Bocas Del Toro, Panama - American Adventures 2015 (Part 8 of 9)


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Published: July 19th 2015
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My stay in Costa Rica was over and it was time to cross the border to Panama. Initially I wanted to stay in the NorthEast on the islands of San Blas, however that was a 24 hour journey and would lose me a lot of time which was running out. I instead decided to go to Bocas Del Toro, a well-known destination in the NorthWest just across from the border.

The journey to Bocas on the shuttle bus was confusing. At first I was on the bus with a number of other travellers going to Panama, some to Bocas and some elsewhere. At border control shortly after, the driver waited for us to get our passports stamped. I had read that you aren't allowed entry into Panama unless you prove you have an exit ticket out of the country, otherwise they will make you go online on the spot and buy an airline ticket at whatever price they choose to. As per usual, it was very hit-and-miss at customs. Some people were being asked for proof, some weren't, some asked for one thing, others asked for another ... there was zero logic behind this, it seemed like they were throwing dice to decide what to do with each person. I was prepared and was ready to pull my laptop out to show my onward ticket, yet they let me through with no questions ... 5 seconds, 1 stamp, done.

The next step was to get money exchanged and pay the Panamian entrance fee. I don't usually exchange money at the border as it's the best place for the worst ripoff rate, yet sometimes it was needed. I always had USD with me which in many places was accepted, yet it is always a safe bet and better value for money to also have local currency. As I entered the hut to pay my entrance fee, there was a man sat on the table with wads of cash around him and he was counting piles of notes .... it reminded me of Scarface where Tony Montana's not-so-legal business is growing out of control and the money is pouring in ... to the sound of Paul Engemann's "Push It To The Limit".

I swapped my money with this thief and paid my entrance fee, and I may have even cried a little because of the terrible exchange rate. When I got back to the shuttle bus it had cloned itself. There were now 2 buses that looked alike and 2 drivers that looked alike ... at first I thought it was the tears in my eyes fooling me but then I realized this was real. I don't know what happened ... all travellers were confused as we now ended up being split up and being told to go into both buses ... and when I say buses I mean more like dodgy white vans. I was told to go in the 2nd van and my luggage was in the 1st one so I wasn't happy about that ... they reassured me the suitcase will be waiting for me at the dock ... ok no problem, so far I've had no issues through Central America, I trust them. After half hour we landed at the dock where the boats leave to the islands of Bocas Del Toro. My suitcase was indeed there just sat in the middle, close to falling into the sea. I went to go grab it and a guy said "I've been looking after your suitcase, give me your money" ... to which I replied "it wasn't my plan to be separated from my gear, I'm not paying for you to do your job". He wasn't happy and asked for money again, so this time I said "I have given you 2 minutes of my precious time in conversation, I am worth a lot, give me your money" ... and he backed off.

These guys were trying anything for a tip. When the boat came they gave women a helping hand to climb onto the boat then told them "now you pay, we help you get on boat" .... come on guys, where are your gentleman skills? I didn't want to fall for any tricks so I grabbed all of my bags and climbed on the boat myself, Mr Bean style, trying not to drown in the process, refusing to let anyone touch me as I was aware each second of touch was worth 2 Balboa coins. I made it on and off we went, hurtling through the sea at full force towards the paradise islands.

I decided to go to the main island of Isla Colon, which to be fair I found it rather dirty and boring ... definitely not paradise in any way. For a start I was still being asked for drugs on the streets, especially when I'd be my friendly self and make eye contact to say "have a nice day", only to receive snorting gestures ... I hated this ...it made me not want to be friendly. Putting this aspect aside, there were some really cool things I saw. I was walking to the hostel in scorching heat and started hearing music. As it got closer I saw a dude on a bicycle with a speaker in the front basket dishing out beats, and behind him were his family on bicycles, mommy, son and daughter, all bopping about to the tunes ... it was funktastic. Unfortunately after an hour I still couldn't find my hostel and ended up at a local airport. I flagged a taxi down and realized how cheap they are here ...no ripping off, $1 to get from one part of the island to the other 😊

The hostel I stayed in was out of town and peaceful, with a takeaway during the night selling fish, beans 'n rice, and a chillout area on the rooftop with hammocks and flashing lights ... this was my relaxation spot for the next few days. My daily routine here was a stroll on the beach, local seafood, go to the supermarket and get some goodies then cook banana omelettes for people and make friends. The 1st night I was trying to sleep in the dorm room when suddenly there was a loud noise ... somebody had broken into the room. I heard footstep and then 2 girls start to whisper-giggle-chuckle. They climbed into a spare bed together ... I wasn't sure what I was expecting but I was fully awake and definitely awaiting some awesomeness ... it never arrived. This occurred each night, sometimes they would come in then go back out if there were no beds, otherwise stay in an empty bed. The rest of us thought there were homeless people sneaking into the hostel, but then I got chatting to an Argentinian over a banana omelette telling her about the 'homeless' people in my room ... and she told me it was her and her friend that were sneaking in. This hostel allows you to sleep outside in a tent for cheaper and these girls couldn't stay in the tent when it poured with rain (and it poured torrentially on this island), it was either sink or swim ... sink in their sleep or swim to a room with a bed. In fact, she told me a couple of days prior all their belongings including clothes had been robbed from their tent ... this was upsetting to hear, when I travel I put a lot of trust into fellow backpackers, you have to.

What I enjoy about travelling is it gives me the opportunity to experience the different parts of my brain. With someone I could be a joker, with another it can be relaxation, with another flirting, with another intellectual conversations, with another business opportunities ... it's great to find a common link and connect on the right level. I became very good friends with a guy from Switzerland and we discussed a lot about business and life. I spent a lot time discussing business ideas on the rooftop hammocks. Unfortunately this area was also mosquito central so I had to deet myself up big time throughout the evening and make myself smell like a chemical. I'm really not a fan of deet, but he works and is there for me when I need him the most ... long live Mr Deet.

