Bars and stars – Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro

Finding the only bar on Bocas that has craft beer (at $5 a pop, ouch), Hostel Tungara on the main strip pulls in a mixture of crew that also have a taste for the strong cocktails spewing over the bar. With sun truly sunk the Carnival crowd in the plaza across the street becomes drunker and seedier, and the competing sounds of side by side sound systems at full decibels becomes a bit overwhelming for our western ears.

 Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro
Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro

Being one of the better nights to venture over to Carenero Island on the $1 water taxi, we found a group and headed across the water to Aqua Lounge (also a lively hostel). Arriving to the burly security giving everybody the pat down, entries are paid and we queue for our included free rum, which Sarah received extra strong after a wink at the barman and a polite ‘mas fuerte por favor?’.

Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro
Isla Colon

Turning from the bar there’s a small maze of platforms, sea pools and swings all looking like trouble in a few beers time.  Sure enough five minutes later someone’s in the water and a little later so is one of Sarah’s thongs after a friendly arguement with a new Austrian friend over skiing vs snowboarding. Bumping into Aussie’s Mark and Hannah (from our time in El Salvador) plus some new friends, they’d been on the Island for a few day previously and were a little astonished that we’d made it all the way up to Playa Bluff in the van when they had been taking nothing but 4WD taxis.

Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro
The pleasant, tropical 15 minute walk from carpark to Playa Estrella, skip the boat

Back on Isla Colon after Aqua Lounge, the swell was still small and none of the beaches were firing that day, so fun was supplied by Playa Estrella (beach of Star[fish]) on the opposing side of the island to Bocas town. The 16km winding road takes you past caves and down a short sand path to the car park, where a short walk past the restaurants and beautifully located houses lets you take your pick of coconut palm lined seclusion on the way to Estrella (just be careful as small fine shards of sand my embed themselves in your feet like tiny shards of glass, ruining the perfection). The beach is a curved, tree shaded stretched that would potentially be a perfectly blissful place to laze the day away. Until of course each of the ramshackled restaurants crank up the gigawatts on the techno crap. This along taxi boats constantly bringing those too lazy to walk the pleasant 15 minutes kind of steals what would otherwise be a ‘star’ attraction.

Starfish on Playa Estrella, Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro
Starfish at Playa Estrella, Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro

The fishing boat which arrived with two tourists holding up their prize catch of two baby sharks (well done you heroes!) also left a bad taste. To be honest the beach was made out to have loads of starfish though seemed to be lacking that day, possibly due to the fact so many of the tourists ignore the signs asking kindly not handle them.  The guard on the beach does little to deter them, though his whistle makes him sound the part.  Some people just don’t get it.

Matt relaxing on our private beach near Playa Estrella, Isla Colon
Our own private beach paradise, near Playa Estrella

The rest of the afternoon was spent watching Sarah spend over two hours trying to crack open a couple of coconuts she’d picked up from the beach. Eventually a young collective driver waiting nearby either felt sorry for her or was too frustrated to continue watching (we’re going with the latter) and finished the job in under 15 minutes.

Free coconuts! Playa Estrella, Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro
Wilson, one of Sarah’s free coconuts off the beach near Playa Estrella

Heading back to town to a day long deluge, we hungout doing some housekeeping at Rum Runners. Good coffee and a good atmospthere, not once did we get the feeling they wanted us to leave. We even had some interest in Porkchop, parked across the road with, sadly, the For Sale sign up. When the rain finally stopped we watched a common black hawk swoop across the road with a live blackbird in it’s mouth, which it proceeded to eat alive.

 Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro
Waste away a rainy day housekeeping with the WiFi at Rum Runners

The Carnival tradition here is very different to what you’d see in Rio, and consists mainly of huge elaborate red and black Diablo (devil) masks. Fashioned by hand from fabric, feathers, leather, bells etc, these costumes have the potential to give your kids nightmares, especially when the young men of the town come marching down the street screaming, hooting and cracking their whips.

Carnival Diablo masks, Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro
Hand made Diablo Carnival masks, a Bocas tradition

One guy we spoke to was putting his masks together including numerous levels of cardboard, padded fabric, and finishing touches for eyes and other details, so we were able to see how much work is actually involved each year (yes they make a new one each year!). Apparently if you’re on the street when they arrive you’re fair game so expect a whipping). Every day a water truck would pull into town and douse the crowd, who’d also aim straight for the gringo’s with their water pistols as you passed.

 Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro
Sarah getting ready for a good soaking

Again meeting up with Marcus, Hannah and the Aussie boys, we grabbed some tasty meat skewers off the street then headed to Toro Loco for some cheap happy hour beers. This place is a bit of an expats delight, with glass cabinets displaying shot glasses from all over the world, dart boards, $1 beers all afternoon and awesome American style wings (they even come with celery and ranch dip!). If wings aren’t your thing wrap your mouth around the Greek wrap or awesome blue cheese burger, both good cheap alternatives to getting robbed at Mexican joint Gringo’s down the road…which we highly DON’T recommend.

Awesome wings at Toro Loco, Bocas del Toro
Legit American style wings at Toro Loco

A quick game of hooky-ringy went wrong when Sarah tried to untangle the cord to start the game and ended up shattering a light fitting (she was paid back in full when Freddie kicked her arse at darts with a triple bullseye…who does that?!). Our night ended with loads of dockside dancing with the fashionable young tourist crowd at Hostel Selinas where we stayed until we were kicked out.

Beef and blue cheese burger, Toro Loco, Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro
The blue cheese burger from Toro Loco won’t leave you hungry

The rumour mill the next day informed us that a couple of people got shot at the bar next door, so to celebrate making it through the night we all headed to what would become the staple lunch stop, known to us simply as ‘The Deli’ (actually called Super Gourmet). Located up near the car ferry dock, this place serves up freshly made sub sandwiches, potato, seaweed and green salads, hot food options, plus loads of things you’ve probably not been able to buy anywhere else in Central America (kosher food included).

Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro
‘The Deli’, aka Super Gourmet

With our time in South America approaching, we were eager to get Porkchop to Panama City and up for sale, so with Matt getting a final surf in at Playa Bluff, we parked up on the ferry departing that afternoon and wasted an hour or so drinking good coffee at what we nicknamed ‘The Pinterest Place’ (also known as Indi Lounge). Check it out, you’ll see what we mean. Wooden floors, white painted furniture, turquoise cushions and metal wall decorations and a back patio overlooking the water make this place date night heaven.

 Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro
Indi Lounge, aka ‘The Pinterest Place’

Finally back on the mainland, we made an Executive decision to spend the night at Hotel Almiranti right by the ferry dock. After eight days without a proper shower (good, but our record of 11 in the US still stands!), a good scrub, a huge plate of Chinese grub at the restaurant downstairs and a proper nights sleep in air conditioned bliss was just what the doctored ordered.


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