25.04.2011 - 06.05.2011 36 °C
On the Caribbean coast of Panamá, in the province of Bocas del Toro, the Bocas del Toro Archipelago is located consisting of a series of nine islands just off the mainland. Bocas del Toro is also the name of the main city on the Isla Colón, located on the southern peninsula of the island. Bocas Town is one of the main tourist attractions in Panamá and we were excited to journey there, back to the Caribbean beaches and warm waters.
From David, we caught a mini shuttle-bus for five hours to reach the port town of Almirante. Almirante has little to boast other than being the main hub to and from the Bocas del Toro Archipelago. From Almirante we boarded a taxi speed-boat that took us the 30 minute journey through mangrove sheltered waters to the Isla Colón and the city of Bocas. Nearing nightfall and with heavy packs weighing us down, we searched for a suitable accommodation to spend the next week in and lucked out when we discovered Los Delphines –a simple but clean private room with bathroom, AC, TV and Wi-Fi for one of the cheapest prices you will find on the island at $25. Immediately we were befriended by a local named Daniel who beckoned us to the bar across the street for $0.50 beers and we soon increased our circle of friends by meeting the funny UK duo of Patrick and Tiff. Andrew realized that the ever important Playoff Hockey Canucks game 7 was on that first night and with friends in tow we found a local sports bar full of die-hard Vancouver fans and settled in for the nail-biting over-time game. Upon victory and screams of delight –drowned out only by a raucous rendition of “Oh Canada” – we found ourselves with two Vancouverite girls, Alanna and Jessica, and all went out to explore our dancing options at the Iguana bar. A late night of laughs and silliness ensued with instant friendships forged.
We spent our first full day in Bocas walking around the streets and orientating ourselves. There is one main street that runs through the town, lined with restaurants, hotels and hostels, corner stores and souvenir shops. It might sounds like Bocas is over-run by tourism, but somehow this little town retains such a peaceful and relaxed Caribbean vibe that you can feel your pace slow the moment you step off the boat. The back streets are full of local family houses painted in bright colours and full of colourful gardens that thrive in the endless 35 degree sunshine. While taxi’s are easy to flag down to take you to the opposite end of the island, the main form of transportation is bicycles that lazily wobble past you with baskets full of the daily food supplies. A central park with playground is located in the middle of the main street and a soccer pitch is found only a few streets back. Bocas is full of locals and backpackers with ready smiles and sun-kissed faces. We discovered a little van that has been converted into a restaurant selling fresh wraps and were instantly hooked on the simple quality food. With a fruit-shake in one hand and the camera in the other, we wandered around aimlessly toasting ourselves pink in the scorching heat.
The following day, with a crew of our new found friends and countless places to explore, we set off for a day tour of the nearby coastline. The first stop of our tour took us through narrow passages between the mangroves to the secluded Dolphin Bay, suitably named as this is where countless dolphins come to feast on jellyfish and find mates. Breathlessly we waited until a fin appeared in the distance, only to be followed by a tail flip and lean bodies gliding by our boat. Unsure where to look we soon realized that the bay was full of dolphins frolicking in the fertile waters.
After the dolphins we were taken to a shallow coral area where we were left to snorkel and splash before docking at a little hut for lunch. The turquoise waters swarm with colourful fish, eager to nibble at any crumb that falls into the water.
We were then dropped off on Isla Bastimentos –one of the largest islands in Panama with a large part of the island encompassed by the Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park. On the western coast of the island there are numerous unspoiled beaches which were the reason for our visit. We went to Red Frog Beach, so named for the Red Poison-dart frogs that inhabit the area and were amazed by the beauty of the quietly perfect Caribbean beach. With powder-fine golden-white sands, indescribably clear turquoise waters and lush jungle surroundings, Red Frog is the epitome of paradise. The six of us –Alanna, Jessica, Patrick, Tiff, and us- splashed in the waters and suntanned for a couple hours, only pausing to find the little frogs the area is named after.
