Crossing into Panama, Bocas del Toro and the Heart of a Storm!
As we headed into Panama across the railway bridge crossing from Costa Rica, we would never have thought to look skyward at the weather. It was bright, few white clouds in the sky in all directions, but that means nothing during this time of year. Border crossing we relatively easy, and we got in a taxi to the bus station and then a short wait at before setting off in a small van towards Almirante and the boat to Bocas del Toro.
Chiriqui Grande in Panama on a good day (credit flickriver)
As we arrived, the bus pulled alongside a grass patch and you could see all the little fishing boats bobbing in the distance. Someone came walking over and spoke with the driver and the message that was relayed to us was that a storm was coming and no one was willing to captain the boat over to Bocas del Toro island. We were pretty gutted but the bus driver said there was another place farther south. We agreed on checking it out, and threw him a few extra dollars each to take us there, but he ensured us, no promises. If a boat wasn't leaving tonight, we would have to post up somewhere and hope they were leaving in the morning. We agreed to take the chance and pulled up to the floating town of Chiriqui Grande. We thanked the driver profusely for understand our urgency on getting there today and tipped him a few extra dollars which he appreciated and we walked quickly along the docks. There was a couple places to depart but only one boat remaining that would take us. The boat filled up, we covered our bags on the ground with a plastic tarp, and putted out of the waterway. As they usually do, the journey started out no problem, but as we cleared the docks, and the shelter of land taking the brunt of the swell, things started to get choppy. Also with the sun going down, by the time we were out in the open ocean, it was almost pitch black so you could not see each "thud" coming, you just felt a little weightlessness as we took off the face of a wave, and the braced for the impact. The wind then started to pick up, and the rain came crashing down.
Partnering back up with my Aussie buddies on Boca del Toro
Also, with the captains eagerness to get to land, and being an open faced boat with nothing to deflect the air, the wind coming through was crazy! I put my hand onto the pole beside me that was bolted in and kept the tarp above our heads in place and all of a sudden I felt a yank on my arm. The roof had come loose and was being held in by me, a guy on the other side of the boat doing the same thing, and the 2 poles at the back. Everyone started yelling at the captain who had no idea, and eventually brought the boats speed down so we could find the pins that had rattled loose and fasten it back in. At this time we were getting sloshed around by the waves coming at an angle considering we had stopped moving, but we picked up our speed, got a little more weight, held the pins in place and arrived at a miserable but welcoming Bocas del Toro.
Strolled to the end of the main road and checked in Mondo Taitu Hotsel where we knew our other friends would be staying. Sure enough, strolled in to reception to see them walk down the stairs in coconut bikini's welcoming us with a cold beer. "Its 80's Power Hour in 30 minutes!" Not bothering to ask what it was, just going off their enthusiasm, we knew we couldn't miss it so we showered up and came back down to the bar. Power Hour turned out to be the chorus of an 80's song, every 30 seconds, for an hour, and as the rain and wind picked up outside and the storm rolled in, we stayed inside enjoying ourselves.
Hostel #2 on Bocas del Toro - Hostel Heiki, Panama
Waking up in the morning, I walked downstairs to go get something to eat and as I stepped off the bottom stair I was up to my shins in water. Being that the coast of Bocas del Toro is so close to the streets, and also the immense rain, the streets and the hostel were completely flooded. Flooded to the point where as I tried to walk out to the streets, in the reception area I had to step over a giant crab and some fish! If it was not accidental, this would actually be a cool feature! An aquarium floor. Returning to the hostel and seeing the magnitude of the problem, we grabbed our bags and moved to their sister hostel, Hostel Heiki, just down the road and checked in before the flood of water generated a flood of travellers looking for a dry hostel.
Back side of Isla Carenero, Bocas del Toro, Panama
Turned out, that I actually preferred Hostel Heiki. Great walk out to the street and restaurants just down the road. Great kitchen, lounge area, and only 2 stories with a great balcony over looking the street. Soon, everyone that arrived in time moved in Hostel Heiki and our crew was reunited! The trend of weather seemed to be either rainy all day, or sunny in the day, and pouring rain in the afternoon all throught the night. Taking advantage of the sun I decided to head over to Isla Carenero, one of the less inhabited islands in the area. Short couple dollar boat ride over, and before even arriving and stepping foot on the island, you could see the damage that the storm had done. The ground was sopping wet and almost like a swamp, so they had turned plastic milk crates upside down and laid planks of wood between them as walkways. Still, even with this "disaster" as some may view it, the people smiled and waved at me as I walked around their little homes.
Returning from there, to the water streets of Bocas del Toro, but a warm shower, dry bed, and the ability to just get up and leave the island, left me in no position to complain when seeing the appreciation and strength the people on Isla Carenero had. After a few more days though, we had to do exactly that and say goodbye to Bocas del Toro, and with still no boats leaving because of the weather, we took the short flight from the island to Panama City. Another bucket list item being approached, the Panama Canal.