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!