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A Bocas Christmas saved by the stars

Updated: Dec 27, 2022

There is something romantic and idealistic about leaving it all behind and living on a less developed island in a houseboat or over-the-water cottage. But reality and dreams don’t often meet at the same intersection. And unless you are okay with really rustic or have the money to do it like these guys, the brown house with the large decks and private boat ramp, you could wind up on Gilligan’s islands instead of fantasy island.

Leaving behind the hustle and bustle of Christmas in Amerikkka or on mainland Panama, we headed to Bocas del Toro for Christmas holidays. The Panamanian archipelago in the Caribbean Sea, has nine main islands, each with its own charm, beauty and quirks. Isla Colon, otherwise known as Bocas island, is where our journey by ferry from the mainland ended. It's where we planned to stay for six nights.

A mix of colorful old world buildings with beautiful fretwork, restaurants, bars, Chinese owned supermarkets, cyclists, potholed streets filled with stagnant smelly water and street dogs, Bocas island was a little underwhelming for me at first. But I certainly get the draw for backpackers, night lifers, drinkers, surfers, tourists and party animals. I am none of these.

To be fair though, I arrived sick with the flu so I was already off to a rocky start that may be coloring my view. The town is growing on me slowly, the stronger I get.

We took our truck over to the island so we could explore at will and most importantly, bring back breadfruit and sweetsop trees which are not available where we live. Both missions are being accomplished though one is proving harder than the other. Once you leave the main tourist drag, dem potholes and road caverns in the interior are serious stuff. And literally driving through the sea to reach some places makes me glad it’s the gentle Caribbean Sea and not angry Pacific Ocean.

Christmas Eve

To get to the best beaches and the other islands there is a very effective and efficient water taxi service. Flying over the water at mind altering speeds, skilled boat captains do the “one wheel wheelie” with the boats past lush scenery.

Carenero island with its small resorts, over-the-water huts and bars dotting the coastline;  Isla Solarte, inhabited by the rich and infamous who don’t want to share so they have a few small bed & breakfasts but no restaurants or shops. And in the far distance, Cayo Islands, pristine beaches with nothing but time to kill.

We visited Basitmentos island. I was told that this island is home to a lot Jamaicans and their descendants. The colorful language as we exited the boat was all the proof I needed that this is true. Many speak a native language, Guari Guari, which is a mix of English, Spanish and Ngobe-Bugle, the name of the indigenous people. Throw some choice Jamaican words and accents into the mix to create a beautiful sound. A series of painted footpaths wind their way along the bay, where the boats dock, past residences, one discernible cook shop/restaurant and a Seven Day Adventist church.

Our friend Nicole had told us to be certain to visit Firefly for a delicious meal so we happily turned off the paved path to follow the sign. She neglected to mention the hike through the bushes and broken sea walls to get there. Sadly they weren’t serving lunch and as enticing as the Christmas menu was, I didn’t relish returning at night with a flashlight just for food. No matter how delicious.

There are no stores on this island or much to see in the main "town" area. From the dock heading in the opposite direction, more footpaths and steps lead you to the school, a church, more residences and even more footpaths heading to “Up in the Hill,” an eco-lodge and chocolate farm. There are no roads or cars. I now understand why most people take a boat straight to Red Frog Beach on the other side of the island where there are tourist-priced beach restaurants and facilities to enjoy. There is literally no other way to get there. Not relishing an extra pounding boat ride, and still recovering from the flu I was easily exhausted, so we returned to Isla Colon.

Christmas Come

It’s Christmas Day and the sunrise is a promise. Determined to win the battle with the horrendous interior roads, we head out to Boca del Drago beach from where we can either foot it through the jungle or take a boat to famous Playa de Estrellas or Starfish Beach. An hour later, with everything inside me shaken not stirred, we arrive at the beach. Not a particularly pretty beach, but hey it is beach and the presence of a large 'Gloria's-in-Port-Royal-style' restaurant and well appointed facilities gives me new hope.

“How do we get to Starfish Beach?”

“You can walk about 20 minutes that way or I can take you by boat for $2 per person. It takes 2 minutes” said the friendly boat captain.

Of course we took the boat. My body was already sore from the drive.

Perhaps because I’m Jamaican and we do tend to be a bit arrogant when anyone talks about beautiful beaches, but as a beach that’s supposed to be one of the most beautiful, it left a lot to be desired - like actual beach. A meager strip of sand made me want to scream “where’s the beach?” But instead we found a place near the waters edge to camp out before going in for the reward.

Elegant starfish in their natural habitat. Huge starfish relaxing on a high sand bank in a shallow, calm cove.

"Remember not to touch or pick them up," I hear a guide telling a boat load of tourists that pulls up next to us. "First they say we can't pick them up; now they're telling us we can't even touch them! ugh!" says one lady.

I flash her a look of disgust that she doesn't see. "How would you like it if a fish came and held you underwater for a few minutes just for a photo opp," I mumbled. People's ignorance and disregard for nature continue to astound me.

Nevertheless, I was finally getting what I had hoped for on this vacation. Caribbean waters caressing my aching body made perfect by the presence of estrellas everywhere.

2022 was a tough year. One filled with health issues, hard work, life-changing developments, house building in a new country, making tough decisions that left loved ones behind, finding a whole new community and hablaing mucho Spanglish. We needed this holiday to rest mind, body, spirit and soul.

It may have started out rocky, but our holidays were eventually saved by the stars of the sea. I can't help but think of another star that signaled salvation of a different sort as it appeared high in the sky in the East. Sitting down to enjoy what is turning out to be the best meal we’ve had in four days, (everywhere we ate was expensive and just meh!) I think we can now say we are having a good Christmas holiday!

We have concluded that the secret to enjoying a Bocas holiday is to plan to go somewhere everyday by water taxi since there is bupkiss to do in the town during the daytime. I may give in and take a tour to Bahia los Delphines (Dolphin Bay) and beyond. I'll let you know how that goes, if I do.

But with two more days to go and having identified some wild spaces where the beach is accessible to the everyday man, if you’re looking for me, I’ll probably be the one under the umbrella reading and drinking sorrel!



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Great post.


Have another sorrel drink for m!

Have a Happy New Year!

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