Bocas del Toro, Province of Panama
If there’s one thing a tourist will take back to their homeland once they leave Bocas del Toro, it definitely has to be they way how it manages to change the way you look at life, all for the better. For all intents and purposes, the best way I can describe the allure of Bocas is that the entire province falls under the distinct geographical structure of a role-playing video game, or RPG for short. You have your mainland in Almirante, mostly a port town that used to be highly prosperous decades ago due to the fertile soil and banana processing companies. Due to worker unions and other ass-backwards decisions made by the very people who lived in the area, Almirante now is nothing more than a lower-middle class port town that tourists on a budget must pass through in order to get to one of the top destinations of the region, favorite to both you and old: Isla Colón, only a short boat ride away from the mainland.
On second thought, I might be exaggerating a little. Almirante is no different than most small towns peppered on the sides of the Pan-American Highway, with lots of dive bars, humble folk and many interesting stories to tell, the kind of tales you’ll never hear from a city slicker. It’s my personal opinion (and that of many other more experienced travelers that have had the opportunity to stay overnight in Almirante) that the place is not particularly safe for he who doesn’t know the goings-on of the area, since the town takes a page from the Panama City “Rules of the Juega Vivo” book so it’s almost a guarantee that some natives will take advantage of unsuspecting tourists that don’t know any better. Not all of them are this way, though; just like many towns of the interior, most of the townsfolk are very kind and eager to help. A $14 bus or 10-hour drive will get you here, the admittedly long first leg of the 2-part journey to Isla Colon, a small piece of heaven on Earth. I am not exaggerating when I say that it’s one of the most beautiful places this humble writer has ever been in, both in and out of his dreams; not even the mass commercialism that has flooded the island in recent years has managed to knock out the enchantment of the place since, like most good things in life, things on the surface may change but it’s the same at its core. The air is somehow purer, the people are somehow more approachable and friendly, and the mysteries to discover are plentiful. The 10-hour drive, be it by bus or with a car of your own, can be quite perilous even to the most skilled driver; the road is very narrow and increasingly deteriorating as time passes by. Transit authorities have just recently become aware of the magnitude a problem like this represents, and how some unfortunate traveler might be the first to stray off the road due to the irregular terrain and down to an unknown jungle doom. The comparatively safer way to reach Bocas del Toro (Isla Colón specifically) is to board one of the daily flights to the province from the Marcos A. Gelabert International Airport in Albrook, Panama.
Isla Colón is the main tourist destination of the Bocas del Toro province, part of the republic of Panama. The most modernized of the archipelago of islands in the province, Isla Colón is the economic and industrial epicenter with the most high-end hotels, restaurants, supermarkets and more. The airport and main docks of the area are located in Isla Colón, as is the cemetery and impeccable beach. The town, regardless of recent attention it has received by the real estate industry, has seen most of its integrity be left intact; of course, one of the downfalls of becoming the darling of travel agents all over the world is that things will get shuffled around to modernize the once-simple and rustic aesthetic in favor of more modernized structures. The island, the largest in the Bocas del Toro archipelago, spans approximately 24 square miles with an estimated population of just over 5,000. Most of the island is still virgin rain forest and there seems to be no intention to tamper with that fact by both residents and developers’ part, and it’s because of this that many foreigners that visit Isla Colón end soon buying property there soon thereafter. They will tell you that a combination of the nice weather, great community and otherwise laid-back living did them in when coming to the decision, but the natives that have lived there long before the tourist boom of recent years fear that this garnered (and well-deserved) attention will threaten the very reasons why real estate in Isla Colón is so hot at the moment. Still, more and more tourists from both Panama and abroad visit Isla Colón all through the year, especially during the festivities of Carnival, the American summer months and through November-December for the Christmas holidays.
Getting to Isla Colón is a little tricky: as stated earlier, the fastest (and safest) way to get there is to take any of the two flights a day to and from Panama City, which depart from the Marcos A. Gelabert International Airport in Albrook. The more economical (and also the longest) way to get there is to take a bus from the Albrook Bus Terminal. This bus will take you on a 10 hour bus ride to the port town of Almirante, where you can then take a “water taxi” for a 30-minute boat ride to the Isla Colón international sea port. Once there, you can move around to the other nearby islands by way of smaller water taxis for the same fees you would pay for regular taxis back in the mainland. Let it be noted that these “water taxis” are not more than fishing canoes with outside-propelled motors. These taxis can take up to 6 to 8 people at a time, and are the only way to travel from island to island, with the average ride lasting no more than three minutes and costing less than $2 dollars per head, per ride. Rides to places like Bastimentos and other islands farther away from Isla Colón will ring you up a little more, but the savvy traveler can always find it in his heart to negotiate with the boat captains for group rates if need be.
