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Not long ago an American couple showed up in Bocas and started quietly killing off and burying locals before stealing the deeds to their land and claiming the victims had sold it just before they “left town.”  Drop that unsettling scenario into a blender with lime, rum, hard partying backpackers, higher end vacationers, a damn good burrito joint and pleasant creole population amid a cluster of inhabit(ed/able) islands and Caribbean beaches and you come out with Bocas del Toro, the preeminent Panamanian Caribbean destination.  The name of the capital, “Bocas Town”, even sounds like something Mark Knoffler might reference.

Pros: Typically commendable Panamanian infrastructure suffers only slightly for having been transplanted to a Caribbean island, many different speeds of life to choose from amongst the different local islands, tourist traffic supports far more entertainment and shopping options than would otherwise be available, warm population of natives and transplants.

Cons: The area has a well deserved reputation as a magnet for con-men and unscrupulous businessmen so even the most trivial transactions must be looked at with scrutiny, island life increases the cost of basic necessities.

Distortions: We visited during August and September of 2011 and chose to live in Bocas Town after exploring additional options on Carenero and Bastimentos Islands, we rented a studio apartment that was well appointed and comfortable but probably would not be suitable for 2 people for an extended period.

Bocas del Toro is a solid Caribbean option for relocation, though not an ideal spot for the complacent.  Roughly 3 hours by road from David, Panama’s second city, and an additional 30 minutes by boat, these islands are a diverse crossroads of enterprising Panamanian Mainlanders, native Caribbean residents, upmarket tourists, backpackers and transplants.  Goods and services come at the typical island markup as little is grown or built locally and nearly everything must be imported from The Mainland.  For clarity’s sake, though “Bocas” or “Bocas del Toro” can refer to the entire province, in this summary it refers solely to the archipelago and predominately to the 3 major islands, Colon, Carenero and Bastimentos.  The mainland portion of the province is seldom touched on here.

We made fast friends with our neighbors at Bocas Condos and they were nice enough to introduce us around town.  After visiting annually for years they finally made the big move and relocated full time just as we arrived.  We found the transplants and locals both warm and welcoming while the vacationers and travelers were only slightly more insular.  There’s a well developed expat scene with it’s own bars and events… the expats in Boquete took every opportunity to mention how “crazy” things were out in Bocas and they aren’t far off.  It’s a sun drenched, sandy footed, boozy kind of crazy that I wholeheartedly support.  Even the local bookstore has a well frequented bar spilling into the street out front.

Though the selection and pricing of groceries suffers whenever you’re on an island, in Bocas town we found plenty to keep us fed.  It was still a far cry from anywhere on the mainland, but there were several groceries to choose from, small and large, with plenty of fresh produce boated in.  Prices varied bizarrely and no one store seemed to offer a consistent price advantage.  The price of a given item might swing 30% from store to store.  One shop would have cheap seco and outrageously overpriced Coke.  The next store might have a decent price on Coke but the seco was twice as much as at the first store.  Clerks were grifty, as I described, and you couldn’t scrutinize your receipts too closely.  Actually getting a receipt often required an argument.  We did find a small produce shop just north of the east side of the park that was dependably reasonable in price and selection.  There was also an upscale import grocery market called Super Gourmet on the South side of town where we purchased a few indulgent items, but the pricing was so aggressive compared to the local food that we had to be very choosey.  Many residents make regular treks to David to purchase groceries and household goods in bulk, either by driver or bus.  There are also a couple of local women who drive to David at least weekly and make purchases on request for a reasonable fee.

Outside of Bocas Town, Carenero had few (if any) grocery options; you would have to boat to town for supplies.  Bastimentos had quite a few groceries that were small by Panamanian standards (though almost a supermarket by Nicaraguan standards), filled with staples and marked up slightly for the trip over.  One of the reasons we decided to stay in Bocas Town was because of how little was available in Bastimentos.  If you have your own boat, this might not be a problem, but if you’re paying taxi rates (US$6/pp roundtrip) to get some fresh produce every few days it can add up quick.

