In the Mouth of the Bull

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Most renowned explorer in human history Christopher Columbus. Scourge of the Spanish Sir Francis Drake. Fearsome pirate (and delicious rum) Captain Henry Morgan. Legendary travel and photo journalist Dean Katsiris. What do we all have in common? We spent inordinate amounts of time enjoying the paradise that is Bocas del Toro, my first stop in Panama and one of the most magnificent places I have visited, in Central America or anywhere. The name, which in English means “Bull’s Mouths”, comes from the fact that when Columbus arrived the surf funnelling through rock chambers on shore made snorting sounds, something I would witness on Red Frog Beach without realizing the significance a few days later. As for the pirates, well, it’s an archipelago of islands with thick mangroves and shallow reef perfect for hiding fleets of ships not to mention running your adversaries on the ground or staging ambushes. And myself? Well, I would be snorkelling in dolphin-infested waters, SCUBA diving walls of reef, surfing the perfect waves at Black Rock, catching water taxis to nightclubs on other islands, reclining on pristine beaches with a world-renowned (Island Magazine, June 2009) Pina Colada, and more. Of course, first I had to get there.

Getting There

Crossing the Costa Rica-Panama border was pretty easy, especially compared to the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border. We (Phil and I) crossed the big steel bridge at Sixaola with loosely spaced 2x4s serving as the deck of the bridge, feeling like refugees straggling across to a new life. I asked the customs officer to place my exit stamp on page 20 rather than 21 as my passport is growing short of blank pages and some countries require full-page visas. Instead, he stamped the empty page 6. One last middle finger from Costa Rica. On the Panama side they were surprisingly rigid about proving continued travel, which is the first time I have encountered that although it is supposedly necessary for every country. I employed a mixed dose of semi-fluent Spanish and completely illiterate foreigner as I explained that I was leaving for Colombia by boat and from there to Ecuador by bus and managed to get admitted into the country. Others had to buy a bus ticket to San Jose or elsewhere in Costa Rica that they had no plans of using which only serves to underscore how pointless it is to insist on proof-of-exit. Then we were in Panama, at last.

They have shuttles that run from the border to the ferry terminal for $10 as we learned from a rude man that insisted we were idiots if we didn’t go with him – there was no hope of getting there any other way, it would cost the same and take 3 hours. Au contraire mes amis, we caught a public bus to Changuinola (80 cents) and then another to Almirante (90 cents) and arrived just over an hour later and at 1/5 the cost. From there, a local walked us to the ferry terminal where we paid $6 to bring us to Isla de Colon in Bocas del Toro. Jez was still there, and it was good to have the three amigos back together for one last night (he had to catch a plane to Venezuela in two days from San Jose, Costa Rica). We also hung out with a Quebec girl and two Swedes that we met at our hostel, Mondo Taitu. Backpackers again, it was nice to be back among travellers and in a cool hostel where we could meet people. The town here has a very backpacker-friendly vibe with lots of cheaper restaurants, local eateries, laundries, bars, and dive shops. Walking down the streets you’re sure to have somebody ask what you’re up to today and if you’d like to take their boat to do it.

Old Friends and Hookahs

We had a big night out with Jez starting as all nights do with cheap drinks at the hostel and then over to the Iguana bar, which was a fun night for all involved and we met yet more cool people. I should also mention that after our two-country search for fedoras, Jez had finally found one that was pretty sweet. That left Phil and myself on the hook, but here in Panama they take hats pretty seriously (hence the Panama Hat) and I found one for myself that will hopefully become a staple of my travel outfit. If nothing else, it should keep the scorching sun (and it IS scorching here) off my face a bit. The next morning we were up early to wish Jez a good trip as it’s doubtful we’ll be seeing him again unless he visits Canada at some point, although I believe we’ve planted the seed for including Colombia in his travel plans. Either way, hopefully he’s safely in Venezuela and having a great time now. It had started out pouring rain that morning but eventually stopped and remained overcast, so there wasn’t much except to explore the town a bit and see what there is to see. Some cool art, some cheaper restaurants than we’d found the night prior, and every supermarket owned by the Chinese.

That evening we went out because our Iranian friend wanted to have that flavoured tobacco out of the pipe that I’ve seen a million places in Asia and always thought was some sort of illicit drug. Turns out that nope, it’s just steam and flavoured smoke (apples in our case) that you taste when you breathe out and so we sat around with the girls (Swedish/Swedish-Iranian, Canadian, and German) with a beer and they passed around the hose. I didn’t mind it though I certainly wouldn’t want to make a habit of it. On the way home, Phil got a salsa in the streets lesson from Roshe and we almost had some street food. Street food! Yes, we’re definitely backpacking again. Here, they have “Sandwich guy”, “Meat-on-a-stick man”, and “The Chicken Lady” with their food carts and I have to say it’s a good and cheap way to top up the tank though we wouldn’t do so until tomorrow.

