A chill ran down my spine as we passed a burnt-out fuselage that sat rusting in the front yard of a home near the exit gate of the Bocas del Toro airport (left). It made me wonder if the bumpy flight from Panama City we had just experienced was really to be blamed on the weather.
It was a stern reminder that although Panama is experiencing a heightened economic growth, the country is still developing. “Bocas,” as the locals refer to it, may be the epitome of that statement.
This archipelago lies just south of the Costa Rican border. Even today it is quite isolated and may have remained a dot on the map had world-class waves not been discovered. Although it's on the Caribbean, its coral reefs produce big, heart-pounding surf.
Like the Pied Piper, the wave riders’ tune soon brought divers, sailors and backpackers from around the world. Now a weathered sign welcomes visitors in seven different languages.
Bocas is a boomtown struggling for its true identity. Sales of high-end condos compete with indigenous people selling trinkets. Sailboats and yachts fill the numerous slips while local children paddle by in dugout canoes. Gone is the rice-and-beans diet of the region, replaced by ethnic restaurants from around the world.
What does remain is the jungle, its inescapable beauty and its insistency to reclaim what it has lost. The heat, the humidity and the insects are here to stay – always on the periphery as a reminder that they're waiting to take back what is theirs.
Lured like many before, we were attracted to this region for the surf. Unfortunately we found little. Like a scene out of Endless Summer we were constantly told, “You should have been here last week.”
Fortunately, we did have a couple of days that ranged from 3-5 feet. The warm water and uncrowded ocean made the cuts and abrasions from the sharp coral worth it. For a few dollars a water taxi will drop you off outside the break, then pick you back up in a couple of hours.
Bocas del Toro is a vanishing paradise. With foreign investment and expats from around the world, its goal is to be yet another vacation destination for the rich and famous. Nonetheless, as I write this, the Eden still exists. Deserted beaches and jungle trails beckon to be enjoyed and explored. The warm blue Caribbean is nothing if not a waterman’s dream.
I encourage you to go now, lest in the future you may be met with the reoccurring mantra of “You should have been here before.”