Bocas and Boquete, Panama – Because we had cut Costa Rica short, we ended up having a full four weeks to spend in Panama. We were excited about Panama so we were pretty excited to have so much time there. Although, we soon learned that some of the places we wanted to visit were not going to be great to visit in the rainy season, so we had to cut a few places. It just forced us to move at a more leisurely pace, and at this point in our trip we weren’t complaining about that.
After doing our research we decided to book our transportation from Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica to Bocas del Torro, Panama through a tour company. We could have done it on our own, but we heard that you only save a couple bucks and the inconvenience wasn’t worth it.
We were picked up at 8am and driven for about an hour to the boarder, which was a quick and free exit from Costa Rica. Then we had to walk over an old bridge to Panama. There we had to show our flight reservation out of the county (which we had booked the night before) and pay a $3 fee. The couple we were with managed to bargain it down to $3 for the two of them, making Stuart and I feel like dopes for forking over $3 each (the official currency of Panama is the US dollar). I was just happy that I had made it to Panama – with all my health issues I was worried that I was going to have to cut the trip short.
After we were all stamped and official, we got into another van and were driven 30 minutes to a boat dock. From there we took a boat to the town of Bocas de Torro in the Archipelago de Bocas del Torro off the cost of Panama in the Caribbean. Bocas is not a beach town, but it definitely has an island feel and right away I thought, “Yup, this is what I imagined Panama to be like.” Well, maybe with less trash and vultures.
We looked around town for a bit and found a good hotel room that had a nice balcony overlooking the street. Then we grabbed some lunch at a cheap local place that turned out to have some amazing meatballs. We spent the afternoon wandering around town and getting a feel for the place. Even though there was an awful lot of trash (apparently there was some disagreement as to who’s responsibility it was to haul trash) and no real beach, we really liked it.
The next day, after waiting out the rain, we took a minibus to the northern tip of the island to the “starfish” beach, Playa del Drago. The beach is famous for all the starfish (some a foot wide!) you can spot in the clear water right off shore, although in recent years the vibrations from the music playing in beachside restaurants was chasing them away. Thankfully, the restaurants agreed to lower their music and the starfish have returned. We found ourselves a quiet stretch of beach, away from the restaurants and crowds and spent the afternoon snorkeling and relaxing on the beach.
A German couple that we met in our hotel highly recommended a day long catamaran cruise that they went on, so the next morning we set out with a German sailor, his wife , their kids and her “yoga friends”, a French chef and a Floridian who apparently invented the ink that cake decorators use for those edible pictures you can print out and put on cakes. It was overcast and a little rainy, but we had a great time. Our first stop was Dolphin Bay where we immediately spotted a family of dolphins jumping out of the water.
We did some really great snorkeling at two spots. One had some of the brightest, most colorful coral I have ever seen. We saw tons of Spiny Starfish and two types of barracuda. On our second stop there were some really cool brain coral and lots more fish.
The Floridian cake-photo guy was also an avid SCUBA diver and he, along with the cool coral, convinced us to go diving in Bocas. The next day we went out with him and another girl for two dives. Our first dive was long, 71 minutes, at a place called Hospital Point because it is located near the old hospital. We dove along a coral wall and then came back on top of it. The visibility wasn’t great, but we saw some cool fish. The other girl on our dive actually ran out of air while we were swimming back above the reef and she had to share air with the Floridian for the remainder of the dive.
Running out of air on a dive is something that we had learned about in class, but never thought we’d actually see happen. I’m pretty sure the divemaster should have ended the dive immediately instead of having us continue on with the two of them sharing air. The second dive was less dramatic, and the visibility was horrible because the wind was causing some big waves. It was fun though, because the current was strong and it was fun to ride the surges underwater.
At 4:30am the next morning we were awoken by an earthquake. It felt like a pretty significant quake and rather long. We later found out that it was a 5.7 but there was no significant damage. That was the second earthquake we’d felt on this trip – lucky us.
We hadn’t made up our minds about whether or not to leave Bocas by that morning, but we decided that to stay one more day and maybe check out another beach. Unfortunately, it rained most of the day so we made use of our balcony and spent the day reading and working on blog posts.
