This archipelago of 6 densely forested Caribbean islands and scores of uninhibited islets straddles the border between Costa Rica and Panama and is a real gem that has found its way to become my favourite place so far, reasons for which I will touch upon later.
With the New York times travel section recently touting Panama as its #1 destination, specifically outlining Bocas del Toro; unfortunately the secret has leaked, and there’s no sign of the development slowing.
The real-estate boom has bought bulldozers and bullying interests, particularly from the government who has been selling off large chunks of the islands to foreign (usually American) firms to either develop large hotel resorts or to look for natural resources within its rich lands.
The locals we have met here, openly debate the merits and downfalls of increased tourism with differing views depending on the specific group you speak to. After being captivated for nearly two weeks by this beautiful, laid back place, I too began questioning the effects of not only tourism but more generally the ever present American interests on Bocas, which I think acts as a good proxy for the rest of this country.
Panama receives over 2.2 million tourists per year, which considering is over half it’s entire population is a huge amount. In addition to the average two week holiday maker, there are a large number of expats, mainly from the U.S. building condos across the entire coastline.
As I thought this through, it occurred to me that Panama is used to being a transition point with it’s strategically positioned canal accommodating over 10% of the worlds commerce passing through. While the Americans have come and gone from the canal, that waterway still attracts plenty of investment backed by the prosperous banking community, particularly with the current plans to extend the canal with a $5.3b investment underway.
It’s not just people and goods either. A vast majority of the bird population of Panama, which is one of the largest in the world, is migratory, some only staying for a few days, giving a new meaning to the term fly-by-night visitors. Then there are the whales, which pass by every year to spawn. The parallel with other tourists is striking. Not to mention the sea turtles, who lay their eggs and then leave.
In fact, the history of the country has been greatly impacted by those passing through; from Columbus, the first tourist, to Balboa who ‘discovered’ the Pacific, something the local Indians already knew about; to certain pirates, who where known to take advantage of the Spanish gold trade; to the “Forty-niners’, who needed a narrow strip of land to walk across (gold again); to the French and then the Americans, who wanted to cross to some place else by digging a hole; to the retired Americans on some vague three to five year plan; to nervous investors from Venezuela.
As I ask myself the question of whether all this investment is good or bad I find myself torn; on the one hand Panama is now one of the wealthiest countries in Central America with the highest standard of living, however it is also slowing loosing it’s charm and indigenous way of life.
The two main islands in this archipelago provide a good basis for this discussion. The larger island, Colon which is home to its capital Bocas del Toro is the most developed, having been built by United Fruit Company in the early 20th century.
The smaller island, Isla Bastimentos is only a 10 minute boat ride away but a completely different world. Where Colon is a bustling portal town with bars, restaurants and beach clubs all set up to cater to not only the gringo trail but more specifically the surfer trail; Bastimentos is an under developed tropical gem split into two by a dense wild life rich jungle.
Although the great surf and secluded beaches of Bastimentos attract the day trippers from Colon, most of these fools tend to leave before dark; probably because there is only really one local bar on the island in the town of Old Bank.
Whilst on the subject of the surfer crowd, I simply can’t resist having a little moan about this new type of traveller we have encountered here. Although they have provided some welcomed eye candy, the pleasant impression from a distance is completely spoiled when up close, especially when they open their mouths!
Usually made up of spoiled little American rich kids sharing half a brain cell between them all, they are followed by even dumber crowd of spoiled American rich girls who do nothing more than give the surfer boys a huge ego…most likely to compensate for their tiny dicks!
If you haven’t already figured out which island I preferred, the fact that I spent only one night on Colon should make it clear. The effects that tourism and more specifically, American tourism has had on this island are disastrous… no doubt a KFC and MacDonald’s drive through are just around the corner, where local fisherman, hooked on all the junk food will begin trading in their fresh fish and lobster for a quick salt fix.
Bastimentos is home to two distinctive communities, the indigenous Indians (Ngobe Bugle tribe) and the descendants of the black slaves brought in and used by United Fruit (which is basically a state run enterprise) to work the banana plantations that cover pretty much all of the Central American lowlands.
