Once again, we woke up at 4AM and girded our loins for the epic day of travel ahead of us. We were happy to have one of our new friends from the turtle camp, Charles, joining us as we made out way to Bocas del Toro Panama. We stumbled half asleep out to the road to catch the first ‘bus.’ There ended up being far more people than anticipated and so another car came. Jordan and I got a seat in the mini van type vehicle and others were sitting in a pickup truck with benches in the back covered by a makeshift roof. As the cars continued to pick up more and more people on the way to our first stop at Ríncon, a few guys had to sit on top of the make shift roof for what must have been a harrowing 45 minute journey – pura vida style! Our schedule for the day included 4 busses, 2 taxis, a border crossing on foot and a boat. Shockingly, we actually made it to each destination about 5-10 minutes prior to the departure of our next mode of transport. It was like a travelers solar eclipse, exceptional and beautiful, but still uncomfortable if you look at it closely.
We got through the border with relative ease, meaning we only sweated out half our body weight while waiting in the line to get a stamp to exit Costa Rica and then another line to get a stamp to enter Panama. We crossed the border at Paso Canoas which meant we needed to get to David and then from David to Almirante where we needed to catch the last boat to isla Colón by 6:30pm. The bus ride from David to Almirante crosses over a mountain range to get to the caribbean side. The terrain was stunning. There were endless mountain peaks in the distance covered in a variety of greens with a blue and sunny sky in the background. The ride itself was ok. We each had a relatively comfy seat and the loud beats of the Latin American radio station helped distract me from the way the bus sped around harrowing curves dangerously close to steep cliffs. Our friend Charles struck up a conversation with the woman next to him who, when told that he had been volunteering to preserve sea turtles, responded by telling him how delicious their eggs are.
We made it to Almirante with seconds to spare to catch the last boat. We stepped off the bus, already feeling a sense of urgency meet a group of Panamanians yelling for us to ‘hurry, the boat is leaving, hurry hurry.’ We hustled to follow them, threw our backpacks on the boat, squeezed in a bit of haggling so as not to be totally ripped off for this boat ride and were on our way across the sea. The boat ride was 45 minutes on calm water. I’m pretty sure the moon was full, if not almost there, and it lit up the water. It was beautiful and I couldn’t help but hum ‘dancin’ in the moonlight.’ Water occasionally splashed in the sides of the boat and bits of phosphorescence actually splashed in Jordan’s lap!
Jordan and I got ourselves a private room at Hosteluego, which was only a couple dollars more than each of us getting a dorm bed. The hostel was clean and comfortable. It turned out that Lasse, our friend from the turtle camp was also staying there. Also, Cristina, another girl who had volunteered at the turtle camp, was working reception in the mornings at the hostel in exchange for a free dorm bed. We took note of this economical trade as something we would try to do in the future.
The downtown area of Isla Colon in Bocas is basically a spring break style backpacker hub with cheap beers available everywhere and ample opportunities to drink all day long. This isn’t Jordan and my scene but it was fun to indulge here and there. The main goal of being there for us was to get our Scuba open water certification. Jordan, having much more ocean experience than me, really wanted to get certified and Panama is one of the cheapest places to do it, we were told. I never in my life thought I would go scuba diving but there I was, right next to Jordan, signing up.
We went for a three day certification course which included 2 confined dives and 4 open water dives at a place called La Buga. Our instructor Leo was a laid back and patient Panamanian guy who always gave us a fist bump and a surfers wave underwater if we completed a test correctly. The two ‘confined water’ dives actually just took place right in the ocean but just off of the docks. The scuba regulators, which you put in your mouth to breathe from, supply a steady and reassuring flow of air. That reassurance, along with the high quality goggles allowed me to stay relatively calm. We had to learn how to set up and test our equipment, and then we had to be able to perform many tests under water such as swimming without our goggles and controlling our buoyancy. The open water dives were each about 45 minutes long. I wavered between controlled panic and intrigued curiosity.
