Ok, so day one in Bocas del Toro: We were recommended to go to Casa Verde, the only hostel on the main streets that’s right on the water with a dock and hammocks. We walked up and were all like, oooh this place is sweet, but apparently we weren’t the only ones who thought so, as they were booked ten days out. I’m mentioning it though because it looked like a really nice place and I’m sure if we had stayed there we would have loved it. Instead though, we ended up in Hostel Heike, which stole my heart.
As soon as we walked in the two women at the front desk, Susanna y Yolanes, greeted us very warmly and asked Susanne and I if Fadi and Julio were our novios (boyfriends). We said no and Yolanes said “ooohhh not yet!” And so it went, it seemed she was trying to find me a novio, and not just me, I listened to her talk about the people coming in and out and for all I know, she may have been a matchmaker with her interest in our love lives. She is one of the nicest people I’ve met down here and made me feel so at home for the week that I was there. She had a few nieces (sobrinas) running around, who were also very sweet and would sometimes run up to me and poke at me pretending to be monsters J I pretty much spoke only Spanish with the people who ran the hostel, which was really good practice.
I highly recommend this place. At $10 a night for clean dorms room, enough bathrooms and showers (sometimes warm, sometimes cold) so that there was rarely a line, and a well-stocked kitchen that offered free coffee all day and free pancakes in the morning, the place was a good deal. There was also a balcony and a third floor terrace with computers to use the internet for free and hammocks to lounge in. The hostel was right on the main street, so there was prime people watching, and it was very close to the Laundromat, the only ATM in town, and the park. All in all, one of the better hostels I’ve stayed in. The website advertises that one of the highlights of the hostel is that it feels like a home away from home, and it’s totally true. I think the hostel is a big part of the reason I stayed for so long, it didn’t take long for me to feel really comfortable and welcomed and not want to leave!
Our first evening in Bocas, after settling into our room (all four of us shared the room, there were 8 beds total, if you want to share a private room with one other person it’s only $22 for two people – I would definitely recommend this option if you have a friend to share with, as it’s only a dollar more each than the dorms and you get your own space – all the bathrooms are communal), we headed into to town in search for food. We ended up at this place on the water, of which I can now, sadly, not remember the name because I’m writing this two weeks after the fact. But I had one of the best meals I’ve had so far down here.
Fresh whitefish (don’t remember what kind) with a Caribbean seasoning, and pineapple coconut risotto. I’ve been eating a lot more fish than usual down here – it’s SO good. I’m not usually big on fish, though over the years I’ve tried to keep eating it and think I’m finally developing a taste for it, and it’s easy to do so down here. If you’re into fish, I’d recommend going that way for a lot of meals. In my experience so far, the fish is usually one of the better things on the menu at a lot of places, over chicken or beef (though the chicken I’ve had has been good, as far as beef, I’ve yet to find a place with a good burger). I’ve been trying to stick to casados as much as possible though, as it’s usually one of the cheaper and tastier options. A casado is basically rice, beans, meat or veggie or fish of your choice, plantains, and some salad, a pretty typical meal down here. You can get a TON of food with one of these for $4-$6 in most places. I also ate my first fully fish-looking fish down here, and it was incredible. Definitely a little weird to look at the face of the creature I’m eating as I eat it though. I have to say, there’s something to be said for looking in the eye of the life that sacrificed in order for me to eat. I’m not always so good at taking the time before every meal to acknowledge and feel gratitude for where my food comes from, although I’m definitely trying to be more aware. It’s very easy to feel the need to take a moment to appreciate the living being that I’m consuming when its face is still intact. As far as eating meat and whatnot, I don’t have any moral opposition to it, but I’m happy to say that I’m becoming increasingly aware of the importance of knowing where it comes from, and trying to have respect and gratitude for the animal that I’m eating. I suppose I’ll refrain from going into it now, as I want to focus on talking about Panama, but I think maybe that will be a blog for another day.
So continuing on about the food in Bocas, there’s this crazy good chicken place, and I don’t remember what it’s called but ask anyone in town where you can get the chickens (a whole roasted chicken if you want!) and they’ll know what you’re talking about. You can get a quarter of a roasted chicken with either French fries or fried plantains for $3 and it’s more than enough food for a meal or even two. I only tried the place on my last night there, but I met a guy who said that he ate there at least once a day every day, and if I’d found out about it sooner, I probably would have done the same. I also heard that there was a really good pizza place – the guy who told me about it said it was the best pizza he’d had in Central America, again I imagine if you asked around someone would be able to point you in the right direction, as the town is pretty small. Last food thing I can think to mention, there’s a woman with a food cart that she parks on a side street right off the main street, and I think this woman makes arguably the best hot dogs on the planet (she makes other things too but it seems that she’s known for her hot dogs). I think they were like $2 for a huge hot dog with cheese, onions, ketchup, mustard, some kind of crunchy deliciousness (maybe nuts of some kind?) and I don’t even know what else but it all comes together in an incredible hot dog explosion of awesomeness in your mouth.
