THERE were no taxis when my plane landed on a Saturday afternoon in the town of Bocas del Toro, Panama. I hung around the terminal for a few minutes, then strapped on my backpack and started walking. Twenty paces later, fat raindrops began falling and I scurried under the wooden eaves of a tiny refreshment shack.
”Where are you staying? La Veranda?” asked the woman at the counter, in an English that had a heavy West Indian accent. ”Well that’s right over there,”
She pointed out a blue house, just on the other side of the small dirt runway, and I headed that way. The rain, and the urgency of settling into a dry place with my gear, had distracted me so much that it took me another 20 paces for it to register — I’d just had a conversation in English (West Indian-style) in Panama.
The Bocas del Toro Archipelago, on the Caribbean coast of western Panama, is a tiny enclave of English-speaking Afro-Antilleans in a Spanish country. History, politics and labor migrations have created a handful of these colonias, as they’re called, all along Central America’s east coast — Nicaragua and Honduras, for example, have the Garifunas, and there are Afro-West Indian communities in Limón, Costa Rica; Colón, Panama, and on the tiny Colombian islands of San Andrés and Providencia.
The colonia in Bocas Town, on Colón Island, came about because the United Fruit Company built a headquarters here around the turn of the century. The company hired Caribbean migrants, mainly from Jamaica, to work banana plantations. When United Fruit moved to the Panamanian mainland some years later, the Caribbean workers stayed on the islands, settling in to fish, farm and trade.
More than 100 years later, Bocas Town still feels like an abandoned company outpost. Walking quickly along dirt streets, I noticed that the houses were mostly wooden two-story cottages with identical silhouettes: wide porches; framed, shuttered windows; and, occasionally, wood gingerbread trim. Many appeared on the verge of collapse, others were well-maintained and boldly painted — red with green, yellow with blue. Laughter, music (gospel and B. B. King), and the sputter of old car engines being tinkered with drifted through the air — the sounds of Saturday on any small Caribbean island.
While I was intrigued by Bocas’s unusual past, I had other reasons for including it in my trip to Panama last January. With 9 islands, 51 keys and more than 200 islets spread across the lagoon of Chiriquí, the Bocas del Toro Archipelago is like a mini-Caribbean off Panama’s coast. But it gets a fraction of the Caribbean’s tourist traffic, and there are no resorts or big hotels on the islands, only small inexpensive guest houses. A national marine park in the lagoon, on the nearby island of Bastimentos, protects the archipelago’s nearly pristine reef for snorkelers and divers.
Shivering under a thin blanket on my last night in Panama’s mountains, I dreamed about swimming in blue-green waters, lying on empty beaches and snorkeling with the equipment I’d lugged from New York.
Bocas Town, the provincial capital on Colón, the archipelago’s main island, didn’t have much of a beach (the public beach there fronts on the ominously named Bahia Sand Fly), but it is where most travelers go because of its central location. From there I could rent little boats to take me on short day trips to the marine park, 20 minutes away, and to uninhabited islands.
By the time I reached La Veranda guest house, the rain had slacked to a gentle drizzle. I’d found La Veranda in a roundabout way. When I called a nearby guest house, Cocomo on the Sea, it was full. I asked the friendly sounding American owner if she could recommend something, and she suggested La Veranda, which wasn’t in either of my guidebooks (both had been published before it opened two years ago). I liked the name, picturing a house with a big, cozy porch. On this instinct alone, I called the day before I arrived in Bocas Town and booked a single with bath for $25.
Not knowing what to expect, I realized after I walked up the old wooden stairs to the big second-story porch that I’d stumbled upon a rare find — a cheap guest house with terrific style. Heather Guidi, a former nurse from British Columbia who bought and restored the house, had turned it into a funky Caribbean fantasy of blue, yellow, purple and sea-green walls, original wood plank floors, ceiling fans and gingerbread trim. In my room were many things that pleased me — thrift shop mirrors, a billowy white mosquito net, handmade chairs painted turquoise, and, beside the queen bed, a lamp that made me laugh with its shade speckled with tiny sea shells.
The large veranda had an antique sofa and comfy wicker chairs with batik cushions. There was a kitchen at one end, with a big refrigerator, a stove and a sink. ”You’re welcome to use it,” Heather said, and told me the grocery was two blocks away.