The Red Poison-dart frogs are so named because of their bright red colouring with black spotted backs, as well as being extremely poisonous. The frogs are impossibly small, only the size of the first joint of your pinky finger; however, these little creatures have such a potent poison in their skin that the native people squeezed them to release the venom onto arrowheads of their darts and would use this to shoot monkeys from the treetops. Holding one of these little frogs is not the danger, unless you have an open cut, as the poison enters only through the blood stream. After finding and holding one, I was told to immediately wash my hands as touching my eyes would lead to a severe and painful allergic reaction. These frogs are known for over thirty different colour combinations, though the red or Strawberry Poison-dart Frog is the most poisonous.
From Red Frog Beach we were dropped off at Hospital Point which has a coral wall with an abundance of small marine life, making it an ideal spot for diving and snorkeling. We spent the end of our day searching the corals for interesting creatures, like the octopus I found changing colours to blend in with its environment.
The following day we all decided to catch a boat to the other beach on Bastimentos Island, called Wizard Beach. The beach is a long stretch of equally stunning sands and water and being dropped off by the boat we found ourselves to be the only people on the beach. Having told our boat captain to come back for us at 5pm, we spent a day enjoying the quiet peace of a deserted tropical beach.
Another day in Bocas, Andrew and I explored the northern tip of Isla Colón where we heard of a beach known for its abundance of starfish. We arrived to Playa Bocas del Drago and caught a little speed boat along the coast to the starfish beach –Playa de las Estrellas. Not to disappoint, the once again perfect coastline and white sands were only interrupted by orange splashes of colour from the large bright starfish that litter the shallow warm waters.
Beach days in Bocas were only broken up by nights out at different, funky little bars. We became regulars at Mondo Taitu where the happy-hour beers were irresistibly cheap. We visited the Toro Loco sports bar whenever a game was on or the UFC fights were being shown. The Iguana is a fun little bar that plays horrible music but is always lively, and the Barco is the late night hangout for locals and tourists alike. Our favourite by far would be the Aqua Lounge which requires you to take a taxi boat across the water to the nearby tiny island of Carenero, only a minute away from Bocas Town. The bar plays lively dance music. With an open patio over the water and a hole in its center for late night swimming and swings into the water, the bar draws a crowd especially on Wednesday ladies-night. Though, it seemed as if every night was ladies-night somewhere in Bocas.
The week in Bocas del Toro was gone before we knew it and while both Andrew and I would have been content to stay longer, our friends continued on their journeys and with our vacation quickly coming to its end, it was time to journey on towards Panama City. We spent Monday in Bocas Town until 5pm before we caught our water taxi back to Almirante to get on our 7pm night bus for Panama City. The eleven hour drive is best done overnight and the cost of the bus takes care of a night’s accommodation. Arriving in Panama City in the dark morning hours we had a taxi driver take us to a few hotels before we settled on a cheap one in the heart of the city. While the neighbourhood was not the most desirable, we found the location close to the main streets and in walking distance to many of the things we wanted to see. We slept a few more hours that morning before heading out to enjoy a full day walking around the enormous city.
Panama is split into two noticeable sections –the new financial district full of impressive new high rises and the old town district of Casco Viejo with crumbling facades seeped in history. We walked down Central Ave until we reached the old quarter of Panama, marked by the remnants of a wall that was built around the city in 1671 to prevent attacks from pirates. The area was made into a World Heritage Site in 2003 and is one of the main draws for tourists to the city besides the canal. The aged buildings are in the process of being restored and large redevelopment projects are visibly underway, where the insides of buildings are completely gutted, leaving only the eerie shells of once grand buildings still standing. Old churches, theaters and Plazas are scattered around Casco Viejo with expensive chic restaurants tucked between old brick walls and along brick paved streets.
From Casco Viejo we walked away from the old district along the waterfront all the way to the financial district which, already enormous, shows no signs of slowing in its development boom. We were amazed by the sheer size of the skyscrapers, towering over 80 stories high. The famous spiral building is visible from most points in the city, with each floor shifted from the one below to create a unique spiral effect.
