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by Dan and Jan Ahart
When one first thinks of Panama, the inclination is to imagine it as a long narrow country in the center of Central America that is oriented north and south. The truth is, it is oriented east and west and ships transiting the canal from the Caribbean to the Pacific actually travel southeast. The Caribbean coast is on the north side of Panama and the Pacific coast is on the south side. Our land fall in Panama was in the San Blas archipelago on the east side, which borders Columbia and we worked our way west to the Bocas del Toro archipelago, on the west side, which borders Costa Rica. The bocas islands are located on two large bodies of water - Bahia Almirante and Laguna Chiriqui. The complete archipelago includes eight major islands, 51 cays and over 200 islets The largest town in the bocas is named Bocas and is located on the southern end of the island of Colon (not to be confused with the city of Colon further to the east, which is the Caribbean terminus of the canal.
The town of Bocas is a small touristy village comprising several small hotels, hostels, restaurants, dive shops and souvenir shops. Water taxis are abundant and travel among the islands and the mainland is very reasonably priced. Most of the tourists, who currently visit Bocas are American, Canadian and some European cruisers and bargain hunters, hence the prevalence of hostels and other very economical "campgrounds." At present, the area is very popular with young backpackers, who come to surf and dive. There are also numerous Americans and Canadians who have purchased land and in some cases islands in order to build private homes, develop the property or just invest. It appears that the area is poised for rapid growth with many developers planning large communities, golf courses and perhaps major hotels. It won't be too many years before the area will lose its local charm and become another expatriate playground. The small airport already has four scheduled flights to Colon, David and Panama City per day. Currently there are two marinas in Bocas. One is the Marina Carenero on Isla Carenero, which has 24 slips and the other is the Bocas Yacht Club on Isla Colon, which has twice that number. Marina Carenero has electricity, water, hot showers, laundry, cottages and a restaurant. The yacht club does not currently have cottages or a restaurant, but is installing a fuel dock. In addition to the marinas there is ample room for anchoring. At the time of our visit, both marinas were 80% full and an average of six cruisers were anchored in the bay.
When we arrived in Bocas on New Years Eve 2003, the rainy season had not ended, so we were subject to rain showers about every four hours. This put a bit of a damper on sight seeing and doing any outdoor projects. Our first two weeks were spent watching football at one of the local restaurants that has cable TV or watching DVD movies on the laptop. And we sampled nearly every restaurant. There was also time to get acquainted with the proprietors of Marina Carenero, where we rented a slip. They are American, but in this part of the world, I should say Norte Americanos, since everyone in the western hemisphere is considered "American." They built the marina some seven years ago and have been trying to develop a first class property ever since. They have had many frustrations however. In order to add any improvements such as restrooms, they had to have engineering studies completed before a septic tank could be installed. The locals, on the other hand are free to install a shed at the end of a pier over the water and call it an outhouse. The marina must also pay dearly for fresh water and electricity, but the locals are apparently allowed to tap-in meter free. Even though the U.S and Panama have a very unique and close relationship, local politics still make life difficult for gringos. We heard many stories about dealing with the local bureaucrats, in order to obtain various building permits or operating licenses that became such a quagmire that only a bribe put in the right hands could unravel the red tape. That is an experience we have heard many times during our travels in the Caribbean. It seems one must consider a little dishonesty as an interim step to success. As in the play "Philoctetes," where Ulysses urges Neoptolemus to steal the bow of Heracles by saying, "But have courage.for it is sweet to gain the victory: afterwards we shall show our honesty." Even so, the Caribbean is a beautiful area and the vast majority of the people are very friendly and honest.
Once the weather cleared we were able to get out and do some exploring. We were told that a local, who apparently has an extended family, owns a few acres adjacent to the Marina Carenero. The owner has let a dozen family members build shacks helter skelter anywhere on the land. All of the buildings are on stilts and some are built over the water. All are small, comprising three rooms at most. All also have city water and electricity, but no sewerage. Only a few have furniture but all have a TV. All are roofed with thatch, are unpainted and have no windows - just openings in the walls. Trash abounds all over the ground and includes empty bottles and discarded boxes, paper and derelict dugouts. The inhabitants seem oblivious to the squalor and the children especially are very cheerful. The adults are friendly and always respond with a smile when spoken to, but it is a terrible eyesore and we couldn't help wondering why they couldn't at least clean up the area. I think it is a classic case of no one taking responsibility. We have to traverse this "dog patch" in order to gain access to the end of the island where some small hotels and restaurants are located.
Once on the beach, conditions are much better. Even though the houses are still small, they are at least clean and some are even painted. In several areas gringos have purchased land and built new modern homes and in some cases built cottages for rent and attractive bar/restaurants, which are very popular with the cruisers. Unfortunately, the beach is heavily eroded. Apparently, the beach used to be protected by mangroves, which were removed to improve he view. The sand then washed away causing the loss of several yards of land. Many palm trees have already been lost and many more are threatened with roots exposed to the sea. In some cases, rocks have been placed on what is left of the beach at the waters edge. There does not seem to be much beneficial effect however. We were told that there are regulations prohibiting the removal of mangroves, but certain officials, under certain persuasive conditions apparently issued exceptions. A shame, but a fact of life. Stay tuned.