Lounging on the couch and chairs were three of my fellow guests, two blond crewcut men, and an earnest blond woman, in their 20’s. One young man was working on a computer, the second was cleaning the sink; the woman was reading the Bible. They were freelance missionaries from Colorado, on a break between projects in Central America.
I found this out because shortly after I unpacked, the rain came back, this time in exuberant waves, sheet after tropical sheet. There was little to do but sit on the veranda, chat and wait for a break in the clouds. A brief one did come, and I ran down the street to the grocery store, the ”Epicenter of Savings,” for coffee, milk, water, bread and cheese. On my way back, drops began to trickle down again. I scurried up the stairs as thunder began to roll.
It was not the rainy season, Heather said. In fact, it was the time of year that is supposed to have the lightest rainfall. This made me hopeful that tomorrow would be sunny. My mood lifted, and when the missionaries invited me out for a beer, I joined them.
The next morning, the sky was gray, but there were some breaks in the clouds that encouraged optimism. After fixing coffee and eating some fruit, I walked down Bocas Town’s main road to the town center in about 10 minutes. Along the harbor was a road lined with fishermen’s bars, dive shops and places that arranged boat excursions. I got as far as asking about a snorkel expedition when the gray clouds turned black again, and I headed back to the guest house pronto.
But the rain caught me in the middle of Calle 3, Bocas Town’s main street. I jumped onto a creaky wooden porch where an elderly man sat silently, watching the nearly-empty street. He’d caught my eye because his house listed about 30 degrees to the left and appeared to be only moments from collapse, and because he looked like a member of the Buena Vista Social Club, distinguished in a starched white guayabera. In an Afro-Antillean town, the man stood out, a reminder of Hispanic Panama.
His name was Don Mario, and when I introduced myself, he immediately got up and went back into his house. I heard some scraping and banging, and he emerged holding an old steel folding chair.
Rain pounded, I sat, and Don Mario entertained me with episodes from his 83 years, beginning with the time he ran off, in his 20’s, to Havana. ”Oh, mi amiguita, what a time it was!” he said, his eyes clouding wistfully. ”I danced in the clubs, I heard all the great musicians, saw the great comedians — it was the best time of my life.” More stories emerged, of his travels around South America on a merchant marine vessel, his adventures in Panama City during World War II. He did not explain in detail how he’d ended up as a tailor in Bocas Town, but I did find out what made his house tipsy: an earthquake in Bocas about 10 years ago. In any event, explained Don Mario, it would be torn down soon, for, like many Bocas old-timers, he was selling his property to an investor who would probably put up a little hotel, or a restaurant, to join the others now popping up along Calle 3.
After my conversation with Don Mario, I drifted along the main street, noticing now how tourism was reshaping the sleepy little backwater. There were three or four restaurants with Italian names and owners, and the clatter of hammers announced renovation and new construction. Over a terrific, simple lunch of fish and rice at Restaurante Kuna, run by Kuna Indians from eastern Panama, I overheard Latin men with mustaches speaking rapidly into cell phones, while their gringo lunch companions questioned them, in bad but enthusiastic Spanish, about real estate opportunities.
I realized I’d arrived in Bocas Town at that pause before the tourism machinery kicks in, before the friendly smiles of the locals turn into professional grins (or irritated masks). Suddenly, I didn’t really care if I ever used that snorkel here.
The rains continued to pass over La Veranda. Between downpours, I walked in the neighborhood, met the neighbors and explored the little piers that jutted out from the light brown crescent-shaped beach opposite Sand Fly Bay (which, happily, didn’t live up to its name). On one old wooden pier, a group of children sang me Spanish pop songs, spoke to me in the local English patois, and showed me how to fish with a plastic line.
And then, one afternoon, the sun appeared, and I ran down to the central docks. Suddenly, everything was in color: green sea, blue sky, little red and white boats. It was now or never — I hired a small boat (a bote) to ferry me across the bay to Isla Bastimentos (for $1), the next largest island in the archipelago, and home to an Afro-Antillean community that was preparing for a big carnival. (I had been eagerly reading the posters that announced the parades.)
