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Panama Series: Loving and Hating the Islands of Bocas del Toro

If you’re one of those awesome people who have followed my Panama Series from the beginning in Panama City up until now, you’ve probably learned a thing or two about me, about Panama and maybe (fingers crossed) I’ve even managed to inspire you to rent a car and travel cross-country Panama, just like we did! Now that would be bloody awesome!    In case you haven’t followed my previous posts and feel like you’ve missed out on something spectacular, here’s a quick summary and link to the posts:

We (my boyfriend, his parents and I) spent a couple of days in Panama City, rented a car and drove to El Valle de Anton where we spent a night in a village with no electricity. We continued our journey to the colorful beach town Pedasi , stayed in a dirty hotel in Santa Catalina, went hiking and learned a lot about coffee production and honeybees in Boquete, visited an archaeological site and stayed at an Ecolodge in Cerro Punta and voila; last stop, Bocas del Toro. Enjoy!

After having spent a week cruising down the streets and up and down the steep hills in our Toyota 4×4, it was unbelievably hard to say goodbye to it – our beloved rental car – when dropping it off in David, a somewhat strange city, good for nothing but shopping and dining. We were planning to spend the night there before taking the bus to Almirante in the early morning. A water taxi would then take us to Isla Colon, an island paradise in the Caribbean sea, where we’d splurged on two junior suites in a gorgeous 4-star resort called Playa Tortuga Hotel & Beach Resort.

If only we’d known in advance that the night at the filthy hotel in Santa Catalina would completely traumatize me, we wouldn’t have needed to book anything fancy. At this point my standards were lower than ever and just cleanliness would be enough to impress me. Fresh towels and a clean bed with no hairs or stains in it was already luxurious to me. In other words, our junior suite was above all expectations and I felt like a queen. It was clean, huge and we had a great view over the pool and the sea. We even had two TV’s in the room….which I never even used.

Isla Colon was different from anything else I’d seen in Panama. Downtown was the ultimate hot spot for hippies, surfers (which my boyfriend refers to as sea-hippies), bohemians (sophisticated hippies?) and yogis (a lot of those are also hippies) and most of the shops, restaurants and bars were decorated and themed to attract people who share their interests. I was totally digging that vibe and I loved every minute spent wandering the streets of downtown Isla Colon, checking out jewelry and clothing and eating delicious organic food at boho chic restaurants.

I’d love to show you all some pictures, but I forgot to bring my camera both times we went downtown (it was kind of far from the resort).

We didn’t get to sleep in, as we had already scheduled in an excursion for our second day in Bocas del Toro. We were planning to go island hopping, dolphin watching, snorkeling and relaxing on a beach somewhere. Now, that sounded fantastic…. until we looked outside and saw all the dark clouds and enormous waves caused by the heavy wind. Great. The boat that picked us up was a tiny little thing with a motor attached to it, and I was certain this would be the day I died. Whatever. I decided to show the Reaper the middle finger and get in the boat and hope for the best. The waves gave the tiny boat quite a few punches and I felt like mother earth was beating my butt into fifty shades of blue.

And then the sun came out…

The tour guides spoke absolutely no English. In fact, they barely even spoke, and when they did it was in Spanish only.  They took us to some restaurant out on the water, in the middle of nowhere, and no one understood what was going on, or that we were supposed to get off the boat and stay at the restaurant for a while. Other boats arrived to the same spot with people just as confused as us. Eventually one guy who did speak a little English, said “Out. Stay. Eat. Drink. Back in boat in 45 minutes”. Seriously? Nobody seemed even remotely eager about it. We had just eaten breakfast and it was too early for cocktails, and most people seemed to agree with us as everyone just sat down, moped around, played Candy Crush and waited to get back in their boats. At least we got some good photos while we were hanging around waiting.

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After 45 very long minutes of waiting, we got back in the boat and hoped for the next destination to be something a bit more interesting. Instead, what happened next, made me feel nothing but furious.

We went to Dolphin Bay to see – you guessed it – dolphins. Everything started out fine. The guide slowed down the speed of the motor boat so that we could all get a good view and maybe take a few pictures of the beautiful dolphins. We were delighted to see a dolphin up close…until five other boats showed up and circled the dolphin. Five boats. Then six more. All together twelve motor boats surrounding one poor, defenseless dolphin. I felt sick to my stomach. And pissed off. I wanted to scream “Stop”, “leave him alone” and even jump into the water to prove a point. My boyfriend could tell how angry I was and tried to calm me down, without luck. Right now, I felt like the effin’ Hulk.      But powerless.

Our next stop was a secluded beach, where we’d spend the following two hours doing whatever there is to do at a beach on an isolated island. We went swimming, took pictures of the beach and went back in the water again. I tried to keep my mind off the dolphin situation, I tried to keep a smile on my face and pretend to be fine, but it sure wasn’t easy. At this point, I just wanted to go back to the resort and be miserable.

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On our way back, we were forced to once again spend 45 minutes at the same restaurant as before. What a joke. At least this time we did order something. Cocktails. It was the first beverages we’d had since breakfast. Bottles of water was supposed to be included in the tour rate, but we never saw or heard anything of it.

