After my first solo trip, I learned that some places lend themselves to solo travelers, more so than others. Bocas for me, was somewhere in between. You already heard about my Sunken Ship Bar experience, but let me fill you in on what I thought about my trip in totality. I liked that I felt totally safe walking outside at 10:30pm with my high-heeled sandals and clutch on my way to the local watering hole. Even leaving the bar at 3am, the only thing I had to fear were drunk tourists, wandering through the streets embarrassing their mommas. It pays to check out the ´safety´factor of where you´ll be traveling alone as a woman (for your sake, and your loved ones), and if the place gets sketchy at night, make sure you leave room in the budget for taxi rides back to the hotel if you decide to check out the nightlife.
Bocas Del Toro (or Bocas Town) is located on Isla Colon, an island off the Caribbean Coast of Panama. The archipelago (cluster of islands) is made up of some unique islands, including Isla Bastimentos and Isla Carenero (which supposedly has no roads) but apparently all the action happens on Bocas. My short-lived but amazing 50 minute charter flight from San Jose, Costa Rica landed and when I walked into what they called an airport, I couldn´t help but think ´did a bomb just land here?´ The problem wasn´t that it was an open-air airport, it was the fact that it looked like civil war had just taken place there; cement walls had wires hanging down, the place was completely gutted out, no Welcome signs, no salsa band playing the country´s Top 40 hits (this did happen in the Dominican Republic), just an immigration officer behind a teacher´s desk. The rest of the makeshift furniture in the room looked like it had been donated by a hospital or a school, but either way, I waited patiently on the line with passport in hand. On my way out, I did notice men actively working with sweat on their brow, which did make all the difference.
My first impression, walking through the peaceful and colorful island with luggage in tow, was that Bocas is more than a typical beach town. It´s a real neighborhood, the locals are either making a living working in tourism, restaurants, making furniture, fishing, or running their own stores. Most people choose bicycles (with cute little storage baskets in the front) as their mode of transportation. There are cars on the island, but for the most part you´ll see tourists and natives from all ages leisurely biking around taking care of all types of business: grocery shopping, banking, and visiting neighbors. I even saw a family of 3 biking home one afternoon, the father wearing the Bank´s business attire, with his wife and little boy all on bikes; a true Kodak moment. The bright-colored wooden houses are built on stilts, which also draw the Caribbean feel. I felt the island very authentic, although as with many up-and-coming tourists spots, most of the hotels and expedition tours are foreign-owned companies.
How I managed alone:
Day one was strictly a beach day, I landed on the island at 8:30 AM and by noon I was already on the public bus (which is really like a 12-passenger van). It was a $2.50 hour ride that stopped about 10 times to leave groceries and materials to little boys waiting on the outskirts of their villages. Last stop was Boca Del Drago beach and the entrance meets you with 2 bar restaurants. When I got off the bus, the beach didn´t look that appealing so I just followed some people who kept on walking along the shore until I found a perfect spot. Generally the water was clear and calm, but walking beyond the main area, I found the crowds got smaller and smaller and the beach water got clearer and clearer. Eventually I stopped at a beach called Playa Estrella, that was littered with starfish near the shore.
I came equipped with my MP3 player and a book to stay occupied, and by 2pm I had fallen asleep (bad idea in the noon sun), listened to music, and read on the shore. I was ready to go and have lunch. I walked back to the bar restaurant and had a silent lunch of red snapper with patacones (fried green plantains). I people-watched, thought about what I would do the rest of the day, and for the moment, enjoyed not having any plans. That evening, I took myself to Bocas Bambu Beach Restaurant that had a very relaxed open atmosphere. They played some cool reggae music, and had a projector playing some yardie-Jamaican film. For dinner, I had some shrimp in a red ´criollo´sauce, it was delicious beyond belief. What a way to impress this tica!
Day two I rented a bike for the day ($7) since that seemed like the best way to get to know the island better. That gave me the opportunity to experience different beaches, and get lost. On my way back to the hotel to rest, I stopped at a bar restaurant (that was closed due to low season) and spoke to some natives who gave me the scoop on where to eat for cheap and about life in Bocas. I wrapped up Independence Day night chopping it up with some Americans at a random hotel´s lobby, and then heading to some unforgettable bar that was full of tourists. The best part of the night was probably after 2am, when the DJ turned the music off and everyone spilled into the streets…looking for the after-party spot. I sat in the centrally-located park and spent the morning talking with a new-found friend, while drunk, paranoid people realized they had gotten robbed, local Panamanian women found their taste in American seamen, and people just generally made fools of themselves.
Drawbacks to being alone:
I got bored right smack in the middle of the day. Sometime after lunch and before dinner, I had to resort to my room and occupy myself with TV movies. The sun was so high and blazing that it wasn´t smart to be just strolling around, and I didn´t really want to sit at a random bar by myself.
After a day, I didn´t want to sit on the beach or go island-hopping. In Bocas, water-sports, boat excursions and chillaxing by the beach is about all there is. The next time I decide to travel alone, there will have to be more than water activities available at the destination I choose.
I ran out of money, and had to call home and get the lecture. So much for my independent trip. Let me just say that I normally budget trips pretty well. This time around, I was depending on a deposit that didn´t come through due to the Independence Day holiday so I was pretty screwed.I hate traveling with people that limited themselves in where they can go, and how much they want to spend. I was forced to turn into one when I realized that most places on the island did not take cards, and I didn´t have even enough cash for my bus ride back to Costa Rica. My last day on the island was dictated by my lack of cash, and I tried to make the best of it. If I had been with someone else, at least I wouldn´t have had to make the call of shame before walking over to Western Union.
Overall, I blame myself for some of the things that could have gone smoother on my trip. In my defense, there are some things that fell out of my hands. And what could I do? Cry and sulk for 2 days? Nah, I made the best of it. Bocas del Toro is a great choice if you love to snorkel (they´ve got awesome reefs), swim, eat seafood, ride leisurely on a bike, and spend hours on boats. For the most part, this does not fit my travel character. For me, this (or any) beach destination is better consumed in couplets or groups. Find that private patch of shore, pack your own snacks and liquor, snuggle up next to someone on the sand, or in the water. Simple.
Have you ever enjoyed a beach day alone? What did or didn´t you do?