“The Venice of Central America” – Trip Advisor
“A paradise of secluded white sand beaches.” – Wikitravel
“THE place to get fucked up. Where it’s Spring Break foreverrr!!” – dude I met in a surf bar in Nicaragua
Unlike most places I’d been in Central America, I’d actually heard a thing or two about Bocas del Toro- an archipelago off Panama’s Atlantic coast. After a month on the backpacker hostel circuit, the prospect of my own tree house on a remote Caribbean island sounded perfect.
My tiny Nature Air plane from San Jose, CR landed on Isla Colon, and I began sweating immediately because it was August 3rd in Panama and what did I expect? A five minute taxi brought me “downtown” to a collection of B&Bs, bars, and shops. I paid a man with a motorboat $5 to take me to Isla Bastimentos.
Bastimentos’ little dockside town was in the early stages of a tourism boom. A few bars at the main landing catered to backpackers, but I had the ferryman drop me at “el Chino” as the Chinese-run convenience/grocery store was called.
I followed the road uphill past the “casino” where men drank beer in the air-conditioned darkness, watched football, and played video poker. I stopped in to stop sweating and get directions. One of the locals knew my host and walked me uphill to meet him.
I met Ernesto and his family at the top of the island. Ernesto is Panamanian, his wife German, and his kids an adorable mix. I taught them some ukulele chords and asked how Ernesto and his wife met. He’d co-owned a landscaping business in Germany for ten years before his partner double-crossed him, so he returned home to Panama with his new family to capitalize on the tourism wave he foresaw coming to Bocas.
Ernesto had personally built the treehouse I’d be staying in. He also ran a surf school and burger bar. Many entrepreneurs on Panama’s Caribbean coast also find opportunities in the drug cultivation and transport industries (Colombia’s just a speed boat away), but he didn’t know anything about that.
I climbed the ladder to my treetop home. I imagined telling my 10-year-old self that when he grew up he’d have a treehouse in the jungle, and he’d be pleased I’d lived up to his expectations.
I tried to relax in the room’s blue plastic chair and felt my sweat dripping to pool on the floor. Keeping cool was out of the question, so I went exploring. I walked shirtless down to the shore’s edge and followed the road which became a dirt path which became a few wood planks sinking into a mangrove swamp.
Eventually I reached an upscale bed and breakfast (Eclypse del Mar) of cabins on stilts on a sheltered bay. I ordered a condensation-covered beer at the bar. The owner was surprised to see me- “we don’t get many visitors by land.” It was a beautiful spot, and popular with honeymooners.
I’d come to the island seeking solitude, but being a recently single man in a resort full of honeymooners was not the alone-time I had in mind. The proprietress called a water taxi to take me back to the dock by el Chino, and I climbed the hill back to my treehouse.
II. Surfing is fun and life is cheap
The next morning I followed the jungle path across the island to Wizard Beach. I met no one on the way, though I would later learn that the lack of visitors had something to do with a brigand who’d been robbing hikers at machete-point along that path and the beach all month. Luckily, he never ran into me.
Wizard Beach- I’d seen nice beaches in Belize, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, but none of them compared. The extraordinary thing is the texture of the sand. “Soft as a baby’s bottom” doesn’t do it justice. It’s silky-squishy, like walking on the underside of your tongue. Every footstep sank satisfyingly deep into the sand.
I encountered neither people nor footsteps except my own. Here, I thought, I’d finally found a secluded paradise where I could do some quality reflecting. Despite traveling “solo” since Belize, I’d always been around people. I found a palm tree whose shaded trunk stretched diagonally over the sand, sat down, and played my ukulele above the crashing waves.
Once I’d contemplated the six weeks I’d spent so far in Central America, the tide had come in. I walked back to Ernesto’s burger bar.
I noticed a dozen surfboards decorating the ceiling and walls and thought this board room was far more relaxed than the last one I’d done business in. After a tasty burger, Ernesto invited me back down to Wizard Beach to surf with him and his kids. I’d spent the past week surfing in Costa Rica, so I was excited to try the waves in Panama.
When we got to the beach Ernesto gestured to the left. “Watch out for the rip currents there, very strong.” Then he gestured to the right. “Strong rip current over there, too. People died this year. But the center’s good to surf.”
I paddled out past the break, ducking under 6-10 foot waves. The sky was darkening and the wind picking up. That was bigger than I was used to, but big waves are easier to surf. I confirmed what I’d learned in Costa Rica: surfing is hard. Nonetheless, the waves were big enough that I caught several and stood on the board for a few exhilarating seconds before wiping out spectacularly. Meanwhile Ernesto’s kids, ages 5-11 were doing pretty well.
