Travel to Panama
On Saturday the 26. November we continued travelling southwards, from Heredia to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, in total 5 hours and 200km on the bus.
We started at 7am in the morning but we had some problems finding the right bus and the right spot to take it. We had booked our tickets months ago in Europe in order to prove when we are leaving Costa Rica (this information is required when entering the country) and that we won't stay longer than 3 months. With a small, red off-road taxi we drove to Sixaola, the last village on the border to Panama.
The way to Panama leads over an old bridge but first you have to complete a long process to get out of the country. Paying taxes, getting a stamp for leaving the country and one for entering the other one and finally paying taxes again were necessary to be allowed to enter Panama. Fortunately a guy helped us during the complicated process in exchange for a small tip. The whole process lasted more than half an hour and costed 11$.
On the other side in Panama there was already a minibus with a "crazy" driver waiting for us for the transport to Almirante. In Almirante we changed from the minibus to a taxi boat to get to the archipelago Bocas del Toro. This wasn't a boat trip for the faint-hearted. At full speed and 19 people on the boat we were almost flying over the waves of the Caribbean Sea. In Bocas Town we arrived at our hostel with a taxi colectivo.
(Taxi colectivo: A Taxi that constantly picks up as people waiting along the road and drives them to the place of their choice)
In total we traveled almost 5 hours and 100km to get to the Isla Colón.
Bocas del Toro
We were really lucky with our place.
We had a cheap apartment with kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and hammock. It was located in the northwestern part of Bocas Town and really quiet except some construction sites and the small airport behind us. We were close to the center (at just 1,5km) and the next beach (a 10 min walk away).
The region Bocas del Toro was founded in 1834 and is a province with main land and islands in the north east of Panama. To the region belong the islands Colón, Bastimentos, Solarte, Zapatilla, Cristobal, Popa and plenty of other small islands. Christoph Columbus explored this region in 1502 and today it is still habitat for the native tribea Ngöbe, Buglé and Naso. The place is well know for the beautiful beaches, snorkeling and scuba diving. A part of the island Bastimentos, some little islands around and a part of the ocean belong to the National Park, famous for breeding sea turtles. It's one of the oldest National Parks of Panama.
In Bocas Town is populated by more than seven thousand people and it is the capital of the province. The town was founded in the beginning of the 20 century by the "United Fruit Company".
Unfortunately this place isn't a insider tip anymore. Bocas del Toro has changed a lot in the past five years. The fisher town which their residents once loved isn't the same anymore. With the opening of the airport on the island and its beautiful beaches, Bocas del Toro got very interesting for travellers. A building boom for hotels started.
On the 1500 metres to the towncenter, we were passing about 10 different supermarkets which are all led by Vietnamese people. In the center there is a big choice of restaurants which are one next to the other and offer all kind of food - from local fish to Italian pizza or German bakery. Between the restaurants there are several tour bureaus offering guided tours to numerous spots on the archipelago as well as uncountable adventurous activities. This switchover makes it almost impossible for local people to afford living in Bocas Town. The prices for groceries are rising to the same level than in Europe, investors are buying land everywhere and building new luxurious hotels, more and more people are coming to the island and of course the amount of rubbish is rising too. Bocas Town literally got overrun by the tourism.
Most of the local people don't like the tourists, they don't like what happened to their island and they can't do anything about it. They are left watching what's happening to their former fishertown.
Discovering Bocas del Toro
On the first two days, we explored the island with a bicycle. Driving in Bocas Town and around is pretty easy, as long as you stay on the paved road. There are only two streets on the island, one going to Playa Bluff on the east side and going to Bocas del Drago in the northwest.
Actually both streets are, beside some potholes, pretty well maintained and easy to drive on.
Nevertheless, the way to Playa Bluff, which we did several times by bicycle, is changing from macadam to gravel to sand road with hills and creeks to cross. Furthermore, both streets are dead ends (obviously, as it is an island).
To visit Bocas del Drago, the other tip of the island, which is 12km away from Bocas Town, and the cave La Gruta, we rented an ATV in town. The street is crossing a fantastic bamboo forest and several villages. Unfortunately we got a flat tire in the middle of nowhere at about 10min away from Bocas del Drago. We had to make an emergency call to the agency but we suddenly lost signal. Even the local people who came out of the minuscule church couldn't help us and recommended us to drive downhill - ignoring the flat tire - to Bocas del Drago. With Laura balancing on the front grid of the ATV, we arrived there but couldn't find any working phone.
Fortunately the agency had already sent someone to find us. The guy didn't know what our problem was and came unprepared. Therefore we drove back with his quad and he used ours. Laura tried to illuminate the streets with a little torch which she held over my shoulder as it started to get dark on the way back and the spotlights of both quads didn't work. In the meantime I was driving the quad and tried to follow the crazy Panamanian guy who drove in front of us at full speed and with no lights. However it was a funny trip and we arrived safe and sound in Bocas Town.
