Every once in awhile, I get to a location that is just…perfect. It fits my personality with perfect weather, cheap food, interesting and nice locals, and a few extra credit surprises. Finding these random gems in this great big world of ours is one of my favorite thing about traveling around. I usually only have a vague idea of what a certain location will offer, and sometimes my expectations are blown out of the water in a very positive wy.
This particular time, the place is called Bastimentos, an island in the Bocas del Toro area of Panama. I arrived after a bus ride from Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica that included sketchy border crossing, a shuttle, and two small boats. The border crossing itself was sketchy because of a really rickety bridge right in the middle, going over a large river. This particular bridge was made even more sketchy at the time I was crossing because it was raining, lubricating the old wood bridge with water and making it just slippery enough to make every step slightly more nerve wracking.
The rickety Costa Rica to Panama bridge in the middle of the Border Crossing Project. I was first dropped off by the Puerto Viejo to Sixaola bus in the middle of some teeny tiny town devoid of any signs for where the border actually was. I asked a local, and he kindly pointed me in the right direction. From there, I saw a bunch of people with big backpacks walking; a tell tale sign of BORDER CROSSING. Another local guy waved me to a little booth so I could pay my Costa Rica exit fee of $8. Like a lot of things in countries like this, at first I wasn’t sure if this was legit or a scam. I knew that the exit tax was real, but thought I may just be throwing $8 to a random stranger without anything in return. The Costa Rican guy in line behind me was reassuring that I was not about to get Gringo’d.
After paying the exit tax, I then needed to go to Exit Costa Rica Station. This included a short line, zero words exchanged with the border crossing official, an exit stamp in my passport, and I was officially out of Costa Rica. Then I crossed Super Rickety Bridge, and was sort of in Panama. I think. There weren’t any signs, and I was then waved into a small trailer to pay my $3 ENTRY fee to get into Panama. After that, I think I was in Panama? From there, I had to walk to a different booth to get through Panama immigration, if you want to call it that. Once again, zero words were exchanged, I handed over my passport and proof of exit flight out of Panama (via a screen cap on my phone), and NOW I was in Panama. This time, I was confident of what country I was in.
I asked around about busses to get to Almirante (the area to get a boat to Bocas del Toro), and was eventually convinced to get a shuttle (saving several hours compared to busses). I had to wait for some other travelers to make their way across the border, and then wait longer for them to debate whether to take the 90 minute shuttle for $7 each or take three busses for $4 and three hours. I did my best sales work to try and sway them toward the shuttle, which would prevent me from needing to pay for the whole car myself. $7 instead of $25 is major savings in Central America. Eventually, the group came to their senses and joined the shuttle ride to Almirante.
While I was waiting to leave the border area, I also learned something about Panama that I had no idea about: they use American Currency. Before getting here, I had looked up the exchange rate in Panama, and saw that it was One to One, and had been that way as far back as Google Currency tracked. However, I assumed that Panama used Panamanian paper bills. Nope. They use American greenbacks, just like the rest of us in the States. It was a very weird thing to learn, and was also interesting to think about the process that the States must go though to ship billions of dollar bills south to Panama.
The shuttle was eventually on its’ way to Almirante, and I was treated to one of my least favorite aspects of travel: Small Talk City. Meaning, answering the Four Questions:
- Where are you from?
- How long are you traveling?
- Where else have you been?
- What do you do for work?
Playing the Four Questions game is not my idea of a great time, especially after playing the charade dozens of times in the last month. It makes me think of the Tyler Durden idea from Fight Club about “one time serving” portions of friends and food while on a plane. You talk to someone, learn some relatively meaningless things about their life, I tell them some stuff about me, and then, poof, they are gone, likely never to be seen again.
Once I got to Almirante, I paid my $6 for the boat to Bocas del Toro, and was quickly on my way to the first island. Once I got to Isla Colon (the main island of the Bocas region), I hopped on a second and smaller boat to the final ride from Colon to Bastimentos, my final destination. Then, around 6 pm, I checked into my hotel, which features a nice patio and dock right on the water, I wandered around the small island for food, since I hadn’t eaten since the morning, and found a little bar and restaurant, where I treated myself to a coffee, beer, burger and fries. The whole thing set me back $6. This was already much better than Costa Rican food/ beer prices, and I am on a tiny island. Right then, I knew I would like Bastimentos and Panama.
Early in the night at Bubba’s, my hotel, I met some other travelers from the States and Canada who were talking about going on a trip the next day to an island called Zapatilla. I don’t often do these full-day tours, usually for two reasons. 1- they aren’t super cheap. This one was $35, which isn’t crazy, but too expensive a price to do something like that every day. And, 2- As a middle aged man of 36 years, I honestly don’t have the stamina to be out in the sun all day long every day of the week, so I need to ration and space out these big, adventure days. Otherwise I would be spending half the day asleep under a coconut tree.
After looking up images of Zapatilla (a small island which is part of a local national park), I decided that this was a place I would like to visit, and would be well worth the monetary cost. The trip would depend on the weather, however, since there wouldn’t be a trip if it was raining, and it had been raining pretty much non stop for several days. We joked about praying to the Weather Gods that night, and went to bed not knowing if we would be making the trip the next day to the remote island.
When we woke up the next morning, the sky was shining bright blue, there wasn’t a could in the sky, and the rain was gone. To Zapatilla we go! I paid the $35 for the day trip, got some water and snacks for the excursion, and got into a small boat, not sure what the day would bring. It took about 45 minutes to get to the island, boating through mangrove forests and more islands in the Bocas region. Once we arrived at the island, it was beyond stunning. There were no humans in sight, coconuts were laying all over the beach, the sand was bright white, and the water was tropical clear. It was an island paradise if there ever was such a thing.