Thunder rumbled in the distance, and a light drizzle started. “Isn’t it dangerous to surf with lightning?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” said Ernesto. “But the waves are good, and I have four kids.”
Nonetheless, I excused myself from the ocean- not because I was too pussy to surf the lightning, but because I had a sleeve of Oreos from the Chinese grocer and was hungry.
It started to rain harder and lightning flashed. I carried my board home up the muddy path and took a nap.
III. Selina’s vs. Aqualounge: Delta Chi-rates of the Caribbean
The next day I was ready to explore the other islands of Bocas del Toro. I hailed a motorboat and asked the captain for a good place for lunch. He recommended Aqualounge- an overwater hostel/bar built on wood pylons 300 meters offshore from Bocas Town.
I docked at Aqualounge around noon, so only a skeleton crew was awake. The wood planks smelled like cheap beer, and I was pleasantly reminded of Princeton’s eating clubs. I lunched with two Irishmen at the bar. They were also backpacking south through Central America in search of good craic (good times)((Weeks later when we reached the Colombian border, immigration asked one lad why he was traveling to Colombia. “For the craic,” he said, and an amusing cultural misunderstanding ensued.)), and we got to discussing routes to Colombia.((Unlike the rest of Central America, one does not simply walk/drive into Colombia due to the Darien Gap.)) They’d arrived a few days prior and had tips on the Bocas party scene:
Aqualounge is the place to get buzzed on $1 beers, chat, and have unpretentious good fun. After 1am someone’s invariably drunk enough to jump off the wood tower into the open water in the middle of the deck; then a queue forms to repeat the feat.
Iguana bar in Bocas Town is the place everyone ends up eventually to dance and enjoy $1 tequila night.
“Which night is $1 tequila night?” I asked.
“Just… at night. All the nights.”
Finally, there was Selina’s- the ultra chic hostel/bar in Bocas town, directly across from Aqualounge. Selina’s Instagram-perfect turquoise and yellow paint shone in mockery of Aqualounge’s sun-bleached planks. I could instinctively tell– if this were a 70s college movie, Selina’s would be the fancy establishment trust fund jock frat; Aqualounge would be the scrappy but lovable misfits one slip-up away from insolvency.
I was already imaging how to pitch the screenplay for “Panamal” House when my new friends said they’d be heading over Selina’s later to grab drinks with some girls. I agreed to meet them after some scuba diving.
I found a Spanish dive master to take me out to some shipwrecks. Between dives he shared the story of how he was double crossed by his business partner and was now saving money to open his own dive shop on the Mediterranean. We dove the wreck of a passenger ferry. The wreck was just 30-40 ft underwater, but I swam so much to check out the various parts I was surprised how fast my air went.
IV. The secret of Paella Island
Back on land I entered Selina’s just in time for two-for-one happy hour, an institution that makes it easy to make friends– or easy to enjoy double mojitos. The bar was staffed by two Ralph Lauren -looking Australians. As if that weren’t enough to attract good tips, one of them made me two exemplary mojitos with lots of big sugar crystals in the bottom. I mentally cut Selina’s some slack- they might be the fancy establishment-frat hostel in my internal drama, but their mojitos were impeccable.
I didn’t see my Irish friends anywhere, so found the two prettiest girls in the bar to hang out with. (If you’re going to meet strangers and all else is equal, why not?) After asking for the wifi code by way of icebreaker, I asked the one with an Australian accent if she’d been traveling long, as all Australians do. “Almost a year,” she said. That’s a pretty long time, so I expected a dark and tragic backstory in the wings, as most people who travel that long do so in response to some perturbing event in their lives.
After telling me about her friends’ brushes with heartbreak, imprisonment, and death in Thailand (apparently an Australian dies almost everyday in Southeast Asian scooter accidents) I got to know her traveling companion, an Italian woman on a complicated “break” from her boyfriend.
At this moment a Spaniard joined us. Somehow, of all the people in the bar he had just happened to choose the two prettiest girls to strike up a conversation with. Typical Spaniard.
He was living in Bocas for a while and invited the women to his island where he’d cook a paella dinner for them. He turned to me. “…you can also join us, if you like.” I was hungry from diving and on my third mojito- paella sounded lovely, I told him.
