rest of the evening after one very inactive day!

Map of Bocas del Toro
Map of Bocas del Toro
Bocas waterfront
Bocas waterfront
Bocas sad and unused looking library
Bocas sad and unused looking library

Bocas

19 March

Today was another of those mixed days. I had intended to go to Bastimentos town but, when I came out of the bakery after breakfast, I bumped into Carolyn and Karim and, as they were going to Red Frog Beach, I invited myself to join them. They had got tickets for the noon ferry so I bought my ticket, collected my things from the hotel and then joined them at the ferry at 12.

Leaving Bocas in the rain
Leaving Bocas in the rain

The day had started with a clear blue sky, but by the time we departed Bocas, the clouds had come over and it had started to rain.  It wasn’t looking at all promising for the beach. The rain started in earnest as we were walking through the park on the island and stopped and started all along the way so we were a little wet before we even arrived.

Red Frog beach in the rain
Red Frog beach in the rain

Red Frog beach is so named because, in theory, there are red frogs, which are very small apparently. Needless to say, I didn’t even spot one but then I am not the world’s best wildlife spotter!

Once we arrived, and it was still very grey, I thought I would go for a walk rather than look at the grey sea. Within 5 minutes, I was soaked, although unusually for me, I was actually prepared and had taken a rain jacket, so wasn’t as wet as I could have been. Once I came to the end of the track, I returned to the beach and joined the others in the sea, which was looking as though it was the best place to be. The waves were wonderful and perfect for body surfing (if only I knew how to do it!). We stayed in the water until the sun came out again, then hung out our clothes to dry on the branches and did what you are supposed to do at beaches – lie in the sun!

Clothes drying at Red Frog Beach
Clothes drying at Red Frog Beach

It was a lovely afternoon after all the rain and as soon as it had stopped, hordes of people appeared, as if from nowhere. The island is mainly rainforest and has got a number of tracks around but not a lot of accommodation so people ferry over from Bocas. There were a lot of signs up for land for sale though so it doesn’t look as though it will be too long before the beaches are riddled with development.

Red Frog Beach
Red Frog Beach
Surf at Red Frog Beach
Surf at Red Frog Beach

We caught the last boat back at 5.30pm. Carolyn and I stopped for coffee in Bocas and then returned to our respective hotels to clean up. The amount of sand that appeared in the shower was quite extraordinary! We met up again later for our last dinner together. They are staying another couple of nights before returning to Costa Rica, and I am moving on to Boquete tomorrow.

Late afternoon at Red Frog Beach
Late afternoon at Red Frog Beach
Red Frog Beach jetty
Red Frog Beach jetty

Passenger on the water taxi
Passenger on the water taxi

Path to Red Frog Beach
Path to Red Frog Beach
Back to Bocas in the water taxi
Back to Bocas in the water taxi

 

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