36 Hours in Panama

It was so hot that afternoon in May that everything seemed to be behind a curtain of steam. Nikki and I stepped off our bus with only our small backpacks in tow. We were here for her - she'd been in Costa Rica for nearly 90 days and needed to make a visa run to Panama in order to get a new tourist visa. I decided to tag along, thrilled for the opportunity to visit my second foreign country. In the dusty town of Sixaoloa at the border, we filled out the necessary travel documents and paid our exit & entrance fees. We walked across the Rio Sixaoloa to Panama on a weathered, rickety, and retired rail bridge. 

 Walking across that rickety bridge...

Walking across that rickety bridge...

At the border, we changed our money for US dollars and the green & white of my home country's bills looked incredibly dull after weeks of using flamboyant colones. I knew little about where we were going, but it soon became apparent that wherever it was it had to be a party destination. The other border tourists mostly seemed to be my peers and were all talking clubs. Nikki and I, along with two guys from Clemson University, got into a taxi van that was $10 a person. The taxi took us on a long ride through the lush, trash-strewn countryside to Almirante. In Almirante, we were dropped at the port where boats were waiting to take tourists to Bocas del Toro. As our boat sped past islands dotted with hostels and clubs, a duo of dolphins played in our wake. All I could do was marvel over the turquoise water beneath the boat. As we approached the docks of Isla Colon, I realized I could see straight through to what must have been 20 and 30 foot depths. I couldn't wait to get my hands on a snorkel.

 Sparkling blue waters of Bocas. (Apologies for the quality, I had a terrible and cheap point & shoot with me in Central America).

Sparkling blue waters of Bocas. (Apologies for the quality, I had a terrible and cheap point & shoot with me in Central America).

In Bocas town, we grabbed a snack from a bakery window. A sugared coconut and cinnamon bread the size of my hand. For 50 cents. We considered a few hostels and decided on one that was waterfront. The lounge and restaurant area extended onto docks that were lined with posts covered inner tubes. Snippets of conversations in unfamiliar tongues drifted into our ears as we walked to check-in. We were delighted to find out that a bed in a 4-person mixed dorm was only ten dollars a night. Score. We claimed our beds and threw our bags on the bunk then went to hang out on the docks. Nikki checked some emails on her netbook but I couldn't resist the water any longer. I grabbed an inner tube and jumped into the crystal clear waters. I floated for about fifteen minutes, just peering into the water at a plethora of large orange starfish. Nikki had showered and I followed suit, then it was time to see Bocas at night.

 The docks at our seaside hostel.

The docks at our seaside hostel.

Out on the town, we were handed fliers for countless clubs that all seemed to be advertising the same thing: Ladies' Night. Cheap drinks for ladies. I can't help but wonder if it was Ladies Night every night in Bocas town or if they just said it was to any women who happened to walk by. We were feeling quite tired from our journey since we'd been up for sunrise that morning. As the sun set in Bocas, we decided to just get a pizza. The pizza wasn't memorable but what was memorable was an incredibly rich "cookie monster sundae" that we each got for dessert. A cocktail glass was filled with two shots of Bailey's Irish cream, vanilla ice cream, and three oreos. Back at the hostel that night, we realized that the building was not only waterfront but was built over the water. As we fell asleep we could hear waves hit the floor of our room just above the din of the sputtering, overworked air conditioning unit in the window.

 The Panamanian coast as viewed from our ridiculous boat tour.

The Panamanian coast as viewed from our ridiculous boat tour.

Early the next morning, we couldn't decide what to do with what would be our one full day in Panama. There was a hostel bulletin board lined with fliers advertising tours to chocolate plantations, sailing trips to Colombia, scuba certification and more. It seemed like our best option would be a boat trip out into Bastimentos Marine Park. Both Nikki and I were big fans of snorkeling and everything coral-reef. As if by magic, a man appeared near our table and said that he was doing a boat tour later that day where we could "snorkel for hours for $40." When we seemed unimpressed, he tried to flirt us into accepting a spot on the tour. Neither of us were having it but we did decide to join when he brought the price down by half. He told us not to mention to the other tour members that we were only paying $20 a person.

Nikki and I grabbed breakfast in town and then bought potato chips and a tub of sour cream & onion dip to take on the boat for lunch. We'd heard that they would stop at a restaurant on a neighboring island for a lunch option but we assumed (correctly) that the restaurant would be overpriced. We threw our snack lunch into a plastic bag, along with my camera and some sunscreen. Then we boarded our boat and off we went. Our tour was not as described. Our boat first went to look for dolphins and, after half an hour, we finally saw a few in the distance. Then the boat went to the overpriced "restaurant" really just a shack on stilts in some mangroves. We sat on the deck there as others bought food. At this point, an hour or so had passed and still there was no indication that we'd be snorkeling anytime soon. We passed the time re-applying sunscreen and looking at the sea cucumbers in the water below-dock. Soon we all boarded the boat and then made a stop at a tiny, gorgeous island.

 The stunning isle our tour visited that day. It had the softest sand I'd ever felt and the beach was littered with perfect little pieces of sun-bleached coral.

The stunning isle our tour visited that day. It had the softest sand I'd ever felt and the beach was littered with perfect little pieces of sun-bleached coral.

Though we were disappointed not to be snorkeling yet, Nikki and I were delighted to be dropped on the island for an hour. It was incredibly beautiful and tranquil. We walked through the sea grape and palm trees of the coastline until we could go no further. Then we returned to the main beach to eat our chips and dip with sandy hands as we sat on coral-studded sand.
Soon our flirtatious boat guides reappeared and revealed that it was finally time to snorkel! Our boat joined a trio of others above the reef and we were given some very second-rate masks and snorkels to use. And no flippers. Our boat was the only one out of four with no flippers and no ladder. We splashed, rather undignified, into the Caribbean. I soon forgot about our boat lacked because I saw coral in shades I didn't know could exist. Bright purples, electric blues, neon oranges... It was wonderful. Before we knew it, though, our boats were calling for us to board again. I couldn't get into the boat from the water without my bikini top trying to get left behind. I ended up climbing the ladder of a neighboring boat and then jumping aboard our own. Our captain announced we'd be headed back to Bocas. So much for "hours of snorkeling." What a shambly tour we ended up on. I felt very bad for anybody who payed $40 for that trip. All in all, though, we weren't too upset. We'd seen some gorgeous natural beauty that day.

When the boat returned to Bocas town, Nikki and I explored some local shops and bought a few souvenirs before the rain began. We were lucky that the downpour began when we returned to our hostel for a dinner at their restaurant. The rain helped us to decide to stay in again, leaving those Ladies' Nights a mystery.

 Buildings on stilts along the coast of Almirante, Panama.

Buildings on stilts along the coast of Almirante, Panama.

The next morning, hardly having slept because of the noise of fellow-hostelers partying until the wee hours, we got on a boat back to Almirante. Before we knew it, we were on a bus going back to Costa Rica, and our whirlwind adventure was over.