SW Caribbean: Bocas del Toro, Panama
Travel Dates: May 2004-March 2005 (Updated September 13, 2006)
On This Page: Bocas del Toro Changuinola Bluefield Shepherd Island Land Trips
(Click on any picture to see a large photo.)
Bocas del Toro--The Clock Stops Here
May 2004: From Linton to Bocas del Toro we had a southerly wind most of the way, but the current seemed to be two knots against us, no matter where we turned. So after a 36-hour voyage, we were delighted to come upon the island of Bocas in Chiriquí province. A combination of the rainy season, returning to the U.S. for the birth of our grandson, mechanical failures, land trips and Christmas Winds extended our stay to an unplanned eight months. But after getting to know the island, we decided it really wasn't a bad place to be "ensnared". See if you agree.
The Town of Bocas
Luckily, the marina was ideal, the island tempo was another notch slower and the town offered entertainment galore, such as the Bocas Days Parade captured above. As you might have suspected from the rain gushing off Les' umbrella (upper left), there is a fierce and extended rainy season in this area. But after Les installed a Mermaid air-conditioner/heater unit, we could button the boat up for days on end and still be comfortable at the marina.
The entire town was water-based--something like a Caribbean version of Venice. Taxis, deliveries, mainland excursions--just about everything--involved a wet ride in one direction or another. Usually, the bay was placid but if the wind came up or it started to pour, you were guaranteedto get soaked. In 80+ degrees, however, nobody complained, but just made it another excuse to sit inside & have a cold drink while drying off.
Events like Panama Independence Day, the "birth" of Bocas, a famous fireman's passing--just about any excuse--led to a parade and an evening of revelry. The bands played for days and into the night with music so infectious that not even sunset-driven cruisers could resist the temptation to party until the wee hours. Some local highpoints included Lily's restaurant where, if you brought your own jar like Les unfailingly did, the ever-smiling Lily would sell you some "Killin' Me" Sauce. The name was not an exaggeration; we mixed one tablespoon with a can of beer for marinating chicken, and it was just picante enough to survive. (We not allowed to take any of these treats as carryon luggage in planes.) It was in Bocas where we also got seriously hooked on "Scotch Bonnets", the deceiving little habañero peppers that we added to the South Beach Diet mayonnaise to perk up Les' new eating regimen (a successful effort, we might add.) Another unique spectacle was the "flying dinghy", where rides were offered as a bonus with kayak rentals because it was illegal to rent the "aircraft".
Marina Bocas del Toro
No marina could have suited us better: access was strictly by boat, there was no surge or wake and the facilities were spotless. The tie-up was somewhat unique: with a short dock finger alongside, we tied stern-to and threw lines around pilings port & starboard to settle Gemini into place. Since it was flat calm, this was more than adequate to secure the boat but you had to make sure you didn't jump off midships...and of course the marina mascot, Casita, was always nearby to greet you (or your cat, as you can see if you click on the thumbnail)).
The heart of the marina was a Panamanian named Ricardo. Although not a marina employee, Ricardo took care of most of the boats, knew everything about Bocas and, most importantly, took care of Cami (whom he affectionately called his "girlfriend"). His dad & mom would launch their kayuka full of seasonal grapefruit--a delicious discovery for us!. The office was nearby and an apartment was available for rent--but you had to watch where you walked sometimes--critters all over the place!
You could always rely on part-owner Pablo and the bartender named Lady to make you laugh at the end of a hard day's work. And marina maintenance rested on the shoulders of Bill aboard s/v Walden--the most common problem being the sudden shutdown of water due to town facilities running out of fuel or being repaired. This was not a huge problem if you were cooking or washing your boat, but being in the shower with your hair full of shampoo meant you had to wrap a towel around yourself and plead with Bill to pump a couple of gallons in reserve so you could rinse off. (Some suspected Bill shutoff the water intentionally, but he vehemently denied it.)
The social focus for the marina was a palapa bar, where "mandatory" happy hour forced us to wrap up our projects in time to relax and make dinner plans. Occasionally, there would be music and parties, so there was no need to even go into town for the evening.
Away from home for Thanksgiving sounds lonely? Think again: in the cruising community, there is never a shortage of excuses to party. For Charles & Theresa of El Regalo, Bob & Judy of Amazing Grace and Cher & Wayne from Illahee, Thanksgiving was just a little more gala than usual. With fancy outfits taken out of hanging lockers and water taxis hired as "designated drivers", we all celebrated with a fine meal at the Sunset Grill on Isla Carinaro and returned home with our bellies full and no dishes to wash!
Acquiring Boat Parts -- without a West Marine in Sight!
Luckily, we treasured the entire experience in Bocas, because boat projects seemed to multiply--partly from the excessive engine use transiting the Canal and partly just plain old wear & tear. Our overheated engine had dripped coolant all over the alternator, causing it to rot. Surprisingly, the local hardware store "Chow Kai" ordered one from Panama City and had it put aboard a plane to Bocas for a $6 service fee. (It was a left-sided mount, though, so we had to fly to Panama City to find a right-sided one.) These little setbacks always take time more time than you expect and soon the summer rains had begun in earnest, forcing us to close all the hatches in spite of the sweltering heat. So Les took advantage of a cheap flight to the States via Costa Rica to buy an air conditioner. This was quite a trek--a water taxi to Changuinola, a bus to the border, a walk across the bridge (photo above), a bus to San Jose, Costa Rica, a taxi to the airport and a plane to San Francisco--and everything all over again on the return trip, carrying a Mermaid air conditioner/heater unit. But it was worth every step, because we then could live aboard in comfort when the downpour was relentless--and the no-see-ums were equally relentless after the rain stopped.
