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Pushing into Panamá: Rio Sereno to Bocas Del Toro

We entered into Panama without even realizing we had crossed the imaginary line between the two countries. The night before we camped at a little botanical garden high in the mountains. We thought it would be an hour drive back down to cross, but the owner told us about a smaller border that we hadn't even seen on the map, and it was only 25 minutes away. The next morning, as we turned out of town, the pavement gave way to dirt. The only indication we were near the border was when we saw two buildings with flags on top, one Costa Rican and one Panamanian. We parked in a small gocery store parking lot and started asking around for where to go first. No signs and the fact that a shipping container was used for a Customs office didn't make things easy, but this border crossing was so chill compared to the others.

The only sign. We had to pay our exit tax at the agriculture store around the corner from the supermarket parking lot

Which looked like this. They sold everything..parakeets, sod, hammers...

And this: A Costa Rican souvenir machete cover. However, we have since lost the machete. One of the great mysteries of our road life.

It is at this border we need to get all the important documents for shipping the rig in Panama City. Here is the tiny insurance office.

Temporary vehicle permit office. Computer went down, then back up again, then down...

We it made it through the border in only an hour and a half (our shortest border crossing yet) and got to the city of David early afternoon. We hit the first mall we saw and got a phone, snacks, a few beers, and then decided to press on into the mountains toward Bocas Del Toro. We made our way up into the highlands, through the mountains and down into the Bocas Del Toro province. We drove through the villages of the indigenous Ngöbe-Buglé people. They are Panama’s largest indigenous group and have managed to survive on subsistence fishing and farming in the region.

We weren’t sure we could get all the way up to Bocas by dark but we cruised into the town of Almirante at 5:30 pm. However, the last ferry to the islands is at 6:00 pm. I told John I didn’t think we could make it and we should either get a hotel or sleep in the rig. Neither choice was good. The town of Almirante is pretty (ok, really) sketchy so a night stuck in a crappy hotel wasn’t that appealing. I asked the owner of the parking lot if we could sleep in the rig and she said ok. Then she told us she has 10 Rottweiler’s and lets a bunch out right at 7:00 pm to guard the cars - so no exiting the vehicle after 7. John looked at me and said, “We’re going to make that ferry”.

Rotweiler parking

Swimming probably not a good idea around these "water closets" (WC) in the neighborhoods of Almirante.

After a mad dash into the truck to pack a bag, we secured the rig while one of parking lot guys headed to the water taxi to hold the boat for us, and by 6:10 we were cruising across the water on our way to the islands. We had no plan, no hotel, and no idea where we were going. Once we got to Bocas Town we found really good sushi place two doors down from the ferry dock and a decent hotel next to that. The day started in Costa Rica, included a border crossing, seven hours of driving and a race to a water taxi ride, but ended it on a Caribbean island. Much better than a night in a parking lot with a bunch of hungry Rottweiler’s.

7 hours of driving and a border crossing makes for a tired JD.

Bocas Del Toro is an archipelago of seven islands off Panama – it includes dozens of cays and roughly 200 islets with powdery white beaches, swaying palm trees, and very few crowds. The banana industry built the town and brought workers from the distant Caribbean islands, so the culture is mixed and creates an easygoing laid-back vibe. The main island is the 25-square-mile Isla Colón, whose main city is Bocas Town. Big luxury resorts have not come to Bocas del Toro (yet). We spent the night in Bocas Town, and in the morning found a little casita called the Monkey Tree House. We spent a week there, exploring Isla Colon.

Bocas Town

Monkey Tree house

A contender. His name would have been Chico. With a Pamana hat. Had we not been on an island he was the one.

There is an interesting dynamic on the trip sometimes - dealing with issues of our life back home. It feels very disconnected to be hashing out problems so far away when they come up, which thankfully, hasn't been often. Our time in Bocas Del Toro was marked by more than a few sleepless nights dealing with our tenant who rented our home. He had been creating problems for us for months, sending threatening letters to sue us over nonsensical issues. It reached a point of ridiculousness one night and John said, "enough", and called him. With our limited phone chits ticking away on our Panamanian phone, John managed to diffuse the issue and hash out an agreement for him to leave our house early. Had we been home it might not have gotten to that point. We rarely deal with normal every day stress from our old life so now when it comes up, its difficult to process how or where to "fit" it in to our life on the road.

John on the phone dealing with "real" life.

We also explored Isla Bastimentos. This island is one of the other main islands and is part of a national marine park. It has a small town called Old Bank and a large indigenous Ngöbe-Buglé community called Salt Creek, or Quebrada de Sal. It also has several eco lodges, all fueled by solar power that are trying to integrate, rather than alienate the Ngöbe-Buglé people. I had a project here while at Planeterra, and spoke of it often as one of our success projects, but had never visited this community. Planeterra funded 15 rainwater catchment tanks in the surrounding schools for clean water, and an ambulance boat. In my talks, I would mention how close tourism was to these communities, yet they had no access to clean water or emergency medical care. Finally being here, staying in these communities and knowing our efforts had helped the kids (and the community) here, was a little closure for me.

Local fisherman of Salt Creek

We found a little eco resort last minute called Al Natural, walked to their dock and took the 45-minute boat ride over to Isla Bastiamentos. We motored through little mangrove islands that make up the national park, to the southern tip of Bastiamentos. As soon as we got to the dock we knew we made the right choice. Very rustic, beautiful calm water, and only 7 huts right on the beach.

Dock at Al Natural

Our home on Isla Bastimentos

We made new friends with a family from Amsterdam on the boat ride over, and more friends as soon as we sat down to lunch at the communal dining table. On any given night the table had people represented from France, Germany, The Netherlands, Costa Rica, Italy, Honduras, and Switzerland.

Mike, Aletta, and little Dave. Great meeting you, and we'll see you in Holland some day!

dubbele duim Dave

Red Frog Beach on Isla Bastiamentos

A planned two days there turned into five, and we reluctantly left late in the afternoon to make our way back to the rig. After 14 days in Bocas, our next stop is Panama City where we begin the complicated process of shipping our rig to Colombia.

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