Cooking and eating through a new culture

Bocas del Toro, Part 2-The Islands

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During the 45 minute ferry ride to Bocas, I began to worry that this trip may crumble. I had become “hangry”; a brilliant term coined by a friend meaning hungry and angry. Granted, the drizzle dissolved away by the time we docked giving way to a soothing sunset. But what really knocked me to my senses was Bocas itself. The place was booming. Let me clarify that by saying it was lively, clean, quaint and lacked any horrible commercialized establishment. The placed is packed with gringos.

Bocas del Toro is actually the name of the providence in Panama and consists of the Bocas del Toro Archipelago but pretty much the whole area is rather difficult to access, as we personally found out. Bocas Town on Isla Colón and is the largest on the islands. The native Ngöbe and Buglé people still make up a large portion of the population, as well as Jamaican descendants from the banana plantations, but the gringo population far exceeds them both. Obviously, English is widely spoken.

Our hotel was a short taxi ride away. Feeling energized after a quick clean up, I made my way to the hotel restaurant set over the water and ordered a beer. Oh, blissful paradise! The restaurant offered a simple menu of fresh seafood, which I had a ceviche of fresh mackerel. Delish! Rafa and I decided to venture into town to check things out. Since Bocas was wonderfully without any traffic, other than taxies and cops. Two MAJOR things about Bocas: First, it is safe. At night, the streets are full of people and cops. There are gringo families walking with children, mixing with locals enjoying the festive atmosphere and open markets. People bike everywhere and hardly any are locked up. The zombie factor of razor wire is nil. This is a feeling I rarely get in Costa Rica, even in Cahuita.  Second, no beggars. From the first step into Central America, there have been beggars, pawing and pleading at every turn. It’s heartbreaking. But there is not a one in Bocas. I have a feeling the cops can be pretty heavy-handed here, not that I want to test that theory, but we did view them descending on a few rowdy gringos. Those poor sad SOBs. I’m sure the term “paradise” doesn’t extend to the pokey down here.

The next morning, Rafa and I went into town again to book a trip to the out lying islands. Any native with a boat offers day trips around the archipelago and we stroll around looking for a good package. I am in full-on tropical gringo resort wear: large straw sun hat, bright linen beach shirt, oversized sunglasses and of course flip-flops. I am a magnet for these guys peddling their services. They flock around me with their catchy English phrases, only to have Rafa swoop in to haggle away at the price. It was hysterical. We settle on Willy and I end up being the only gringo in the boat. What a surprise!

All of us had a great time in Bocas. The main item on all the menus is seafood and it is amazing. There are even places that will just fish out your lunch from under the dock. It’s that fresh. The meals are simple; coconut rice, plantains, and seafood. Everything has a decidedly Caribbean flare but hamburgers and pizzas are common as well. Panama is cheap too! At least half the price of Costa Rica on everything, and Willy told us that Bocas is the most expensive place in Panama.

The beaches are incredible. Each one better than the next. They go from bath water safe Starfish Beach to the world-class surfing swells of the Silverbacks. My only regret was that we didn’t have time to see them all.

Rafa and I were completely smitten with Bocas. While traveling through Central America, El Salvador won us over with its pristine beaches and sweet local atmosphere. But El Salvador has poor developement and much of the countryside lacks electricity forcing locals to cook with wood or garbage. This strips the countryside of forest and also covers the towns in a thick cloud of smelly smog. Bocas, on the other hand, has worked hard to keep the islands clean. There is recycling, solar power, rainwater collection, and a tight control on development…at least for the time being. Rumor has it, Isle Bastimentos including Red Frog Beach has been gobbled up by developers who want to build three marinas and a golf course. Bleech! I would like to see some of those tourist dollars boost up the mainland. A sewer plant to get rid of Hepatitis Harbor, please!

Word of warning: there may be no major mosquitos to deal with, but there are deadly sand flies and they will EAT YOU ALIVE. They are sneaky little bastards and you don’t realize you are getting bitten until you wake up the next morning, a mass of tiny welts. And those suckers itch! Sheesh, you’d think they would have enough soft, pasty-white gringos to chew on.

The hardest part about the whole trip was leaving. The drive back was uneventful. We pulled into Cahuita to drop off Rafa’s parents, who did not have to return to daily grind like we did, only to find the power shut off and that someone tried to break in. Rafa gave a heavy sigh and lamented:

“I miss Bocas.”





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