One of the reasons we are traveling to so many strange and new places it to “try them on for size”. Last year we went to Cotacachi, Ecuador… before that Belize, before that Costa Rica (8 times), Mexico, Peru, Chile, Argentina and all over the Caribbean.
The last time we went to Panama our experience was less than a good one. One overpowering event molded our opinion. The fact that one company took advantage of five gringos by putting us on a rafting trip on a river deemed unsafe by SINAPROC, and putting our lives in danger, was an impression that burned deep. We chose to give Panama another chance. This time… the Islands of Bocas del Toro.
Now I’m not saying we are professional travelers, and heaven knows we are not perfect. Not saying that every now and then we compare our lives at home to what we see and experience in our host country. We both are looking for those special places we can settle into for a while, some place to call home, even if it’s for a month or two. One important thing we look for is how the indigenous people take care of their homes, their people, their natural resources. How do they treat travelers?
Bocas was a bit of a let down. Online it was painted as this beautiful “Caribbean type” place. The people, bright eyed, smiling and inviting… an up and coming eco-friendly set of islands with beautiful beaches. What we found on this trip was far from that. Not to say it was all bad… we made it enjoyable and definitely relaxing. In decompressing though we found that it was a bit disappointing.
Now let me say that I was not expecting an “American 5 star resort”. When the places you are staying average 80-100 dollars a night, you would think that they would be top notch. In our experience, a country where the people are living a modest life, at best, the locals and expats usually rent their homes at lower rates… and if they do charge a premium… at least there should be screens on the windows, a working fridge and stove, and a bed big enough for two normal sized adults, not one child. The property should be free of trash and debris. When they say you can snorkel “right off the peer”, there should be some resemblance of a reef or at least some fish.
I guess we are partly to blame for wanting to believe in people and what we see on their websites. Believe that those that live there… depend on tourists to improve their current station in life… these people would want to modify their behaviors, clean up their beaches, repair their homes and not overcharge their guests, and lastly not prey on visitors. Perhaps they should not over embellish what they have to offer, so that when we arrive, we find what was presented online.
Please… I know that there are many places that cater to travelers, but we are not “rich”, we cannot afford 200-300 dollars a night… or more. The restaurants we had to eat in charged prices like a European restaurant but with local cuisine and their establishments were in disrepair. We were afraid to walk on the floors thinking the rotted boards might fall through. Walking on the boardwalk trails around the marine park we visited, was like taking your life in your hands. One gentleman told us that they have cut back flights to the islands. It’s not because they want to punish local tourism, but perhaps that more and more people, like us, are seeing this in real life and seeing the pretty pictures painted are far from the truth. Sad…
As a travel writer I feel I have an obligation to tell it like it is. This is my opinion of course. I understand that countries try their best to grab their share of the million dollar tourist industry. The internet has made the world a small place. Just don’t believe all the pictures… or everything you read. At the same time these countries/people have an obligation to at least try to represent what is true and accurate… not just from a Tuesday when they raked the beach, photoshopped the buildings and used a wide angle lens to portray a fantasy world. When we arrive it is a huge letdown. We spend hard earned money and dedicate our precious limited vacation time to this online fantasy. Not only does it harm us but the people who are trying to improve their lives through our visits.
I don’t really know if there is anyone to blame… at the same time, perhaps the locals might make a concerted effort to clean up, make repairs, and improve the level of service they offer. Take pride in their country and the impression indelibly etched into the tourists mind. Feedback is everywhere. We need to stop sugar coating it and be honest. Change will never occur if we continue to paint a rosy picture of a destination in serious need of renovation and cleanup. Travel abroad can be dangerous, not only to your safety but also to your health. If we don’t sound the alarm, and get honest, nothing will change. The next time we are afraid to hurt someone’s feelings… do you really think they will care if you are mugged or seriously hurt just walking around? Travelers beware.
While we were in Bocas del Toro, a lady on a jungle path on Isla Sorte was mugged walking on a recommended trail, another was lost on Basementos where there is a known gang who hate the gringos on their island and hold up people at gun point. My partner almost fell backwards while stepping off a floating swimming pad, provided by the lodge we were staying at,onto their dock which had a loose board. Had I not had her hand she could’ve been seriously injured only three days into our two week trip. If you don’t think it happens…think again!
After a nap in the middle of a rainy day, we decided that we would head “out on the town”. Now Chris and I are not much for partying… those days are long gone… at least the staying out till 2am drinking and dancing. No I am afraid we are a bit wiser and more controlled than in our younger days. That’s not to say we won’t go out for a nice dinner, meet strangers who become friends, drink a few glasses of wine, have a good beer at a local brewery or take a long walk around a new town. Last night we did a little of each.
We went out to a Pizzeria called Ciao Pizza in Big Creek, Isla Colon, http://www.ciaoepizza.worldpress.com , They had real wine, not the boxed Clos wine served everywhere in the islands. The pizza was cooked in a wood fired oven and the atmosphere was quaint. We met some folks that had just arrived on the island and warmly invited them to join us. Filiberto came strolling in and viola we had a party. We shared good food, good wine and listened as Filiberto told us of his exodus from Venezuela.
We next strolled down the muddy road side to a local brewery. There we found some locals enjoying some good craft beer and more conversation. http://www.bocasbrewey.com. We sat through a few rounds until the heaviness of the night air lulled us into a drowsiness that followed a great day!
