Off the northern Caribbean coast of Panama is an archipelago of islands called Bocas del Toro. It means mouth of the bull, supposedly referring to a waterfall and was named by Columbus when he saw the resemblance. Today, perhaps the name would refer to the opening up of that wild creature known as tourism – it’s been a slow yawn so far, but once that mouth is wide open, it usually means there’s no shutting it up, or taming that bull.

I read on a website that Bocas has the distinction of being the only place in the world that all the different global variations of the big reality show “Survivor” have filmed at. I remember that the American version was around there years ago and it worried me that the place would never be the same again (as it was already on my list of unique places I wanted to visit while they remained unique). Then I read that every language version of Survivor has used the area, and I wondered if I’d arrive to a street with Survivor paraphenalia shops and every other T-shirt would say “Outwit, outplay, outlast.” I’m glad to report that I didn’t hear a word about the show while there, nor did I see a thing that reminded me of it except for windswept beaches ringed with palm trees.

Having been in Costa Rica about three months, it was time to leave the country for 72 hours and renew my visa so Roberto and I headed to these sweet Caribbean islands. For Roberto, it’s been ten years since he was there. This is where his father was from and Roberto can feel the pull of his roots, like a tidal current drawing him further out to sea.

It takes about three or four hours to get there from Cahuita. A bus ride to Sixaola, a walk across the rickety rackety old bridge over the Rio Sixaola which is the frontier between Costa Rica and Panama. A quick visit with the border guards. Then a bus or taxi to the port town of Almirantes and a water taxi over to the town of Bocas. We decided to head to the little town of Bastimento on a different island where Roberto had been and remembered it as a quiet place. The weekend of February 13 was the beginning of Carnival in Bocas and other places in Panama just as it would also be unraveling in Brazil and New Orleans. It was a good idea to get there early in the week and get ourselves a peaceful room before the fiestas began.

I love being in a water-based community, where yer horses are boats and everyone is paying attention to the clouds to read the upcoming weather. We had a combination of hot sun and some drizzly days. The sea breezes meant that it got a little cool once or twice.We chose not to take a boat trip out to a distant beach and through the National Marine Park where you can see dolphins because the waves looked like they’d take too much energy from us. Next time. We fell in love with the place enough to know that, si dios quiere, there will definitely be a next visit to Bocas del Toro.

We stayed in a very inexpensive room – $12 with private bath and a communal kitchen right on the water – at the Hospedaje Sea View. A simple wooden walkway connected the building to the covered dock where we spent hours swinging in the shaded hammocks, watching the boats come and go. Bocas area is the biggest touristic draw in Panama, after the Canal Zone, but in little Bastimento, you knew that the locals outnumbered the tourists by a large margin. The busiest sign of tourism is in the form of water taxis and tour boats.

And there were no mosquitos!

The island of Bastimento is quite big. There are different trails that lead you around the shoreline or up and over the higher land in the middle of the island. Everyone heads at some point over to Wizard Beach, a big sprawling, windswept beach with a good surf. There is a lot of tropical forest left standing all over the island, so you get the feeling of being in a muddy jungle for a few minutes before emerging on the beach.

You then walk through sand, swamp, mud and rock until you emerge on another smaller beach. You can continue doing this for a couple of more hours, through beautiful jungle, a breadfruit tree plantation, a topless beach (‘women only’ said the sign to noone there), and arriving at Red Frog Beach where there is a small bar and the beginning of a bit of new civilization. The beach is named after the little red frogs that are the poster boys of the place, getting scarce but apparently being bred for survival.

The only major sign of development that we came across on the island was the beginning of a resort with building lots divided up in this area where the red frogs live.When I googled Red Frog Beach, there is an amazing amount of people selling this island land out from the indigenous and local community – and it is scary to see what will become of the area.  After walking for a couple of hours to get there, we opted to take a $3 water taxi back to the town. There is a parklike atmosphere with manicured trails and gardens that links the boat dock with the beach. We had hardly seen a soul on our walk there and we arrived to few people at the beach. But in short order many must have been dropped off by boats, because all of a sudden there were dozens of people around.

There were also a lot of children from the local community of Ngobe bugle – the indigenous settlement on that part of the island. We couldn’t figure the kids out but got a bad feeling about what all this new development and influx of foreigners was doing to the place. These young kids – from between four and eight years old – would approach the foreigners in silence. A couple of the older boys brought a little can with a red frog in it, and seemed to quietly be offering something in exchange for a dollar. But the others were almost mute, shy, and we didn’t know if they were under orders to go and beg but with no instruction. Or were they just curious? Groups of them would surround one or two tourists – they seemed to like the university-age white girls who maybe were friendlier or less threatening. But they wouldn’t ask for anything, just stare and not go away.

We bought a drink for one very quiet little boy, but other than that they left us alone – probably, as Roberto said, because they didn’t expect a black man to have money or were respectful of us as a couple while we were laying on the beach. These kids were not starving and their clothes were in good condition and clean and they’d happily play soccer when a tourist pulled out a ball. Maybe they are just passing their time, amusing themselves at the beach – but it did seem that they were wanting money, they just didn’t want or know how to ask. And they did speak Spanish as well as their own tongue and probably some English. This remains one of the unanswered mysteries that we left with.

