Bocas del Toro
I kept seeing Bocas del Toro, Panama, pop up in “Places to See Before they Disappear” and “Endangered Regions” lists. I particularly love traveling to places that haven’t yet become inundated with tourism, and we had credit card points that were calling our names, so we booked our tickets for early September.
It was after the purchase of two non-refundable tickets to Bocas del Toro that I stumbled upon a blog warning of the overt police corruption in Panama and the Bocas del Toro Islands specifically. While I assumed police corruption would be the norm, the blog stated that the problem ran far deeper than the typical bribery and shallow threats often seen in certain parts of Central America. It stated plainly that tourists were often specifically targeted and often had to fork over huge amounts of money to the police simply to avoid being jailed indefinitely, and that many tourists had lost huge sums of money and felt as though their lives were truly in danger. I felt as though the writer may have been exaggerating a bit, but I decided to keep researching to be sure. To my dismay, I found blog after blog of truly disturbing stories – drownings, theft, attacks by masked men waving machetes, ATM robberies – and I started to have minor heart palpitations. In addition, I found that many people had returned clearly disgruntled due to the abject poverty pervading the town – they complained about the garbage in the streets and the run-down appearance of the buildings on Isle Colon. Against my better judgement (and mostly because the tickets were non-refundable), I decided to continue with the trip despite my premonitions that it would end in disaster.
Let me tell you this: Bocas has its weak points. That thing about the police corruption is no joke. The streets in the main town are coated with trash. The partying during festival week is insane and not in a fun way, and the hotels are typically sub-par at best. Forget air conditioning. Bathrooms with running water and proper sanitation may or may not be present at the restaurants. Many of the locals do not want you there and make that clear to you. The town’s only ATM will probably rob you and an armed guard will refuse to let you into the bank to talk to a real person (more on this later). Heat exhaustion and food poisoning are par for the course.
HOWEVER; Bocas remains a place worth seeing. And all those doomsday blogs are actually right- it won’t stay a paradise for long. Its natural beauty is being destroyed in spades and there isn’t much time left to see it for what it truly is- a small slice of untouched tropical paradise. Are there easier places to visit? Absolutely. But when I think back to my trip, I feel so grateful to have seen it before it was too late.
We rented a small cabin through Air Bnb run by a Hawaiian ex-pat named Sterling. He supplied us with a four – wheeler and kayaks for an additional price (very reasonable). Sterling owns several properties in Bocas, and lives on Isle Colon, the main island. He met us at his house and after squaring away all the business concerns, took us out to our cabin. We were far enough away from town to feel completely secluded, but close enough that we could take the four-wheeler into town and be there in 15 minutes or less.
The cabin was self-sustaining and beautiful, with a small pond out front where you could watch the caimans troll the waters and catch glimpses of howler monkeys near dusk. We were lulled to sleep each night as the tree frogs sang out their symphony of sound, and woke each day at dawn. We would cook our food in the cabin and eat on the porch, admiring the jungle around us and then walk 300 feet down the pathway to Bluff Beach, which was almost always deserted. We would splash in the tide and watch the waves roll towards us, check out the tracks from the sea turtles nesting, and follow the trails of the crabs to see how many we could find. During the entirety of our trip, I saw only 1 other person on the beach with us. There were no machines to smooth and clear the sand, no beach umbrellas, no trash, no noise, and no people. For me, that was a dream come true. We explored the surrounding jungle and found just that- true, untainted jungle. It was a snapshot of how nature behaves when humanity cannot alter it. Seeing that part of Bocas felt like a privilege.
To address all the concerns of safety, I can only say this: after actually spending time in Bocas, I felt as though several bloggers and travelers writing on Trip Advisor hadn’t had any prior exposure to second or third world countries before. They seemed surprised by conditions that I felt were to be expected. I had spent time in Central and South America prior to this trip, in a regions with similar socioeconomic status and assumed I would see the same conditions again in Panama, especially in the Bocas region due to its relative isolation from the mainland. We did not come with the intention to stay in town, or participate in “The Fair” or party at the bars or stay at a fancy motel. We came to see Bocas del Toro’s natural beauty, and we were not disappointed. If our intention had been to explore the town itself, we would have been very disappointed. If we had stayed in a hotel and not a cabin, we probably would have left feeling a little bit jipped. If we had spent all our time just searching for a good place to party instead of rising at dawn and filling our day with hiking, exploring, swimming, and snorkeling we would’ve felt like it was a wasted trip. That’s just our opinion- whether or not Bocas is for you depends entirely on what you’re looking for.