Interestingly, these two communities don’t really mix with each other, which I find quite strange since they both are very different from the people we encountered in mainland Panama and unite against the common cause of over development, as well as the pillage of their ancestral land for the benefit of others. In my opinion the main reason for their indifference of each other is down to that fact that socially they couldn’t be any more different.
The southeastern edge of the island is home to the Ngobe tribe in the village of Quebrada Sal. The community consist of 60-old thatch and bamboo houses, an elementary school, a handicrafts store and a general store and football field. This tribe have lived in the islands way before the arrival of the Spanish, still keeping many of their traditions alive; being one of the only tribes in the Americas to have kept their traditional monarchy.
The historic West Indian town of Old Bank (where we stayed) is home to the black community and only a handful of indigenous Indian.Whilst the Indians only speak Spanish, the black community tend to speak Creole, giving a completely different feel to the island. Being brought up in the U.K, this place is the Caribbean I had always heard about.
The town has no roads, only a concrete footpath lined on both sides with rustic wooden houses. Kids play in the street (apart from the Indian kids who are obviously not allowed to mix with the blacks) whilst their parents watch on their verandas. The women Kaine-roll their men’s Afro into the latest Hip Hop style shipped in from the U.S. Men, young and old, hang out by the water selling the weed they haven’t quite managed to smoke themselves, all washed down with a bottle or two of rum!
Although I may have painted the stero-typical scene, it is hard to describe by words alone, since there is just a vibe about this place that has to be seen to be understood.
Insert video if possible
Until the 90’s most of the adults worked in neighbouring Almirante, on the mainland, to tend to Banana fields. By the early 2000’s only a handful still worked the fields with most of the men taking to fishing, farming small plots or just chilling while the women sell little cakes and things.
As an interesting aside, Almirante was the birthplace of ABBA’s Chiguita banana! 80s classics can be heard all over town with every house playing their music loud. Unlike were I live, this doesn’t bother the neighbours since the entire community socialise with each other daily, often enjoying each others loud music.
The most striking thing for me was the amount of laughter you hear, as well as the fact that no one locks their doors; crime is virtually non-existent. Everyone knows each other, which isn’t hard since there can’t be more than 100 families living along the footpath that effectively is the town.
Although very poor and some what decayed, this place couldn’t be happier…the locals here have definitely done something right. Given that no one really does much, particularly the men, everyone seems to have a lot of free time on their hands. This fact, coupled with the sounds of Luther Vandross and Stevie Wonder, makes for a lot of ‘sexual healing’; which explains the number of kids running around!
Some people obviously do work, whether that be running some form of B&B from their home, or owning a ‘restaurant’ i.e a shack on the footpath with a couple of chairs outside. Our favourite place to eat was at the local chicken joint which to my mind must be the original KFC; this guy was most definitely the Colonel.
On the weekends, the local restaurants and bar on the sea front turn into dance halls where all the local youth meet; the sight of which helped to cement my theory that this town must have been the inspiration for the film Dirty Dancing. I can just see a spoiled little American rich girl from one of the expensive hotel resorts, finding herself on the neighbouring islands where all the local workers live, learning dome dirty dance moves and falling in love with the hotel salsa teacher!
There are also a handful of expats living on the island; having clearly fallen in love with the place, as have I. The majority of them own some form of business to carter for the small tourist trade which is mostly elderly surfer dudes or couples on a romantic get aways.
We stayed at one of the most beautiful hostels (Hollywood Hostel) we have every stayed in, to be fair it was more an Eco lodge run by the craziest couples we have ever met.
The husband (the financier) is a 45 year old-school raver from Brighton that has had a truly colourful life; worthy of an auto biography. Sandra, the wife, is an aggressive but hilarious little 32 year old fire cracker from Columbia. Along with their spoiled little 8 year old daughter, Naomi and Rino, a beautiful boxer/rottweiler dog, this some what unconventional family call this enchanting place home.
