Trip Start Jun 15, 2011
Trip End Jul 29, 2011

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Where I stayed
Mondo Taitu

Flag of Panama  , Bocas del Toro,
Sunday, June 19, 2011

So, we left the forested highlands of Boquete at roughly midday on Sunday, which meant taking the bus back to David and then heading north again on another bus. This one was another, cheaper, local bus (about $8) and took about five or six hours, winding through jungled mountains and cloud forest to the sound of dreadful Panamanian music and squashed in with twice as many people as the bus ought to have been carrying. Still, we arrived at the port town of Almirante for our first sight of the Caribbean. A short taxi ride took us down to the harbour, set amongst shacks in a mangrove swamp.

From here we took a water taxi, which speeds you at a fair rate of knots through the mangrove swamps, onto the open sea and into a jetty at Bocas del Toro, the main town on the southern peninsula of Isla Colon. The islands in the archipelago boast natural beauty to the tourist with blue water, Caribbean heat and dense jungle interiors. But it is the people who really make the place - it is a fusion between the indigenous indians who've always been there; and blacks brought there by the British, many of whom still speak some form of English Creole similar to Jamaican Patios. This means that the islands are Panamanian, but boast a uniquely Criollo culture and very laid back Caribbean way of life.

Arriving at the islands at sunset, there was little opportunity to make the most of the beaches, so we headed straight to our hostel. The hostel, Mondo Taitu, is well known as being the best backpacker party place, which suited us perfectly, especially since for the majority of our stay the dorm we were in had no other occupants. Anyway, we settled in there, and hungry after a long trip, headed onto the main strip to look for somewhere to eat. Unfortunately, being a tourist spot in Panama, itīs hard to find a meal anywhere for less than $7 or $8. Reluctantly, we sat down at a place that seemed cheaper than most, and I enjoyed pescado a la criolla - dorado fish creole-style cooked with peppers, aji, onions, garlic and coriander, accompanied by the obligatory rice and tomato salad you get with everything. Very tasty.

After our meal, still tired and very hot and sweaty, we walked through the dark fifteen or so minutes to the nearest beach, and chilled there for a few hours. We returned to the hostel for a couple beers before calling it a night.

Like many hostels in Panama, free pancakes are on offer for breakfast, but at Mondo Taitu you must make the batter up yourself from a big bag of floury mix. We had breakfast, chilled for a bit and afterwards decided to hit the beach again. In daylight, the beach looked pretty nice - a long stretch of golden sand and blue sea curving round in a horseshoe shape. Apparently it wasnīt the nicest on the island, but feeling lazy, we didnīt care and I found a nice bit of shade to spend the heat of the day reading my book. We headed back about threeish, after a spot of lunch at a shack we found that cooked one cheap meal, mainly (I think) for locals - creole chicken and rice.

Our reason for heading back was a good one. After breakfast, we'd got talking to a local guy who was hanging out at the hostel - a creole guy called Andres. He offered to take us out fishing on his boat, explaining (rightfully so) that organised fishing trips usually cost $60 plus - he said he would take us out for the $25 it cost him in petrol and anything else we felt like giving him. This was too good to turn down.

So, we got back to the hostel, met up with Andres, and while he went off to stock up on fishing line, we went off to buy some rum and coke. Then he took us to a jetty nearby and we jumped in and zoomed off. The first job was for him to pick up the gas, so we stopped off at an island just across the way for this. Then, it was off towards the Caribbean coast of Isla Bastimentos - Andres' home island, where we would be doing our fishing. No sooner had we set off then he called me up to drive, since he had to prepare the lines. He told me later that he was surprised I knew how to!

Steering the boat for fifteen minutes or so was no problem at all - especially since I caught a glimpse of a dolphin's tail easing into the water nearby. However, this part of the world is known as a good surfing spot, and itīs not hard to work out why - as soon as you get a little away from the shelter of the islands, the waves are huge - even out before they break, the swell is far greater than anything I've ever experienced before. Nonetheless, the good thing about a boat is it floats on top, so riding the waves like a rollercoaster wasn't too difficult.

The first thing we had to do was get bait, so I steered us into the shallows of a stunning, deserted beach called Red Frog Beach, where the presence of pelicans swooping about told you there were enough small fish there to find bait. Andres cast out a net and brought it up with a hundred or so 3 inch long fishes, which we threw into a makeshift tank (a plastic box which needed refilling with water every now and again to keep the fish alive). Then Andres steered us deeper, and for the next few hours James and I sat trailing lines out of the back of the boat as we wove our way up and down the beautiful coastline, accelerating every now and again to clear a big wave.