The following day in Panama we took a taxi to the Miraflores Locks –one of the three set of locks along the Panama Canal. On the Pacific coast there are two sets, with the Miraflores being the larger of the two. We were able to see large ships passing through the incredible system of water-elevators, watch a movie clip about the building of the canal, and explore the canal museum.
The Panama Canal was envisioned as early as the 16th century but construction began in 1880. The initial conception had the canal dug through the narrowest part of Central America completely at sea level, but as excavation began and hardships ensued plans were soon revised. Countless workers from Central America and the West Indies toiled at digging the 77km long canal, only to die from malaria, yellow-fever and rock slides. The original plan would have had the canal completely at sea level, but this meant having to channel deep through steep mountain side. With workers dying from disease and the enormity of the undertaking realized, a new idea was proposed. An ingenious system of locks and dams was designed and approved and construction of the canal resumed from 1904 with final completion in 1914. The final project allowed for ships to pass between the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean without making the perilous journey around Cape Horn. With new steam technology employed in digging machinery and the discovery that mosquitos spread malaria and proper mosquito abatement projects put into place, one of the greatest modern accomplishments of mankind was achieved.
If a ship now starts on the Pacific side of Panama it will travel up the canal to the two-stage Miraflores Lock system, passing under the Bridge of the Americas. The ship enters the first set of locks and large gates close around it. Water from the higher set of locks is then gravity released, lifting the ship as the water rises. Once the water level in one set of locks matches that of the second set, the gate is opened and the ship passes to the second stage. This first set of locks will raise the ship 54 feet above sea level before the ship enters the artificial Miraflores Lake. From here, the ship proceeds to the single stage Pedro Miguel Lock which will additionally raise the ship 31 feet, for a total of 85 feet above sea level and the main altitude of the canal. The natural waterway then carries the ship to the large artificial Lake Gatun (which, at its creation was the largest artificial lake in the world) and on to the three stage Gatun Locks which drop the ship back down to sea level. This process is so important for shipping around the world that most large ships are built with the canal dimensions in mind. Ships pay to use the Panama Canal based on their weight, with some of the largest ships paying up to $300 000 US, with the least expensive passage going to Richard Halliburton who paid $0.36 to swim the canal in 1928. In 2007 building began in creating a third set of locks that are wider and deeper to allow for larger ships to pass. While a ship can now take around 430 shipping containers through the canal, the new passage will allow over 1200 containers to pass on a single ship, increasing cargo shipments by nearly three times. The new set of locks are scheduled to be completed in 2014, for the 100 year anniversary of the Panama Canal. Needless to say, we learned a great deal visiting the Panama Canal and were amazed by the process that occurs in shipping anything from food to cars around the world.
While Panama City is a large concrete city, compared as the Miami of the south, we read that in the middle of the city a large area of protected parkland remains. The Parque Natural Metropolitano boasts over 250 bird species along with other indigenous animal life within its dense rainforest. We took a taxi to the park entrance and then made the 150 meter ascent to the mirador, or lookout point. From the lookout we were able to see the entire city of Panama, from the new high rises, the old town, and the line-up of ships in the Pacific Ocean awaiting their turn to pass through the Panama Canal.
With a day left, rain and thunder constantly threatening and little else to do, we spent our final day in Panama shopping. The stores have shoes and clothing for such ridiculously cheap prices that we couldn’t help it and spoiled ourselves with a mini shopping spree –as much as we could cram into our backpacks. Fully stocked with new outfits, bags overflowing full, thousands of photographs taken and memories gathered to last a life time, our time in Central America has finally come to its end. We rose at 6:15am to get our taxi to the airport to catch our flight to San Jose, Costa Rica, only to connect to Toronto, Canada. We will spend a week visiting Andrew’s family in Ontario before making our final flight back to the beautiful West Coast of Canada on May 15th.
From diving, to volcano hikes, rainforest jungles and white water rafting, endless beaches and stunning lakes, snorkelling, zip-lining and leapingl of waterfalls, endless history lessons and beautiful people met along the way –we have been blessed to experience all we have. I close this blog with a thank-you to all who have taken interest, sent encouragement, and followed along in our incredible Central American journey.
Sending love from the A-Team,
Ana and Andrew