Our first night will most definitely go down as one of the most bizarre nights of the entire trip. We should have really foreseen the type of night ahead of us when one of the first things Simon handed us ( before even checking in!) was a dubbie of some of the smoothest green; Inhaling the second hand smoke was enough to send you into the most tranquil of states.
The rose tinted specs were soon thrown off when little Sandra (who was in the middle of dying her hair red) got our room ready for the night. Since the cabins were full for the first night we agreed to sleep in the tent out back, which considering that we are now seasoned campers didn’t phase us. What did however, was the sight of this 4’6 woman hacking down a palm tree with a machete that had to be the same size as her. Things were made even more surreal by the way in which she was blindly hacking away at it whilst telling us the most hilarious story about her current hair dilemma.
Having fallen asleep drunk and most likely stoned with the hair dye still on, she woke the next morning vomiting due to what she believes was toxic poisoning. She obviously blamed poor husband Simon for this, since he obviously should have woken her…although strangely she still hadn’t bothered to wash it out yet!
The constant bickering between the two of them provided hours of entertainment, although we weren’t quite expecting to have been chatting until 6am the following morning!
Electricity and water on the island, like Sandra, is somewhat temperamental, with black outs that can last for days. Our first night was one of those days, which meant we had to snuggle in the gazebo by candle light drinking copious amounts of beer.
Since it was still Carnival weekend, Simon was clearly in party mood, making frequent journeys into his room; which at times felt like 10 minute intervals. Given he has lived a life of excess, ingesting every chemical out there, it was difficult to follow his conversation in the first place let alone with him leaving mid sentence, only to return saying something complete different.
This Ozzy Osborne carbon copy (the only real difference being that he is bald) eventually gave us the tour of the main private house whilst on one of his little journeys. We both soon realised how he could afford this place and be living the dream; having not worked at all through out his life.
As you can probably guess we were feeling mighty rough the next day, but being in paradise quickly spruces you up. Beautiful beaches tucked away behind lush jungle with some of the best waves sure as hell beats being tucked away in bed in rainy London with your only move being to open the door for the Domino’s Pizza guy!
We were fortunate enough to be staying in the cabin at the back which had a huge loft style room along with private kitchen and veranda. The best part of it all was the fact that the entire walls of the loft were made simply from mosquito mesh; creating the feeling that you were quite literally sleeping in the jungle, but with all the luxurious trappings you would ever need. With views of the sea and the most spectacular sunrise and sunset I could have stayed in the room all the time.
I think one of the reasons for us enjoying this place so much was also down to the fact that for the first time in 6 months we were able to get back into a routine of sorts. Andre as usual would wake a good two hours before me, meaning that I would wake to a substantial breakfast.
After chilling in the hammocks for a while to digest the food we would begin the daily hike to either Wizard beach or Red Frog beach, depending on how we felt that day…or how hot it had already got. The walks themselves were a treat since we saw a whole host of tropical animals….even a sloth ! something we had been wanting to see since we left London.
After spending hours topping up the tan or catching some waves, we would nap under the shade of the huge tress that lined the pristine, somewhat deserted beaches before heading back to make some dinner (my department) and chill back at the hostel.
We effectively repeated this day for nearly two weeks which surprisingly didn’t get boring in the slightest, especially surprising since Andre usually finds it hard not actually doing something or producing something or someone….usually me 😦
Although I do think that it had something to do with the little man crush he developed on the hunky Canadian surfer (that as well as having a Men’s Health body also had a GQ brain) that was also staying at the hostel. He just happened to be called Andre too which to be honest stirred up all type of thoughts in my mind…everyone needs a phone upgrade every few years don’t they? 😉
You can thank all this free time for this mammoth post which I would be surprised if anyone bothered to read to the end. For those of you who have, I just have one last little interesting fact about Bastimentos before ending your misery; It is the only place in the world where a particular species of frog lives.
Known simply as Red Frog, these little fellas are the only fogs in the world that are not nocturnal. The reason for this is because they have no predators given that they are poisonous, which you can obviously see just by looking at them.
Whilst they wouldn’t kill you if you touched them they would if you ate them!