Old Bank, the original name for the town of Bastimento, is built on the sheltered side of the island. Many of the hotels and restaurants are right on the water, built on stilt legs with long docks that steadily receive boat traffic. It is like a courtyard where everything is right at hand. There are no roads or cars or motorized vehicles – a wide concrete path wanders through the town with some other smaller dirt paths heading off to houses and a lot development on a hillside behind the town. It didn’t take long walking along that path to have met many of the locals and found our bearings.

Folks sat on the balconies and verandas, hanging over the railing, greeting each other. For such a small place, it was interesting that there were four languages being spoken by the locals – English, Spanish, the indigenous tongue and Guati, the local name for the Caribbean patois. People told us that the community is still very tight, holding on to the unity that they have, trying to hold on to their culture and keep tourism under control. One of the main signs of this is that footpath that links them all, people strolling up and down, deliveries coming in by boat, no motors heard on dry land. But once that toro’s mouth is open, quien sabe? 

At Sea View, we shared the kitchen and hammock space with two other couples – a Portuguese/British couple, Shannon and Brett, and an Australian/Austrian pair, Paul and Lisa. I have to say that Paul and Lisa were particularly great folks to share a space with as they had just come from a coffee plantation tour and had a big bag of fresh coffee – unlike Costa Rica where there is lots of great coffee, we didn’t get such fine roast easily in Panama. They also shared chocolate cake that they got busy and baked one day. The last night together, which was Valentine’s Day, we all shared in making pizzas (thanks to Paul’s great dough-making) and were serenaded by Francis, the owner of the hotel, strumming his guitar and singing us love songs. He was a very gentle, humble host and we’d be happy to go and stay there again. There were a number of nice little hotels, many inexpensive and none horribly expensive, some on the water as we were, others up the hillside of the town, no doubt with great views over the bay.

For eating, the best food was next door at Roots Restaurant, which was always playing soca or reggae music that kept us rocking in our hammocks. We had delicious coconut-cooked fish and chicken there along with patacones (fried plantain). We liked having breakfast in the little waterfront restaurant called Alvin’s. The woman who ran the place was very friendly and funny and although she seemed casual about the place, she definitely knew her business.  

We also made friends with one of the boat chauffeur’s, Louie. His family owns the Caribbean View Hotel in town, and he was always taking people on tours, but was friendly and came around often to talk, make sure we were okay. A beautiful young man with dreads and strong opinions, he could have been Roberto’s son. I didn’t get a good picture of him, but would recommend to anyone that you look up Louie at the Caribbean View…., and tell him the rasta from Cahuita and his Kween sent you.

As is too often the case, garbage was an issue – it was floating in off the sea, not properly taken care of in town, and they are no doubt incinerating it somewhere. In the bigger town of Bocas, I read that they were trying to recycle but people weren’t cooperating and those responsible for the program were running out of patience to keep doing it. Roberto will say to me that this is cultural, that he wasn’t taught to throw things in garbage cans. But my experience is that it is a lesson that comes with a little affluence and all the stuff that comes with it. Once a community starts receiving lots of products to sell, all of them in plastic wrapping or tin cans or…, then garbage starts becoming an issue. Twenty years ago, most of the refuse would be organic. People would buy in their own containers. Now everything is wrapped in single serving sizes as that’s all that many people can afford. And they triple wrap things like cookies as one little hole will invite a whole bunch of ants, quickly. And people start acquiring things that break or run out. And garbage becomes an issue that sooner or later, people who live together have to deal with.

We watched the garbage scow come and pick up the garbage left at the end of the docks. We watched the birds and dogs scavenging and pulling the garbage out to scatter it further. As humans, we seem to have a real bad habit of creating garbage – and wildlife have become addicted to it as well.

It was an hypnotic five days and nights in Bastimento, intoxicated by the sea, swinging hammocks, Caribbean food, lots of walking, friendly people. Each evening, we would hear a multitude of drums, the sound traveling to us from somewhere in the town. The second night, we wandered up the path to the sea-overlook which is the center park of town, and there we came across dozens of members of the community. The men and boys were drumming, the young women were choreographing a chant and dance, hips and arms pumping. The little park was filled with old men talking, kids playing, pregnant women resting in the cool breeze of the evening.

We found out that they were practising to take part in Carnaval, the big event coming up on the weekend in Bocas town. In Bastimento, there was always a lot of music around us – coming out of houses, boom boxes and restaurants – and we would have the chance to hear plenty more at Carnaval in Bocas.

Bastimento is a place that I could easily find a cheap rental and stay for a couple of months. Food was cheap and excellent, transportation was easy, rooms were inexpensive. People were kind and had a great energy. I could see living there and doing some writing – Roberto could probably spend the rest of his life in a hammock on the sea, rocking his roots. It was enchanting. We left this quiet refuge on the sixth day, and headed to Bocas,where Carnaval had started. We managed to secure a room for ourselves, and in the end stayed two nights, longer than planned. I’ll write about the music and fiesta of Bocas next time. The energy level went up, and so it must for me before I can put my thoughts in writing.