I Still Haven't Opened My Panama Guidebook in Bocas del Toro
Certain places have a definitive list: “Things to Do in Country X”, “Top 10 Historical Sites”, “Top 10 Restaurants”, “If You Don’t take A Picture Here for Social Media Your Trip Didn’t Happen”. Bocas del Toro is not one of those places. Every person you meet in Bocas will recommend a different beach, a different restaurant, or a different experience that they hold near and dear, depending on how they feel that day. My first week here, I went to the beach near my house, Paki Point, religiously. A few days later, I discovered the live starfish that dot the clear blue waters of Starfish Beach and I immediately broke up with Paki without another thought and spent my days at Starfish. Last week, however, the calm, crystal blue beaches of Carenero came between Starfish and I and, once again, I threw myself into a committed relationship with Carenero as my one and only go to local beach- for now.
I’ve realized that the most interesting things to do and see in Bocas are meant to be appreciated “off the beaten path”. Guidebooks give you hints here and there, but you only get a real sense of just how much there is to see and do in conversations with locals and seasoned visitors:
“I learned so much on the coffee farm tour! I’d highly recommend it,” a fellow Spanish student at Habla Ya told me.
“Red Frog Beach is the best beach, and there are sloths! Did I mention the sloths?! …but you have to see the starfish at Starfish Beach, too,” someone else told me excitedly.
“I don’t see why I have to do anything more than have a beer in the swings at Blue Coconut,” mused a lady who moved to Bocas from California years ago.
And finally, “Have you been to Zapatillas? …Why not?!,” exclaimed almost everyone I spoke to.
And so I began my exploration of Bocas with a trip to Red Frog Beach with other students from Habla Ya Spanish Schools. A water taxi took us from Bocas Town to Bastimentos Island where Red Frog Beach awaited us. When we arrived, rather than the afternoon under a beach umbrella that I’d dressed in my flip flops and bikini for, our guide, Nico, led us on a trial through the dense Panamanian rainforest while reminding us to simultaneously look up for sloths and down for the red poison dart frogs from whom which the beach acquired its name. I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw when we emerged through the jungle and onto the white sand of Red Frog Beach. Rows of people idled under thatched beach umbrellas facing the eerily beautiful turquoise ocean. We stopped at Red Frog to have tacos at a stand, long enough for me to notice that no one was in the water and red flags warning of rip tides flew every few feet. As much as I love frolicking in the water, instinct (and all the literal red flags) told me that these were not waters to be messed with.
Red Frog was my first introduction to what Bocas was not- Bocas was not the manicured beaches of South Florida. It's rugged and it makes you work just a little harder before letting you experience it's natural beauty. Nico expertly guided us away from Red Frog towards the tropical rainforest encircling the beach. With our belongings held high, we waded through bodies of water that seemed to swell up around us and tease us back, hiked through trails in the lush interior, and hopped over fallen trees washed white by the sun. I stopped frequently to take pictures of the power of the waves crashing into the shore or the haunting site of a lone and mangled tree resisting the temptation to let the water wash it away into the sea. When we arrived at our destination on the island’s southern side, a site known as Hermit Beach to the locals, I didn’t hesitate before running into the calm waters and washing off the sweat from the hike!
