We arrive in Almirante, Bocas del Toro Province, midday and we are ushered into a parking area by a man on a bicycle hollering back over his shoulder at me, “Sigame!” (Follow me!), which I did, because I was momentarily confused on the directions. (I never use the term ‘lost’ when driving.)
The crossing to Bocas Town is a 20 minute water taxi ride that, on this September day, bounced through 2-3 foot swells. The 20 passenger boat powered by twin Yamaha 100 hp outboards makes quick work of the passage without regard for our spinal alignment. It turns out the best way to avoid rough seas is to cross early in the day – not always an option following a three hour drive. Our hotel, Bahía del Sol, is a mile or so from town just around the block from the biggest festival of the year. The annual Fería del Mar (Fair of the Sea) features a number of interesting exhibits including chocolate made at the local cacao plantation and native beadwork jewelry made by local school children. All proceeds go to their school, so we bought gifts. Numerous vendors have booths for leather crafts, locally made clothing, toys, ball caps and t-shirts, and of course, junk food. There are rides for the youngsters set up at the beach area, and there are so many food choices that you need to go back to the fair several times just to enjoy the variety. I especially liked the chicken-filled fried potato rolls.
The real party begins after dark when the music is cranked up near the threshold of pain and the drinking and dancing goes until dawn. Since our hotel room is only a block or so from the action, we are serenaded to sleep by the pulsating rhythms of music meant for a younger generation.
We wake the next morning to the gentle sounds of waves lapping at the pilings upon which our hotel is built. The island life of Bocas beckons us to explore the area. There are many options depending on preferences for snorkeling, swimming, island hopping, or the famous beaches like Red Frog Beach and Star Fish Beach. We opt for the public bus from town seven miles through the jungle to Bocas del Drago, $3.00/person round trip, where we chance upon an outstanding restaurant in a tiny community dominated by the marine research laboratory. If you don’t opt for the short excursion to the Star Fish Beach around the point, there isn’t much left to do but eat, so we did. The fish fillet with creole sauce was excellent, and the vegetarian plate with the coconut rice was first rate.
Bocas Town has been compared favorably to Key West, Florida. It is nothing like the rest of Panama. The food, the people, the music, the language are all much more like the islands of the Caribbean, and English is more commonly spoken here. This is a party town filled with hostels and hotels, shops and restaurants, clubs and bars all with tourists in mind. Guide books mention the main activity of Bocas is ‘hanging out.’
That captures nicely the mellow atmosphere and pace of life here. There is a lot to do in Bocas, and after a couple of days amid the islands you can feel yourself letting go of the desire to do any of it at a fast pace.
Before leaving Bocas we have scheduled a tour of the chocolate farm just outside of Almirante. That story will be posted here soon.