Bocas del Toro is a group of islands in Panama, on the Caribbean side next to Costa Rica. Some are still very natural and pristine, some are more developed.
The main one is Isla Colon, which is full of restaurants, bars, and guesthouses, and where the airport is, along with all the boats to and from mainland and to the other islands. On the north side of Colon, away from the crowds, there is Bocas del Drago, a series of almost untouched beaches, right next to the rain forest, some of which famous for their sea stars population, to which I had the privilege to teach a yoga class! ;)
Isla Bastimento is also famous for its beautiful beaches, such as Wizard and Red Frog. On the other end the main town there is not very appealing and with no good swimming.
Isla Carenero is a good option because it has some nice beaches, it's very close to Bocas town but more quiet. Isla Zapatilla is a great day trip: classic tropical paradise and natural reserve.
In Taboga there's almost 3m tide difference between am and pm, and in the morning there's a beach that connects the main island to another smaller one, which is impossible to reach in the pm because of the high tide. We want to catch this opportunity but unfortunately once by the second island it's full of trash and really not appealing.The beach and water next to it is also full of dead sardines, left over of pelicans meals... ok let's go back to the guesthouse! Lunch and then at 3pm 1hr boat ride back to Panama, $7. Stop at El Mercado de Artesania where I bought few really nice hand made 'molas', Kuna Indians typical stitched fabrics. We leave our packs at Magnolia Inn- they are so nice- and go to the fish market for our last panama cheviche: great vibe with locals of all age and type. Taxi to the international airport, $15 after bargaining, 45min ride, 80km. I thought it was less.
9pm flight to Cartagena, arrival at 10pm, $6 taxi to Hotel La Magdalena in Getsemani, the hip/up&coming part of the old town. The room is $30 w bath n AC but since there are no windows the air smells humidity and wet dog... Tomorrow we'll have to move elsewhere. Walking around town is fun: a lot of music and locals partying out of their house. On the church square there are a couple of DJs playing good house music and everybody is chilling around drinking chatting and dancing. Cool.
March 9: Isla Taboga
We need to get out of here and find a way to go to Colombia asap! After considering every alternative option - including working on a cruise boaton its way there, sneaking on a cargo boat, flying to Cuba instead, taking the bus back all the way to Belize (!) - we just surrender to the idea of spending $360 for a 1hr flight to Cartagena. What a relief. Our plane is tomorrow at 9pm...we are going to Colombia!!!
For some reason I think that the beach on the other side of the island is much better than the one downstairs so after a 30 min walk we realize that even this beach is bad: rocky, with tons of pelicans and dead sardines in the water... let's go back. Relax time and home on the hammock, dinner, fruit juices, full moon, and Buena Vista Social Club playing on Rafael's TV.
March 8: Plan B, Isla Taboga
Audaciously we wake up early and go to the airport even if we don't have a ticket: we want to fly to Puerto Obaldia and go to Colombia from there but it's all booked so we hope in passengers to not show up to get their spot. Once there we put our names on the waiting list but the flight is late and instead of leaving at 8.30am now it's at 2.30pm... bummer... We find a nice cafe with wifi and comfy armchairs to spare the hours... Back to the airport at 2pm and we discover that all the passengers have diligently checked in so now we pass to plan B: take the fast boat to Isla Taboga, 30 min away from Panama City but still a tropical paradise... At least we've been told. Taxi to Balboa Yatch Club and fast boat to the island, $7. At 3.30 we are there, it looks nice, it's full of flowers, but there's nobody around...? We find a room w bath with a local guy, $30, clean and with two hammocks on the front porch with sea view...wait! What are those tanks over there and all those cargo boats? Ah, they are just extracting oil on the island in front of us! No way... And talking about oil my backpack is all oily because a bottle spilled in it and I need to wash everything... I thought my bad day was yesterday!
After a while we walk to the supermarket, there's no fresh fruit and little veggies but we manage to get something decent for dinner: all the restaurants are closed and there's really nobody around apart from kids playing, it's surreal, it's almost like some sort of disaster happened 5yrs ago and now the island is abandoned: buildings falling apart and random trash... Who told us again about this island? After dinner we go to the hotel next door to have a beer and use their wifi and at 9.15pm they told us that we had to leave because they were closing so I had the rest of my beer to go...bizzarre...