The next day we went to a fish restaurant on the port and I was surprised to find out the waitress was the homeless tent girl, earning to replace the clothes that were stolen ... so we exchanged more stories and ate delicious fresh fish. As I hadn't done anything except chill in Bocas, I decided to book a tour to go snorkelling on dolphin island. I paid up the deposit, got everything booked for the next day and was excited to be swimming with dolphins. The guy wanted to make sure I wouldn't let him down and that I'd be there on time ... I assured him I would be. The next day, torrential rain ... result? feck the dolphins .... more intellectual conversations on the rooftop hammock (Mr Deet joined us also). It was a shame as I have never been up close to a dolphin and I'd like to experience this ... they are super smart creatures. I know this from the Flipper days back in my childhood.

There wasn't much else to do on this rather dull island and it was time to make my way to the final country ony my travels, Colombia. So far I had travelled through Central America on land via long-ass bus journeys followed by massages with no happy endings. What I failed to realize was there is no way to cross from Panama to Colombia via land as the only way is the Darien gap across the border that has no roads, only marshland and is where the drug smugglers hide and cross with their cocaina. If I had more time I may have gone that route for the extra adventure ... but it's probably a good idea I didn't get that opportunity. The option was to become a Colombian coke-addict's b!tch or fly across ... I chose the latter. I looked at many different airline companies yet the cheapest ticket I found was $350 USD .... for a 1 hour journey ... this was crazy and made the idea of being Mr drug smuggler's b!tch rather attractive .... no Etch, buy the frickin ticket. There are no lowcost airlines in that part of the world. People mock RyanAir but I love the fact we have those options.

DAVID, PANAMA

I managed to find a flight from the city of David further south in Panama to Medellin in Colombia. I then had to get a water taxi back from the island to the mainland, another taxi to the bus station, get on a bus for another loooooong journey, then a taxi to the hostel in David. Once I got there after a day's travel, I was chatting to someone about my journey and they said something that made me feel rather dumb. They asked me why I got a bus all the way to David then a flight from here, as there's an airport on the island I was staying at and the airline leaves from there. I went online and checked and yes, Isla Colon was in the list of departure airports ... I saw David and didn't bother scrolling my eyes down another 3cm to see Isla Colon as an option .... I walked past that airport the day I arrived when I got lost yet my brain forgot about it. Oh well, these things happen ... I may as well make the most of David for the 1 night. I only had 7 hours here and then I needed to head to the airport at 4am.

I went to the local supermarket to find some groceries for dinner. On the way this dog was following me and barking. I have nothing against dogs ... just don't follow me. I was telling it to leave me alone and didn't give it a second look ... it continued to bark as if it was trying to tell me something ... I wanted none of it, just leave me the f^ck alone. Eventually he put his head down and walked away and I went along to the supermarket to buy a pizza base and veg for toppings. Upon returning to the hostel, I realized there was no oven, so the idea of homemade pizza went out of the window. I then saw they had a microwave, and the idea of homemade pizza was back in ... soggy style 😊

As I was eating the microwaved pizza I got chatting to the receptionist guy. So far I'd been talking in Spanish with him but when I realized he was Brazilian, we switched to Portuguese. It was difficult for me to speak in Portuguese as my brain was now thinking in Spanish ... it was the same when I 1st moved to Portugal, I made the switch and forgot Spanish ... my brain can only do 1 or the other of these similar languages. It was a great conversation, the first time in my life I was discussing Quantum Physics in a non-English language.

Mushy microwaved pizza eaten, Quantum physics equations solved in Portuguese .... next step, join American travellers (and a Manc) at the local pool hall. We all walked to the pool hall as a big gang and along the way there was commotion ahead. As I approached I realized what had happened ... there was a dead dog on the street with its head snapped all the way around 180 degrees ... roadkill. It wasn't just any dog ... oh no no no ... it was that same dog that was trying to get my attention earlier and I kept telling it to f^ck off. I felt super sad, wondering whether it had foreseen this and was asking for my help and I let it down ... there was a message in there somewhere. Anyway, life goes on ... off we went to the pool hall. It's always great playing against Americans because they are used to huge pockets and balls where no skill is required, just hit hard and the ball will go in somewhere. Going from a British pool table to American is like swimming an Olympic sized pool and then getting from one end of your bath to the other to fetch rubber duckie ... you ain't gonna fail. Let's just say asses were whooped that night.

I went back to the hostel to try to get some sleep before my early start. I had a room in a jungle treehouse which was awesome, yet decided to stay up sitting by the swimming pool. It was midnight and it didn't make sense for me to sleep ... I wouldn't wake up in time. Instead I was Skyping someone to pass the time, then went to the airport very sleep deprived. I was early too ... the airport wasn't even open so I had to wait. I decided to freshen up in public toilets and took a look in the mirror ... and screamed .... I looked a mess. My reflection was that of a homeless man who was so red-eyed he must have been smokin' weed all night ... that's what the border popo will think. I tried to freshen up as much as I could and then checked in for the flight. Going through the security point, the guard looked at my passport, looked at my face and then asked me what drugs I'm smuggling to Colombia ... wowwww. I had to explain a number of times I'm not a user and the red eyes are sleep deprivation, nothing more.

He believed me in the end and I was through ... getting ready to fly off to my final destination, Medellin in Colombia, the city with a reputation for the hottest girls, great year-round weather ("city of eternal spring"), awesome vibes, beautiful parks and a very safe city. It was also to be my birthday while I was there, bonus ... can it top my previous birthday at Rio Carnaval? ... Tune in to find out.

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