Paradise in Panama – Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro

Border crossing days are never fun. Most border towns have an ATM nearby, and the crossing from Costa Rica into Panama at Sixoula was no exception. Located about 5 minutes drive from town is a strange ATM located in a single concrete building up a flight of concrete stairs, right outside a police station. Unlucky for us though, this ATM wasn’t giving out cash today.

A few hours spent accidentally driving past Costa Rican customs straight into Panama, not being able to get cash, walking all the way across a rickety wooden railway bridge and back again for no reason, driving 30 minutes back into Costa Rica to get cash out, then having to pay our Costa Rican exit fee by credit card anyway made for a grumpy team Si Con Queso. Cash finally in hand we sorted out exit and entry stamps while stray dogs dragged off bags of rubbish to dissect for lunch.

Bienvenidos a Panama!
Bienvenidos a Panama

The first thing we noticed when we arrived in Panama was how disorganised the whole border process was. There’s a sign at the Aduana (customs) office telling you which order to get things done, but when you try to follow it they tell you you’re doing it in the wrong order. Also the buildings are scattered all over the place, there’s so sense to it at all, something we’ve come to call (very sarcastically) the good old Central American efficiency.

This how we do things in Panama, we don't even take the wheels off the truck, we just brick it all in together
Just an idea of the shambolic state of the Costa Rica/Panama border crossing at Sixoula…they didn’t even remove the wheels from this trailer office when they bricked it in

The second thing we noticed, not surprisingly, was the price of beer. Purchasing our mandatory ‘new country’ beer the 65c price tag for a can of Panama lager was a shock after the overpriced everything in Costa Rica. Constantly winding up the windows as the whine of low flying crop dusters passed overhead, we couldn’t avoid Porkchop being chemically doused as we kept out eyes peeled for the ‘police’ point we were supposed to stop at to handover $10. We’re not sure what this additional ‘customs fee’ was for, but we didn’t see anywhere to stop so we didn’t…we’re sure we’ll find out when we try to get out of the country!

  65c beers, I think we're gonna like Panama!
Welcome to Panama, home of the 65c beer

Following our emotional day crossing the border into Panama the first night was spent in the nondescript port town of Almirante, though spending the night queued up at the port for the 6:30am ferry was not ideally how we wanted to start our venture into Panama. Riding out to get some food for dinner Matt soon found himself on the wrong side of the tracks, literally.  Crossing over into Barrio Frances at dusk there’s a mix of rowdy young groups, families and drunks.  Bricking it slightly Matt ducks into the supermarket and is back in no time.

Chilling out in the van cooking dinner we’re approached by the local crab pusher and sure enough we’re suckered in.  For $1 a hit how could you resist?  Upon cooking up the crustacean and cracking it open we discover our tasting looking treat hasn’t much meat, so left wanting more we realised we’d been hustled by the Puerto pusher.

$1 crab for dinner while waiting for the morning ferry to Bocas del Toro
Our $1 crab that looked promising but didn’t even have enough meat to feed a baby 

Needing a bathroom while parked up in the ferry queue the only place nearby is the dodgy little Yacht Club bar located over the water where we enjoyed a beer whilst watching a Spanish dubbed Korean Monkey Magic style film. Back at the van we were approached by another local guy, this one letting us know his job is to patrol the parked cars while the owners sleep comfortably in surrounding hotels. As we happened to be cooking dinner at the time we offered him some of our stir fried veggies which he happily accepted, coming back with our plate and cutlery to tell us it was amazing and that he’d make sure our van was safe for the night.

Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro
Main Street of Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro

A 6am wake up call of ‘VAMOS!’ saw us on the ferry to Isla Colon in the Bocas del Toro archipelago. Carnival time at Bocas del Toro (typically the second week of February) is basically an excuse for the locals to let there hair down with many a slapped together rambling shacks dotting the main plaza. These are populated mainly by men getting shitfaced drunk on cheap beer to a sound track of blarring local techno, whilst pissing and vomiting wherever they like when the need arises.

Though don’t let this put you off.

Carnival preparations on Bocas del Toro, diablo masks
Handmade Diablo masks ready for Carnival time, Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro

Wanting to avoid sleeping in Porkchop on the side of the road right in town, the most inviting option was Playa Bluff. Driving the 11kms out to the beach is nothing short of a beautiful yet arse clinching bounce along the road, if you could call it that,  with parts washed out by the crashing waves that in hindsight is best attempted in a 4WD. We saw a girl go slightly too far right in her newly rented ATV and have to be winched out of the ocean by a passing taxi.

Relaxing at Playa Bluff, Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro
Paradise at Playa Bluff, believe it or not a few days later the swell was in and this was a pumping surf beach

Wondering what kind stupid decision we’d made to dare venture up here in our van, we’d soon gone too far to look back.  Managing the drive better than expected due to 4WD-ing experience, we managed to guide Porkchop to within 100 meters of The Beach Bar, before a dip in the road laden with a trough of questionably soft sand had us considering turning around back to town….but again we’d gone too far to go back now.  Mustering up the courage and with some hand shoveling and few planks of wood laid in the path of the tyres we tenuously put the foot on the gas.  Porkchop goes a little this way, a little the other way, wheels start to loose traction and the blood pressure reaches a dangerous limit. SUCCESS! We’re up and over and parked up in the knowledge that an icy cold brew awaits on the golden sandy shores.

Relaxing at Playa Bluff, Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro
Playa Bluff, Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro

The Beach bar is basically a shack on the beach which offers beautiful accommodation set back from the beach amidst a refreshing garden.  Pulling up one of the tables on the bank we find ourselves in a slice of paradise for the afternoon.  The seas were calm enough for pleasant swimming (which if you surf you’d know that this is the season for it and it’s a rarity to see a sea like a glass blanket) so we whiled the day away swimming and fighting for possibly the best hammock position in the world.

Relaxing at Playa Bluff, Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro
Arguably one of the best hammock positions in the world, Playa Bluff

Wanting to stay the night up there we inquired with the owners about the weather for the next day.  One of the patrons inform us that the swell isn’t meant to be back for the next two days, supposedly giving us the all clear. We’ve had a couple of brews by now and the realisation hits us that if we do get swell earlier than forecast the road may not be passable for us to ever get back, and whilst we couldn’t deny it was paradise, the decision was made to head back before sundown.  Tearing ourselves away from Bluff heaven we asked another couple in a 4WD to take the lead and wait for us just after the previous mentioned ‘dip’ in the track in case we needed a tow out.

Relaxing at Playa Bluff, Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro
Matt enjoying a beer at Playa Bluff Beach Bar

Dramas avoided motoring down the road back to town we drop into the Bocas Brewery.  A venture started by owner Tim whom we chatted with over a Chivoperro IPA, Black Top Amber Ale and their Porter.  Having thoroughly enjoyed the back patio shaded by huge trees with views looking out to the ocean, we headed back into town, turning off the engine opposite the Town Hall.

Bocas Brewery, stop by for the mango IPA if you're lucky they'll still be brewing it
Tasty craft beers brewed on site and a shaded rear patio at Bocas Brewery


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