To Bocas or not to Bocas

The last morning on Chichime was moody like the first – grey skies and slight rain. We gathered around for one last United Nations egg and cheese-something breakfast and again boarded the ‘launcher’, this time the seas seemingly even rougher and the boat going slowly along with the current. I didn’t love this boat trip either (maybe I’d feel like less of a paranoid white girl if I didn’t have an obsessive fear of losing my phone or passport) but at least this time we weren’t imitating a rocket ship, making air with every large wave. I sat next to the Dutch girl, Hilda, and we shrugged as the rain came sideways at us. “What are you gonna do?”

Back on the grid in Panama City I was still reeling from my incredible time on Chichime, but the day was young and I needed to begin a motion for where I was headed next. Plans are funny, because people always ask me about them, but the more I’ve traveled the less and less I make them in advance. Reflecting on the first long trip I ever took overseas where I booked everything prior to departure, I’ve turned into more of a laid back traveler (all the “box-ticking” through the city on day one was really not my style) and with no sense of urgency and a sort of blase attitude towards being busy on this trip, decisions aren’t always (or ever) quick to be made. Originally I planned, albeit loosely, to get to Bocas Del Toro on the western Caribbean part of the country, yet opening the iPhone weather app to see only 70F and rain for days wasn’t exactly pushing me to now make the move. Bocas is a bit of a ride from Panama City – 10 hours by overnight bus – which I didn’t really mind, but catching that bus would mean one more full day in Panama City waiting around, and a day of that was already looking a carbon copy of what I was doing today. I looked at other beach options on the Pacific side – SUNNY FORECAST! 80 DEGREES! but reasonable accom booked up. And if I’d want to go anywhere else, I’d have to take a cab to the Panama City bus station and attempt to navigate buying a ticket without being properly prepared with Spanish (I’ve never had a single lesson, and we already know how well my Spanish performed on San Blas.) Although I’d done these difficult bus/train/transit purchases a dozen times in Southeast Asia, this was suddenly all feeling so complicated for a 9 day trip. Am I lazy? Old? Or just holidaying hard? I couldn’t be bothered. The weather app is probably lying anyway – I went on and booked a flight. Bocas tomorrow. 45 minute trip. Landing by 12pm. Done.

By now it was about dinnertime, a traveler’s witching hour of sorts, where everyone is finally “home” from their respective day activities, hanging about in common areas, cracking open $1 beers, exchanging so-where-are-you-froms, making connex, making plans, making moves. I was probably with my nose in my phone looking less than social, but Ivar talked to me anyway, a young Norwegian ostensibly from Babetown (can I say that on here?) passing through Panama City on his way to surf. We skipped the basic backpacker interview (how long have you been traveling, where did you come from, where are you going, zzzz, boring) and got right to ideas and dreams and what it would be like to set up a business based on a surfers getaway trip in the fjords of Norway. We rallied his travelmate, another youngin named Oliver, and Hannah, a girl they’d met from the UK, and grabbed a cab to Casco Viejo. This area is known to be the cultural center of Panama City, the old town, the history, the Spanish influence! Oliver wanted a pizza.

We found a spot and were seated outside at a pair of cafe tables, drinking those kind of beers that just never seem to give so much as a buzz, the Norwegians repeatedly urging me to try this weird Nordic minty dipping snus they had brought from home. Not at all a fan of tobacco my initial reaction was “no effing thanks” but the longer the idea brewed the more intrigued I became. The boys gave me simple instructions: dry out a part under your lip and stick in one of the snus packets. I followed their directions and there I sat, with a derpy look on my face, some tingly crap in a packet pressed up against my gums, like a sitting duck just waiting for whatever was supposed to happen next. The convo carried on, but it was only a matter of minutes before I looked across the table at Oliver and the two weaksauce beers I drank started to feel like ten. “NOPE!” I said – and out was spit the snus.

In the morning I bid farewell to the Norwegians, Hannah would be joining me in Bocas the following day. I’ll save the cliffhanger: the weather ended up being fine.