Only once did I really start to panic and thus hyperventilate and cry a little. No one knew that though, until now I guess. I realized crying and panicking was stupid because I would just lose visibility and run out of oxygen. Feeling like a fish out of water I was constantly making sure I was close to the instructor, trying to keep my childhood infection riddled ears equalized to the underwater pressure, and of course always taking deep steady breaths, the most important rule of scuba!
I’ve always heard that its ok to pee in a wetsuit and that actually, peeing can help you stay warm. I learned that wet suits, being so tight, actually keep a thin, insulated layer of water between your skin and the suit. The body quickly warms that thin layer of water and you stay warm. I tried to avoid peeing for as long as I could but eventually you just gotta go. As I gave in I could feel the hot urine enveloping my torso and legs. I quickly realized that now my insulated layer of liquid was being replaced by my own pee. I wondered, how quickly does that layer recycle itself? How long will I be surrounded by my own pee? When we ascend and get on the boat and remove our wet suits, will a puddle of urine form around my feet? How long have we been down here? How much oxygen do I have left? Is that eel poisonous? In the midst of a full fledged panic attack, I wondered, are my teary eyes deceiving me? Is Leo now all of a sudden holding a spear? I floated there, fighting an internal battle, watching Leo spear a lion fish through the gut in a swirl of billowy fins, it struggled for a bit then gave in to its fate. I too gave in, I was under water, I was not drowning, that fish is dead, I’m ok. If the whole pee thing didn’t work out up on the surface, I figured it wouldn’t be the first time or the last time I would pee in public. Pura Vida, wait we’re not in Costa Rica anymore…
Each dive we took got a little easier, and I will definitely try it again. Jordan loved every minute of it and I also extorted him into agreeing to take Tango lessons in Argentina if I agreed to do Scuba, so all in all everyone was happy and all was well. Our Scuba training kept us in the downtown party area for several days and so we obviously indulged in the $.75 happy hour beers at our neighboring hostel. After several nights of cheap drinking however, we were ready to get out of town and see more of the beautiful beaches Bocas has to offer. We found a great campsite which offered a raised wooden platform and roof for pitching tents for $3 a night. From there we spent two days on Playa Bluff and one day on Starfish beach. Both beaches were on opposite sides of the island and offered completely different but equally amazing experiences.
The first day at Bluff beach we picnicked on the most incredibly smooth, clay like sand. It was the color of sawdust and you could not find a rock or a shell for miles. There were also huge trees leaning over the sand providing cool shade, perfect for our picnic. This beach was on the eastern side of the island, and the surf was huge. Waves were crashing, one after the next, creating long tunnels that crashed with 40 foot spray. The currents were clearly going in all different directions so this was not an ideal surfing spot and certainly not safe for swimming. We enjoyed our own private stretch of beach and then the next day indulged in a beer from a little thatched roof bar-hut a little ways south from our private spot.
On the western side of the island, Starfish beach presented us with ultra calm and crystal clear water with white, soft sand. Even when we went into the water up to our chest you could still see your feet perfectly clear standing on the sand. Starfish beach got its name due to the uncommonly high number of starfish that congregate in the shallow waters. They ranged from deep red to bright orange and actually moved surprisingly fast along the sand. Jordan and I purchased a few $1 beers throughout the day which gave us a pass to lay in the hammocks and beach chairs of another thatched roof bar right by the water. We also ordered a big plate of crispy fried plantains. The day couldn’t have gone any better.
We were happy in Bocas, partying a bit, lounging on beautiful beaches and exploring a new underwater world. We were happy to be there with the friends we had made in Costa Rica because it was nice to celebrate christmas with familiar faces. After a week and a half though we were ready to move on, out of vacationland and on to our next adventure. We were off to Panama City to catch our flight south to Chile!
We were bummed that we missed exploring all the other islands in Bocas. Anyone ever been to one of them? Anyone have any fun snorkeling or Scuba stories out there?