The catch wasn't bad - all in all, we landed a snapper each and a jack fish each, but this does not include the five or six small billfish (couple feet long with long, crocodile-like mouths) that we had to throw back because theyīre too bony and no good to eat. All in all, it was a stunning experience, especially as we fished on past the Caribbean sunset, rum helping with the seafaring spirit. At the end, it was time to head back, but not before spending fifteen minutes or so to 'gut di fishdem'. After that, it was time to head back to the hostel with our prize.

Dinner that night was sorted - we wrapped the jack fish up and put them in the fridge, and got preparing on the snappers, which we slowly cooked on the rudimentary hostel stove in butter, salt and pepper, and some spicy sauce we found. Beautiful. After a great meal like that, it was time to take full advantage of the 'party hostel', although walking into the bar for the 'rum and bass' night revealed that the majority of Americans, Canadians etc. didn't really understand drum 'n' bass, and the only people really getting into it were three girls from London, who, it turned out, went to all the same clubs/ festivals that we did. We hung out with them at the hostel that night, drinking lots and lots of rum. I went back to chill at their hostel for a bit, before calling it a night well into the small hours, ending a pretty perfect day.

The next morning was evidently a slow one, but in a place as laid back as Bocas that doesn't matter. Deciding that eating out was too expensive, we went to the supermarket and made up some hot dogs for lunch, before heading off to the beach for the afternoon. That evening was an 80s themed night at the hostel, but we spent the first part cooking up our jack fish, which we cooked with peppers, tomato and onion and served alongside some rice. Once more, very tasty.

We spent most of the rest of the evening trying to ignore the dreadful 80s hits blaring out of the speakers, and in the mean time got to know three of the Americans who work behind reception at various points of the day - Rachel, Phil and Roman. We headed off with them to the choice club of Tuesday nights, Iguana Bar, and partied there before going back to their appartment to chill (literally, the first aircon we'd felt for ages) until sunrise.

You can probably see a Bocas pattern developing, and yes, the next morning came and went. However, the day was not wasted, because James and I caught a midday bus off to a headland on the northern tip of the island called Bocas del Drago. The journey is about forty minutes, winding through densely jungled hills and little indian villages before the view opens out onto the calmest, bluest sea weīd seen all trip. The beach around the headland is known for its starfish, but we didn't really care about them because we'd just come to somewhere with more than enough natural beauty.

We walked round the headland a bit away from the tourists and hawkers, and came to a magnificent stretch of beach - a mile or so of coastline between the huts where the bus takes you, and the beach where the starfish (and tourists) are to be found. Firstly, it's deserted, and secondly, without wanting to sound like a travel brochure, gently lapping waves hit a narrow strip of beach crammed with coconut palms and mangrove swamps. Well worth the $5 round trip to the headland. We spent the first part of the afternoon reading and swimming in our own private lagoon, before a ceviche lunch back at the huts and a walk further down to the starfish beach. Here, the beach shelves steeply into the water, making it perfect for swimming, and although we saw just one starfish, we did spend about half an hour trying in vain to catch up with a dolphin, which was gracefully and elusively diving just off the shore.

After that, it was time to head back for the last bus, which ended up being almost hour late, enabling us to catch what started off as a boring sunset and finished as a stunning one. Returning to the hostel and hungry, we picked up a pound of mince and some onion from the supermarket and made burgers (with some spicy ketchup and oregano we found at the hostel into the mix), before the partying began. Same old story - supermarket rum and coke, but this time there weren't too many people about so we ended up getting drunk with Rachel the receptionist. Then, it was time to head for Wednesday's bar of choice - a $1 water taxi ride away on another island at Aqua Lounge - which as well as boasting a bar and a whole load of people, also extends on decking over the sea with a square cut away for revellers to jump (or be pushed) into. This provided us with lots of fun, and we met up with the English girls from a few nights before as well. At some point it was time to leave, so we got a water taxi, hit up the first bar we came to back on Isla Colon, and eventually made it back to bed.

The next morning was to be our last, and we woke up slowly, packed and said our goodbyes. Bocas del Toro is truly a traveller's gem, and the best part of this is the fact that it doesn't have the feeling of a place that exists for tourists, and there are no blots on the landscape in the shape of large hotels or luxury apartments. Long may it stay this way.
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