Last year, my darling Andie and I reluctantly left our little jungle house in Puerto Viejo, ordered one last batido at our favorite café, said farewell to our fast but furious friends, and crossed the border into Panama.
We carried suitcases and sea legs into the town built on docks, and with wide eyes and heavy hearts we came to the place we planned to call home.
Except home did not expect our arrival that day. Deck chairs and dishes piled high on our unmade beds.
The beach in front of our house wore tire tracks. There was no other road.
Civilization was miles away and the internet never cooperated.
We hiked uphill to golden sands and crashing waves and lay on the rainy beach until the tide took Andie’s camera into its furious waters.
The night we partied, taxis stopped running at midnight. Four Panamanian police officers shuttled us home. They made sure we had their numbers.
Rain hailed heavily. And did not stop. For days and days.
We hid in a hotel lobby one afternoon while it poured and began to scheme how we might return to our Costa Rican home, instead of staying our intended three weeks.
The next day we did.
And I always wondered, what might have happened, had we stayed.
I was determined to know Bocas in the sunshine.
When I returned last week, more than one year later, with my travel mate and childhood friend Marissa, I strapped on my heavy pack and walked through town with an open heart instead of a broken one.
I found light in the Crayola colored Caribbean homes.
Interest in the different faces around me.
Excitement staring at the distant islands, each promising a new adventure.
Again, in the rain.
We rode a boat to Isla Carenero under the protection of a blue tarp, and checked into a beachfront hostel that already felt like home.
I ran down a dock and jumped into the waist high murky water. Even in the rain I was enchanted.
We climbed a cliff and watched surfers flow fearlessly between colossal waves and dolphins dance in the distance. My heart felt so full.
And still, it rained.
We dressed in ponchos and rode to Isla Bastimentos, a muddy wilderness island, wind and salt blowing through our hair.
Clouds overtook the sky but rain ceased long enough for us to stop and sit on the white sand, and occasionally stand with trepidation in the crashing sea.
Still, I wondered, does the sun ever shine in Bocas?
At night deep bass pulsed through the island and we stumbled over crabs on the sandy path to Aqua Lounge for Ladies Night, where one year before I made friends with women from all over the world over pink cocktails and too many tequila shots.
This time, sober, I danced in bubbles and fog under the multicolored disco ball and wandered back to our dock to stare at the starry sky.
Each dot of vibrant light promised that maybe, possibly, hopefully, tomorrow I would see the sun.
And the next morning, I did.
We climbed over sun-bleached docks and fallen palm trees on deserted beaches
to golden sand and calm clear water
covered with the friendliest starfish I have ever known.
We rode our bicycles up hilly potholed country roads
past the cabin where Andie and I stayed those five rainy days
across the road that she and I called our beach
to Playa Bluff, where we sat in the rain one year ago.
The sand was as soft and gold as I remember. The waves as menacing.
And when the rain came to greet us again, we pedaled to Paunch Beach, taking cover at Paki Point, where Andie and I spent wet afternoons desperately seeking internet.
Laying on a lounger, sipping my pina colada, watching the rain fall over the crashing sea, it almost felt like she was there with me
loving every moment in rainy Bocas del Toro, Panama.
Isla Carenero, $12 a night for a dorm bed, $45 for a private room with a double bed and bunk bed
We discovered this little gem our first day on Carenero. It sits directly in front of the beach with its own private dock. Rooms have air conditioning and hot water showers, but the real joy is laying in a hammock or on one of the many plush sofas while staring at the ocean. Montserrat, the Barcelona born owner could not be more adorable. Bocas town with restaurants and shopping is a $1, 5 minute water taxi ride away.
Bocas Town, Isla Colon, $12 for a dorm bed, $30 for a private
The best inexpensive option right in Bocas town. Casa verde is built on a dock and offers quaint rooms overlooking the water.
Bluff Beach, Isla Colon, $150-500 for private cabins
For solitude and relaxation head outside of town to the Bluff Beach Retreat, a 45 minute bike ride from town. The Lodge sits on grand, deserted bluff beach offers a private swimming pool, gardens, and a full complimentary breakfast. Each night Ron will make you one of his signature rum and pineapple cocktails.
$15-20, Bocas Town
Dine on Caribbean fusion at its finest at this restaurant overlooking the water.
$5-10, Bocas Town
Stock up on specialty grocery items like imported olives, thai curry paste, and asparagus or visit the deli for cold cuts made on homemade bread, quinoa salad, and cookies baked fresh with local cacao nibs. Yummmm.
$10-18, Bocas Town
Satisfy your craving for spice at this incredible Indian restaurant serving curries, samosas, salads piled with grilled chicken and paneer, and full Indian thalis for sharing. The restaurant sits above a cute little bar called The Bookstore which had live music the night we went. It makes for excellent people watching.
Authentic Panamanian Cafeteria
$1-5, Bocas Town
I wish wish wish I could remember the name of this place, but I do remember that it is next door to Hostel Heike on the main road across from the park. The food is incredibly cheap and incredibly authentic. Stewed lentil, grilled meat, fried chicken, and empanadas are sold cafeteria style and priced by the weight. Last year I came to this hole in the wall and ate a big plate for $2. It’s not the healthiest option but it’s a great way to try lots of Panamanian food for cheap.
$10-$15, Isla Carenero
Bibi’s is the best place to eat and drink on Carenero. The restaurant sits on a dock over the calm turquoise sea and offers delicious tropical beverages, Caribbean style cuisine, and delicious ceviche. Come at happy hour for cheap cocktails.
$5-10, Playa Paunch
Paki Point is my favorite place to have a drink in all of Bocas del Toro. The view is unbeatable, the design is positively inspired, and the smoothies and blended cocktails are to die for. The food is simple beachfront fare with burgers, wraps, and ceviche. They also rent surfboards for those brave enough to face Paunch.
Surf at Playa Bluff, Playa Paunch, Isla Carenero, Wizard Beach, or Red Frog Beach
Swim with Starfish at Bocas del Drago
Wander down docks on Isla Carenero
Ride bikes to Bluff Beach
Kayak from Isla Carenero to Isla Solarte
Hike Isla Bastimentos
Take a tour of Dolphin Bay, Cayos Zapatillos, and Swan’s Caye
Get playful on the swings and trampolines at Aqua Lounge
Fly from Panama City
$100, one hour, Air Panama and Aeroperlas
or San Jose
$88-200, one hour, Nature Air
directly to Bocas Town, Isla Colon
Shuttle from Puerto Viejo to Almirante
$20, 2.5 hours
bus from Panama City to Almirante
$23, 9 hours
then take the boat from Almirante to Bocas Town, Isla Colon
$5, 30 minutes