The hot dog lady parks in front of the bookstore/bar .
As suggested by the name, a bar and bookstore in one, owned by a couple expats, this man being one of them:
. This place is a chill bar to hang at and chat or catch live music if you want to avoid the crowded club-like bars, and they have a ping pong table. There was a big expat crowd there, so it’s a nice place to meet other traveler’s, and the owners were very friendly and colorful characters, and do a really good job of making people feel at home hanging out there. There are definitely some locals that hang out there too, both expats living there and Panamanians. This is where I met my friend, Eyban, who was the first local person I befriended and was able to practice Spanish with almost every day for a couple hours, which was awesome. We met because there was this guy who was really borracho (very drunk) fell down in the street and hit his head, and when his friends picked him up I pulled out a chair for him and gave him some water, and Eyban came up to make sure he was ok. He explained to me that the guy, Juyo (not sure if I spelled that right), was a really amazing indigenous man, and that if I met him when he was sober, I would see that he was “magico”. Eyban and I ended up chatting for a couple hours and when Juyo started to sober up a bit he joined the conversation, and in his lucid moments, I could see the magic. He took my hands at one point and said some stuff I didn’t understand but I could definitely feel some kind of energy coming through him – I never did get a chance to meet him sober, but I would have liked to.
Anyhow, we all kind of bonded over a love of Sublime and Led Zeppelin. Actually, we ended up singing some Led Zeppelin. When I told Eyban that my name was Ashley he started making jokes about me being Ashlee Simpson. At one point he told Juyo in all seriousness that I was the famous singer Ashlee Simpson and I was touring in Central America. Juyo, not knowing who she was, kind of started to believe him, so asked me to sing for him. I told him I would only sing for money and he started digging through his pockets looking for change. He pulled out some gum and I was like, “ok, gum is fine I’ll sing for gum”, and Eyban was like “ah look how humble she is, singing for gum!” I asked Juyo what he wanted to hear and he and Eyban started talking about Led Zeppelin, though with their accents it took me quite some time to understand who they were talking about. I decided to sing Dazed and Confused, and I took a minute and was breathing and prepping myself and Juyo is watching me intently. I started singing the song and Juyo made this face and realized quickly that I wasn’t actually a famous singer, though he seemed amused. So Eyban and I parted ways without making plans, both feeling like we would run into each other again if we were supposed to. We ended up bumping into each other for the next three days in a row and had a little intercambio where I was able to practice my Spanish for a couple hours every day. I made another Panamanian friend at the hostel who I was able to practice Spanish with a bit. He even taught me one of my new favorite slang words. We were talking about being lazy and I was asking how to say it in Spanish. He told me that I could say perezoso, which means lazy but that another way to say it is webeando (way-bay-ahn-doh), which literally means that one’s balls are so huge that they physically cannot move, and so must be lazy, which I find hilarious.
Aside from getting a chance to practice my Spanish a lot, we had some pretty sweet adventuring in Bocas. Fadi and I rented quads three days in a row and rode through the jungle to some deserted beaches. The guy had only started the business, called Flying Pirates, four months ago, and had spent a bunch of time clearing out a bunch of trails so you could go through the jungle and end up at a beautiful beach with nobody on it. We took a break partway on the trail and I spotted my first sloth! Not the first one I’d seen but the first one I noticed with my own eyes, and then we saw another one right after. At this point I’ve seen like 7 or 8 – they get a lot easier to see once you see them once, I think. At this other beach in Bocas, Red Frog Beach, I saw a sloth as soon as I got to the island, and then another one carrying its baby on its belly! And I don’t have any pictures to post of it because I brought my camera to the beach and forgot the SD card in my computer like a dummy. But anyway, we took the quads out a few days in a row, and if you’re in Bocas and down for riding four wheelers, it’s an awesome adventure, and a good way to get around. Days one and three of renting we tore up the trails, and pretty much covered ourselves in mud from head to toe, and had to stand knee deep in it to push the quads out the multiple times that we got stuck. I tried to power over a big mud spot one time so as not to get stuck and went up on a rock and tipped the quad on top of myself, but managed to evade any serious damage. The second day we rented we took the quads out to Starfish Beach, a pristine beach with clear blue water, white sand, and a sea bottom littered with bright orange starfish. This is where I ate the delicious, fresh-caught fish with a face, from a little hut on the beach. This is a really great beach to lounge at and snorkel, or to bring kids, as the water is really calm.
