I’m always intrigued how much first impressions can shift through the depth of our senses. For me, the first thing I noticed when I came to Panama (after the immigration agent told me I had to pay for my entry to Panama with a smile!!) was how different it feels than Costa Rica. After spending a month in nature and with animals, I was driving through towns of what looked like very poor housing and it felt kind of dirty and grimy and I wondered if I maybe shouldn’t have come.
This is where you stand on line to get your passport exit stamp from Costa Rica.
This is the long bridge you walk across to go from Costa Rica into Panama.
We arrived at Bocas Del Toro, Isla Colon (the main island) and it immediately seemed like a touristy town. A nice man came over and told me he’d help me get a taxi. In fact, he walked me over to his shop where he sells boat tours. He was so nice I felt obliged to listen, but didn’t buy a tour, and in an amazing coincidence, as soon as he finished telling me all about his tours, a taxi showed up to take me to my hotel. That taxi took me to my hotel for the whopping price of $1. I was so stupefied I gave the driver $2 because I could not fathom a taxi ride being that cheap – in fact that’s cheaper than the base fare cost just for getting in to a taxi in New York City!!
My first take is that people in Bocas are friendly mainly because they want you to buy from them. I miss the “hola” and “con mucho gusto” culture of Costa Rica. There is less nature in Bocas, and I find myself seeing more shortcomings than things that inspire me, at first glance.
Downtown Bocas del Toro.
The tour shop where Nino, the nice helpful guy who said he’d help me get a cab, brought me.
Within two days, however, I find myself extending my stay!
First, I’m in a budget hotel that actually has a nightstand. (Funny what you appreciate when you stay in cheap hotels!) I mean the fact that I can put my eReader and glasses on a small table by my bed, instead of on my bed, seems like I’ve hit the jackpot. I also notice there are no spiders, mosquitoes, roaches, grasshoppers, cicadas, or any other bugs that have made their presence known in my room, which is also blissfully quiet at night. (Just those darn chickens next door that like to wake me up at 5:30am.) AND, the shower has real, hot water. The kind I want to spend half an hour in (but don’t). I jump in immediately for the first real shower following a 3-night stay with only cold water…
Next, I wander the town and end up running in to a lovely German couple who I met while staying in the Corcovado area! We were all delightfully surprised. The possibility of us all being in the same store at the same time in the same city, well, thus why I don’t believe in coincidence!
My hotel owners are like loving parents. Having gotten accustomed to being home by dark as a solo female traveler, they told me to go grab a drink in a nearby hostel saying it was very safe. So, I went out and ended up meeting some lovely people and eating one of the best burgers I’ve had in a while, along with a margarita, for only $6! When I return to the hotel, the owners playfully pointed to their watch and scolded me for coming home late. 🙂
Beautiful waters in Panama.
Having a drink with my new friends.
Then I took an island tour and that was just lovely. I felt like I was beginning to truly appreciate my surroundings rather than comparing them to other places. I met a lovely American woman from Wisconsin who invited me to join her and a friend for dinner, as well as a lovely Italian couple on their honeymoon!)
The following day I went to a Starfish Beach – it’s called Playa Estrella. And there are live starfish all over it – amazing!! I’ve never seen anything like it. I returned starving (because I slept in and didn’t have time for a real breakfast) and ran to the falafel place in town, only to discover it is closed at lunchtime!? They say things happen for a reason. Well, I gave in and decided to go to the next restaurant up the street, and there were Claudio and Francesca! They invited me to lunch with them and I very happily joined. The other bonus was that Claudio, like me, appreciates a good cup of coffee, and so I was delighted to get a great cup of espresso too!
And so it turns out I like Panama after all! The prices, if you avoid the expensive parts of town, are reasonable. I wouldn’t buy souvenirs as they are fairly cheaply made, and there is definitely something a bit dirty about certain places, but the feel is laid back, it attracts great people from around the world and the island hopping is not to be missed!
Also – some random facts that add to the experience – “Bocas del Toro” means “mouths of the bull” – if ever I was destined to go someplace! It was named by Christopher Columbus who thought an area looked like the a bull’s mouth – not sure how that got pluralized, but hey, I’ll take it.
Real starfish on Playa Estrella in Isla Colon.
Playa Zapatilla #2 – one of the gorgeous beaches around the Bocas del Toro.