* * *
When we finally left Bocas we headed to the highland town of Boquete. Known for it’s great coffee and cool weather, it has been growing as a tourist destination in the last few years. So we got up at 7am and took a boat back to the mainland and then had a long 20 minute walk to the bus station. The guidebook said it was only a five minute walk, so we passed by all the taxi drivers offering to take us for $1. We got on a bus right away for David, which was about four hours. From David we transferred to a bus for Boquette, which was another hour and a half.
We had to stay in the dorms our first night because our hostel of choice didn’t have any private rooms free until the next morning, but aside from one loud snorer it was okay. After checking in we explored the town a bit and found a super yummy batido (milkshake) place and booked a rafting trip for the next day. There are lots of ex-pats in Boquette and we ended up having dinner at an American run restaurant that was pretty good.
It was a two hour drive to the river where we would go rafting on the boarder with Costa Rica. When we arrived our van was broken into two groups, essentially the English speakers in one boat and the Spanish speakers in the other. I was a little nervous, mainly because my little sister had recently taken up rafting and I heard all of her horror stories.
Our boat was made up of a guide, the two of us, and two other couples that were friends. The other boat with the Spanish speakers had two guides, a mom and her two kids. I figured if they let kids do this it couldn’t be that dangerous. Of course, as soon as we hit the first rapid I nearly flew out of the boat and that didn’t help with my fears. One of the girls from the other couple was more experienced and she gave me some good advice and a few encouraging words and I managed to enjoy myself. But every rapid we hit, I just paddled as hard as I could and held on as tight as possible and tried my hardest not to get thrown from the raft. Thankfully, I wasn’t. Everyone else was, either by the rapids or by the guide throwing them out when the water was calm. I think he knew not to mess with me, though he did dump loads of cold water on me a few times. That, I was okay with.
The hardest rapids we did were class threes, which if you ask my sister are nothing, but it felt pretty serious when your going through them. I think what I don’t like about rafting is that you have to trust that the other people in the boat are listening to the guide and paddling as hard as they can – I just don’t like that lack of control. At the end of the day, I did end up having a lot of fun.
We were lucky on our rafting trip that we didn’t get any rain, but it started to rain on our drive back and it was pouring when we got back to town. We got drenched on our walk back to the hostel and were looking forward to moving into our private room and taking showers. However, it turned out that our room wasn’t ready because someone had decided that they wanted to switch rooms and we had to wait for the room to be vacated and cleaned. We were tired, wet and cold and not so happy, but we sat our soggy selves down on the couch in the lobby to wait. The owner got wind of this and was not too pleased with his staff. After giving them a talking to he apologized to us and invited us to attend their weekly BBQ the next day for free. Turned out that the room didn’t have a door on the bathroom (what’s with that!?), we think that is probably why the previous guy wanted to change.
The next day was a total bust, it poured most of the day and we hid from the rain in the hotel’s covered patio. The rainy season was really starting to slow down our pace, but we were happy to use it as an excuse for some down time. We got more batidos and some microwave popcorn and spent the afternoon watching a movie before attending the hotel’s BBQ.
After a lazy day we decided to get moving so we took a taxi at 6am to a trailhead for a hike in the nearby forrest. After signing in with the helpful park worker and paying our $5 entrance fee we started hiking and almost immediately saw a Quetzel in a tree. A nice start to a very nice hike. We hiked for about five and a half hours through thick forrest, fog and clouds. When we arrived at the trailhead on the other side we had to walk another mile or so on a dirt road to get to the main road where we could supposedly get a collectivo to Cerro Punta.
We ended up walking for nearly an hour down the road and there was no sign of a collectivo. Stuart was waving at every car that passed by trying to get us a ride and finally one stopped and took us into town. We’re lucky they did, it would have been at least another two hours walking and we never did see that collectivo.
From Cerro Punta we caught a bus almost immediately to David, which took two hours and then a van back up to Boquete. It took a long time to get back – we almost could have turned around and taken the trail back in that amount of time. But it’s not about the most direct route, right? It’s about the journey.