Bocas del Toro, Panama
When I went: January 2014 (high season)
Going to Bocas del Toro (literally “mouths of the bull”) was a series of firsts for me. It was my first time in Panama, my first time going more than three meters underwater, my first time crossing any national border on land, and most importantly, my first solo trip. I had wanted to go ever since a group of friends from last semester went, but I decided to save it for my month of backpacking so I could spend more than a day there.
Bocas del Toro is a cluster of islands in the astonishingly bright turquoise waters of the Caribbean. It’s fairly close to the border with Costa Rica and full of tourists. It’s a great place for scuba or snorkeling (or partying, depending on what you’re into). The beaches are calm and clear with starfish lounging in the shallow water, and the buildings are painted a multitude of bright colors.
What I Did
After I dropped my best friend off at the airport in San Jose, I headed to Panama without much of a plan and with the vague intention of staying for the entire week or so I had until my sister flew into San Jose. The first evening in Bocas, I met up with some European friends I had met in Puerto Viejo a couple of days before, but unfortunately most of them took off the next day and I was left alone in a foreign town for the first time ever. The next morning, on a whim, I decided to go to Playa Boca del Drago/Starfish beach, which is on the main island where I was staying.
The beach was long and thin, with loud music pumping from a couple of places, and people everywhere. Couples, groups of friends, strangers making small talk. I was pretty tired from the past week of adventures with Mary, so I decided to take a nap in a hammock conveniently hung in the shade, only to be woken up about ten minutes later by a man telling me it cost $4 to use the hammock. After that, I swam a bit in the calm water and ate a sandwich, but I’m not much of a beach person, so it wasn’t long before I’d had enough of “relaxing” on the beach and watching other people socialize.
I wouldn’t be able to catch the shuttle back to town until later that afternoon, so I ambled down to a deserted but unswimmable part of the beach. I spent the next couple of hours thinking and observing crabs. Despite what our culture of constant entertainment tells us, thinking is actually quite a viable pastime, and I consider it an afternoon well-spent.
Nevertheless, I was less than impressed with Bocas, so when one of the friends who hadn’t taken off yet mentioned he was going to go climb a volcano, I jumped on the opportunity. After my adventures at the volcano, I was faced with a few days until my sister would arrive. My friend was leaving for Panama City, so I had the option to spend a lot of money and hours on a bus to go across the country, only to come back a couple of days later. I would get to see the Panama Canal and a city completely different from the ones in Costa Rica, but it wasn’t worth the trip to me. Instead, I decided to return to Bocas and get my scuba license, a thought that occurred to me less than 24 hours before I committed to it.
Once again, I set out alone to this town. I wandered up and down the street with a short list of pre-researched* dive centers. Bocas Dive Center was the first I found that would allow me to start lessons the next day. Having successfully signed up for an adventure that would keep me busy for a few days, I headed back to the hostel.
*When I say “pre-researched,” I mean I knew their names and that they were reputable, and not much more. I never said I was a planner. Actually, I think it is becoming quite apparent that I am most definitely not. But I digress.
This time I got lucky and met fun people in the hostel. I was rooming with two Chilean girls and a fellow American, and we quickly formed a tight lioness pack for the short time we were all together. They all left before I did, and although I didn’t hit it off quite so well with anyone else in the next couple of days, I did meet other fun people.
Meanwhile, in the dive center, I was working on my SSI certification. My mornings were filled with fun informational videos and theory, while my afternoons consisted of underwater exploration. The feeling of allowing yourself to sink and keep sinking into an ocean with your life-force contained in a tank on your back, trusting that you know how to work it well enough to survive, cannot be described.
For me, it was torture.
Despite all my mermaid daydreams, it turned out I was bad at equalizing pressure in my ears. Because of this, one of my ears was a block of pain that got worse as I descended, and I spent a few minutes bobbing up and down a couple of meters trying to clear it while my confused instructor tried to figure out why I was incapable. It only got a little better, but I eventually decided to man up and tough it out* so I could finish my lesson. Needless to say, I survived.
*Not advisable. I later learned I could have done permanent damage to my ear. Although it eventually recovered, I spent a few days partially deaf, hearing only swishing noises and suspicious pops.
I learned how to equalize, and the dives got better. Scuba diving is something surreal that I refuse to try to describe. Get your own scuba license. I can’t do all the work for you.
Long story short, Bocas del Toro redeemed itself and I learned that solo travel has the advantage of spontaneity.
How I Got There
Getting to Bocas del Toro from San Jose is a complicated-sounding process that turns out to be quite intuitive once you get started.
- The bus (Transporte Bocatoreño), which costs $14, leaves from in front of Hotel Cocori, just north of the San Carlos bus station, at 9am.
- At the border, they let you out because you have to cross the border on foot and wait in a few slow lines on both sides of the border to get the necessary stamps on your passport. Make sure you have a copy or your plane ticket to prove you will eventually leave from somewhere (whether it be from Panama, Costa Rica, or Narnia), or there will be complicated problems and you will have to somehow magic it out of thin air and go through the slow line again. Not that that happened to me. Both ways. I’m not bitter. Stupid bureaucracy.
- If you have a backpack or look remotely like a tourist, you will have multiple people ask you if you are going to Bocas and offer you a ride. Take one of the group vans for about $5 per person.
- The van will drop you off at the ferry station in Almirante, and from there it’s a $6 boat ride to Isla Colón, the main island in Bocas del Toro.
The trip costs $26 + $3 for an cool-looking (and mandatory) stamp on the Panama side of the border.
Where I Stayed
I ended up in Bocas in the late afternoon as the sky was just starting to fade into twilight*. I had a hostel in mind as I wandered the maze of streets. When I eventually found it, the dorm was full. I asked for other recommendations and was consistently given the same story in the other hostels. Apparently it’s a good idea to make a reservation.
*Bocas is on the not-sunset side of the country.
I ended up at Coconut Hostel, which is decent enough. It met all the baseline requirements: clean, with comfortable beds and an acceptable kitchen. For $15 a night, though, you can probably find a better hostel. Coconut Hostel is where the idiots who didn’t make reservations go.
I had the option to find a better hostel in the morning when they generally have vacancies, but like I said, I met cool people. Fun people trumps fancy hostel. If I hadn’t been so fortunate, I would have moved on. Some of my friends stayed at Casa Verde for the same price, and I probably would have gone there. I hung out with them one night, and the back area is this nice dock that goes out over the water with tables and hammocks. I liked the vibe.
One of the side effects of traveling solo is that I neglected to take pictures. It wasn’t on purpose–I just kind of forgot. So much for my dreams of being a stereotypical white girl tourist. Anyway, to make up for it, I’ll paint a picture with words.
Barefoot, I stand in the shade on the edge of the dive center’s dock with my arm hooked around a thick wooden post. I can hear the metallic clunks and Spanish chatter behind me as my instructor and a couple of other guys that work at the dive center set up the tanks. I have just finished successfully putting together my own equipment for the first time without help, and a satisfied feeling settles in my stomach, along with anticipation for the dive. I lean over the water, letting my weight rest on my arm pressed against the rough wood of the post. Although it looks turquoise and celeste at deeper points, here the water is an emerald-green. I can clearly see the rippling lines of light flash across the school of tiny silver fish playing around the dock support and play across the sand and scattered pebbles about two meters down. Two starfish that weren’t there yesterday lie within a meter of each other. Water slaps against the boat further down the dock that’s about to take us to a new dive site, and I feel alive.