Playa Bluff is definitely the most beautiful beach I have ever seen! We have seen some beautiful beaches in Costa Rica, like in Uvita or Manuel Antonio but not to be compared with this beach.
The beach is located on the east coast of the Isla Colón. The sand is golden and the water has different shapes of blue. A line of Palm trees is making the border between wild jungle and calm beach. Playa Bluff is 8 km long and also a protected area for breeding sea turtles.
We visited this beach several times and loved this spot!
The cave la Gruta is 7km away from Bocas Town. In order to visit this place we had to give 1$ to an old Lady who was waiting on the street. Without a guide and only equipped with flip flops and a phone torch light we entered the cave. It is high enough to walk inside and from somewhere deep inside a creek is streaming out. Little fishes live in the water and crickets with huge antennas are making noises in the cave. But primarily this cave is the habitat of plenty of fruit bats.
On our way outside, a lovely tiny yellow frog with black dots crossed our way. We were lucky to see one of those rare poisonous frogs!
Actually we had already wanted to try surfing in Santa Teresa, the little surfer village on the west coast of Costa Rica. Finally we tried it here in Bocas del Toro. Our teacher was from Guatemala and together with two Russian guys he taught us how to ride on a wave. First, we had short introduction to the theory of the rising waves, the techniques of surfing and the dangerous aspects.
Afterwards we loaded the boat with boards and went to Wizard Beach, a place located on the northwestern coast of the island Bastimentos. It's a beautiful beach with usually bigger waves. Bocas del Toro and especially Wizard Beach are well known in the surfer scene for good surfing spots. At some place the waves can get over 12 meters high and these "silver backs" already broke plenty of boards. Unfortunately every year people die because they miscalculated the danger.
But all this is during the Panamanian winter (January) and did not concern us. We had small waves which were perfect for beginners. We both had a lot of fun and at the end of the day we were able to more or less stand up on the board.
To explore the whole archipelago, we booked a boat tour. In total we made two trips, from which one was amazing and one a waste of our time and money.
On the first tour we saw: Bahia de los delfines, Cayo Coral, Cayo Zapatilla, Isla de los Osos Perezosos and "Hollywood". We drove about 70km on the ocean and spent the whole day on those places.
The first place, Dolphin Bay, was a bit two-sided. I wanted to see the first Dolphins in my life but I would not only book a tour for this. Lucky it was included in the tour. The whole dolphin observation was strange. We were six boats with tourist groups at the place, every boat fighting to be the first one next to the first dolphin that came up to breathe. We saw several dolphins and after half an hour we went to our next destination. Whilst checking my photos later on, I realised how close some boats get to the dolphins. Some of them had big scars on their back fins.
Cayo Coral was a place for snorkeling over a coral riff. It was my first coral riff and very different to what I thought it would be. Nevertheless. it was very colourful and interesting to see. Sadly several parts of the riff were already dead or missing.
Afterwards we went to the Zapatilla islands, which are in the National Park of Bastimentos to protect sea turtles, for two hours. The island with its beautiful beaches definately represents the Caribbean!
The last two destinations were the Sloth islands and "Hollywood". Hollywood is a place between the mangrove islands of Bastimentos. The water is very clear and shallow. Around those little islands there are plenty of starfishes which are very easy to observe.
Our second trip with the boat was a tourist trap. We booked a trip to see other places on the north and west side of the Isla Colón. The main interest was the Isla Pájaros, the bird island. It's a small island in the north which is only the habitat of birds, people are not allowed to land on it.
Afterwards we went to "Playa Estrella". We didn't know our trip ended there. The place is famous for its beach with starfishes in clear water. Along the beach, one restaurant is glued to the next one. We had to stay there 4 hours until we went back to town.
It's a paradise definitely worth seeing! It has beautiful beaches and very interesting islands with fantastic flora & fauna.
Bocas was also a good place to switch off and recharge our battery. Unfortunately it looks like it will change a lot in the coming years.
& a good thing is that I change the way how I can upload photos.
No edit but better quality!
Hope you enjoy.
Now we are at our next and second destination in Panama: Boquete.
It was a long trip with taxi boat, taxi, minibus and bus. More than 6 hours and 200km of travelling. But after one and a half week of relaxing on the beach, I´m excited for some hiking in the mountains.
The archipelago is wonderful and a very interesting place to observe birds. Besides all the migrating warblers on the island there are some very interesting other birds. The sky is full with vultures, parrots, frigate birds and eagles.
Furthermore we went to the Isla Pájaros (bird island), a place north of the Isla Colón in the ocean. Birds like boobies and red-billed Tropicbirds are breeding there and it is worth going there, even if it is very difficult to observe them with binoculars or to take photos.
Same same but different view about Bocas del Toro