I went quite off plan by the time I left Puerto Viejo; I must have soaked up some of their laid back, no worries attitude as well as some sun. I’d made no reservations since I didn’t know which island in the Bocas Del Toro area I wanted to stay on (or even could stay on).
I left Costa Rica on Independence Day and just about managed to squeeze myself onto the only shuttle that was leaving for Panama that day (again with no booking). After just over an hour we were at the border cross, or that’s what the driver said to us all. There was a parade going down the street so we stopped about 2Km from the actual border crossing and made the rest of the journey on foot.
It was a confusing experience to say the least: pay tax in one office to leave Costa Rica, pay a different tax in another to enter Panama, then you deal with immigration which is another place altogether- I nearly missed immigration as no one told me to go round the corner of a seperate building so I just walked straight. That could have gotten interesting!
I think these guys play with tourists for fun, you queue to get your passport checked one final time at immigration where they put a sticker in your passport only I kept getting told I was in the wrong queue- the only queue!
A few extra hours of waiting around and we’re good to go, back on the shuttle heading for the water taxi. I went to buy my ticket and a guy asked me if I’d paid at the hotel, I said yes and he gave me my money back and ushered me away. Thinking back I didn’t actually book through my hotel, just the shuttle service. Free boat ride for me then! I needed to squeeze onto the end of what already looks like a full row but this is fast becoming a normal experience already. The guy I sat next to, John, also happened to be English and was travelling with some friends so we get talking for the ride. Then I’m being handed a beer, then a bottle of rum- I like these guys! Him and his friends told me they were hoping to get a place since everywhere is fully booked this weekend (something I didn’t know from not planning ahead) and were going to stay with one of the guys family. Naji was his name. The absolute hero!
Arriving on Isla Colon in Bocas del Toro really did feel like stepping off into the Caribbean- only the rastas here spoke spanish too, it’s a cool mix. Gambit Tours was where we spent the first night thanks to Naji’s connections. I’m not sure if it genuinely was a hostel too or they were just putting us up for the night but the people at Gambit Tours were so friendly and helpful about everything. Obviously I was just grateful to have somewhere safe to stay too.
With the first night secured and bags safe, it’s time to explore the island. I’m out for the night with Naji, John, and their friend Johannes an Austrian guy, he really cracked me up. I don’t even know how to express my gratitude to these guys for what is probably now the best adventure of my life so far. I have no idea what my experience of Bocas would’ve been like if it wasn’t for these guys but I definitely wouldn’t have gotten as drunk by myself so I already know of a lot of things that wouldn’t have happened. 😉
I wish I’d written more regularly as I was travelling since some memories are a little hazy (read: rum and tequila) but it’s not always safe to pull out a phone or tablet around some of these parts. Especially when drunk! The night life on the island though was incredible, it was easy to lose yourself in the moments.
The first full day on the island and I’m the first one awake, I didn’t quite know if I should wake the guys or not so just left them to get up in their own time. This left me on my own for a couple hours in yet another beand new place. There were some other people out in the lounge area when I got there so I gave a casual hola but didn’t get much response so I left them to their conversations and try to see how much of it I understand (Not much with my spanish). After some time awkwardly lingering one of them offers me a beer and now I’m sat talking with them but shortly after my in with the group (whose names I never got) the guys in my room are up now and we need to check out of Gambit and find the next place. One of the guys was told about a possibility in a popular backpackers called Hostel Heike and we go to check it out, luckily for us they had enough space for the 4 of us, but only for the one night again. With bags secured yet again we’re out to explore Isla Colon in the day.
Oh my word….
To shake off the effects of the night before, food is first on the agenda and we go to a little local cafe. One of the first things you notice, and Johannes pointed out, was that there were no tourists in this little corner cafe- and the food was incredible- another little gem to experience thanks to Naji and his local knowledge. Johannes needed to visit the hospital as he’d cut his fingers a few days earlier and just wanted to make sure everything was ok. Thankfully nothing serious had happened to them and we leave with some fresh dressings for him. Leaving the hospital though I was left dumbstruck when I saw the view from outside the doors: lush greens of the grass and palm trees with the clear blue sea accentuating the colour of the even bluer skies. Then Naji recommends a spot just around the corner.
I couldn’t believe I was even in this place. Walking barefoot along the beach, sand inbetween my toes, warm water rushing over them as the sea laps in and out, cool breeze taking the burn out of the immense sunshine. This was my idea of heaven, almost nothing could make this experience any better… except a local brewery!