In a tiny wooden vessel that had been carved, Indian style, from a single piece of wood, I set out with two boatmen, one talkative, the other strangely silent. Suddenly, about five minutes out to sea, the wind kicked up, sending the little craft slamming down with a loud thump. The silent boatman didn’t even flinch.
”Don’t worry,” said the chatty boatman. ”He’s deaf.”
”He can’t speak, either. We’re a team — he drives, and I talk.”
We put in at Isla Bastimentos, and I noticed there weren’t any other taxi boats. So I asked the partner to wait while I explored the island for around 30 minutes. I offered him an extra dollar, and he said O.K. Seconds after I turned my back, I heard the motor sputtering; the boat turned around and sped across the bay back to town.
Isla Bastimentos has one main street, about a half-mile long. At one end, women were playing drums and chanting and clapping carnival songs. At the other was an open-air bar jutting into the harbor. It was old and funky, with missing floorboards and a strong smell of rum and sea salt. Only after I walked in did I notice that the only other woman in the place was the bartender.
Soca music pounded and echoed across the empty dance floor, and so did my heart. Was I stranded? Had I taken enough cash in case I had to spend the night? Worst of all, the sky was turning into a gray soup again. My face must have telegraphed my panic because moments later, one fisherman had bought me a beer and another had gone to look for his neighbor. ”Yuh no worry,” said the neighbor in patois, ”I can take you back in my boat.”
The rain held off until just before we pulled into Bocas Town harbor. Then the sky burst, all at once, and the showers came down, thick, warm and comforting.
The bottom line: an island enclave
I spent $38.62 a day on food, hotel and transport during four days and nights in Bocas del Toro. Prices are in United States dollars, which are widely used in Panama. The international dialing code for Panama is 507.
From David, in southwestern Panama, I flew to Bocas del Toro for $24. My flight back to Panama City cost $49.35. Both were on Aeroperlas, Panama’s main domestic airline; (507) 757 9341, on the Web at www.aeroperlas.com.
My guest house, La Veranda, was a five-minute walk from the airport. Water taxis, which leave from the main dock by the harbor, charge about $1 for the 15-minute ride to Isla Bastimentos. Boat owners congregate at the pier, offering various excursions; I would have gone on a four-hour snorkel trip to nearby Hospital Point if it had ever stopped raining. The price I negotiated was $8.
Street addresses are not commonly used in tiny Bocas Town; the streets, arranged in a grid, have numbers or letters. Most hotels and restaurants are on or near Calle 3, the main drag, which can be walked from end to end in 15 minutes. The airport is near the center of town.
Places to Stay
The four-room Veranda guest house, telephone and fax (507) 757 9211, www.laverandahotel.com, had a sense of personal style that is rare in budget lodgings. Rates are now $35 a night, but my large room cost $25 a night and had its own bathroom with a shower, a queen bed, and lots of shelves and pegs for hanging and storage. La Veranda doesn’t serve breakfast, but the guest rooms open to a large, airy veranda with couches, a dining table, chairs and a communal kitchen. Perhaps the only drawback is that it is two blocks away from the sea (guests have access to the hotel’s swimming dock).
If a sea view is a priority, I’d recommend the nearby Cocomo on the Sea guest house, (507) 757 9259, www.panamainfo.com/cocomo, a more upscale, more conventional place with an inviting deck overlooking the water, and four rooms, which I couldn’t inspect because they were full when I visited. Rooms cost around $50, with breakfast.
A budget standby is Las Brisas Botel, (507) 757 9248, where a rather drab, dingy room without windows is about $25 a night. The draw of the place is its spacious breezy deck overlooking the water.
Where to Eat
La Ballena, (507) 757 9089, is an Italian-owned restaurant on Avenida E one block off Calle 3. It’s upscale for Bocas Town — dinner entrees are $9 to $12 — but the portions are huge. My meal of tomato and mozzarella salad, followed by spaghetti with octopus sauce, could have fed two. The bill was $18 with a glass of surprisingly good house wine.
Kuna is an unpretentious restaurant across from Las Brisas Botel. Seafood dinner entrees (around $7) are served on a wide, breezy porch overlooking the main street. I had very good shrimp and calamari in garlic sauce, and returned the next night for grilled red snapper. There is no phone. DAISANN McLANE
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Source: VIP Panama