All three major islands (Isla Colon, home of Bocas Town, Carenero and Bastimentos) offer an array of dining options greatly enhanced by the influx of tourist dollars.  We enjoyed local fare like fried dough with ham or sausage from unnamed street vendors and typical plates of a meat entree and sides from Chitre Cafe (an excellent place for coffee and people watching), Restaurante Buen Sabor and an unnamed house along Calle 5a across from the school (at US$2.75/plate this was the best dinner carryout value we found).  There are a handful of transplant favorites, among them Gringo’s Mexican, which served me the best meal I’d had in months; I can’t recommend it enough.  Many of the other favorites were bars first and restaurants second, and they’ll be covered a little later.  There are numerous restaurants that target the tourist dollar exclusively, providing mediocre fare at shockingly inflated prices and then adding fraudulent charges on top.  These are easy to spot as they sit on what obviously appears to be the most expensive real estate: main street, water front.  Often there’s a hotel attached to further clue you in.  Mixed amongst these traps, though, are real jewels like Natural Mystic which has a rotating menu and where we enjoyed an excellent dinner for US$22.15 for two, drinks excluded.

Infrastructure in Bocas Town was pretty solid; power seldom failed and the water ran dependably.  Internet was another story, with outages taking half of island’s wifi out of commission for days at a time.  If you were desperate you could usually find a tourist restaurant with a working up-link (satellite, maybe?) and overpay for a cup of coffee to log in.  We were able to have out laundry done on-site for US$5/load, which is pretty standard pricing on islands, where fresh water comes at a premium.  Cable, internet, power, filtered water and city water were all included in our rent, so I’m shamefully uninformed about the prices of these things a la carte.

The wide variety of boozing options split along some predictable lines; transplant hangouts, Panamanian/Indian bars and vacationer bars.  The first group includes places like The Rip Tide, a (permanently?) docked boat turned into a bar/restaurant with a good crowd of English speaking regulars.  This is a solid option for meeting other transplants when you get to town.  The local bookstore, just north of the park, is another popular watering hole amongst the local transplants.  Out towards Saigon Bay, along the narrowest strip of land on Isla Colon, is an entire district of locals’ bars.  I only visited during some daytime events so I can’t report firsthand on the scene, but it looked pretty similar to a million other Central American dance halls.  I’m willing to bet it’s filled with ear shattering loud, terrible music and surrealistically drunk locals on a Saturday night.  I wish I’d seen it and it will be my first stop when I return.  There’s an Indian (mostly pre-spanish and pre-slave-trade local indigenous tribe called Ngobes) bar in town, a long dock on the main drag.  The prices are right but it’s not a festive scene; mostly passed out guys and bored wives slumped along the benches and seating around the perimeter of the place.  A few of the highlights for the backpacker scene are the bar at Mondo Taitu Hostel, El Barco Hundido (aka “The Wreck Deck”) and La Iguana.  There are additional options on Isla Carenero that we did not explore, Aqua Lounge being the most talked about.  Mondo Taitu often has excellent early evening specials that sometimes include free drinks, making it a great option for warming up early.  Hundido is an expansive property that pulls a good crowd of well-to-do locals and travelers alike, especially on the nights that they have drink specials.  If you’re walking along the main street and a hot girl is walking towards you showing a smile and a lot of skin, she might be about to hand you a flyer for that night’s specials at Hundido.  Iguana is a late night option, opening around 10 or 11, with good specials for the first hour or so but extortionate rates thereafter.  It pulls from the backpacker crown almost exclusively.

Beyond the bottle, Bocas offers everything you look for on Caribbean Islands. There were no gyms to be found in Bocas Town, save a local municipal indoor basketball court, though there were a few yoga studios.  The Girlfriend visited two and preferred the one in Tropical Markets (the building “9 Degrees” is in).  It was just a recurring class with some rented deck space, but she was really happy with the instructor.  She paid US$5/session.  There’s an impressive collection of beaches in the area and everyone has a favorite.  I’ll stay out of the fray, but I will say we enjoyed Starfish Beach on Colon and Red Frog Beach on Bastimentos. Snorkeling, scuba, beaches, boating, hiking and kite boarding can all be had in the area, though we never found any particularly stunning snorkeling ourselves. We overpaid at US$102 for two to go see some dolphins, snorkel and check out some islands.  The majority of that cost is fuel to get out to Cayos Zapatillas, which were nice enough but did not justify the price.  The transplant crowd has plenty of their own events, both public and private, so it’s not hard to stay occupied.  We attended a resort grand opening (literally a day at the beach), a chili cook-off (also on the beach) and countless hours of just hanging out with new friends.