Tropical fruit fermented beers in a variety of flavours, cute bar girls, what did I do to deserve this!? We even got to meet the brewmaster and he was just awesome too. So we spend a few hours there just trying different drinks and talking with the brewmaster, sitting on the beach before we leave and meet some of Naji’s friends.
We walk what seemed like just around the corner to a scuba diving centre, the instructor there took Naji for his PADI certification a few years back and we end up partying there with the guys at the centre. Since we don’t have PADIs ourselves, he offers Johannes and me the chance to go snorkelling the next day…. for free!! (Sure you’re starting to see why I called him the absolute hero now.) Now I’m meant to be heading to Panama City on a night bus so I know I’m in the right place for my flight to Georgetown, Guyana but obviously that isn’t going to happen now!
Feeling rough the next day wasn’t gonna stop this happening either, the guys wake me up and I’m totally unorganized for the day: I can’t find the keys to open the locks on my bag and get my swim shorts out, we have to check out as well because we won’t be back until late afternoon, so I decided to just go in the clothes I’m wearing and take my shirt off. It’s about a 30min boat ride to the location and I’m not exactly feeling great but I jump in anyway and start swimming- such an incredible experience, I’ve never been in warm open water before. Less than an hour later though I’m feeling very sick and swim back to the boat where I do start vomitting- constant rocking motions and hangovers apparently don’t agree with me but it’s something I have to accept until we make it back to land. Everybody else on the boat found it amusing at least so I guess it wasn’t all bad. Wish I could’ve taken pictures too but this phone just isnt waterproof.
I started feeling better once we’d got back onto dry land and I wasn’t being rocked constantly so it was time to face the next problem: we have nowhere to stay for the night. We walked for hours around the island with all our stuff, it’s the only time during this trip my knee had given me any problems. Roaming street to street during the hottest part of the day wasn’t exactly great either but after hitting several backpackers and hostels in the area we were practically out of luck.
Except for one place: Hotel el Parque. They had only 1 room left that could take 3 people but it was a double and single bed and they wanted $60 for the night. After a little discussion we take it, mainly because we were all quite tired now and what other choice did we have left except to take our chances walking around again.
Before I knew it, it was already pitch black. I’d been in a hammock out back for a few hours reading a book and totally in my own little world. When I got back into the room Naji is sound asleep in the single bed and Johannes is passed out in the double. Sideways! I don’t know why I didn’t wake him up to move a little but I set up camp on the floor. The most expensive floor I’ve ever slept on!
At least I got some sleep that night as I got almost none on the night bus the next day. I’d read the night buses are always cold too but that must apply to people from most other countries. As an englishmen I felt perfectly comfortable just sitting there in trousers and a polo shirt. It was refreshing.
But very little sleep and nursing a 3day hangover didn’t exactly leave me in the best place to make decisions, or focus, or anything really for that matter. And that’s when I met Erick. He was the only guy I heard speaking English when I was dropped off at Panama City Bus Station. I’d asked a few people already for assistance to the airport but none wanted to help me. So one last try I ask this guy if he knew which bus to the airport and he said it’s where he was going too.
Erick was a serving US Soldier, taking his R and R from the Middle East to visit his family for 2 weeks, only he’d been robbed: no bag, money, cards, passport, etc. I felt so bad for him. He was trying to make contact with any US Miltary Base to arrange getting him out of the country. On the bus ride he went into so much detail about his career and his family. Although I don’t know his family, having been a military man myself I at least knew those parts were legit. While we were at the airport he got through to someone and all he needed to do was get to a nearby country- I think it was Guatemala, maybe Hondouras.
He asked me for a loan and I had no idea what to say at first, it was a very confusing moment to be in. Despite the fact a few prople had try to rob me and con me as I travelled through Central America, I’d relied heavily on the kindness of strangers to get me through almost everything- if this guy was genuine, especially being a military man, I would’ve felt so bad leaving him stranded. I’m sure he saw the hesitation in my eyes so he offered me all of his contact details: email, home address, phone number, the works. If this was a con it was very detailed and drawn out. He assured me if I can help out the moneybwould be back in my PayPal within a few days. In the end I reluctantly agreed and bought him a one way ticket. He was so grateful, kept shaking my hand and thanking me. I just hoped he was genuine.
After we left each other I went through check-in and off to find something to eat, which I was in desperate need of anyway. The thought occurred after I was about halfway through my coffee and toasted sandwich: how is he gonna make a flight without a passport or any ID.