Panama 2: Liked it so Much I Went Back: Scuba on Bocas Del Toro and Exceptional Peninsula de Azuero

Published: May 31st 2017
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I think it was late March. I said goodbye to my work. I hadn’t traveled in a while and my spirit was itching for it. Off the beaten path travel has always been my friend, allowing me to dream, also helping me process important things in life.

It was time! I was off for a great trip. I flew from Seatac Airport to Houston and connected for a direct flight to Panama City, Panama. I had really enjoyed the last trip and my dear buddy Peter in Boston was going to meet me for another one. We had unfinished business there, it was also a fairly quick flight that we got at a reasonable price. I hit the ground and met Peter in the airport.

It was great to see Peter’s smiling face, we got over to the domestic terminal and waited for a flight together headed for Bocas del Toro, on the Caribbean side. We weren’t sure what we were going to do but thought it would be a good place to start. As we sat on the airport
floor, I pulled out some bouncy balls to give to kids who were there with their parents. They loved them, smiles all around. We met a cool couple from Arizona named Mark and Sharon, they were going where we were going and we would talk on the plane.

We lifted up over the Panama jungle, the plane seated about 40 passengers.We crossed over to the Mosquito Coast, saw the brilliant Caribbean way below. On the way, we learned that Sharon was a nurse but also a scuba dive master. She and her husband Mark were going down here to dive, she said the water was nice, the vibe good and the rates affordable. We got
along great with them, when we disembarked in Bocas del Toro, we hopped in a pickup truck with them as we had no place planned to stay.

The place they had booked had little rooms right next to the water, A woman with a huge smile ran the place who served delicious coffee. We decided to stay there, the owner found us a room with breakfast for about $25/per day. It didn’t really matter that breakfast was a roll, bananas and good coffee. We were home. A short time later, we all tossed down
our bags and headed into the little town of Bocas. Mark and Sharon had to sort out some dive arrangements, we tagged along.

The little dive shop they went in was really laid back, in fact this whole town was just one street filled with backpackers and divers. I had heardabout this place, actually been here briefly a few years earlier duringa Costa Rica trip. It was nice to see that it hadn’t changed and was still a great little place. It was starting to be discovered, based on its natural beauty, diving, laid back pace, indigenous peoples, beaches, good seafood and nearby activities for kayakers and surfers.

So, the four of us felt like old friends, went out to a little café on a dock. This place felt very much like what I imagined old old Caribbean must have been like. I could imagine Ernest Hemingway having drinks on this dock with a few of his drinking and writing buddies. It
was interesting, the mix of people was some Spanish looking, many of African descent,
some indigenous people and a few expat Europeans running businesses. It seemed to be a very welcoming place. So, the four of us ordered bottles of the most delicious rum and carafes of super fresh fruit juice. I think it was mango and pineapple.

We sat there for hours, feeling the sun on our faces, really enjoying our new friends and so happy about where we had come. As our friends were divers, the conversation eventually turned to diving. I had snorkeled in my life but never taken a scuba course. I think it was the same for Peter. Our friends said that we should give ita shot, that this was an excellent, affordable place to take our certification course. Perhaps weakened by lots of rum, perhaps just because we were open to adventure, we said “yes”.

We stumbled to the dive shop, signed up for a four day course to start the next day. At the end of the course, if we passed, we would be certified PADI scuba divers. We stayed in town for dinner, grilled fish, rice and fresh fruit. After a great meal, we got back to our room and slept very well as we heard the water lap against the side of the building outside. We were up early at 7AM the next morning to head to dive class, delicious coffee and bananas first. I had a strong moment when I thought “why on earth have I signed up for a class on my vacation”? I was committed and Peter was excited so off we went.

