I had made a bit of a gamble bringing us here although Calvin, our host of Free Spirit Inn, assured us that the internet is perfectly reliable. Not only did we risk connectivity on the main island of Isla Colon but we spent the entire week out on the far less commercialized Isla Bastimentos. As usual all went well and against all of our scepticism we had better internet than we usually have in a big city! The one thing we did learn was not too make a booking on airbnb.com in potentially risky places of internet connectivity – we had to pay all up front and doubt there is a refund policy for slow and flaky connectivity. We would be stuck!
This was our second visit to Panama, the first time being only to the capital City for a half Ironman triathlon almost two years prior. We were looking forward to visiting the places we had heard of but never had the time to discover, such as Bocas del Toro and the San Blas Islands. We left Costa Rica by the cheap option, consisting firstly of a ninety minute bus ride from Puerto Viejo to the border town of Sixaola where we had to get our exit stamps, followed by a wet ten minute walk across a rickety bridge that was at least on par with some of the bridges that I carried my bike across on the La Ruta mountain bike race. Upon entering Panama at the far side of the bridge we were ushered into a very plain block building by a very plain clothed Panamanian to pay a very dubious $3 entry fee – we did get a pretty stamp to put in our passports so must have been partially legit! The final step could have involved further payments as apparently immigration always ask for onward travel from the country, which in our case they also did, and also in our case they accepted the fake Air Panama flight booking back to San Jose some three weeks later. Just what we hoped for! Now all we had to do was find the darn bus to take us to Almirante, which didn’t go to plan as we ended up paying $10 each for shared transportation. Oh well, it was lashing down with rain and they did take us all the way to the boat dock and arrange for tickets to Bocas Town on Isla Colon.
Upon our wet arrival we were greeted with a street parade to celebrate the anniversary of Isla Colon, bringing out the entire population of the island. The following Saturday would be the anniversary of Isla Bastimentos which we contemplated staying around for. Our accommodation for the night, Hotelita del Mar, was perfectly located a block from the very noisy main road – we’ve found that these celebrations always have drummers that insist on bashing the crap out of their equipment, more of a competition as to who can hit the hardest!
Hopping between the islands is a way of life for the people here with small pangas going in all directions, including Red Frog beach, Isla Bastimentos, Starfish beach, snorkeling trips, and many other exotic resorts and beaches. Our $3 fare for a seven minute boat ride didn’t seem so bad, but having to pay $5 each way as soon as it gets dark was a little harsh – the alternative was a long swim!
A short five minute walk up the hill and Calvin greeted us at his Free Spirit Inn with a smile and a glass of tasty fruit juice. It sure was humid here and we were both soaked after having to lug backpacks and other bags around. Calvin was originally from the US and had traveled on and off for the past 45 years – if we make it that long we’ll both be in our eighties. Wow, what a thought! His creatively decorated cabins were ideal for us and offered a wonderful sea view from the balcony from which we ate the basic breakfast, at least that’s what he referred to it as. Fortunately we thought it was well above basic.
Our time here was limited and as long as we could get over to the renowned Wizard and Red Frog beaches with a bit of snorkeling thrown in we were happy. Wizard beach was a forty minute muddy hike from Old Bank, and well worth it – certainly not ideal for swimming but as a surf beach it rocked. Safety apparently could be a bit of an issue with some theft reported but it was still a beach well worth visiting. I made the longer hike to Red Frog beach alone, with all of its rich foreigners, fancy apartments and marina I was not so impressed. Give us rustic over rich resorts any day!
Dinners in Old Bank, Bastimentos were cheap and very local, with beer running us at $1 to $1.50 a bottle, with the exception of our visit to The Firefly for dinner. They charged an outrageous $2 a bottle and still managed to tag the number one spot on Tripadvisor. One evening we took the panga over to Bocas Town for dinner where there were far more options, including some really nice restaurants with cuisine from all over the world.
Our final day on Isla Bastimentos was also the day we thought we were departing on the ten hour overnight bus to Panama City. I guess if I hadn’t messed around so much at lunch we wouldn’t have missed the last two bus tickets, ensuring we were now staying over an extra night and leaving bright and early the following morning. Now we had plenty of time to go snorkeling instead of wasting away the afternoon drinking cocktails – very pleased with the choice as the sea life around the islands was pretty cool, and cocktails would come later.
November 16th – November 23rd 2013