I really want to write this post for all of you out there considering visiting Panama. I recently took a break from fieldwork for the summer when PB came to visit me for a week. We wanted to do something nice and fun, and I wanted to get the heck out of Gamboa for a little bit, so we planned a 3 day trip to Bocas del Toro. Now, all of the guide websites and tourist information on Panama say that Bocas del Toro has beautiful beaches, a friendly-touristy atmosphere, and is a great place to relax and dance (or drink) the night away. Considering I am from one of the Spring Break capitals of Florida and spent much of my childhood on the beach, this sounded not only appealing but welcoming, and as I said, I was soooo ready for a break. Turns out, Bocas was a huge let down. Here's what definitely didn't go right during our supposed 'vacation':
1) For the love of gawd, BRING YOUR PASSPORT. Apparently no matter where you travel within a foreign country, you are supposed to have your passport on you at all times (even if you're not technically leaving the country). NO WHERE on the web does it say this, nor did any of the 5-10 well-traveled people that we told we were going to Bocas. So imagine my surprise when we were woken up at 2am (we took the overnight bus there from Albrook) by a man loudly calling "Passaportes, passaportes", and immigration stepping onto the bus. Lucky for us, I had my Smithsonian ID and Panamanian drivers licence, and we both had our Texas DLs with us. I was somehow able to talk us out of being detained til morning, and I'd like to think it was a combination of stupid white girl attitude/forlorn look/well-endowedness that got us out of that mess. This was the first, but definitely not the last time someone asked us for a passport. We managed to scrape by in Bocas without them, but 3 separate times we were asked in the airport, trying to fly back. 3 TIMES. Twice before we left Bocas, and immediately after we got off the plane. I mean, seriously, who the hell would try to sneak INTO Panama??? I was somehow able to talk us out of being in trouble each time, but oh. my. lord. we will bring our passports next time, I swear.
NOTE: PB later looked it up online, and apparently the bus company doesn't warn you of this because they charge a huge fare to take a bus back to Panama City once detained (and presumably cleared) by immigration. This country kinda sucks.
2) Don't go to Bocas in the off season. Especially in the middle of the week. The way our vacation was timed, we took the bus out Sunday night and spent Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday on the islands. Now, since it was July 4th weekend, I figured it would be packed with American tourists who were having some R&R in the middle of the summer. Imagine my surprise when we get to Bocas and see locals. And ONLY locals. Occasionally, we saw some backpackers, but they were mostly Spanish or Latin American (a few European) - almost no Americans. Well, so much for there being a plethora of English speakers around. No one spoke any English; thankfully I speak enough Spanish to get by.
3) Make sure to actually call and talk to the tour guides. I really, really wanted to go snorkeling, so I did a lot of research beforehand about what tours were available and who were the best vendors to go through. Turns out the most recommended vendor had sold his shop at the end of the season, and there was a new guy running it who only did dive tours. Drat. He did recommend another shop, who recommended another shop, and so on until we were about 5 shops in and discovering that no one offered snorkeling trips in the off season (again, DON'T go in the middle of the week if you can avoid it!). We signed up for a trip finally, only to find out the morning of that it was cancelled because we were the ONLY people who signed up. The man who ran the shop (which shall remain nameless) gave us our money back, and we went down the street to a hotel whose sign claimed they offered snorkel tours. The woman at the front desk was nice enough to set us up on a last minute tour that was leaving around 10am instead of 9:30 (as our original tour was planned), and we did get to snorkel, but since we had no idea where we were going and signed up last minute, we still aren't quite sure where we went. It would have been nice to have a tour guide who spoke English as well as Spanish, but honestly, we should have just taken our friends' advice and hired a local water taxi driver to take us snorkeling. Next time, we bring our own gear, and go the officionado route.
There were a couple of good things that came about on this trip, one being that both of us learned that PB loves to snorkel (it was his first time!). We have since decided that he will get his Open Water Dive certification too (I got mine last year), and we'll do a diving/snorkeling themed cruise for our honeymoon. Swoon!
We also got to spend a couple of hours on a nice "private" beach; mostly because we were too tired of walking to find the real beach (which happened to be about 5 km from where the guy said it was.... sheesh). It was our own tropical paradise, and not a bad place to spend our anniversary.... you know, apart from all of the other bull crap. Next year, we go somewhere touristy. Like Key West. :)