In October, attempting to leave for the San Blas Islands, our engine overheated, also because of the coolant failure; tubes and housing were encrusted with salt and sludge so badly we had to soak it in vinegar and use a sledge hammer to remove the tubes. We learned the hard way that coolant (about $5 a gallon) is not the same as antifreeze (about $5 a quart). By the time we fixed that problem, the weather was against us; so we went gunk holing for a few weeks, discovering the seldom-traveled native habit of Bluefield Lagoon. Returning to the marina to wait out the Christmas winds, our starting battery died--another impressive delivery from Panama City--and another delay. No worries, though--lots of places to explore.
Changuinola: Got Bananas?
This aerial view of the plantations shows why the Chiquita Company reigned supreme here.
Travel was either by plane or water; the plane was $80 and the water taxi to Changuinola, rumored to challenge Disneyland's Jungle Ride, was $5, so the choice was easy. Departing on a surprisingly reliable schedule from the dock in Bocas, the taxi hugged the beautiful coast, then crossed an open stretch of the Caribbean to enter the Changuinola river, where huts and wildlife, farmers and goaters, plants and wildlife lined the shore. Water splashing into the boat prevented us from getting too many photos, but you get the general idea here from Charles & Theresa's pure joy watching the scenery. When we arrived, child hawkers arranged for our van ride into town and we reveled in the shopping at this comparatively major metropolis, ate delicious cornmeal pancakes and enjoyed a cold beer at the local hangout. After boarding the return taxi, we anxiously hung onto the gunwales as drivers wove through weeds and hibiscus that snarled the prop, finally exiting the river in all its splendor to once again cross the Sea toward Bocas...and home.
The banana business was alive and well in Changuinola, so we came to recognize the Chiquita freighters as a symbol of crucial commerce for this area, supplying we-don't-know-how-many thousands of bananas to the universe.
Bluefield Lagoon & Bahia Azul
In November, we were finally back in shape & headed out to Isla Escudo de Veraguas for a few days of fun. After getting blown out of the recommended anchorage, we snuck into a little-known lagoon called "Bluefield" tucked behind Punta Alegre at 09° 09N, 081° 54W.
This was the ultimate escape: a finger of land that you could barely call a peninsula, with enchanting sunsets painting the sky, dirt paths connecting simple huts, "kayukas" (canoes) carved out solid tree trunks and a village of Ngäbe Indians mesmerized by our yacht.
This anchorage was our "home" for two glorious weeks. As we walked along the village paths, inhabitants like the shrimp-gatherers above met us with big smiles and allowed us to roam around at will. Gemini was the main attraction for several days and once after a particularly generous rainfall, we couldn't resist the temptation to take baths in a dinghy full of fresh water. One curious family rowed over in a kayuka and giggled politely as they watched two strange foreigners shampooing their hair in a little rubber boat.
The dirt paths splashed so much mud that Diane had to sit in a puddle on some rare cement and give the "Wash & Wear" label a full test. Wind and rain during a three-day storm forced a feathered friend to seek refuge aboard Gemini. Fortunately, Cami was also seeking refuge down below.
The Peace Corps worker Erin taught farming in a commune environment and helped us entertain Orlando and his family, probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience for them. This was a very isolated area; Les used the only available phone to call home & tell everyone we were incognito but OK...and left them a number to contact us in case of emergency--good luck!
The faces of local children were captivating with their glowing skin, dark eyes and dimples inherited from military personnel stationed there a few generations back. Last names like "Ryland" and "Hooker" were another hint that the gene pool had been sufficiently varied to avoid genetic problems.
Every villager was supposed to work in the commune one day a week, but Erin and the "regulars" did most of the work like raising chickens, which they cooked up as a delicious stew for lunch.
The collective grew rice and pounded it with a stick to remove husks; in the background, village ladies scrubbed clothes on river rocks.
The traditional product of the Ngäbe people is a carry-sack called a Chákara. The women make these bags in all sizes from the natural fibers of the Kiga plant. It is hand-woven with different traditional designs and extremely durable--used to carry produce, it can stretch to three times its size then shrink back into shape. The families live in huts over the water and are usually shy about pictures but, luckily for us, proud enough of their unique trade to let us take just one photo of them with Peace Corps workers Bryna and her replacement. (No second takes allowed!) We later recognized these sacks sold in other areas of Panama and came to appreciate the infinite variety of patterns, shapes and colors.
Shepherd Island ("Soldado" Island)
Diane looked (and felt!) like Alice in Wonderland exploring nearby Shepherd Island. Many ex-pats enchanted by the Bocas lifestyle decided to invest in real estate. Some of the more daring ones chose acres of overwhelmingly beautiful tropical forest on islands like this, where title was obscure at best but with time and attorneys, things eventually work out.
With their adorable dog Goose, ex-Army helicopter pilots Laurie & Chip lived at the Bocas marina aboard their boat Soldado while trying to establish ownership of their land on Shepherd Island. They allowed friends like El Regalo and us to anchor in front of their property and shared the beauty of their island's untamed hills.
Hiking into the jungle with our machetes, we followed a haunting bird call (later identified as numerous oropendulas). Hard to imagine trees as massive as these, isn't it?.
The flora and fauna of the island were spectacular. Can you find the frog in the center photo? These tree roots grabbed a rock where no dirt was available.
We were very lucky to have enough time in Panama to enjoy land trips. In March 2005 we finally departed from Bocas del Toro to head for the San Blas Islands (with an unexpected stop in Colon for repairs). Yes, it rained a lot, and it seemed like we were forever chasing the elusive quetzal. Of course, no matter how many photos there are, we can rarely capture the beauty of this land. But take a peek at what we saw at FincaSuiza, Boquete and LosQuetzales Lodge and see if you don't agree that Panama has a lot to offer.
Go to next leg: San Blas Islands
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