November 5th, 2007

To avoid the flash floods happening around Costa Rica, Sasha and I decide to head south to Bocas del Toro, Panama. Through the backpacker’s grapevine we hear tales of white sand beaches, clear, warm bays, and dollar beers. It sounds like somewhere in-between touristy and remote. It sounds like an island paradise. It sounds exactly like what we are looking for.

The backpacker’s grapevine is a trusty source. It exists where fellow travelers exist – which is just about everywhere. It’s a resource for finding places both on and off the beaten trail. There is no need for an internet connection, guidebooks, or maps. All you need is a good memory and a common language. In the event of no common language, be prepared for a game of charades or Pictionary which usually consists of theatrical gestures, drawings of figures and maps, patience, and laughter.

We are told that once we get to the Panama border we can “hire” someone for a dollar to take us across. Apparently it will be the best dollar we will ever spend.

We get to the border after a few hours on an overly air-conditioned bus and step out into the thick, throbbing heat. I’m sweaty in seconds and start to feel my head getting muggy. I begin to understand the value of paying someone a dollar to take me across border and get me quickly on my way.

As soon as we retrieve our bags several young men greet us, aged around twelve to twenty, advertising their border crossing services. A pushy young man grabs our attention. Not only will he take us safely across the degenerating bridge, but he insists on carrying our bags. What a great luxury!

Crossing the bridge is no easy task. Old, rusty, and missing planks, it has somehow held up to the constant traffic of freight trucks, buses, cars, and people. I look through the gaps where the planks have fallen into to the rushing river far below us and I am thankful I don’t have the extra weight of my backpack holding me down and putting me off-balance. Once we reach the other side, our guide brings us to the various counters to get the proper stamps and visas. After what seemes like an uncoordinated run-around we get the final stamp of approval. Our guide hands us our bags, hails a cab, gives us directions, and sends us on our way. It is the best dollar I have ever spent.

The Town of Bocas is on an island in an archipelago just off the northeast coast of Panama (in the province of Bocas del Toro). We take a taxi to the port town of Almirante. Here we hop on a small boat which will take us to the Town of Bocas.

On our way we cruise through mangroves and it is surreal. Imagine being in a corn maze but with turquoise, clear water below you and thick green leafy walls floating on all sides around you. Just like during our trip along the river through the rainforest in Costa Rica I have totally lost my bearings. The maze opens up to reveal an island about a mile away. As we near, we see a row of colourful buildings built over the water along the island’s shoreline. Docks float in front of the houses. Boats come and go. People sit under beach umbrellas and enjoy cervezas.

We had heard positive things about Hostel Heike – great staff, clean rooms, drinkable tap water – so we head straight there, eager to unload our bags and grab a bite to eat. The town has a colonial feel. It seems like a popular place for Westerners to set up camp for a while. We pass seafood restaurants, surf shops, dive shops, and attempt to avoid the incessant offers of the “best deal in town” (apparently every business offers the best deal in town). We sign up for a day trip that will take us to several islands, beaches and snorkel spots in the Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park.

We eventually get to the hostel and are greeted with smiles and chocolate and coconut covered frozen bananas. It’s a welcoming, funky place with murals on the walls, a well stocked kitchen, and a relaxing rooftop sanctuary. The smell of incense hangs lightly in the air. We get a dorm room, drop off our bags and head back out to search for a tasty bite to eat.

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