We unloaded our personal bags, snorkel gear, and a cooler full of beer on the sand and just…enjoyed the island. Someone asked me what you do on Zapatilla, and I said “You just enjoy it.” There isn’t anything you need to do on an island like that. I walked around the entire island (it took less than an hour), drank some beers, went for several swims in the warm water, enjoyed some Coco Locos (coconut water and rum) out of fresh coconuts right off one of the island’s trees, and had lots of laughs with the other people on the trip. It was a magical few hours on this pristine island, where I felt like I was pretty much on a different planet from the rest of the world.
It also happened to be St. Patrick’s day, one of my least favorite “holidays” back home. I enjoy Irish beer just fine, but I don’t like being crammed into a bar with a million other severely intoxicated humans. THIS St Paddys, on Zapatilla island, was incredible. I was drinking cold Panamanian beer on a nearly deserted island with some fellow travelers, drinking Coconut Water and Rum fresh off a palm tree, and swimming in crystal clear warm water. For me, life simply does not get much better than that. It would have been nice to share the experience with some friends or family from home, but the beauty of traveling is you get to make new friends.
The US/ Canada combo I mentioned earlier become my New Friends for this trip, and I hung out with them most of day. After leaving Zapatilla, we went on a boat ride featuring some tubing. If you have never been tubing (riding a large inflatable raft behind a boat), you are missing out on one of life’s great pleasures. Basically, you hold on to a large inflated raft, via some handles, as long as you can. I rode this water bull with a guy I dubbed Coconut Jeff (based on the fact he provided the previously mentioned fresh coconuts for all of us to enjoy) and another girl from a boat. Jeff and I both wore a Imperial Beer tank top from Costa Rica that day, so we dubbed ourselves Team Imperial: sponsored teammates in the Professional Tubing League, traveling the world and entering various tubing contests. The three of us (Jeff, the girl, and me) put on a valiant performance holding onto the tube as long as we could. After being whipped back and forth across the wake, my arms were devoid of energy. I really didn’t want to be the first person to fall off, but eventually I would have lost my grip. Before I let go of the tube, Jeff and the girl eventually flew off the raft. I waited until I saw they were clear of me, so I wouldn’t plow into them, and then let go of the intensely fun tube ride. After that, I watched other people ride and bounce and get chucked off of the inflatable fun-mobile. I dubbed it a giggle machine, which is an apt description.
Later in the day, we did some snorkeling in the middle of several islands before making our way back to the hotel around 6 pm. Snorkeling is not my favorite activity, unless the water is full of really colorful coral and fish, which this area was not. Or turtles, because turtles are pretty much the best. This spot was ok, but nothing too crazy, although I am constantly blown away by the massive underwater world beneath the surface. Admittedly, I am also not a fan of getting just a touch of salt water in my throat, which is far from a pleasant and enjoyable experience.
After a snorkel session, we rode the tube a bit more, and headed back to the hotel. I was completely exhausted after full day in the sun, drinking beers, riding tubes and snorkeling around. It was one of those days that felt like a week crammed all into one unreal, magical, fun day. A day filled with natural beauty, great laughs, cold beers, and a near infinite amount of good time. Without hesitation, I can say it was one of the most fun individual days of my life.
And it was, by far, the best St. Paddys day I can ever remember. I could easily make Zapatilla an annual St. Patrick’s Day tradition. See you here in 2016.
One of my favorite things in the world to do is watch live sporting events, often via the magic of television technology. Foreign countries, especially developing ones, don’t usually have an overabundance of televisions, and, even if television supply is high, they rarely show any live American sporting events. Not being able to watch big sporting events, especially involving my favorite teams, is one of the things I miss most about being away from home.
My stay in Bastimentos coincided with the beginning of the annual NCAA Basketball tournament, which, out of a year’s worth of sports, is definitely one of my favorites. Sometimes when traveling, I am able to watch sports via streaming on the internet, but the internet tube speed in Bastimentos was not nearly fast enough to even attempt such a technological feat.
One one of my first days on the island, while wandering around looking for food, I found a small restaurant/ bar right on the water that was showing a live Champions League game (a big european soccer tournament). This was promising for potential future sporting event watching. I asked the owner of Roots Restaurant if he would have the NCAA tournament in a few days, and, to my pleasant surprise, the answer was… YES! Holy guacamole, I would be able to stay in an island paradise, drink $1.50 beers, eat $4 chicken meals, AND watch the NCAA tournament freaking live? Goddamn I love modern technology. As an added bonus, the TV at Roots is a certified, official HDTV, not a tiny 12” old, square TV like lots of places in this part of the world.
Needless to say, I have been spending a lot of time at Roots. During the first four days of the tournament (Thursday-Sunday), which is the most exciting because of the amount of games that are played, I was going there twice a day for lunch and dinner. Around 3 pm, I went to watch some of the afternoon games, enjoy a few cold Panama beers and a large plate of chicken, rice and salad. Then, for dinner around 8 pm, I would do the same thing: games, beers, big plate of food. The owner, Mauricio, is really nice, and a big sports fan, so I have spent some time getting to know him as well.
Clearly, my ‘heaven’ is not the same as everyone else, but being able to watch the NCAA tourney live via satellite on a beautiful island overlooking the water while eating delicious, cheap food and drinking cheap, cold beer is totally in my wheelhouse. The owner of Roots also let me know he plays on a local softball team that ws having a semi-final playoff game on Sunday. Of course I had to go see that. Watching locals play sports is another one of my favorite travel activities, and a playoff game would make it all the more interesting.
COMING NEXT WEEK: PART 2 FROM BASTIMENTOS