Apartment quality is as much an issue of security as anything else; cheaper places are in rougher neighborhoods and have less physical security.  We weren’t seeing many simple, secure houses in safer areas and when we were they were more appropriate for long term stays (didn’t have dishes or cookware, barely furnished, etc). We looked at rental options on all three major islands and ultimately decided Bocas Town was the place for us.  Your grocery and entertainment options are severely limited on Bastimentos and Carenero has a large, hungry population of sand flies.  We landed in a studio apartment that was a little too small for a multi-month stay but worked well for the time we were there.  For one person it would be ideal.  It had two recliners, a queen sized bed with a great mattress, an entertainment center/wardrobe, a sizable kitchen with eat-in counter and a reasonably sized bath.  It was on the ground floor of a multi-story condo building in town with all utilities, including filtered water, hot water, internet and a night watchman included in the US$450/month price.  High season prices would have been higher.  We found the property through Tyson Merrill at Island Property Management.  These digs were on par with our Boquete housing, which is to say they were some of the highest quality we resided in during our trip.  The standards are simply higher in Panama than elsewhere in the region.

Our other favorite options included a studio with shared kitchen and social area as well ample covered porches and a separate waterfront deck in this building on Carenero.  Some local transplants called this “The Sorority House” though we’re not sure why.  The room was US$400/month including all utilities and internet.  It would be an additional US$50/month for air conditioning.  There was a nice second story building in Bocas Town near the police station for US$500/month without electric, but the price started changing on us and we never worked out a deal.

We looked at a stilted house in Saigon Bay, the lower rent district on Isla Colon, for US$450/month including all utilities but no AC or internet.  The area has a reputation for being rough, especially for gringos, so we took a pass.  Plenty of people have good experiences for years and years in this area, though, so it’s worth considering.  There are certainly deals to be had.

In a class of it’s own is Up In The Hill, a cafe with a guest house on their Bastimentos property. At US$400/month without internet we might have gone for this, but grocery selection is limited out on Bastimentos and this property was far enough off the main drag (and the paved sidewalk) that otherwise simple errands were going to be a chore. For a shorter stay it would have been incredible. It’s fully off the grid, using solar power, tanks of gas and captured rainwater across it’s two connected buildings (bedroom and kitchen/living/bath).

We brought the month in at US$1,196.34.  As always, that for 2 people, rent and utilities included.  You can get a more detailed look here, as well as download and manipulate the figures.  We intentionally loosened the purse strings to enjoy this, the final destination of our fact-finding trip.  As was mentioned before, US$102 of this was spent on a single day trip that we could have done without.  In Bocas, 38% of our budget went to housing and utilities, 20% to groceries, 12% to meals out and 11% to booze.

“Must know”

10.03.11

A friend of mine emailed asking if there’s any information about Central America that I consider must know.  For the purposes of this post we’ll call her “Steph” and this is mostly directed to her, though other people might find it useful (or anger inducing).  She’s already lived in Belize, so I’m leaving out comments about how idyllic Placencia is.

Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are too violent to be of much use right now.

The situation in Honduras has been deteriorating for years, which is a shame because it’s otherwise an incredible place.  The islands are still livable, but even Utila was seeing a serious rise in violent crime (I include muggings as violent crimes, many stats don’t).  When we were there we regularly read stories like “15 factory workers executed in midday”, mostly gang turf disputes in San Pedro Sula.  Are there more peaceful areas?  These days I don’t know.  I do know that routine law enforcement is basically non-existent.  I spent a few months in mainland Honduras in 2007 and even then private security was the only security (and was very, very common).  Things have only gone downhill since (a coup, a devastating series of floods, riots, increased gang activity).

For some reason everyone seems to have agreed to pretend Guatemala is a reasonable place to hang out.  The murder rate was already atrocious (and likely lowballed) before the Mexican gangs got involved.  I swear to god every 3rd backpacker I talked to mentioned either being personally mugged at knife point or knowing someone who had.  Yet they’d still always go “It’s not that bad.”  I spent a few weeks renting a room in a nice house in a gated community a short walk from upscale downtown Antigua.  The owners warned us repeatedly that guys with machetes liked to hide in the bushes and mug people outside the gate.  This was NOT a desolate area and this was a known MO, but nothing was done about it.