The Snorkel Trip

They run a pretty standard snorkel trip here, and I was aboard one that morning. First, they take you to Dolphin Point, where you would have to be blind to miss the dolphins swimming around and jumping out of the water. Unfortunately, capturing this on film proved to be quite a tall order but from there we went out to Coral Caye and did some snorkelling. Because Bocas is at the mouth of a river, visibility here is rarely better than mediocre but it was good enough for shallow water to see some neat things. Our American roommates had a plastic bag that sealed for taking a camera snorkelling and I chanced mine to take a few underwater photos. The plastic has to be pulled taut, however, or the effect is to warp time and space itself. Far too quickly, everyone was back on the boat and ready to go to our next stop: the beach. I don’t really understand why all these people came out on a snorkelling trip when all they wanted was to go to the beach but I didn’t want to hold everybody up so I got back on board too.

Before the beach however, was lunch. They took us to a place for lunch alright. Spaghetti? $18!!! Really. I definitely was NOT going to eat there but I went over and talked to the store owner next store and found that their Snickers bars were a much more reasonable $1. I joked that it was for lunch and mentioned how crazy the prices were at the restaurant and she mentioned that she had some empanadas and sweet banana bread available for 35 cents/each. So my lunch turned out to be three empanadas (filled with egg and spices and a bit too much salt) for $1.05. Getting back on the boat our ‘tour guide’ who didn’t speak English started telling us what was going to happen next (yes, in Spanish) and I got to play the very fun role of interpreter for the Americans as there were no other English/Spanish speakers on the boat. There are days when you feel like the goal of fluency in Spanish is hopelessly out of reach and other days where you realize how far you’ve come. When Phil and I arrived, we were in the same shoes as these Americans and now here I was translating for them.

Red Frog Beach Club

At Red Frog Beach some were shocked to learn that they had to pay $3 to get in. If you get one of these snorkel tours from the guys on the street, they’ll tell you anything to get you on board. Cooler with ice? Of course and maybe a free beer too! Admission included? Definitely! Cost is $15? Yes, yeeeeesss! In the end, it’s $20 plus $3 admission which is the same cost as the much more reputable Jampan tour – except I believe that they actually have a nice boat, cooler, and stick to their promises. Next time. The beach is so named for the indigenous red frogs (maybe a bit bigger than your fingernail) that are in the jungle here, and although it is $3 it’s a pretty nice beach. We hung out there for the remainder of the afternoon and then went back to wait for the boat. However, on the walk back I was extremely lucky to get to see a three-toed sloth on the forest floor with her baby. Generally, you’re lucky to see them in a tree as they only come down about once a week to expel their slow-digested food (incidentally, I’m not convinced that there’s a working one on the whole island; your money at work) but here I was looking at two of them! Cool. We finally got back on the boat, waited for the woman traveling with her Chihuahua to finally come back to the boat, and went back to Isla Colon.

Surfing Brazilian Coladas

Wednesday nights the infamous Aqua Lounge has its Ladies’ Night and EVERYBODY in the town goes there. It’s on the next island over, a $1 taxi trip away, and consists of a bar, dance floor, and a floating platform with a large hole in the centre for swimming – or jumping from the roof. I have to admit I think it’s pretty awesome to boat to a bar and then back. In fact, I think that the whole concept of boating everywhere is about as close to living in Venice as you can get in this hemisphere. Do I sound like I’m in love with this place yet? We boated early the next afternoon to Black Rock, off Isla Carenero (Columbus named it that because this is where they careened their boats on their sides to clean the hulls) with surf boards in tow, and the boat took us right out to where the waves were breaking for $2. I’m not a great surfer or even a good one, but I know what constitutes a good wave and these were probably the best I had ever encountered for my skill level. They were taller than anything I’d surfed before, which made it a challenge, but they broke beautifully, slowly, and ran for a healthy amount of time before waning. Unfortunately, the previous evening combined with my genetic propensity for mal-de-mer resulted in two stomach-emptying sessions out there in the waves before I rode a wave in to the shores of Carenero.

The beach was something out of a fantasy novel or at least the opening scene to some cheesy adult movie. It wasn’t that this beach was so incredible but the fact that there were six Brazilian models doing an impromptu photo shoot coupled with the fact that I was happy to have solid land under my feet. Seriously, these girls were Maxim-grade good looking and were striking poses on rocks, with trees, in the water with one leg lifted daintily to the sky, and laying on the sand with head cradled in hands. I won’t lie to you, I propped my surf board against a tree, laid down on the pier and enjoyed every minute of it. They left far too soon, and were replaced with Mike (the American that Phil and I had come out surfing with) followed thereafter by Kyla and Eric (the two Americans I’d gone snorkelling with). I went to refill my stomach at the nearby Prickly Pear and got talking with the owner as I sipped my Coke and ate my burger whereupon he showed me the article of Islands magazine that constituted his 15 minutes of fame and my excuse to try one of his now-famous pina coladas. It was more than worthy of renown: he freezes pineapples and then blends them with coconut and rum (no ice) to make a sweet and syrupy cocktail of deliciousness.