The sea was rough but we had to go back to mainland anyway and on a small lancha, good thing I had my poncho: everybody was completely wet at the end! Back in Panama at Magnolia Inn we had a nice warm shower and then back out to take care of few things. Unfortunately my green card wasn't in the envelope that was sent here: only the courtesy letter to inform me about its approval so I'm going to have to get it sent again once it arrives in NY... What a headache! Then we went to the travel agency to buy a ticket to Puerto Obaldia and go to Colombia from there and the earliest seats available are on March 22... No way! And now what? Other flights to Cartagena or any other city are not less than $ 300... The last option is going to the airport tomorrow morning and see if some passenger doesn't show up. A lot of inconveniences at this point, I should have just gone back to the hotel and read a book: when we the day turns to the wrong direction you'd better stop fighting and start again the day after... But obviously I'm stubborn and I don't do that! Instead I decide to take a taxi and go by myself to some local artisan market and I arrive when they are closing, then I go back to the hotel and I lock the key of my lock inside the locker...nooo! Not this one!!! Thanks to Robbert and his many talents he was able to open it without breaking anything: he must have been a thief in a previous life! Time to really go to bed and stop making trouble...
March 4: San Blas, Isla Iguana
The jeep that was supposed to arrive at 5.30am at Luna's Castle Hostel, and actually it did at 6.30am... Quick stop at grocery along the way and then about 2hrs of a curvy rollercoaster drive to Carti that killed the stomach of all passengers. From there where we took a lancha to go to Isla Iguana. $80 for transportation r/t and $25 per night in a dorm- cabana with 3 meals included. We are 6 in our cabana, probably 20 max on the island, fun mixed international group. The island is the typical white sand, palm trees and blue water paradise, it's pretty small, 193 palm trees, about 350 steps to walk around it - some of the guests don't know what else to do- in short: less than an acre; it's surrounded by other 364 sister islands, which you can see in the distance and at the horizon. Snorkeling is good but the current is strong. I saw a huge hairy crab. Meals are either chicken and rice or lobster and rice... yes, just as if they are comparable! Nice chats about travels around the world before going to bed.
March 3: Casco Viejo & Art
Breakfast at Cafe Coca Cola, typical local hangout -despite the name- and walk to a commercial street to go to the bank and exchange travele'rs checks: I'll NEVER bring t.c. on a trip ever again! Only cash! Either banks don't
accept them or they ask for commissions, when at Chase in NY they told me there wasn't going to be any. Anyway... we book our San Blas trip, we'll leave tomorrow at 5.30am, for three nights. I spend the rest of the day wondering around Casco Viejo: I'm fascinated by this town, its contrasts and its flavor. There's great street art especially this guy called Rolo de Sedas, see photos, I love his pictures of women! So much that I attracted the Universe to bring me for dinner in a restaurant with all his paintings on the wall... Or maybe it was just a coincidence... ; ) Anyway when I come back I want to go and visit his studio.
Breakfast at Caffe Per Due where I meet the owner Manuela, a friendly Italian woman from a town close to mine. Today we have to research and decide how to visit San Blas, the dreamy archipelago of the Kuna Yala people, native Indians that dress with colorful fabrics and stitched "molas", geometric ancient drawings. It's not easy to get there and around because it's all managed by the Kunas in their own way, so we decide that it's better to just book everything from here thru Hostel Luna's Castle, where they are very helpful and knowledgeable.
Lunch with Manuela at Cafe Per Due, interesting chat on how she started her business here. I'll have my Green Card sent to her. Just walking around Casco Viejo it's an experience full of surprises: a lot of contrasts between the old/falling apart and the colonial renovated, with the view of the modern city in the background. You can feel the energy of this place: a lot of artists are opening up stores and chic restaurants are next to big families of locals that have their front doors wide open to the living room/ bedroom and they are all sitting in the street.
Yoga before dinner in the breezy ballroom of my guest house, with view on the variety of roofs of the town.
At night there are a lot of street artists around, playing but also performing fire or acrobatic shows.
We hit few spots: El Patio, an artsy bar/ theatrical company where there's a drum and didgeridoo concert, a rooftop fashion show inspired by glowing lights with Panama top society kids, and at the end a Salsa club with nice live band where I can finally move my hips!
March 1: Panama City
I woke up at sunrise, it's almost normal at this point, and I went for a nice walk in a waking David: a lot of students and early workers around. Parque Central is quiet and comfortable. Our bus to Panama City is at 8.30am at Padafront, 7hrs, $15.20. It's very comfy and with movies it passed quite quickly. Taxi to Casco Viejo, $3. This is the old, run down, and charming part of Panama that is now going thru a major process of renovation. We find room in a nice dorm at Magnolia Inn, which is brand new and clean and the owners are caring people from the US. $15 each with wifi, shared bath and hot showers! Sunset with ceviche on the waterfront with the locals: they sell them in small cups like ice-cream, $1.5 each! Delicious.
Later I meet my friend David- who lives here- for a glass of wine at Divino, first wine in over a month! He's an architect and tells me a lot about the renovation process going on, he has few projects here too.
Then there's latin jazz at Platea Club, salsa dancing at Habana Panama club -$15 cover yes right!- but we end up at outdoor Relic Bar, in the courtyard under Luna's Hostel. There's a nice lounge atmosphere, a lot of travelers.