Another really nice beach we went to was at the island of Zapatillos. We caught a boat for around $17-$20 and they took us to a spot where we saw some dolphins, and then we got dropped off at this amazing beach…
After the beach we were taken to this sweet little spot to have lunch and snorkel…
Susanne and Fadi eating lunch…
Maybe the most fun thing I did in Bocas though was getting towed behind a boat on a surfboard. On my 4th or 5th day in Bocas, I met Lindsay, Eric, and Ryan from Canada (there are SO many Canadians down here), and we pretty immediately became friends. I talked them into renting quads, so on the third day that Fadi and I went out, they came with us. The quad place had advertising for wakeboarding and we were all interested in going. Sebastien (also from Canada, really, they’re everywhere!), one of the guys at our hostel, asked me how much they were charging and offered to take us for $15 instead of $25. As the plan developed, it became clear that this was not a professional operation. Slowly it came out that he didn’t have a wakeboard, but a surfboard (Eric had a kiteboard, so we used that, too), that he’d hired one of the boat taxis to pull us, and the guy had never pulled anyone behind the boat before, and that he just bought some rope and made a jerry-rigged handle with some duct tape and stuff. So we packed 10 people into this little boat and went for it. Sebastien and a couple other guys had done this before with the surfboard, and they were pretty impressive. After the three of them went I jumped in the water and Sebastien gave me a quick lesson. I did not think it was going to work for me, as the set up was super awkward and there were no feet straps or anything, but after 3 or 4 tries this happened:
So that was pretty awesome. The guy driving the boat thought the whole thing was hilarious, and I’m sure thought we were a bit crazy as well. We tried to get him to take a turn but he wasn’t into it. By the end of the trip the handle was all bent out of shape, and we were crushing our hands trying to hold on, so we called it a day and went back to the hostel to get ready for Aqua Lounge. There are quite a few bars in town, and there seems to always be one that’s the designated “spot” on any given night. Wednesdays and Saturdays are at Aqua Lounge, an awesome bar and hostel right on the ocean. You have to take a boat to get there from the main island, and it drops you off right at the dock of Aqua Lounge. It’s a good sized place with a few different rooms, a couple decks with holes in them so you can jump in the ocean, and swings that hang over the water. The first night I went there, I ended up jumping in the water full clothed, which seems like the thing that happens late night – people either bring bathing suits or just jump in dressed if they didn’t come prepared. They play a good mix of dance music: latin, reggae, hip hop, and there’s a good dance floor, as well as areas to just chill, both in and outside. Definitely worth a visit if you’re trying to go out in Bocas.
I ended up staying a week, and really liked the scene in Bocas. It’s definitely a little more party than I would want in a place if I were to stay long-term, but for a visit, it’s really fun, there’s a lot of outdoorsy stuff to do, and people are super friendly. I ended up feeling a little inspiration there, as far as ways to be involved in communities down here, wherever I end up. Trash and recycling has been a consistent issue pretty much everywhere I’ve visited since I got here. While I was in Bocas there were some protests going on about the trash and recycling system. Apparently there isn’t really anyone responsible for taking care of recycling, and while small groups of people are making efforts, it’s proving to be a big job that hasn’t really been taken care of yet. I gathered that the protest was about the fact that the system for taking the trash and recyclables to the mainland isn’t up to par, and that they were considering taxing certain items more for locals, or charging tourists a small tax when they enter town, which seems like a better idea than raising the price of items for everyone, as there are a lot of locals that would be adversely affected by that. A lot of people kept saying that an outside company needs to come in and take over the trash system, which would probably be a pretty lucrative business for someone. Eyban and I were also talking about recyclable art, because we saw some amazing recyclable art by this guy at the Sushi Bar in town, and I was feeling really inspired. For a long time I’ve felt like I wanted to make recyclable art, and have been feeling even more inclined to since being down here, so who knows, maybe I’ll start making some and posting some pics on the blog 🙂
So that’s more or less my experience in Panama, or what I can recall now two weeks later. I very much enjoyed my time in “The Heart of the Universe”, as Eyban told me it was called, due to the migration of people to Panama from all over the world, and thus the diversity of people living there. I would love to go back and check out some of the other areas that people say are worth a visit: Boquete, San Blas, Panama City. While not in the plan for the rest of this trip, I am definitely planning to come back to Panama. Maybe take a 5 day sailboat from Cartagena, Colombia into Panama, which I keep hearing is a great way to get to Panama. We’ll see, but for right now, Costa Rica is treating me right, and I am pretty pumped to be spending the next month and a half here.