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Many people ask us where our favorite place is. The answer was Saba, NA for many years. Then, of course, St. Croix became home and it was our answer. But after a year in Panama, we realized there is nothing in our experience that compares to it. If you haven't yet read Eurisko Sails West: A Year in Panama, here is a taste of a different kind of paradise.
After 11 days at sea, I thought my tired eyes were playing tricks on me as we sailed into the channel toward Bocas del Toro. "Is that really a dugout canoe? It's like a National Geographic episode out there" was our son's reaction. For the next year, Panama continued to amaze us. It has so much more to offer than just a passageway between oceans.
Officially, Bocas del Toro is the name of the western-most province on the Caribbean side of Panama, but most boaters use it to refer to the archipelago consisting of over 200 islands in Bahia Almirante and Laguna de Chiriqui. It is also the name of the town located on the largest of these islands, Isla Colon, frequently referred to by the locals as Isla Bocas. Whatever you call it, the area is spectacular.
With a population of 4300, Bocas town has the look, feel and services of a much larger town, without losing any of its charm. A combination tourist destination and outpost for the Indian population scattered throughout the archipelago, there are dive shops and restaurants next to a stack of plantain being unloaded from a cayuco (a local dugout canoe). You can buy a bag of fried plantain chips from the street vendor for 25 cents, or a lobster dinner down the street for $20. Local art, including molas, are sold across the street from the surf shop and Chinese-owned grocery store.
The people are no less varied. The local Ngöbe-Buglé Indians sit with the Panameños in the park; West Indians mingle with the expatriated Americans at the bar; I was in line at the bank behind a Kuna Indian woman. German, Swiss, French, British, Turkish, Israeli, Greek and Argentinian tourists share a table at Chitré to eat a $3.25 dinner of stewed chicken, rice and beans and cole slaw. "Where are you from?" has become my favorite conversation starter.
Because of the number of tourist visiting Bocas, more English is spoken here than anywhere in Panama, even in the cities. As in any country, however, making an effort to speak the language makes a difference in how you are treated. If you use the Spanish words you know, however few they may be, the locals will use the English they know, and you will find that you can communicate with almost everyone.
One of the many services available for tourists is bicycle rental. For my 42nd birthday, my husband Dave and I rented 2 bikes and rode the 13 mile trip to Boca del Drago, stopping along the way to investigate the basket nests of the oro pendula swaying in the breeze and to watch a troop of monkeys taking a siesta in the jungle's mid-day heat.
Located at the far northwest corner of Isla Colon, Boca del Drago is the home of Starfish Beach, where in 4 feet of water the sandy bottom is littered with hundreds of starfish, easily visible through the clean, cool water. Tourists can get there by bus ($5 round trip) leaving from the park in Bocas town; cruisers often anchor off Starfish Beach, an easy 5 mile sail from Bocas.
Near Bocas town, there are several options for cruisers and their boats. Bocas Marina, though on Isla Colon, only has access to Bocas via water. They are close enough to dinghy over to one of the three dinghy docks in town, or you can take a water taxi (lancha) for $2 per person each way. The marina is often full; reservations are recommended. (bocasmarine.com) Bocas Marina and their restaurant Calypso Cantina are often the site of cruiser gatherings and parties. There is little wind in the marina and plenty of chitras (no-see-ums), so wind scoops and screens (or an air conditioner) are a must. There is no haul out or services, but water, electricity, showers, laundry and fuel are available.
Similarly priced (and plagued with chitras) is Marina Carenero ($8.50/ft) on Cayo Carenero. (careeningcay.com) It is also a short dingy or lancha ride from Bocas with similar services available (with the exception of fuel). Surfers may prefer Carenero, as the cay has a reef break a short paddle from shore. When the surf is down, this same reef is worth exploring with a snorkel and mask.
Within a dinghy ride of Bocas are three anchorages. The most popular one is off Bocas Marina. Because of the coral heads strewn throughout this anchorage, however, I do not recommend it. It is harmful not only to the environment as your chain and anchor destroy the coral, but also to your chain and anchor as they drag through the coral. During one squall, with a 2 foot chop in the anchorage, we discovered that our chain was tangled on coral directly below the bow pulpit, leaving us with 1:1 scope until I could let out more chain--a dangerous maneuver as your bow sprit snatches the chain up tight with each swell. We no longer anchor there.
Off the northeast corner of Bocas town is another anchorage, Sandfly Bay. Several boats anchor there, but because it makes town a lee shore during squalls, we avoid it. In Saigon Bay is the third possibility. There is no official dinghy dock, just go ashore where you feel comfortable leaving your dinghy. There are a few restaurants where this is possible. This puts you less than a mile from town, but closer to the surf spots on the east coast of Isla Colon.
For the price, surfing, beach access and jungle exploring, nothing beats Red Frog Beach Marina. At $6.25/ft/month, some of the growing pains of a new marina can be overlooked. Along with the usual water, electricity, wifi, bathhouse and restaurant, they also offer what the name implies: a beach. A short walk from the marina is a popular beach for swimming and surfing. Further along the path in either direction leads to more secluded beaches. There is even a trail leading to Bastimentos National Park. On the Red Frog property we have seen sloths along the trail, white-faced capuchin monkeys jumping tree to tree over us, and of course, the poisonous frogs for which it is named. The marinas biggest disadvantage is its distance from Bocas. For those with a large outboard, the 4 mile trip is no inconvenience. The rest of us must rely on the $5 each way lancha.
For us, the greatest appeal of Bocas del Toro isn't the places to stay, but the places to go. The first three months we were in Panama, we went for 21 sails, for a total of 220 miles, all within the archipelago. Each time we put down the anchor, we were impressed by the diversity of scenery, wildlife, and even climate in such a small area.
When we wanted to witness the local Indian culture more closely, we sailed into Trouble Hole, on the west side of Isla Cristobal, just south of Bocas. As the wind died and we ghosted in, we heard drums in the jungle, then singing. We saw smoke and heard the rhythmic beating of an ax on wood. When two Indians paddled their cayucos across the bight in front of us, we wondered where the area got its name. We needn't have worried. Never in the time we spent in Panama did we see any aggression among the different races and classes.
Anchored in Trouble Hole, we were surrounded by an Indian village; there were houses all along the shoreline, the only evidence the cayucos parked in the mangroves in front of each one. In the mornings we watched the children slowly paddle past us on their way to school. On their return trip in the afternoon, they frequently stopped a few feet from the boat, as curious about us as we were about them. In the evening, the adults gathered at the school, and we could hear singing late into the night.Portions previously published in Blue Water Sailing
MONDAY we'll continue our exploration of the Bocas del Toro area.
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