Everything in Isla Colón revolves around the main road of Bocas Town, Third Street. Most of the best restaurants, the port, the supermarket and the most well known club of the island, Barco Hundido, are located on this street. There is a pharmacy, some grocery markets, an ATM machine, specialty stores and internet cafés available for everyone as well. Also, Isla Colón is the only other place outside of Bastimentos where you can purchase the world famous Bastimentos Coconut Oil, freshly brewed from the island and mythical elixir that cures all ills. You can cook with it, you can use it as sun block, you can use it as a bug repellent, you can use it as a massage lotion, and I’m sure the most avid of people can find many more uses to the oil if their imaginative. Much closer to Colon Island is Carenero, which is but a short canoe ride away. In the eventuality that you can’t find housing at Colon, Carenero is your next best thing, with plenty of townsfolk and camping spaces ready to accommodate the more daring amongst you. There’s also a cabin hotel that is very nice, and the beach is only but a few steps off of wherever you’re staying. The main island though, the one that connects all others in terms of tourism, is definitely Colon. The most modern of all the islands in the area, Colon has the fanciest accommodations, plenty of shops from the city, internet cafes, bars and restaurants. It also has the internationally renowned Barco Hundido club, the only establishment of its kind built right above the water. There are shows but on and out of the water on an almost daily basis (especially during the year’s high season) so you will not be disappointed. One thing I have noticed, though, is how some of the locals will take advantage of the most fallible of people, especially drunk foreigners who don’t know any better. Believe me when I tell you that having someone that can’t take care of themselves while drunk is definitely the weakest link in your party, and prone to be approached by the evil beasts that go bump in the nightlife of Colon Island.
Now, onto the meat of the thing: this area, a chain of islands where all types of sea life can be seen with just a peek out the boat, is like looking at the map of your favorite RPG game. You have several islands, each with their separate batches of adventure, fun and peril. Well, not so much peril… unless you’re in Bastimentos Island.
Bastimentos Island, located in the Bocas del Toro archipelago of the republic of Panama, is one of the highlights of the province thanks in no small part to its human and natural beauty. By “natural,” I mean the raw wilderness that can be seen all around the island, totally respected by the townsfolk, each of them with an incredible story to tell and hearts of gold if you give yourself a chance to get to know them.
Bastimentos is where most of the Creole population of the province resides in, with its port town roots firmly intact. It’s safe to say they don’t fancy tourists, especially with the recent turmoil happening thanks to foreign investors trying to build a resort reminiscent of the popular (and highly lucrative) Decameron/Playa Blanca all-inclusive hotels that can be found at Farallón. But despite the irate residents and construction that’s trying to eat the island whole, the nature (and beaches) are downright fascinating. You won’t be able to find Creole cuisine as delicious as you’ll find at Bastimentos, and the culture is very interesting; from the Patuá dialect to the crammed architecture reminiscent to the Caribbean by way of Europe, it’s a peculiar mix that’ll have you taking lots of pictures and video… just keep your belongings with you at all times.
In order to get to Bastimentos Island, or “Old Bank” as it is also referred to, first you must reach Isla Colón in Bocas del Toro. The most economical way to get there is to take a bus from the Albrook Bus Terminal, which will cost you $15-20 and will take you straight into the port town of Alrmirante. Then, you must take a water taxi that will drop you off in Isla Colón shortly thereafter. This way you will get to Isla Colón in about 12-13 hours, so if you want to get there considerably sooner there are airplanes that fly to and from Isla Colón twice a day; the roundtrip ticket costs $145 dollars. Once in Isla Colón, you must take a water taxi that will charge you $2 dollars to take you to Bastimentos Island and they’re in transit all throughout the day. The boat ride to Bastimentos lasts roughly 10 minutes or so due to the fact that Isla Colón and Old Bank are right next to each other. Part of the island and the coral reefs that surround it are part of the Bastimentos Island National Marine Park, with the rest of the island being considered a “relief zone” for the park, meaning that the area should be used keeping in mind that it’s next to a protected natural reserve. The island is home of around 1,400 people in 6 communities, all of them located on the side of the island that faces the mainland. The beaches are on the north: Red Frog Beach, Wizard’s Beach, Polo Beach and others.
An inherently Caribbean island, the natives speak a form of patúa endemic to the area. As far as history is concerned, during the construction of the Panama Canal, workers coming in from the Caribbean who spoke English came and founded Old Bank. Since it was founded on a Monday, the townsfolk celebrated what’s referred to as “Blue Monday” in a cantina facing the sea where there is lots of dancing, alcohol, and the occasional tourist coming in from Isla Colón.
As you can probably tell, Bocas del Toro has enjoyed a very large influx of tourist activity as well as the ever-increasing attention of real estate agencies looking to sell land for other exciting beachfront properties and tourist-centric business ventures. The place is already brimming with tourist activity and nothing seems to be stopping this trend; visit this Panamanian province and live the life of a beach bum with all the quirks of modern living! If you’d like to know more about Bocas del Toro and what it has to offer, you can visit any of these portals here and here; they’re good places to get you started.