Gleefully off the grid

My walk around Chichime Island revealed I was staying on just a small bump of sand with a perimeter that could be accomplished in about 10 minutes, and had the most pristine beaches I’d seen on any trip I’ve taken. Nearly white sand, crystal blue waters, and practically no one around. The skies cleared up and I parked myself in a grove of coconut trees on the beach where I alternated reading and napping – it was still the same day I awoke at 5am to catch the 4×4 shuttle to the docks, and I was tired. I felt a bit guilty at first, stuck in a backpacker’s mindset – aren’t I supposed to be doing something? It’s strange that relaxing to this extent can feel lazy whether on holiday or not, but I finally let it go. I can’t imagine how productivity on this island would even look anyway.

It didn’t take long for me to run into Felix and Martin, the two German gents I’d talked to earlier that morning back at the hostel. They were staying at a different camp about a two minute walk away from mine, but we became an after-supper club of sorts, staying up later than absolutely everyone else (not that there were more than like, 20 tourists on the entire island anyway) drinking Ron Abuelo with Coke and lime and conjuring up ideas of what the illustration of Ron himself on the bottles would say.


In hindsight, I don’t think “Sir Ron” speaks English, and he’s probably more of a “señor” than a sir, but in any language, these are probably things he would say (he’s a bit bipolar.)

In the morning I awoke in my tiny beachfront hut to the soft sound of a conch shell being blown, a signal to myself and the other six people staying on my camp that breakfast is ready. It was quarter after 7am, though time hardly mattered here, and moseying into the meal at any slow speed was acceptable. Breakfast was some sort of egg with cheese over bread and fresh fruit, everyone seated in one of the larger open huts, all at the table together looking like some sort of United Nations family feast, with the Kunas bringing everyone their food one plate at a time. The other guests were from Holland, Chile, and Switzerland, all fluent in Spanish except for me, so with conversation jumping several languages at a time it was hard for me to keep up. At dinner the night before I just read my book, almost unaware that anybody else even spoke English at all.

I had planned to spend only one night on Chichime, but this morning I knew I didn’t want to leave yet. Being disconnected from phone, wifi, electricity became liberating, staying an extra night felt like a “ha!” at the outside world. I found the Kuna man who had brought us here on his boat and asked to stay one more day. He said it was probably fine but he would check to see how many other people would be coming later on to be sure. (Nobody did.)

At 2pm he took the 7 of us from our camp out on his boat to see a different island. He explained the plans en Español: “something something something, perro, blah blah, insert… more… Spanish… here.” When he was done the United Nations family meal camp turned to me.

“Did you catch any of that?” someone asked.

“Uhh.. Dog?”

They laughed. “The name of where we are going is Dog Island.”

Well okay then.

Dog Island was even smaller than ours, and not nearly as nice, which made me wonder why we were coming here. As we stepped off the boat I realized I hadn’t even brought my book and I wondered what the hell I was supposed to do for the next few hours. Four people from the camp brought snorkeling gear and were already out swimming with their faces in the water, and I was pretty sure that if only I’d known more Spanish I would have have gotten the gist of this during the Kuna man’s explanation and not simply “dog”.

The Dutch guy emerged from the water first: “You have to get out there! There’s a sunken ship with all kinds of coral and fish” he told me. I made excuses: “I don’t have gear”, “I’ve never snorkeled”, “I didn’t put any effort into my swim lessons as a kid and I have a lot of regrets about it now” (okay, a fact, though I didn’t actually tell him that) but when it became clear he wanted to help, I figured why not try. He used his Spanish to ask someone working on the island for a goggles set which I could loan for $5, and taught me to breathe without panicking- because it’s true, as the very first thing I felt after putting my face in the water was definitely “I’m drowning”. Despite the learning curve I eventually was able to snorkel out a ways on my own, seeing for myself this sunken ship with corals and the brightest, most beautiful tropical fish. This became the highlight of my time on Chichime. I was so, so glad I had asked to stay the second day.


