When I set off to travel to the islands of Bocas del Toro, Panama, I had no idea that I was setting off on a trip that would rival the adventures seen in CBS’s The Amazing Race. I had been living in Costa Rica just over 7 months when at that time, and I had been hearing about the beautiful archipelago of Bocas for at least half that time, so when my friend came for a visit, I decided it would be the perfect long-weekend vacation for us.
We rose with the sun, and set off from San Jose, Costa Rica before the clock struck 6. After winding through the gorgeous and dense Braulio Carrillo mountain range for a few hours, we emerged in Limon and drove along the coast until it was time to curve inland to get to Sixaola and the Costa Rica – Panama boarder crossing. This portion of “the race” took us around 5 hours…no problem.
We parked my car at the long term parking yard and then approached the Costa Rican boarder, where we needed to stamp out. There was a bit of a line, so it probably took us around 30 minutes to complete the paperwork and receive the stamp before we were ready to exit the country.
In order to cross from Costa Rica to Panama, we had to cross a bridge…but not just any bridge. This old wooden bridge which we crossed had wobbly boards and spaces between the planks which were so big that a 3 year old child could have fallen right through to the river below! We learned that up until only a few months before, the bridge had still been in use by semi trucks passing between the countries! My friend had a rolling suitcase, so we laughed quite a bit as she tried to drag it along behind her. Eventually we accepted the fact that carrying the suitcase was the better option, and we made our way, suitcase in hand, from Costa Rica to Panama, where another line awaited us.
The line to get into Panama was much longer. We waited alongside the immigration building for at least an hour before finally getting into the office. There, they told us we must have proof that we were leaving the country. My friend had a copy of her return flight from Costa Rica, and I had the ticket from the parking yard for my car and my residency card for Costa Rica, but that apparently didn’t cut it- I had to buy a bogus $14 bus ticket from the bus station at the bottom of the hill. This is obviously a complete scam, but sometimes you just can’t reason with the boarder patrol, so I sucked it up, bought the bus ticket, and jumped back into the passport line to receive my stamp for Panama and continue on my way.
After officially making our way through the boarder crossing, it was time for the next segment of our Amazing Race: catching a mini-van to the coast. There are quite a few vans waiting to fill up with tourists, so once the van we selected was sufficiently loaded, we set off on the 45 minute drive, winding through the breathtaking Panamanian countryside. It was during this van ride, that our party of two expanded to become a party of six. We met four incredible Americans traveling together and they complimented our vibe perfectly, so we offered to share the extra space in our beachside bungalow with them.
Once we arrived at the waterfront, we walked to the docks, and caught a 30-minute boatride to Boca’s main island, Colón. On Colón, we stocked up on some groceries, then made our way to our pickup point where we would catch our final boat to our small island. On this ride, we passed many small islands, stilt houses, mangroves, and even had dolphins swimming alongside us during the final stretch of our Amazing Race.
As we approached our bungalow, we couldn’t believe our luck. With a dock stretching out into the ocean, and the house built on stilts, it stood in the midst of the gorgeous blue ocean, welcoming us. It was beyond spectacular.
The caretakers of the bungalow, Michael and Christine, were from San Diego, and were incredibly friendly and hospitable. We spent the remainder of the day lounging in the water around the stilt house.
The next day, we started to explore the island, finding coconuts to accompany our breakfast.
Michael took the six of us out on his boat, and we made our way through the mangroves, then on to five different spots for snorkeling.
The snorkeling was the best I have ever experienced. The sheer variety of coral alone was amazing, but the quantity of fish that accompanied the coral, and the beautiful sea creatures we encountered along the way, made the experience completely magical.
After hours of snorkeling, we pit stopped on Isla Coral at the Coral Cay Restaurant to enjoy a mid-afternoon lunch break.
After hours out on the ocean and in the sun, we were able to rest easy that night, soaking in the sunset and delighting in the bioluminescence of the waters below the bungalow.
When it came time to set off the next day, Christine brought us back to the main island of Colón, where after breakfast, our party of six shrunk back down to a party of two.
It had started to rain, which is actually quite typical for Bocas, but that didn’t stop us from walking around and exploring the town.
The city was alive with color, and the flowers were blooming all around.
Our hostel for the night, Bahia del Sol, was right on the water, and beautiful within…
but was located in the heart of a typical neighborhood, with houses on top of houses.
Once we had dropped off our belongings, we continued to explore Bocas, stopping for drinks with a view from above…
and delighting in whatever else we happened to stumble upon along the way…
As our visit came to an end, I was extremely happy that we had chosen to pursue the Amazing Race adventure to Bocas del Toro. Each hour of the long journey was worth it, and after it all we were left with memories and friendships that have continued on long past our long weekend in Bocas del Toro, Panama.
Have you ever taken a trip to Bocas? If so, what did you think?