The third stop on our journey was The Artist’s House on The Sea, on Isla Colón. We packed up to head out from Un Puerto Particular via water taxi back to the main island of Colón. We notified Filberto of our arrival and planned to meet him at the dock at 13:00. Filberto said he would be driving a Kia Double Cab and wearing a leather hat. He said we wouldn’t be able to miss him. In Island time he showed, as planned, and he was wearing a top hat made of leather… no doubt he made it. He is an eccentric type of fella. His thick accent was easy to listen to. He carried himself well. On the short ride to our new home he told us a quick synopsis of his life. Recommended eating establishments and told us how to get about.
Upon arriving we entered a small mud path that was lined with garbage. He explained that the neighbor was piling it there to eventually claim the property for himself… some convoluted law about him using the property that eventually he could claim it as his own since the owner didn’t care to take care of it? We were getting used to seeing large garbage piles sitting about… this was not the act of nature but of man.
Shaking off the vision, we entered into Filberto’s domain. There was a small wood planked walkway that lead to a charming three story building. Once inside he showed us his works of art. He told us about building this house and his own house 300 mts off the main house. We have left Kansas Dorothy. The home was basically three large bedrooms with three baths and one stand-up shower on the main level. The bathroom on the second level has a shower that you sit on the toilet to use. The third floor bath is tucked away in a small slanted closet, good for children but an adult might find it difficult to use. The main level has the cooking area. Stove, shower, fridge, table and chairs and a small washing machine. Totally open to the world.
On each level there was an eclectic assortment of art work. Filberto gave us a tour and explained each one, where he found it or where his inspiration came from. His art was expressive and down right strange… but totally reflected his demeanor and personality. The more I watched him, listened to him and grew to respect his choice of lifestyle, I couldn’t shake my grandfathers image from my head.
He left us and departed to his home on the water in a small Zodiac inflatable boat… that no longer was inflated but served his purpose of traveling to his small home on The Sea. His home was now ours…
Our last day on Isla Basimentos… coffee? The best coffee and organic breakfast is found at a cacao farm at the top of Basimentos. Now what no one can tell you correctly is where it is or how long of a hike it really is. It’s called Up In The Hill Coffee and Gift Shop.
We flagged down a water taxi from our dock and told him to take us to the coffee house on the hill. He dropped us off at the dock and pointed and said follow the path up the hill. Simple enough… we paid our fare and set off. It was about 9:30 and the heat was just starting to build. We found the path marked clearly at first and set off UP. The first sign said 15 minutes to In the Up in the Hill Organic Farm… 15 minutes later a sign that said 7 minutes and 10 minutes later another sign that said 7 minutes. With sweat pouring from the intense humidity and continual up hill trekking… we finally came to a muddy path with a big sign that said 7 more…
Finally forty minutes later we came to a gate Up In The Hill! We had arrived. Honestly the last thing I wanted was a hot cup of coffee, so I settled on a big glass of water and lemongrass tea.
If you ever get to Basimentos you MUST go to this coffee shop/ cacao farm. The food was amazing… the atmosphere, although thick with humidity, was charming. We were visited by the local cat, dog, chicken and rabbit. Local wares for sale adorned the walls. Fresh cacao and coconut products were offered. They have tours thru the farm, you can watch cacao being pressed or just enjoy the ambiance. Prices were very reasonable and the food delicious.
On our forth day in Panama it rained. Not the all the sudden showers… but one all out down pour after another. So what? Who cares?!
As in my past post, rain is the lifeblood of the islands. If it doesn’t rain we don’t shower, wash dishes, wash clothes, or our bodies. We don’t flush toilets. Plain and simple… rain does not “ruin our vacation”. I know… I know… there are beaches to explore, reefs to conquer, and sights to see. The rain refreshes everything. Forces people you may never had met into tight quarters such as bars and shops… hiding under trees and awnings. People you may never have met if it weren’t for the rain.
So it’s raining today… we went into Isla Colon’, Bocas del Toro proper. We flagged down a water taxi in the pouring rain, standing on the dock waving the white flag. From across the bay comes a faint ghost of a boat appearing from out of the deluge. Hop on, tell the captain where you want to go, hide from the rain and hope he understands where you want to go.
We hopped off and wandered around until we found an inviting hostel with great music and lots of young people from all over hanging out… hiding from the rain. Scantily clothed chicas and chicos wandered about. We ordered a few drinks and lunch and enjoyed the sights and sounds until the rain stopped.
Impressions of Isla Colon’ Bocas del Toro. Typical beach town in Central America. Happy people everywhere living in tiny homes and as mentioned earlier… a lot of trash. Like old fridges, car parts and large garbage not easily removed. Also typical, mostly absent sidewalks, broken and in disrepair. Where the sidewalks do exist… the curbs are 18-24″ deep. I wouldn’t suggest getting drunk and walking around at night. There are many shops and outdoor markets, catering to tourist and locals alike. The sounds are those of diesel engines and a sea of languages from native Panamanian to foreigners from around the world. There are back streets and alleyways, small parks and even the occasional “American establishment” to satisfy the non-adventurous type.
As the sun peeks through, the humidity rises. The smell of fresh fruit fills the heavy air. It is time to seek shelter in the form of the sea to cool down. Another Balboa, Oh yes why not…
Every island we’ve ever been on… a huge issue is trash. That’s not to say the islanders themselves are dirty. Islands are just the strainer for ocean garbage. We have seen many creative uses for this garbage; from bagging it up and using it as wave breaks to stop erosion to cute uses such as planters and works of art.
The gals that own the little beach cabin we are staying at here on Isla Basimentos have made a concerted effort to keep their area of the beach “trash free”. They say that recycling is just catching on here. We are instructed on what trash is good and what trash is bad. Instructed to toss uneaten food and food byproducts into the jungle, certain cans and different plastics go in bins, glass in another and paper in a third. Amazingly if you eat fresh, and who wouldn’t when it’s available, there’s not much left for the “other can”.