Bocas Del Toro
I first saw Bocas del Toro back in the last century (actually 1997) So I was curious to see how things had changed in the intervening ten years. To be honest Bocas has not enjoyed the best of reputations, mainly because of the influx of the “Florida swamp salesmen” that conned, who knows how many dreamers out of their life savings.
The government of Panama has moved in to stop these kinds of developers. Today, there are stringent regulations governing, sale and marketing of new projects. The buyer still needs to be aware and still needs to exert more than the usual diligence when buying in the Bocas area. “Rights of possession” land is still the biggest red-flag area and most experts would advise you to steer well clear of untitled land and particularly the people who seem to specialize in these dubious enterprises.
Bocas and back in a day?
If you live in either Boquete or Volcan, surprisingly, you can drive to Bocas and return home, all in the same day. It is a long trip and I would suggest spending the night there because driving back over misty, rain swept mountains is a bit risky.
For my return trip to Bocas I set out with local café owner Mike Bradford of the Café Montana in Volcan. We left Volcan at 4:30 in the morning and headed down to the Pan American highway at Concepcion. On the way we passed an accident near Cuesta de Piedra. Some late night revelers, returning from a party in David, had run off the main road and totaled their car – fortunately no one was killed.
As we passed through David and turned off on the Changuinola road, the dawn was creeping over the hills. Wraith like wisps of fog swirled through the valleys and the morning sun tinged the cloud tops in a soft, warm light. I was told that the drive over the cordillera was something to see, and I was not disappointed. From the top of the range you can look back and see the morning sun touching the summit of the Baru Volcano, and further away is the Pacific Ocean and Puerto Armuelles.
I didn't realise that the road to Bocas takes you right up to and over the Fortuna dam. This is another place to stop and have a great Kodak moment. The Fortuna Hydro-Electric facility is Panama's second great engineering marvel after the canal. This huge dam and power generation facility supply almost a third of Panama's power.
Soon you cross the boundary from Chiriqui and enter the province of Bocas del Toro. The road winds slowly down and after a few hours you are greeted with views of the Bocas inlet.
Mike, my host and guide on this trip, insisted on bringing along his beautiful golden retriever called Sam. The dog and I sat in the rear of the SUV, and soon I realized that Sam most probably should have had a long walk before embarking on this journey. After 5 hours of Sam's flatulence, I was glad when we reached Almirante.
Almirante is a typical Caribbean port town. Damp, run-down and with that pervading air of untreated sewage wafting through its streets. We had hoped to make the 9:00 am. ferry and were happily surprised to see it still at the dock. The joy evaporated quickly when we learned that the ferry was out of commission, and we were forced to take a water taxi to Bocas. Water taxi's are fast, taking just 25 minutes to speed you across the bay and at $3.00 per person, also affordable.
The sun was climbing fast and at 9:00 in the morning the temperature was already at 85F.
On reaching Bocas my first impression was that the water around the boat dock was clean and clear. Ten years earlier I recall it was almost always cloudy and polluted. The waterfront had changed also, there were many more two and three story buildings jutting out on stilts into the bay.
My second impression was that Bocas had cleaned up a fair bit-true, true there were still a few dilapidated old shacks getting ready to collapse, but the town showed a new found prosperity. If there had been sand streets and dozens of electric golf carts, then this could have been Belize's Ambergris quay.
Just like its Belizean counterpart, Bocas was still attracting mainly flip-flopping back packers and hordes of Europe's great unwashed. I strolled down the wide and dusty main street past dozens of gift shops and café's, to be honest not too much had changed. It still had that great laid-back feel, and I felt great to be back.
We took a five minute boat ride to a new development called Sunset Point. This will be Bocas's premiere development. Definitely high end, and designed for people who want to have their yacht tied up just steps away from their dream retirement home. The developers have obviously spent mega bucks getting this place ship shape. I would love to have stayed and watched the sun set, I am sure that would have made me sell. off everything I owned, so I could by a lot next to the water.
My return to Bocas after ten years was a pleasant surprise. I believe I like it more now than I did then. Fortunately prices haven't gone way out of sight, and you can still walk around unshaven, in shorts and sandals and feel perfectly well dressed.