Crossing into Panama belonged to the easiest border crossing we have had so far. Quick and efficient. Officers on both sides were very diligent. A bit too diligent in my case: our Panamanian officer noticed that my boat ticket out of Panama had been issued incorrectly. Great… Audrey had become Aufrey (mind you, I got worse misspellings in my life! Thanks Starbucks!) and my last name was cut short. I was suddenly Ms. Pad and he was not amused by this. He was pretty hesitant to let me in. He asked me a few more questions so I put on my angel face (who would have known I had this in stock?!) and answered his questions. Would he let Aufrey Pad enter the country?! I waited, he looked up at me, down to my passport and my boat ticket, and up again, sighing loudly. It was so hard to read him, he could have played a villain in a Tarantino movie: his face closed, giving me no clue of what his decision would be. I can’t even start to explain how relieved I was when he finally stamped my passport. I was in!
While waiting for the bus, we treated ourselves to a breakfast and imagine our delight (borderline relief) when we realized that food was cheap in Panama and it didn’t have to be gaillo pinto! It had been way too long since we had eaten for less than $2! This put a smile on our faces and we were liking Panama more an more by the minute. After breakfast, we took a bus to Almirante where we jumped on a boat to Bocas Del Toro. We were not sure where we wanted to stay: Isla Colon was the arrival island but Bastimento was supposed to be beautiful. The question was quickly answered by the facts that 1) we found a cheap place to stay on Isla Colon that allowed us to book an activity 2) the boat shuttles to Batismento were unaffordable ($5 one way – are you seriously serious?!).
Since we found a cheap place to stay, we were excited to actually book a tour. It was surreal to see the prices paid by the tourists and we almost gave up on the idea of joining a tour. Yes, we wanted to see dolphins, sea stars and walk on the most beautiful beach Bocas has supposedly to offer but wanting it didn’t mean that we had left our common sense in our dorm! We talked to a few hustlers and luckily, one of them, understanding where we were coming from, offered us a deal we couldn’t refuse. I guess once they stop seeing you as a rich foreigner, they can see that this is the same struggle no matter where you are from: we all work hard to pay for food, our rent, our insurance(s) and our taxes. We were grateful to this man and we couldn’t wait to go on that boat tour. We walked back to our hostel to chill and dream about Dolphins!
In the morning we were happy to see a friend we met in El Salvador arrive at our hostel. We always feel grateful to be able to catch up with friends made on the road. Those people are special to us, some of our best friends we have were actually met during our trips in South America or south East Asia *sappy moment over*. Our boat took us first to an area where dolphins like to hangout. I was very pleased because there was no feeding involved and we stayed at a reasonable distance from those beautiful animals. Some of them jumped, some swam fast and followed us and some just ignored us. This was the perfect start of our exploration day. The starfish spotting was a bit disappointing. It barely lasted 3 minutes and we didn’t stay still long enough to admire them! It was definitely less impressive than with our friends the dolphins and our friend, who instead went to Estrella Beach on Isla Colon, saw much bigger and colorful ones. Good to know for another time!
To go to the (supposedly) best beach in the area, Zapatilla, we had to drive in open water for a while and let’s say that our ride was… interesting. What a ride! For a start, our captain was driving way too fast. He seemed in a hurry to reach Zapatilla and instead of driving with the waves, he preferred to break them, resulting in some bumps that were rather painful. I squeezed M’s hand so hard after every wave ‘jump’, he probably worryied he would lose a finger or two in the process! We were all relieved to set a foot on the island… Pleasure that almost immediately faded away: the beach was so dirty, it was shocking! How could they advertise it as their best beach but not pay attention to the cleanliness?! This was a mystery to us. The island was quite tiny and too many tourists remained on the spot where they were dropped off so we decided to walk around and find our ‘deserted island feeling’ spot.
We walked through the jungle and I somehow challenged M (one day we might need to stop this competitive non-sense but for now it is so much fun!) to prove we could survive on a deserted island. I knew I would be useless and I was doomed to die of starvation but M was quite confident we would feel right at home. 15 minutes later, after several failed attempts to climb a coconut tree, many tries to kick a coconut nut with a heavy branch, hoping it would fall, we had to accept that we would be screwed if we were stranded on an island. The best for us, to be honest, was to jump on our boat and head back to civilization where food was available on demand. We quickly reached the other side of the island, well once M stopped playing Robinson Crusoe and we found out that many giant turtles had laid eggs. We didn’t see any turtles *sigh* as they spend their days in the ocean but many ‘nests’ were nicely protected by tapes. If only the authorities were committed to clean their beach as much as they were to monitor the eggs locations, we would truly be in paradise. As a matter of fact, less than 10 minutes away from the crowd, we found a clean and peaceful spot. This island had potential so let’s hope Bocas’ authorities come to their senses soon and invest some money to keep Zapatilla clean.
I was dreaded the ride back and it was worse than before. Wind had picked up and the waves got bigger and bigger by the minute. I couldn’t wait to reach our snorkeling spot even though I usually get panicked, just by hearing the word ‘snorkeling’. Yep, this is how bad the ride was! Funny enough, when we reached the spot, I didn’t feel worried; around us, the waters were calm and we were surrounded by islands so I felt like we were in a lake. How easy it was to trick my mind! I could swim in a lake so no problem I thought. I love being underwater, most probably because I can see any shark lurking (you are never too careful) and I feel less exposed. I took a mask and dove into the ‘lake’. I was however one of the first one to go back on the boat. I was ready to overcome my fear one step at a time and I was not ready to increase my chances of being left behind or attacked by a shark (I should probably stop watching catastrophe movies as well as the horror movies).
After a light lunch, we were ready to go home. If I thought rides # 1 & 2 were bad, ride 3 was my worst nightmare! The captain surely was in a rush to get rid of us and there were a few times, the waves literally became a jumping ramp and I thought my spine would rupture. Luckily, my need to find solutions kicked in and I ended up using my life jacket as a cushion. In case of an accident, I would be fukced anyway, life jacket on or not as sharks don’t care for life jackets. Bring it on sucker, I am ready to ride the waves, captain style! Such a nice day out called for a nice evening so our friend, M and I grabbed a cheap bite and caught up around a bottle of red wine; who could say no to a $5 bottle of wine?!
After a day and 1/2 on Bocas, we were ready to travel to our next destination. Next stop: Boquete.