On return I went to Felix and Martin’s camp but didn’t see them around, and without being able to shoot a text or write a paper note (I had no paper, and besides, it would have blown away) I wrote a “Hey! Drinks after dinner?” message with a Sharpie on a coconut and left it outside of their hut. It was fun to return to the times of childhood when we would just knock on our neighbors’ doors to ask if they wanted to come out and play. The simplicity of the island was comforting. I dined al fresco, met up for those after dinner drinks, and retreated to my wooden hut, no need for a blanket, breathing the warm salty air, sleeping soundly.



Photo cred: Felix. Coconut cred: me.

Feeling San Blahhhs

After the rollercoaster 4×4 ride through the mountains of Panama bruised both my knees and my ego, we arrived at a lagoon of sorts, with docks for smaller boats out towards the islands (I noticed that Europeans call these boats ‘launchers’, which seems more NASA-like than makes sense to me, but after a good majority of the ride was spent airborne the name began to develop an entirely unintended meaning). 

The ride was rough. A smaller boy, probably an older teen that just looked very small, stood on the front of the boat, somewhat directing the man steering in the rear, clad in neon green crocs and barely hanging on at all. I began to put my faith entirely in this boy, trusting that if he could stand on the front of the boat with minimal effort and not be launched into the waters, then odds were in my favor I would arrive without making use of my life jacket. 

San Blas Islands are an archaepelagio of “approximately 365 islands” (I consulted Wikipedia) so cruising out to Chichime meant riding past dozens of tiny sand mounds with only a palm tree or two, a really picturesque sight if you aren’t simultaneously crossing every part of your body in superstitious hopes the boat doesn’t flip. The islands are inhabited by the Kuna, an indigenous tribe that fled to the islands from the mainland during the Spanish invasion and carries their own culture, language, and dress. These are the people quite literally, “running the ship,” and with whom I am currently entrusting with my life on this launching, airborne, prayer-inducing boat. 

The ride took about an hour and with much disappointment arrived to cloudy skies and a misting of rain. Having proclaimed to the world that I was “going to Panama to get my Vitamin D”, there was nothing romantic about the weather, and after being showed the beachfront hut in which I’d be staying just a few steps from the water, I had to talk myself off the ledge just to maintain optimism that indeed “the sun will come out, tomorrow” or even better, just later on today. Conditions on the islands can be moody, clouds one minute and sun the next. “You got this!” I told the skies, and myself, unsure which I believed in more. I decided to take a walk around the island perimeter just to get an idea of exactly where I was and take it all in, find what the island had to offer, become somewhat grounded in a place where I could easily be washed away, to seek out the beauty that brought me to this island in the first place. 

Survey says… Next 

While my research on Panama was small, one thing I did diligently read was Hostel World reviews. Whoever wrote the sub par review on El Machico Hostel but praised the trip arranged through them to San Blas had me sold though – when I saw the pictures of San Blas Islands I knew I had to go. If El Machico had enough bathrooms itself hardly mattered.

Spending my entire first day blasting through everything there was to see in Panama City was of benefit when it came to getting out to the islands. As soon as I was checking in to El Machico I was already asking about San Blas, and, I know I have booked two nights here, but, can I leave tomorrow?

Si! I could leave, but now I was faced with the decision of which island I wanted to travel to. The staff gave me three choices and I felt the anxiety of Goldilocks choosing one that was “just right”. The description offered of each wasn’t much, so deciding on the best left a bit to my imagination. The first (Ina’s Island) was cheaper and “has a little of everything”, the next (Diablo’s Island) was pricier and apparently very nice (another sort of nondescript word), and the last (Chichime) was farther out but “the best”, an adjective that doesn’t mean anything when you don’t know much about where you’re going. I struggled a lot with the idea that Chichime might be mostly couples and Diablo and Ina’s might be more backpacker-friendly, but in the end I chose Chichime regardless; I wanted the best(!) beach, whether appropriate for a backpacker or not. I planned on going to Bocas Del Toro for liveliness a few days later, so I surrendered to the fear of being completely alone, without phone or Internet or electricity for at least a day, and if even if I was surrounded by couples, that was okay, because I am coming here to trust I’m okay with solitude, I have my book, and I just want to read it, and this island is “the best”(!), and being connected is such a bitch anyway.

