Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Bastimentos: a little slice of paradise

Rene aka "Cheno" is a slender 5'9" Bastimentos native. He has 4 siblings and "so many cousins" that he cannot even keep track of them anymore. Ask anyone, and not only do they know him, but they will probably tell you exactly how they are related. Although he has not been directly elected, Cheno is the mayor of Basti. 

Bombe, aka "big Papi" (due to his love of the Boston Red Sox) is Rene's best friend. Hovering at 5'7" and an easy 250 lbs, Bombe is a man with a warm smile and a mother that can cook up a mean piece of fish. Often hanging off his porch on the main strip, Bombe keeps track of the on goings in town and can help you find cold beers and Abuelo (Panamanian rum) after a long day at the beach.

And then there is Roberto. A dashing young man who "cannot find a wife because all these women here are my cousins", Roberto is one of the islands greatest resources. Not only does his mother operate one of the restaurants in Old Bank but he is one of the islands primary water taxi drivers. From Bocas town to Red Frog to Bibi's on Isla Carenero, Roberto is the man that will get you there and sometimes even with a beverage in hand. 

Although only 3 people, these are the people that make Bocas del Toro, and more specifically, Isla Bastimentos a little slice of heaven. Bastimentos, the largest of the islands in the archipelago, is a place to spend a day, a week, or even a lifetime. It's a place of smiles and loud cackles, the freshest fish and sweetest coconut bread. It's a place of world class surf and cold Panama beers. It is a place where reggaeton pours out onto the one sidewalk in town and time moves slow.

Although the guide books originally took me to Isla Colon, the more populated island in the Bocas del Toro archipelago, I knew I wanted a place where the beaches are practically empty, the surf is top notch, and where the bars are filled with locals and not the hoards of young backpackers from around the world. And so Bastimentos was exactly the island getaway I was searching for. 

Things to do in Bocas del Toro (in no particular order):

1. Hike to Red Frog beach, grab a beer, and then continue on to Pollo beach, Bocas's best kept secret. The hike to Pollo takes about 1.5-2 hours depending on speed and winds through the jungle and along the beaches. It's a beautiful walk and the great thing is that you can water taxi back from Red Frog (Pollo is 25 mins past Red Frog).

2. Day boat tour to Cayo Zapatilla, dolphin cove and Cayo coral. The definition of paradise comes from Cayo Zapatilla so pack so cervezas and a mask and snorkel and enjoy as much of it as you can. $25 per person.

3. Spend an evening in Bocas Town eating ceviche at the fish shop at the end of the island. This stuff is so good that it sells out so make sure you get there early. 

4. Surf at one of the many prime surf spots on the island. Surf lessons and boards can be rented at Bibi's on Isla Carenero. 

5. Eat at firefly on Bastimentos. Amazing food and drink--Period. Reservations necessary. 

6. Hike to the coffee shop on the hill on Bastimentos island and get the brownie. You won't regret this amazing (and fully organic) delectable. The coffee is also top notch. 

Travel practicalities:

1. If you can, fly. $100 each way on air panama. Flight is 45 minutes from Panama City and is worth every penny. 

2. Boat/bus. You can take a boat to/from Almirante and then bus to Panama City. Their is one direct bus to/from each day that takes 10 hours. Although the cost of $25 is significantly cheaper I would argue that your time is much better spent on the beach. If you do go by bus bring a blanket because they blast the AC. Ear plugs also will help tune out the constant stream of bachata music and babies crying. 

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