We got to the dive shop and quickly became aware that this was not going to just be fun and games. Our diving instructor was in his late 20s, named Carlos from Argentina. He was a wonderful guy but very sincere about his teaching. We delved right into the books, I was grumbling about being inside. He explained that diving is beautiful but that it was very important for us to learn the science behind it and proper safety principles, he said it was life or death. The first day, our toes didn’t even go in the water, we were in the books all day. At the end of the day, I felt completely pissed off and had a bad attitude about the whole thing. Our instructor promised we would go in the water the next day, it couldn’t come fast

We had some local spicy chicken with salad and good bread for dinner which raised my spirits a bit. Peter seemed to have a better attitude about the class, he had hardly ever seen me grumpy. We turned in by 10PM. The next day wasn’t much better. We had lots more bookwork. There were two Argentineans in the class with us, they were nice enough but I was just in a foul mood. I couldn’t believe that the sun was shining, people were out doing things and I was inside a wooden house, sweating bullets and looking at books. To make things worse, our “time” in the water this day wasn’t even with a mask on, it was swimming drills and distance swimming. I was thoroughly pissed off and ready to quit. Peter begged me not to, I walked off, needing an attitude adjustment.

It was a nice walk, I felt the breeze on my face, walked down little lanes, talked with really nice locals. I had a bite to eat, a cold beer and found a great little pub/disco situated over a coral reef in the water that I wanted to come back to later. It was Thursday night, the owner said there would be lots of people & music later. I walked on a bit more and met an indigenous Kuna Indian woman in town to sell necklaces she had made. She was sitting down in the afternoon sun and having some coconut juice directly out of a coconut. I sat down and joined her, we spoke in Spanish for about 30 minutes, asking her about what I had heard about her tribe and sharing my stories of living with Embera tribe on my previous Panama trip.

She looked at me when we were done visiting, she handed me a beautiful necklace of shell and bamboo as a present. She said “take this, it will help you with what is worrying
you”. Amazing, just what I needed, perspective from a hard working woman when I had been bitching about being inside on my vacation. This necklace had a profoundly centering power for me, it was like all the good energy from places I had been wrapped up in one. That was 2002, I have worn the necklace since then, taking it off only for showers and tosleep. It is as much a part of my body as anything else. I have lost it a few times for a day and I was a mess on those days.

I walked back to meet Peter in town with a big smile on my face. I had had an attitude
adjustment in the most unexpected way. We saw our friends Mark and Sharon, who had been off diving a lot in the last couple days. They laughed at my frustration, told me about some
amazing fish they just saw today. They told me to hang in there and it would all be worth it.

The next day would be the day we took our first dive. The four of us had a really nice dinner with a big group of locals at a little hole in the wall place and then all went out to that pub/disco over the coral reef, a little shack with a great sound system and so pretty with the reef lit up at night and tropical fish visible right below. We met a lot of really cool travelers, I got more diving encouragement. One young woman lost her bracelet in clear water, I dove in and retrieved it. The owner of this place was a youngish guy from Minnesota, living an
interesting ex-pat dream. It is interesting when you talk with ex-pats, they seem happy but often seem like something is missing in their lives. As fantastic as living abroad can be, they often miss their families and where they grew up.

We danced, drank and enjoyed the crowd and live musicians that came by. It was reggae, never out of place. Needless to say, I was a lot more mellow and relaxed when I went to the dive shop the next day. We studied in the morning and then Carlos pronounced us ready to get in the water. We hopped in a small boat, headed out a couple miles to a great reef. We suited up, dropped into the water. The first dive was just to get comfortable, didn’t go lower than about 20 feet. We did exercises underwater, learned to follow hand directions, practiced our equalizing, safety stops and entry and exit from the boat.

Even though we were busy, I caught a glimpse of some lovely things. We came out of the water, stopped at a little island in the middle of nowhere for a picnic. Carlos surprised us with a few things he had brought.I felt the wind on my face and sun baking down, that what I am talking about! We got back in the boat and did two more dives this afternoon, each time staying in longer and going deeper. The last dive, which was my third real dive, I was starting to get comfortable enough to notice real beauty around me. There were coral, lobsters, sea anemones, moray eels, loads of fish. It was indeed a different world.

We wrapped up the day, Carlos made sure to explain to us that were weren’t done yet and would go through more drills the next day. I admired his attention to safety and detail, couldn’t have imagined a better teacher. This had been a long, satisfying day. We had more walking time this afternoon, Peter and I wandered around quite a bit, some together and some apart. Dinner was again good, we ate in our guesthouse, somehow the owner had scored some delicious shrimp and cooked it with garlic, butter and served it with French fries. Capped off with rum drinks that we were now making ourselves and hearing the water softly lapping, we
lounged on outside hammocks before nodding off to sleep at about 11PM.