I hate that I had this dialogue with myself, but I did.

It was still my first day in Panama, yet I turned in around 11pm after packing just a small hand bag of things to take to the island: essentially, a change of clothes, a bathing suit, toothbrush, and towel.

My 5am wake-up to catch my 2 hour 4×4 shuttle to the boat was littered with both actual and rhetorical questions: Why am I getting up this early on “vacation”? Am I going to survive this trip without breakfast? So, where are you guys heading today?

The last one I asked two German gents who I was surprised to hear were also heading to Chichime, though on a different shuttle.

The 4×4 car to the boat launching is an interesting ride: 7 passengers plus driver, and the way back seat not really big enough for anyone with legs (read: me). All the drivers stop at a supermarket on the way for travelers to pick up libations for the island, such as snacks, water, and obviously alcohol. Meals on the island are provided and I had no idea what food to bring. I felt weird buying booze at 6am, but obviously not weird enough. Beers and alcohol in my cart anyway. Shrug. Judge on.

After a sort of unspoken standoff, the grocery stop concluded with me being relegated from a fairly nice seat to the way back thanks to a Swedish passenger who smartly decided to play dumb and just never get in the car. If I learned one thing in Panama it is that for the sake of nice beaches, I will attempt to mold my body into the shape of a pretzel if that means that’s the only way I can politely be transported there.

“Vámonos!” said the driver. Let’s go… And we’re off.

The “T” word

“Tour”: a word that doesn’t really have any place in a backpacker’s vocabulary. But we can make exceptions.  
I tend to believe the first day you arrive anywhere, all rules are off. You don’t have to do everything, you don’t have to do anything, you just arrived, take a minute, breathe.
My usual go-to is dropping off my things, taking a walk and getting my bearings with the neighborhood I’m staying in, but the day I arrived felt different, with my flight getting in so early I truly had a full day ahead of me and for lack of a better plan, wanted to get as much “box-ticking” done as possible.

So I hired a driver.

Casco Viejo? Tick!
Cinta Costera? Tick.
Cerro Ancon?
Pedro Miguel locks?
Famous fish market?
Tick. Tick. Tick.

I didn’t have a lot invested in Panama City, and with a huge layout and a bus system I didn’t care to learn for a short stay, I was happy to see the city in this manner. A driver also has an air conditioned car, a breadth of history knowledge, and carries the best secrets of the locals, some luxuries of not totally going it alone. Miguel, the driver, knew the timing of the boats through the canal and was able to stop at a set of locks outside the visitors center, which saved me $15 and from having to deal with a slew of other bodies.

The day ended with ceviche and beers overlooking the water; by this point I could have collapsed as it was still the same day I landed off an overnight flight with no rest. Maybe my day didn’t have the charm of discovering places on my own, but I’d learned a lot, stayed cool (only in the temperature sense), and didn’t waste a second of the day. With not so much needing the second night I booked in Panama City for the following day anymore, I returned to the hostel to plan for getting right out to the beaches: next up, San Blas.

No habla Español, but I’ll try 

I spent more time deciding where to go than actually preparing for this trip, but I can’t say I was trying for much. I’m in Panama City and already elated – the warm weather alone was enough to set off my happy hormones the second the sun came up. Arriving off a red-eye flight from mucho frio New York (as my taxi driver said) wearing a glorified sweatsuit and scarf had me looking strange though when walking into my accom at 6am. The reception guy pointed to his shoulders (but was referring to my clothing) “you can, um…” He didn’t even need to finish his sentence.

Ah. It’s 80 degrees now. I guess the hoodie can go.