The next morning, I moved rooms finally. After the first night I woke up with over 20 bites running from my pinky all the way up my arm and a few elsewhere as well. I’d gone to reception to tell them I thought I had bedbugs not expecting much of anything but unlike many other hostels, they took it quite seriously. They were in my room steaming the bed, wood, and anything else for almost two hours. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough and the next morning I awoke with even more bites on my back, stomach and legs and two others in the room (Kyla and Eric) also had a couple. I was now over 50 bites and calling them itchy is like calling Everest a hill. They were back in the room that afternoon steaming the other beds too. Phil had escaped any bites which we postulated was due to his mosquito net, though I don’t fully which gave rise to the theory that it was ants or (sorry Nicole) spiders. I don’t think so, however, not in these quantities and configurations. When I finally moved, the hostel owner offered to wash and dry all my clothes for me and anything that had touched the bed. The rest I left in the sun to burn the creatures out and that was the end of that particular bedbug episode. Or so I hoped.

Japan Attacks

Mondo Taitu, which was the hostel I stayed at, is well known because its owners make a pretty good effort to arrange some cool themed parties, and Friday nights start with them here in Bocas. That evening was Sake Bombs and with your bomb you got a Japanese bandana to proclaim your mastery. We met some friendly Argentinian girls and I got to telling them and a few others my idea to rent a boat for the day and go island hopping wherever we wanted. I wanted to explore this archipelago more and everybody was pretty excited about the idea which isn’t really on the standard list of optional activities and soon I had more people that wanted to join than I had room in a standard boat. First come first serve in the morning I thought, but then I never counted on how explosive the sake bombs could be. Not only were most people tired and/or hungover in the morning but the weather was gray and gloomy so that idea was put aside. Still, I wanted to do some exploring as I was going to leave on Sunday and so Phil and myself (as well as an Israeli guy and a German girl named Jenny who had arrived that morning) went to the other end of the island to see Bocas del Drago, or Dragon’s Mouth beach.

Escape from the Dragon's Mouth

Isla Colon itself had not struck me as particularly beautiful up until that trip. As we drove out on the noon bus ($5 return) the weather improved and improved and it was hot and clear skies by the time we arrived. In the paradise of this paradise. Bocas del Drago was absolutely the most beautiful beach I’d spent any decent amount of time on this whole trip (Cancun was beautiful too but lacked the charm, swaying palms, and spaciousness). It just ran and ran for miles in little bays and points, palm fringed with Caribbean. To put it another way, that day alone I took over 140 photos (don’t worry, I’ve gone through and selected only my favourites). Phil and I found a little hut out on the water that was deserted so we pulled up two lawn chairs and sat there enjoying life. I went to buy a couple daiquiris. She put in way too much ice and exactly 2 oz of alcohol so it was spread over 3 cups. I’d also asked for a mixed Pineapple-Strawberry daiquiri so there was no way she was going to use the extra and I asked for it but no. I then offered to pay $1 for the extra but nope, it’s a whole cup. Fine, so it is, but it’s also 1/3 of the alcohol I paid for. Still she wouldn’t budge. Ah well. This doesn’t exactly qualify as trouble in paradise.

After soaking up a lot of sun Phil and I walked along the beach as far as we dared before catching our bus back. Dinner that night, like every night, was at El Chitre, the best budget option in Bocas with a full plate of rice, coleslaw, and choice of meatballs, chicken, or pork and a cold glass bottle of Coke for $3.75. We ate there maybe 6 or 7 times and qualified as regulars by the time we left. Saturday night was my last night in Bocas, although I’d made that claim before, and we went out with some of the new arrivals for another Ladies’ Night at Aqua Lounge including Phil’s two new Argentinian roommates, our new buddy from Chile (Nicolas), Jenny, a couple Americans, and probably one or two others that we’d met at the hostel. It was a great way to say goodbye to the island. Or so I thought. The next morning I woke up and the power was out. No ATM, no money to pay for my hotel or get out of there, but I was surprised and delighted to learn the bank had backup power. My mismatched sandals, which had made it all the way from Mexico to Panama had walked their last stride and did not escape Bocas with me. I left them there as much for symbolism as necessity and stepped onto the ferry. The islands faded and Panama sat on the horizon growing larger.

Bocas del Toro Photos

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