Bocas del Toro – Panama’s Jewel of the Caribbean

Bocas del Toro Waterfront

Bocas del Toro Waterfront

These palms at the Botanical Garden in Bocas were imported from Madagascar.

These palms at the Botanical Garden in Bocas were imported from Madagascar.

We are climbing off the water taxi in Bocas Town and walking the three blocks to our hotel when my friend, Bill remarks, “This place reminds me of New Orleans, Jamaica, and Key West and all rolled into one.” The comparison is appropriate. The town of Bocas is eight blocks of hotels, shops, hostels, and restaurants. Bocas is the focal point of an island tourism haven, part of an extensive tropical archipelago not far from the Costa Rican border. My first experience with Bocas was shared in Panama from the Caribbean Side. We are about to discover a couple of gems we overlooked on our first visit.

We are fortunate to be guests at the historic Gran Bahía Hotel where the owner, Tito Thomas, sits with us to discuss lesser-known attractions. No one knows more about Bocas del Toro than Tito. He was born and raised in Bocas, raised his family here, and still lives and works in Bocas as a hotel owner and as unofficial ambassador to the place he loves.

Tito drives us in the hotel van to our first stop, the Botanical Garden just a mile outside of town, Finca Los Monos. Because we are with Tito, owner-operator Lin Gillingham opens her gate and gives us a quick introductory tour. To say we are impressed with the beauty and diversity of the place is an understatement. Lin has created a haven for tours, weddings and receptions, retreats, and exploration and discovery.

Our friends Bill and Priscilla at Playa Bluff

Our friends Bill and Priscilla at Playa Bluff

Tito then takes us to Playa Bluff, a popular surfer hangout just a few miles from town. It is easy to find comfort and solitude as this beach stretches for over five miles up the coast. The golden sand and clear, warm water make this a relaxing picnic and sunbathing spot.

The following day we decide to divide and conquer. While the wives are heading back to fully explore the Botanical Garden, Bill and I hire a water taxi ($20/person round trip) to take us to La Loma Jungle Lodge and cacao plantation at Bahía Honda on neighboring Isla Bastimentos. Owners Margaret Ann and Henry Escudero welcome us even though we are unexpected, thanks again to the referral from Tito. Their 50 acre eco-lodge retreat puts visitors in the midst of nature with birds, butterflies, monkeys and lush forest literally at arm’s length. Among the adventure of nearby attractions is the fully operational cacao plantation. Henry invites us to join his guests on an interpretive tour of their estate with his extensive naturalist knowledge. Everyone gets the opportunity to help prepare and sample fresh chocolate after the tour.

Cacao pods harvestedPhoto credit: Henry Escudero,

Cacao pods harvested
Photo credit: Kate Malone

In Bocas Town the backpacking traveler will find several inexpensive hostel and guest house lodging options. Adults and family groups will find a wide range of hotel accommodations. The town can be reached by driving the mainland route to Almirante and catching a water taxi, flying in from Panama City, or arriving by boat. English is more commonly spoken in Bocas than anywhere in Panama. Whether you wish to explore jungles, snorkel or scuba dive, go surfing or swimming, or just hang out, Bocas has something for everyone.

living in Panama

Goodbye Panama

Panama: Photos
(This photo of Panama courtesy of TripAdvisor)

The unforeseen events of the past week have forced us to reexamine our current path. We have been living in Panama since August of this year. Although Panama was never intended to be our permanent home, we had anticipated living here for a year or two. That is not going to happen. It is sad in a way because there is so much to like about Panama. We have built relationships and we have come to know much about the incredible, unique beauty of the country.

I know many of my family, friends and readers are dying to know what occurred that would cause such an abrupt departure from Panama. Being a person who detests drama, I will not delve into details. Suffice it to say we were planning a business activity that included locals, and we arrived at an impasse that jeopardized our venture. My wife and I always hold ourselves to the highest levels of integrity in our lives. When our ethics were called into question, the damage was done.

This is not a story about regrets. My situation is analogous to breaking up with a college sweetheart. I loved her, and I will always cherish the memories of the moments we shared. Our paths converged for awhile, and now they diverge. It is not good or bad. It simply cannot be helped.

Now is a time to reflect on what originally drew us to Panama and what made us want to live here. Above all, Panama is beautiful. The diversity of flora and fauna is enough on which to feast your senses with the sights and sounds of birds, flowers and monkeys. And let us not overlook the taste and aroma of freshly brewed, locally grown coffee. Every breath of air is oxygen-rich, clean and fresh thanks to the cleansing rain that nourishes the abundant trees and shrubs. Above all, the people are generous and kind.

