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Panama: Bocas Del Torro

Kinds of travelers
We headed to the archipelago of Bocas Del Torro on the Caribbean coast of Panama the next day.  This involved two buses, a taxi and a boat.  We shared the boat with a couple from Quebec and their children.  Perhaps it should have seemed a little odd to me that when we got into the boat, there were only two adults and about three rows of kids, but it wasn’t until the father said, with a gesture to the rest of boat excluding ourselves and the lady behind us, “We’re traveling with our kids,” that I realized that the nine children in the boat belonged to this prolific couple.  To be fair, two of the kids looked Asian and were probably adopted.  The family looked a bit dirty and unkept, which was understandable once we learned they had driven all the way there from Quebec and had been camping in people’s front yards as a way of saving money (hotels charge by the person, not the room here).  Some people fret a lot before traveling abroad—researching, reading and e-mailing for months in advance of a trip.  Then there are seasoned travelers such as ourselves, who pick up a copy of the relevant Lonely Planet guide book, pack our bags and head out for a couple of weeks knowing that things will work out.  And then there are those who are undaunted by the idea of taking four months off work for a cross-continental drive with their nine children.  Kudos to those people!

 

Bocas del Torro (mouths of the bull)
When we landed at the town of Bocas del Torro on Isla Colon, we allowed ourselves to be led by a “recruiter” to the Hotel Las Brisas.  We inspected the high-ceilinged two-bed room with an en-suite bathroom and cable TV that he offered us for $12 per person per night and decided to stay, mainly because at the end of the hall was the ocean.  Our room, in fact, was on stilts on top of the sea.  There was a large deck at the end of the hall where we could sit and envy the people living on the sailboats, which were hovering around the shoreline.  Being in the Caribbean, it was fitting that we ate fish for supper at a restaurant called Le Pirate with a view of the blue-green waters.

The Curse of the Tour
This archipelago was an example of when it was logistically impossible to do anything on our own, so we booked a boat tour through a man named Carlos whom we met on the street.  The tour was supposed to include five stops: dolphins, snorkeling, lunch at an expensive restaurant, a beach, and then snorkeling again.  The next morning, we waited for Carlos in the spot he had told us, but he didn’t show up at the appointed time of 9:30.  I was beginning to think we’d been conned out of our $5 deposits as we watched other boatloads of tourists head out for the day.  Shanu asked around, and a fat man assured us that he worked with Carlos and that Carlos was coming.  Eventually Carlos, who we by now determined was a shady character, showed up and said something about how he went to the hospital every single morning.  Some discussion took place between Carlos and the fat man, and soon we were on a boat, along with another girl who was a former Peace Corps volunteer in Costa Rica.  It seemed that Carlos had failed the boat operators as well, because with only four people in the boat, our $15 a piece barely covered the cost of gas for the day.  I think they should find a better recruiter, or at least know when to cut their losses and sell us off to a different tour operator.

Our first stop was a bay, surrounded by mangrove forests, where dolphins were known to frolic.  Sure enough, the dolphins were jumping through the wake of another tour boat that had enough passengers to afford the extra gas required to drive around in circles for the benefit of the dolphins and tourists.  After we had our fill of dorsal fins, we headed to another spot where we could snorkel.  I read in some book that “recent plate tectonics destroyed many of the coral reefs” in this area.  I’m not sure what “recent” means when used in conjunction with “plate tectonics”—years, decades, centuries?  But this coral reef was intact enough to provide us with views of some of the weird ocean creatures.  After that, the boat took us to a restaurant built up over the water on stilts.  I do have to give credit to Carlos for telling us honestly that meals at this restaurant would cost around $12.  To avoid this absurd expense, we had come prepared with three cans of tuna, a small jar of mayonnaise and a loaf of bread, plus the obligatory Pringles and oranges.  The other girl had not been so wise, and got the cheapest thing on the menu, which turned out to be some rice and lettuce for $6.  She was understandably still hungry afterwards, so we shared our tuna fish sandwiches with her.

Our next stop was the most beautiful beach I have ever seen.  It had white sands, few tourists, clear blue-green waters, lazy waves, and swaying palm trees.  We could have stayed for years, but the tour permitted us only an hour.  Herein lies The Curse of the Tour.  We despise tours and only engage in them when absolutely necessary because we absolutely abhor time limits inherent in them.  We came all the way to Panama, and this was our only stop on the Caribbean coast, and we could stay at this beach for only an hour.  Nevertheless, we enjoyed each of our allotted 60 minutes as much as possible.  Then we headed to the last snorkeling location, which had a different environment from the first.  I lack even the vaguest vocabulary for describing reefs and the life therein, and I had no idea what I was seeing half the time, so I’ll just say it is really freakin’ cool down there.

We had become quite friendly with the other ex-Peace Corps volunteer by now, so we met for dinner at a seafood restaurant with amazing views of the ocean.  Shanu and I had red snapper with garlic sauce and Zac had shrimp.  It was our last meal in Panama.

 

Panama--Costa Rica Border Crossing
We took a boat, a taxi, a bus, and another taxi to get from the island in Panama to our hotel in the capital of Costa Rica.  We went through the minor border crossing, but I would just like to take a moment to note that the road at the northern border between Panama and Costa Rica was a single lane railroad bridge.  We had to get off our bus and walk across this rickety bridge while cars, trucks and buses inched along it beside us. 

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