I haven’t been to El Salvador.  I’ve heard great things about it, including San Salvador and the beaches, but it’s still a little to dicey for me to take The Girlfriend.  If I were traveling with a few guys I’d risk it.  And while Guatemala and Honduras are on the decline (Guatemala perpetually), El Salvador has shown some signs of significant improvement lately.  Best of luck to them, I can’t wait to see it.

Nicaragua is incredibly cheap and it’s beautiful, though a lot of people are waiting to see how this election goes (how the people react to Ortega’s unconstitutional 3rd term re-election) before putting down roots.

Costa Rica is overpriced and increasingly unwelcoming to gringos.  We didn’t spend much time (just the bus stop layover), many expats we talked to were moving out of there.

Panama is head and shoulders above the rest of the region with regard to standard of living.  Great deals can be found outside of Panama City and Bocas del Toro (too far out for cheap goods to be available), though both of those places are worth seeing too.

Much of the Central American Caribbean is uninviting; it’s often the more impoverished and less secure area.  In Nicaragua you can’t even get there by road, except for one isolated town.  Development sprawls along the Inter-American Highway which runs the Pacific Coast.  That said, there are some real jewels out there, though prices tend to climb since supplies need to be transported so far.  This is doubly true on small islands.

Don’t miss:

Nicaragua: San Juan del Sur and surrounding beach sprawl is right up your alley, though the diving is lame, Leon if you can stand the heat, both Corn Islands (quick flight from Manangua, arduous journey otherwise, either might be your thing, you’ll be glad you went), Isla Ometempe (the two-volcano island in Lake Nicaragua) and Esteli if you can handle the slow life (and it gets slower from there).

Panama: Party in Panama City (if you have the funds), hideout in Boquete to restore your budget and take respite from the heat, see San Blas at least once and check out Bocas del Toro.

If I were going to buy property right now, it would probably be around Laguna de Apoyo, Nicaragua (if possible) or on Bastimentos Island, Panama.

Price of beer in a bar: US$0.75 in the local bars down by the beach
Song currently stuck in my head: Family Tree (TV On The Radio)

It’s been a good weekend. The Palmar Tent Lodge opened on Saturday and had a grand opening pig roast.  US$10 bought you roundtrip transport by boat to Bastimentos and a plate of BBQ with sides.  The resort is beachfront with hammocks, lounge chairs, volleyball, horseshoes and body boards.  It was a good day.

Sunday was an island wide chili cookoff, again hosted beachfront here on Colon Island.  14 samples (and a significant portion of what The Girlfriend couldn’t eat) left me overstuffed and happy.  There are quite a few Texans here, so competition grade chili isn’t taken lightly.

A couple of weekends ago we stepped out into the Bocas Town traveler bar scene.  We set out on a Friday evening meaning to only have a couple of drinks.  We ran into a friend from Boquete and one thing led to another, which in turn led us to La Iguana.  The bars here seem to trade nights for popularity, much like in Utila.  This evening Iguana was the pull, since Barco Hundido was hosting a Latin music act.  Populated almost entirely by backpackers, vacationers and the occasional industry local, Iguana was packed with an attractive, drunk, social, fun crowd.  If you’ve ever crossed paths with the backpacker trail, then you know the crowd I mean.  I’m a little more intrigued by the local bars out along the beach near the Saigon neighborhood.  The setups look like typical central american dance clubs; huge rooms with a stage on one end and a bar on the other.  The only thing that usually keeps me out of these places is bad music turned up too loud (about as loud as being on the floor at a major live concert in The States, much louder than your average dance club), but there’s a whole district of bars out there so I’m excited to check it out.  I think we have one weekend left, I know where I want to spend it.

Beyond all that, days go by here.  The Girlfriend and I set up a schedule for sharing the laptop in the morning, which adds a nice bit of structure to the day.  I’m enjoying listening to podcasts out in the building’s social area and catching some TV at night (inevitable if it’s available, but I don’t feel bad with all this time on my hands).  I’m dreading being back in The States; I miss my family but if I had my way they’d be visiting me.  I mean, seriously, what with the Caribbean Beaches and all.