Archipelago Adventure

Authored By Brian

I’m sitting poolside on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica writing on my phone as the day winds down. I am about to recount, for the second time, our time in Bocas del Toro in Northeastern Panama since my prior literary genius is on the desktop of my stolen laptop (next to my stolen passport, ipod, wallet, drivers license and $200 in cash).

Although this theft is certainly the most frustrating part of my trip to date, our last stopping point in Panama was a Carribean island fantasy.

Bocas is an archipelago of located close to the Costa Rican border. We took a one-hour turboprop plane ride with Air Panama that featured a last-second aborted landing. On our next attempt, my surprise at our rapid rate of descent was interrupted by the plane slamming into the runway and then listing at 30 degrees before all three wheels leisurely returned to the ground. Not exactly first class smooth.

Through Ancon Expeditions, we booked a 3-day/2-night all-inclusive stay at the Bocas Inn. Some travel magazine rated it as a top ten destination but the laundromat would have been equally exciting after five days of puking and watching Gilmore Girls reruns in Panama City. The stay included activities each day which guaranteed we would have some fun.

The first morning it was pouring so we took a nap until the tropicl rains cleared. Carlos, our boat guide, took us to Isla del Drago for lunch where we had the whole restaurant to ourselves. Afterwards we went to Starfish beach where these giant starfish all settle. They had huge bodies and relatively short legs and were rough and bumpy like a reptile. As we walked around the shallow waters we scared up a small ray before we left to go snorkeling.

The great thing about Bocas is that it’s open to the ocean and all saltwater but because of the network of islands, the water is flat enough to go wakeboarding almost all day long. Coral and reef fish can be found all over the area and with super shallow depths, there are some great colors and close up views. We were gliding over the top of al kinds of barrel sponges and prickly starfish and although the fish aren’t very big, there is a good variety that was fun to see.

Our dinner was provided by Chef Orlando and was seafood for Jennifer and chicken for me. They kept asking if I was getting sick of the pollo but it was prepared in many ways and I thought it was delicious. Unlike Panama City, nighttime was totally devoid of the Diablos Rojos drag racing up and down the streets or the endless honking and city noise. There wasn’t even surf crashing; although we looked out on the open sea, a sand bar about a kilometer off shore killed all of the waves leaving us in perfect sweet silence and we slept like babies.

Day 2 was even better. We started out doding thick rainclouds to Salt Creek where a few dolphins escorted our boat into a tiny mangrove channel. An idiginious guide took us on a jungle walk for wildlife. We had put on mosquito repellant but left it at the inn which would be our undoing. Jennifer loves me so much she gave me her green windbreaker as we forged through a mosquito soup to see caimans, two types of monkeys, a kingfisher bird and lots of tiny poisonous dart frogs. These frogs aren’t dangerous to touch but indians used their venom to taint darts for hunting in pre-columbian times. Their bright colors are natures way of saying, “watch out now!” We also found where 8.4 million mosquitos wee hiding and as Jennifer’s tank top started revealing giant red welts from the bites, our guide led us back to shanty town civilization (and thus pollution and thus fewer mozzies).

After our jungle hike we ate lunch at a restaurant on stilts over the water where they stored crabs alive over the side of the deck in the water. We ate during a thunderous rainstorm while ever-present maple-leaf marked Canadians loudly mouthed their obnoxious opinions about the US to some Germans.

The clouds cleared for our afternoon snorkel and then we went to Red Frog Beach for an hour before the clouds looked too scary and we went back to the Inn.

Unintentionally we have found ourselves in a lot of places in the shoulder or low season. The weather hasn’t always been perfect but we almost had the entire Inn to ourselves. Just one other couple, Sam and Mary from St. Helena and Perry from Des Moines. The restaurants are empty, the boats stand idle, the beaches are deserted and the tour groups have been scarce. This is a phenomenal way to travel when you have an entire organization serving only the two of you. We are lucky not to have to pay for the VIP treatment.

Our third morning was a short boat ride in the open sea to reach an island where the Brown Boobie and another migratory bird nests. The island looked Swiss Family Robinsonish and was covered in birds swarming about and resting. We saw some babies so all seems to be working ok there.

After a final couple of snorkels at Hospital Point and The Garden, we were back to the Inn to catch a water taxi to Changuinola and then on into Costa Rica.

Flying into Bocas gave us a great view: the green-leafed mangrove islands from the sky looked like the illustrated guide of a golf course scorecard amid the flat sea water. Leaving by boat was the opposite experience but even cooler as the 45-minute ride mostly follows a narrow canal at high speed passing small farms and wood houses on stilts. The final kilometer was spent dodging water lilies until the entire path was overgrown and the driver just slowed to a crawl and pushed his way through. The grass and plants parted just enough to let us slip through before they joined again to cover our tracks as though we hadn’t passed.

For $5, this is the way to go!

As the twn of us disembarked, jennifer and I tok the lone taxi to the Costa Rican border. The road is lined with Chiquita and Dole banana plantations and an ingenious overhead track system that lets them easily move the fruit around while still on the cluster. We had to wait once while the bananas were crossing the road pulled by a horse.

Lonely planet describes the Guabito-Sixaola border crossing as “low hassle”. I would describe it as Indiana Jones or what I imagine traveling fifty years ago to be like. First Panama stamped us out and then we crossed a rickety one lane bridge above a river on foot to the Costa Rican immigration to get stamped in.

Bingo, that was easy. And just in the nick of time! We caught the last bus of the day to San Jose with just ten minutes to spare.

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