Included was also the water taxi back to the resort from downtown – as we got picked up at the resort in the morning and were promised to be dropped off at the same spot…which turned out to be yet another big, fat lie. We confronted the guide about it, who appeared to be quite annoyed and mumbled something in Spanish, pointed at the harbor and indicated that we had to get off the boat immediately. We tried to ask him in English and Spanglish what was going on and why he wasn’t going to take us to our resort and got no answer. Nothing. Just get off the boat, was all we got.

Now more pissed off than ever, we went to the front desk of the tour company, located right next the harbor, and complained. The lady at the front desk promised to make it up to us. She called for a water taxi, which arrived after five minutes of waiting, and took us to our resort. We were relieved that our complaint had been taken seriously.

…Until the water taxi driver forced us to give him 10 dollars each.

The next day was spent visiting Playa Estrella, which translates to Starfish Beach. There used to be hundreds of starfish at this particular beach, but sadly most of the starfish escaped the beach and migrated into deeper water to avoid the large crowds of tourists who unknowingly torture them to death for the sake of a perfect selfie. In case you didn’t know; starfish die within seconds once you take them out of the water.

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I witnessed a couple moving two starfish closer to each other, to get a good photo. First dolphins, now this. Again, I was furious. I saw perhaps four starfish in total, on that beach. I had my photo taken with one of them and posted a long rant on Instagram about how it’s perfectly fine to take pictures with starfish as long as you treat them with respect and don’t touch them. In the heat of the moment, I was a radical environmentalist. Right there and then I was ready to join PETA, Green Peace, Sea Shepherd’s, the guy who directed “The Cove” – all of them.

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What saved the day was a man named Ricardo. He owned a restaurant by the beach, as well as a little souvenir stand. He talked about the starfish situation and had the same view on it as us. He offered to rent us snorkeling equipment, so we could see the starfish better, out there in the deep water, where it would be easier to catch a glimpse of them.

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We all loved talking to Ricardo and agreed that nobody deserved our lunch money and cocktail budget more than he did. We were originally planning to go to a completely different restaurant – one with great reviews – but quickly dismissed this idea to support Ricardo and his business instead.

Cajun fish, Cajun chicken, fried plantains, spiced rice – and special made cocktails that weren’t even on the menu (Banana Colada, you guys!) made it an experience beyond all expectations. After finishing the meal and my second Banana Colada, I bought a bracelet from his souvenir stand and thanked him for his kindness, his service, his delicious food and drinks. For everything. Little did he know what I had experienced the day before and how much I needed someone like him to brighten my day. He treated us like friends, not like ATM’s with a pulse. And because of that, we felt good about spending our money in his establishment.

A long hike was scheduled for the following day. A hike through the savage jungle with a local tour guide. Was I ready for this? Inexperienced, clumsy me who was still in really bad shape? Nope. I wasn’t ready. Not only was I not ready, but I was itching everywhere, all over my body, and my legs looked like something you’d photograph and send people as a prank photo to make them lose their appetite. Some of my mosquito bites were leaking liquid, others were filled with pus. It was disgusting. And the fact that I’d been bitten through my pants while hiking the previous week, made it even creepier. Those mosquito’s were savages. I was absolutely certain I’d be a wandering buffet for female mosquito’s (the males don’t bite) while hiking in the jungle.

The water taxi took us to Isla Bastimentos, to what we guessed was the office of the tour company, but looked more like a random house out on the water. We were greeted by three surfers who told us they were expatriates from the Netherlands who now lived out here to follow their passions. And the house was their office. The office was their house. Shared surfer housing. Tour guide housing.

I was jealous. I wanted a house like that too. With a large hammock and multiple bedrooms and a kitchen out on the terrace. I wanted this.  But all to myself.

Nobody had told me that part of the itinerary was going to the beach to go swimming, and I hadn’t brought any swimwear for the occasion. Bummer. A beautiful surfer girl who was basically a Dutch Margot Robbie, offered to lend me one of her bikinis. Could fat me really fit into Margot Robbie’s bikini? I had my doubts. Still, I tried it on and strangely enough it fit – except, I looked almost pornographic as the bikini was teeny tiny and barely covering anything on me, compared to someone with an athletic body.

One surfer guy introduced himself as our tour guide and shared his story about how he’d ended up in Panama and how happy he was to be able to run his own business on Isla Bastimentos.  He was already quite experienced backpacking around the world and living abroad in different countries for different reasons, before settling down in Panama. The tour company was his calling. I admired his positive attitude and confidence. Starting a business is hard – and so is starting a new life abroad. But this guy’s story was a real sunshine-story!

The conversation took a darker turn when he told us about an on-going murder investigation that had shaken up the community. “Bocas del Toro is such a peaceful region. I don’t understand how this could happen here”, he said, after telling the story of a female solo traveler who had been strangled to death while hiking near Red Frog Beach. Her body was found washed up on Isla Bastimentos. Such an awful  tragedy. May her soul rest in peace.