Making my way through the unofficial list, I gladly joined in on a tour of a cacao farm next. The ACODAAC Cooperative farm was situated thirty minutes from Bocas Town on the mainland of Almirante via a water taxi. Our translator met us there and took us from the dock to a mountainside to start our tour with a traditional lunch prepared by Ngöbe-Buglé women. While we ate the meal of rice, chicken, and a yucca-like plant, our translator asked us where we were from. When he realized one of my classmates was German, he slipped excitedly into German and started speaking to her. Everyone at the table, the German girl included, stopped eating and stared at him, mouths agape. He casually told us that he’d learned English from his “American friends who were here for two years” (Peace Corps volunteers or Mormon missionaries are my guess), spoke Spanish and his own indigenous language, of course, and had also picked up German and French along the way just by conversing with tourists. There is nothing like meeting an indigenous polyglot to make this Spanish student feel like an utter failure in life…
Our guide was one of the 70 farmers that took part in the ACODAAC cooperative. He led us up the mountains and though the farms to learn about the variety of fruits and vegetables that provided shade to the cacao plant. The cacao beans themselves grew in purple, green, and yellow pods. As we walked the trails up to mountain, the farmer explained to us the rise and fall, and then the inevitable "fair trade" boutique-ing of the high-quality chocolate industry . He explained to us how cacao beans crossbred in Costa Rica had spread a virtually indestructible fungus from there to Panama, adding to their losses even as the global price for pure chocolate had significantly lowered.
At the top of the mountain, two Ngöbe women and a little girl awaited us to show us the traditional method of turning cacao beans into chocolate. While I was initially enthralled by the process of preparing chocolate, I am embarrassed to admit that I am worse than President Obama when it comes to cute kids (check out the pictures of him playing and cute kids if you haven't seen them yet). Inevitably, I ended up playing with the little girl; however, I listened with one ear to hear how the ripe pods were chosen, beans were dried, and then eventually ground with a stone into rich dark chocolate. When the girl’s grandmother shot us a look to quiet down, she and I quickly sat up straight long enough for her grandmother to turn away before we went back to our game. I now have a newfound respect for cacao farmers after learning how much work went into the chocolate-making process for very little return. Before I left, the girl found a Spanish-English picture dictionary in my bag, hugged it to her chest and exclaimed, “para mi?!” I looked down at her big brown eyes and acquiesced. Of course it’s for you, chica!
As the weeks passed, I checked off other items on the list. Initially, the Blue Coconut Restaurant was the only point of comparison I had for snorkeling in this area before we headed to the Zapatillas Cays yesterday. As much as I thoroughly enjoyed rocking in their hammocks above water so clear that it reflected the sun, I didn’t see many fish at the Blue Coconut. However, when we stopped by the emerald green waters of Crawl Cay to snorkel before continuing on to Zapatillas, the calmness of the water belied the flurry of activity below. I had to stay still in the water as a school of tiny fish swam in circles around me, first in one direction, then shifting to the other direction in a choreographed dance. Yellow and black striped fish busily nibbled at a piece of wood in the shape of a cross at the bottom of the sea. For a moment, the sight appeared almost holy and I wished I had a water-proof camera to capture the scene for my religious mother. I finally broke free of the school of fish encircling me and swam underneath the deck to find that this was where all the big fish were hanging out! I looked on as large schools of fish swam by until it was time for us to get back into the boat and continue on to Zapatillas Cays.
About 50 minutes from Bocas Town, Zapatillas Cays are two islands surrounded by tropical coral reef that seemingly emerge from the sea. The mesmerizing turquoise water that washed ashore seemed prepared to engulf the island at any moment. Once again, I was found myself in awe of the untouched beauty of Panama. The narrow beach was backed by rows and rows of dense forest trees that inched their way closer and closer to the sea. In many other countries, these trees would have been chopped down and replaced by an all inclusive, soulless resort. In Panama, however, this was the Bastimentos National Marine Park.
I divided my time on Zapatillas between swimming in the water, exploring the shore, and sleeping under the shade of a tree until our boat returned to pick us up. Even as we sailed away from the island, I had to look back to make sure I hadn’t imagined it. Satisfied that it was real, I was convinced that nothing could top this day- until a pod of dolphins leaped out of the boats wake and followed us through Dolphin Bay, performing tricks in the waves. Mother Nature was just showing off at this point!
I’m not sure if I could have thought up a better ending to the day if I’d written it myself. Needless to say, Bocas is for travelers, not for tourists. I still have yet to open the Lonely Planet guide book I bought before arriving here and may never get around to it. I’ll just keep asking people for their recommendations.