The four of us piled into a motorboat and headed to “Paella Island” as I called it. I was too drunk and hungry for a geography lesson. The Spaniard was hitting on the Australian girl pretty hard the whole way while I tried to get more details about the paella.
We docked and walked up to the Spaniard’s wooden house in the jungle where he fried up octopus, lobster, shrimp, and rice in the biggest pan I’d ever seen. After a couple more beers and a stomach full of paella, I remarked on the texture of the baby octopi– “octopus is like pasta, but eight.” My companions agreed.
After the feast, the Spaniard invited us on an after-dinner boat ride. Once we were well into the darkness between inhabited islands he cut the engine and suggested we go for a swim. Out of an abundance of caution, I waited until the girls were in the water lest my paella-pal ditch me in the ocean and leave with the women.
I treaded the bathtub-warm water and saw swirls of white light luminesce around my arms. I’d seen bioluminescence like that in long exposure photos, but was stunned to see it in real-time.
The sparkling points of protists’ light flowed like a time-lapsed reflection of the constellations drifting over the eons. But unlike a flat reflection of stars, the ocean’s lights were suspended throughout the depths such that they appeared deeper than the sky. The lights were bigger than points- more like fireflies, but unblinking. It was like looking through a telescope or the famous Hubble deep field photo.
I felt like I was seeing stars for the first time. “This is life,” said the Spaniard. His imperfect English was perfectly correct. I waved my arms underwater in swirls to create shapes of light and felt pure delight.
We returned to Selina’s, and I immediately wrote down my impressions of the swim. I needed to record the words that might best capture an ineffable experience.
V. Weird times at $1 tequila night
It had already been a full day, but it was only 1:06am ((I know from the timestamp of the email I sent containing my contemporaneous memo re:bioluminescence and the joy of life)). Bocas town was just getting going, so we all headed over to Iguana bar.
When tequila and beer are no more than $1, any bar might as well be an open bar. Shots flowed and the same four reggaeton songs thumped on repeat, interspersed with at least three Enrique Iglesias’ Bailandos/hour. I lost track of the girls, found found the Irishmen, and celebrated our reunion with tequila. I lost the Irishmen, danced some bad salsa, and made my way to the overwater deck at the rear of the bar to catch my breath and digest the vortex of sea creatures, rice, and ethanol that was my stomach contents.
It was in this moment that a cute Panamanian girl struck up a conversation with me. I don’t much recall what we talked about, but she seemed to think I was delightful. “Come with me,” she said, taking my hand. “I want you to meet someone.”
I followed her toward the dance floor, curious.
“Esteven, this is my mother.” I shook the hand of a very short older woman. It seemed things were moving pretty fast if I was already meeting her family, but I was open to new cultures.
“…and this is my boyfriend.” I shook the hand of a Panamanian man my age.
Before I could parse my confusion, the girl and her boyfriend had disappeared onto the dance floor, leaving me with her mom.
“Hola, dónde estás quedándote? En un hotel?” (Hi, where are you staying? In a hotel?) she asked.
“Uh, I’m staying in a house on Bastimento,” I replied in Spanish.
“Oh, está muy lejos! Debes quedarte en mi casa conmigo, my pretty.” (Oh that’s so far! You should stay with me in my house, my pretty.”
“Uh, that’s too kind. I can’t take advantage of your hospitality.”
She took my hand.
“Ven. Baila conmigo, my pretty.” (Come. Dance with me, my pretty.)
The fact that this woman was older than my mother aside, her only English words being “my pretty” was giving me Gollum vibes. But I didn’t want to offend the nice lady.
“It’s a shame,” I said. “My legs work, but my heart is broken and it won’t let me dance.”
She smiled and patted my arm. “No es el corazon que quiero, my pretty.” (It is not your heart that I want, my pretty.)
This was getting awkward.
“Oh! I see my friends near the bar.”
She turned to look at the bar, and I pivoted, took a couple quick steps toward the edge of the deck, and pencil-dived into the Caribbean sea, making (I think) only a minimal splash.((I was not carrying my phone- I left it at Selinas’ with the girls’ valuables since I thought it might get stolen or destroyed during the night’s festivities.))
The warm salt water felt cleansing, and I swam underwater until I was far from the bar’s illumination so I could make a graceful exit from what might’ve become an awkward situation. I swam out toward boat traffic, and waved down a water taxi. The captain pulled up and gave me a hand aboard. This didn’t seem unusual to him. I pulled a soggy fiver from my pocket. “Isla Bastimento, por favor.”