The hike started out just the way I like it: Slow and easy. And involving food. The guide introduced us to a wide range of exotic fruits growing on site – some of which I had never even heard of – and took a few of them with him so that we could taste them and learn more about them. One of those fruits were the famous cacao fruit, which is where chocolate comes from. Another one was jack fruit – a fruit I had already heard of as it’s quite popular among vegans as a replacement for pulled pork. The other fruits…don’t even ask. I have no idea how to neither spell nor pronounce their names. Whatever they’re called, they were oh so delicious!

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After a mild start came the challenging part. Hills, more hills and a whole lot of slippery mud. The humid climate made me sweat like a pig and smell like I hadn’t showered in ten days. We walked approximately ten kilometers, and it felt closer to a hundred. A few adorable distractions along the way, sure helped on the mood, though. By adorable distractions, I mean sloths, monkeys and an iguana!

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After having asked “are we there yet?” a million times (like impatient little brats) followed by the obvious response “almost there” for quite some time, we finally made it to Red Frog beach. Here, we’d have a quick break before moving on to another beach to eat lunch and drink coconut water (straight out of the coconut, obviously).                     There’s no better spa treatment than the sea. And there’s no beverage as refreshing and cleansing as coconut water (in my opinion). This was my reward after the long, exhausting hike.

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This was the last day before our last day in Panama. Our last real Panamanian experience before heading to the airport hotel in Panama City, for our last cocktails, last dip into a Panamanian swimming pool – and last chance for mosquito’s to feast off me.

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18 comments on “Panama Series: Loving and Hating the Islands of Bocas del Toro

  1. It seemed to be a little bit of a stress organizing to get around the Islands with the people asking for extra money etc.. Important info about taking a selfie with a starfish, that they cannot survive outside the water, I’m sure some people would have taken them out for a selfie. You took some beautiful photos out here, I wish I explored more of Panama.

  2. xxxgingerpawsoutdoorsxxx

    Wow, that’s one big starfish! I’ve never seen as big as that in my life. Sorry about them being used for photo opportunities without thinking about their condition. And thank you for standing up for that poor dolphin, too! You are a sweetheart!

    • Yeah, the starfish in Panama were huge! Yes, it’s sad..people will do anything for a “great” selfie these days. I wish I could have done more for that dolphin and other dolphins!

  3. That’s frustrating the tour guys spoke no English but at the end you had such deliciously good food. Banana colada sounds so refreshing and delicious. And I agree with you that coconut water is the best refreshing drink! In Sri Lanka, we have king coconut juice which is far refreshing than normal coconut water.

  4. wow, what a trip. It sounds so surreal, a murder, animal harassment…you’ve weaved it all into your storytelling about a compelling island that looks very beautiful! I also agree with you about how travellers should be more aware of how they’re treating animal life when they’re overseas. I didn’t know that about starfish but now I do!

    • haha, now that you mention it, it does sound surreal. Like a crime novel. Haha. All these things did happen, though. I’m glad you know that about starfish now – spread the word 🙂

  5. It seems like you had a lot of good and bad experiences. Its so sad that they dont care about the enviroment or the tourist industry! I would have been so upset as well. At least some people seem to care so that is good!

    • Yeah, it’s sad…unfortunately, a lot of people care more about making money than about the planet we live on. They seem to forget that without a healthy environment, without all the different species that co-exist here with us, the world as we know it will not exist. And that’s a bigger issue than not having enough money.

  6. natalietanner

    Bless your heart! What a difficult adventure! I’m sorry things didn’t work out better for you. Sometimes you live and learn (like maybe bug repellant clothing?) but that is never the fun part. Crossing fingers for you that the next adventure is easier!

  7. The island is gorgeous. Too bad they have some problems with their tourism industry. We’ve seen too many great places and local people who fall into the mass tourism trap. They take advantage of the natural surroundings that bring people there in the first place. And then take advantage of the visitors who come. Good that you didn’t let it ruin you last day in Panama.

    • Yeah, sadly, greed can turn even the nicest person into a monster when money is involved. I understand that locals need to make a living, but many businesses in Panama – and elsewhere in the world – have proven that it CAN be done in a respectful, sustainable, completely cruelty-free way if you just do it right.

  8. I m really glad to know how much you care for the animals and sea life at the places you visit. I would have freaked similarly on seeing a poor dolphin being surrounded by those many speed boats. Hope the poor dolphins are not hurt while this is done. Totally agree about the starfish. One need not touch the animals to take a selfie. I really respect you for the care you have taken while taking the selfie.

    • The dolphins are not physically hurt by the speed boats and the tour companies, but the stress and the fear leaves them feeling incapable of reproducing, which means there will be fewer and fewer dolphins in the area as time goes by…

  9. very interesting. in which month did you go to bocas del toro?
    i plan to go in november and im concerned about the rain.
    thanks

    • explorelovetravel

      I went in February. We wanted to avoid September/October because of the rain. It might still rain in November, but I’m not sure. The closer to December the better 🙂

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