I remember happy dreams this night, we were up again at 7AM. At the dive shop, we had a quick check in and then headed right out in the boat. The dives were deeper, we saw loads more things. We practiced a few more things. On our second dive of the morning, at about 80 feet down, Carlos pulled out a sign that said “you are now certified divers”. It was a really cool moment, we all smiled big under our masks and did underwater high fives. We rose to the surface, congratulating each other with hugs and slaps on the back. He had beers stashed on board for a celebratory lunch. The last two dives of the day were more relaxed and for enjoyment.

It was so nice to be comfortable down there, just to be able to hover weightless and admire a whole other world that exists under the ocean. It had all been worth it. We had a celebratory dinner with Sharon and Mark, they had been the reason for us taking this class. At $200, it was great value. I was ready to be done with class but wouldn’t trade the experience.

The next morning, Peter and I got a boatman and a small boat for the day. We wanted an adventure and we got it. We headed about 7 miles across open water to a little island, met an old indigenous family who grew and processed chocolate beans. I saw this old guy carving a wooden oar from hardwood. I asked him if I could buy it from him. He did, and carved his signature in it. I’m not sure what possessed me to buy this oar, I would carry it with me for the rest of trip. We had a great day, stopped at a number of islands famous for brightly colored poisonous frogs.

We carried on around the south end of a big island, stopped at a native settlement called Salt Creek. We ended up spending more time in their village than we imagined, buying crafts and talking with the locals. Our boatman had been urging us back to the boat, we didn’t really know why. He groaned when we finally got in, pointed to the sky and the waved whipping up. Our boat was small and we had a long way to go. There was a storm coming in. We turned north and headed back toward Bocas, hugging the long island as much as we could.

We made slow progress, beaten back by waves and then motor stalling a number of times. We were all baling water and doing our best to keep our balance in the middle of the boat. We finally passed the long island called Bastimentos and unfortunately had to head about 3 miles across open water. When we got out a bit, I realized how small the boat was and how high the waves were. We worked and strained, I was really scared for some time. We
finally, at dusk, made it back to port. We were completely exhausted and emotionally drained. It had been an amazing day, we went looking for adventure and certainly found it. We had a boat to catch off island the next morning.

We had one more meal in town, said goodbye to all of the people at the dive shop and all the other people we had met. It was a tight knit town and we had met plenty. We had a last visit with Sharon and Mark, we felt like old friends by now. We slept well and hopped on a fast boat in the morning about 7AM. We got to the mainland,a port town that was best known for banana production. We walked about half a mile, hopped on a bus headed west into the mountains. As we rolled out of town and up into the hills, the scenery changed from endless bananas to woods and flowers.

At about 2,000 feet up, the road was quite windy and starting to get cooler. It was hard to believe that this very morning, we started at sea level and now would be climbing up to the misty forests of Volcan, cool, coffee growing country. We did indeed, the ride was lovely. We
briefly considered getting out and staying but were fascinated with another part of Panama so carried on. Up and over the mountains we went, down to the town of David, which Peter and I had flown into a few years earlier. We carried on this long day of travel, joined the Panamerican Highway and hopped another bus, finally arriving at the town of Chitre’ about 6PM. This was Peninsula de Azuero, the most traditionally Spanish part of Panama and where we would spend the next week.

We stumbled off the bus and stretched our tired bodies. We walked down to a little market where the first of my big wooden oar disasters happened. I had it leaned next to me, we were asking a young woman directions to a local hostel. As we were talking, it came down and
cracked her in the head. She looked at me with a look of amazement and disgust. I think she stopped giving us directions. We found our place, took a very welcome shower and then wandered out in this cute town. The people were dressed more traditionally, seemed pretty shy, not many visitors came this way.

