Overland miles: 4953 Tacocount: 73 Days without sodas: 14
Panama is the last country on our trip through Central America, and one we have to admit, we knew very little about, other than that it’s got a very large canal cutting it in half.
After asking our fellow travellers for advice, we decided our first stop would be Bocas del Toro, a picture-perfect archipelago of islands near the border with Costa Rica, covered in primary rainforest and home to a national marine park with plenty of opportunities for getting back to nature, and deep into the jungle.
Unfortunately, on arrival, we discovered tourism has almost completely overrun the main island, Isla Colon. Instead of a tropical paradise, we found streets lined with sports bars, fast food joints and restaurants all charging extorionate prices for mediocre fare. After one night, our wallets couldn’t take the strain so we hot-footed it to the much quieter Isla Bastimentos and checked into some jungle-style wood cabins, complete with our own kitchen, run by Simon, an ageing hippy from Brighton and his Panamian wife. We were joined the next day by Christophe and Maria, a German couple we’d met in Nicaragua, travelling a similar route to us, who’d similarly decided to jump ship from Isla Colon after one night.
There are no roads on Bastimentos and it has a much more pronounced Caribbean vibe than the main island, with many of the locals speaking Guari-Guari, a combination of Spanish, English and Creole. Its jungles are also home to many species of frogs, including the tiny strawberry poison dart frog (aka the red frog). One of our fellow hotel guests, Brian, turned out to be one of the foremost experts on the subject, having spent many years breeding them and travelling to the archipelago to document every species native to the area (there are more than twenty types of frog on Bastimentos alone, although some are in danger of disappearing altogether in the next few years). We were lucky enough to spot quite a few of the tiny creatures around our cabins.
Bastimentos seemed like the ideal place to get our fill of the steamy jungle-clad landscape for which Panama is renowned. Christope, Maria and we decided take a hike to the deserted Wizard beach on the far side of the island which involved a perilous trek up the steep, slippery hillsides of the island, and across viscous swamp paths latticed with twisting tree roots.
Our hike took us to the highest point of the island, where we discovered Up In The Hill, an organic cafe and health shop that sold chocolate from its own cacao plantation. Relieved that we hadn’t fled too far from middle class comforts, Jovian ordered a steaming mocha coffee, which although helping to restore his strength, caused him to sweat even more. We shared a delicious brownie also made from their chocolate, whilst watching a gardener with a machete hacking back the undergrowth around us.
Back at our cabins, Brian introduced us to Roberto, a local boat owner who took us all out the next day on his lancha to explore the marine park. We’d heard tales of fellow visitors spotting dolphins in the bays around the islands but despite killing the lancha motor in the encouragingly named Dolphin Bay, and bobbing about on the aquamarine water for some time, we were out of luck that morning.
We did however manage to see a cluster of five sloths slowly moving their way around some mangrove trees. Apparently it’s very rare to see more than one at a time, let alone moving. Smiling, Roberto informed us that sloths only go to the the toilet once a week (presumably it’s too much effort to go more frequently) so the one we could see lazily making his way down a tree trunk was going to make his weekly deposit.
After we’d had our fill of sloth watching, we motored to a small coral reef for some snorkelling. This was only the second time I’d ever snorkelled and I hadn’t enjoyed it too much the first time thanks to a leaky mask. This time round though, the mask fitted perfectly and after helping Jovian get his mask fixed on right (this was his first time snorkelling) we were rewarded with lots of crazy coral formations and brightly coloured fish. Now we know what we’re doing it’s certainly something we’re going to try again further down the line.
The final stop on our trip was Star Fish Bay, named after the thousands of giant star fish found in the waters. We fished one out of the water for a quick photoshoot, being careful to put it back before we did any damage.
So that concludes our jungle experiences in Bocas. Next up, Jovian tells the story of our visit to the dark heart of Panama and our trip to the Lost and Found hostel, deep in the cloud forest.