Not every aspect of life in Panama is easy. The heat and humidity at lower elevations is uncomfortable when you are not accustomed to it. People with allergies or respiratory conditions can suffer from the pollen, mold and mildew typical of a tropical climate. There is also the language barrier. Without adequate Spanish-speaking skills, it takes a little courage to venture out to shop, dine out, or converse with locals.

Panama, you are a young country with much to offer. I wish you well as you manage the challenges of economic growth and resource management as more and more people discover your beauty and rich diversity. Now it is time to say goodbye. It has been nice to know you.

The Chocolate Ordeal – a Real Life Quest

The trail starts here.

(Note: This is a follow-up story to a previous post – Panama from the Caribbean Side)

This variety of cacao is ripe when the pod turns yellow. The beans must dry for a week before they are ready for roasting.

It rained all morning on the water taxi ride back to the mainland from Bocas Town. We are met at the dock by a taxi driver who takes us about five miles out of Almirante to a remote valley in the jungle. The guide and interpreter, our hosts for the morning, are residents of this Ngobe village hidden deep in the rain forest (emphasis on ‘rain’). Our trek starts with a slog along a mostly submerged trail through an amazingly diverse habitat which provides most of what the locals need to live. Bananas, plantains, oranges, mangos, dachin (a delicious tuber) – everything grows here in abundance. As we walk along we suddenly find ourselves in a clearing where they have built a school for 200 students, grades 1 through 10. We occasionally spot a house in a clearing, one with a smiling little boy who waves back at me. Our guide proudly informs me that the boy is his three-year-old grandson.

The guides describe with pride the diverse, fertile environment that is their forest home. We are surprised to learn that there are eighty families living in the valley because we can’t see anything but forest growth. Each family is responsible for plot of land that grows about 70 cacao trees per hectare (about 2 ½ acres). Everything cultivated is totally organic making their chocolate among the best quality available in the world. The Belgians and the Swiss buy almost all the chocolate beans being produced here, although the world market for chocolate is currently is down over 30% from its peak before the recession. The low price has hurt the farmers, and the tour we are on is one way they are trying to make up for lost income.

At this point the trek takes a nasty turn. We are all struggling to maintain traction as the trail winds up the slope when my wife slips and lands on her hands

Cacao beans are roasted until they “pop”. They are done in about 8 minutes.

and knees in the mud. I swear, I did not laugh, although to her credit, she did. Fortunately, we are nearing a covered shelter where two women, members of our guide’s family, are preparing us a treat. We see how cacao beans are harvested and prepared for roasting, then ground into powder the ancient way by hand with a stone. The powder is blended with a small amount of sugar and milk and we taste the freshest chocolate ever, and it is delicious! The worst is not over. We have to hike back down to our last stop on the tour, the gift shop and dining hall. Florence takes three more spills on the slippery track, one of them a tumble that could have been disastrous. At this point our guides are feeling terrible about her discomfort, not to mention her being now covered in mud. There is a faucet outside the gift shop where she is able to clean off the big chunks. Three children are gathered at the door watching as my wife is bent over the running water, and I can hear them snickering about her muddy behind. They quiet quickly when I glance their way, and I can’t help but chuckle at the situation. When they see I am humored by the scene, they all break out laughing until their mama hustles them back to the kitchen.

When cacao is ground into powder it is now cocoa. This stone ground technique is the ancient way.

We sit down to a specially prepared hot lunch of roasted chicken, cooked greens and dachin, all locally grown, which we both devour. After picking out gifts of chocolate and handicrafts we head down the hill to the waiting taxi. The driver takes one look at my mud-soaked wife and he quickly grabs a couple of scraps of cardboard for her to sit on so she doesn’t get mud all over the upholstery. Fortunately, our car is parked near a restroom where she can change into clean clothes for the drive back across the mountains that divide Panama between Caribbean and Pacific. The experience has been unforgettable to say the least.

It took a few days for the soreness to wear off, but my wife says she would go back if she had long spikes on her shoes. To her credit she is able to laugh at the experience. We loved the tour. However, we would certainly recommend adequate clothing and footwear to anyone thinking of going there. I mean, admit it – you salivated at the thought of tasting freshly prepared chocolate!

Being soaked and muddy has its compensation when served fresh chocolate – mmm!

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Panama from the Caribbean Side

Coming into Bocas Town

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 Bahia del Sol Hotel sits right on the water.

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.

Native beadwork is taught to school children. Proceeds go to the school.

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.’

Food options abound at the Feria del Mar

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.

A Bocas del Drago beach

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