We got some excellent good on the street, cold beers and then we wandered over to some outside music we heard. It turned out to be a big salsa outside dance party. We joined the best we could, learned some very rudimentary salsa dancing and then joined the fun. About 200 locals were there, the music/dancing went on for hours. They loved us trying, even though it wasn’t pretty. I know I keep saying that we slept well but after every day full of activity, we usually did. I journaled before bed, as I always do when I travel. My journals are my most prized possessions.

Peter and I talked before we went to bed, made a pact to hitchhike and only accept open air rides on the Peninsula de Azuero. We packed our bags, feeling refreshed, walked out of our hostel and to the main road west at about 8AM. We got a coffee, excellent in this
country, at a little stand. We were headed for the Pacific Ocean, we first got a ride with a truck
driver and rode in the back. Endless fields passed by, this area seemed to have agriculture.

We saw people in traditional outfits, the young girls had lovely colorful dresses on and the gentlemen all wore hats. The truck driver left us near the side of the road and 15 minutes later
we got a ride with some young honeymooners all the way out to the Pacific Coast. We passed Las Tablas, Pedasi and finally arrived at Playa Venado, our home for the next couple days. We got a simple room right on the ocean, ready to relax and enjoy this place. There were a few western travelers and Panamanian ones here. Quite a few surfers passed this way, I guess farther up the coast there were some big waves.

This was also an area known for huge game fish. Japanese fish buyers came here, regularly pulled gigantic tuna out of the water and put them on planes back to Japan. We put down our packs, felt very much at home. The next couple of days we did a lot of relaxing beach combing, played some beach volleyball, ate great fresh seafood and drank cold beer. We fell in with a couple from Holland, played cards and had a few meals with them.

I caught up on my journal, Peter read a lot. Basically, we did a whole lot of nothing. There really wasn’t much around here, not a very good place to hike. The relaxing was exceptional though, I felt very well deserved after our scuba course. A couple days later, we headed back to the main road and hitchhiked north along the coast. We had heard about an amazing place called Isla Canas and wanted to go.

After about an hour ride, our driver pointed down a dirt road and said to go that way. We waited half an hour or so in burning sun, no cars turned down this road so we decided to walk. It was
brutally hot and a very long walk, about an hour. Our packs were 40 lbs, it was great workout. We finally got to the end of the first road, dripping with sweat. There was a young boy at the end of the road playing with his friend, I spoke Spanish with him and asked him how we
could get to Isla Canas. We thought he was joking when he pointed to a metal pole.

He said to bang on it with a baseball bat that was on the ground. We tried it a few times, I was convinced he was just messing with me, this whole thing with the long dirt road and pole was a bit surreal. Just when I was about to give up and suggest we ask someone else, a small canoe pulled up in an almost invisible channel. The boat boy had a small oar he used to negotiate the mangroves. We got in the canoe, looked at each other in amazement and off we went. In about 15 minutes, we crossed a little channel, negotiated some more mangroves
and came up to a little island. Actually, I didn’t know if it was little because we could only see our little part of it.

We got off the boat, walked through the mangrove forest and were met by a nice man who gave us a delicious glass of coconut water. We were very dehydrated, he must have sensed it because he gave us two more each. We told him we would like to stay for a few nights, he walked us over to a buddy’s house who had a spare room for rent. We settled in, it was near the western side of the island facing the Pacific. We put out bags down, walked out to the sand, it was glorious.

We had learned that this whole island was a turtle refuge and breeding area. We saw the evidence everywhere, hollowed out places in the sand. We were told that at night you could see the turtles. So, that is what we did: got to know the lovely locals, almost bought a hut for $20,000, walked incredible remote beaches, ate some incredibly fresh fish and prawns, saw turtles at night and slept outside one night under a million stars.

What an amazing place! I can tell you that after a few days; that was one paradise that was hard to leave. I think about it often, would be a choice location if I were
needing witness relocation. It had to happen though. We woke up one morning, took the canoe, caught a ride thankfully this time, went the other way around to Chitre’, caught rides and bussed all day and got to Panama City late in the day.

It had been a whirlwind wonderful journey, many memories and adventures. We got a room, had a great last celebratory meal, slept well, said goodbye at the airport and I was soon back in Seattle. Gracias, Panama.


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