The easiest way to get to the Bocas del Toro archipelago is flying in from Panama City, a 30 min flight with great views of Panama’s extensive jungles, its deep blue and turquoise waters and pristine islands.
If you lack the budget for a flight, you’ll have to bus in. A straight forward way, is to jump on the Tranceibosa bus that runs direct from Panama City to Almirante (590 km), from where you’ll get a watertaxi to Bocas. In Panama City, the bus hops on the Pan-American Highway. This highway would run from Alaska to Patagonia, if it were not for the nearly impenetrable jungle of the Darién Gap between Panama and Colombia. Many unsavvy things lurk underneath the impassible green foliage, such as snakes, crocodiles, panthers, jaguars and Colombian guerrillas and drug dealers rumored to take hostages. But as our bus is driving in the opposite direction, there is no reason for concern. After 6hours, the bus gets of the highway in David, to start its trip over the mountains. As the day bus ride seems to last forever, we prefer the night bus. But bear in mind that we renamed it the ‘refrigerator bus’ as its temperatures resemble ‘Frozen meat in transit’. The average temperature all year round along Panama’s coast is over 30 degrees, even at night, and a decline to 16 degrees for a duration of 10 hours or even 13 degrees for a duration of 6 hours (in case of the nocturnal Express bus to David) is far from pleasant. Our suspicion is that they lower the temperature in order to prevent a precocious expiry, not just of the sandwiches, empanadas and enchiladas, but in case someone dies during the ride. Or maybe experience taught them that if they keep the bus hot and humid, increasing bodily odours combined with the winding roads constitute a nightmare for the motion sick… A vomit comet!
Highly recommended is to take a local bus ride from David to Almirante (180 km) during the day, so you can enjoy the view and appreciate the stunning mountain range you have to cross to get from the Pacific to the Atlantic side. See the landscape change from Chiriqui’s rolling hills and pasture lands where future steaks are grazing peacefully, to mountains with dense jungle. The transporte locale bus engages in some serious mountain climbing over the zigzagging roads. Just when you think you can’t get higher, the brave, fully loaded bus lowers its gears, growls deeply and crawls on to yet a higher level. With breathtaking views.
You are busy crossing part of La Amistad Transfrontier Park (a protected area and world heritage site shared between Costa Rica and Panama) as well as the Cordillera Central. The latter one is the central spine of mountains and hills that forms the continental divide and the most dominant feature of Panama’s geography. Its highest point is the Volcán Barú (close to Boquete), which rises to 3.475 metres. You might remember Panama started erupting from the sea bottom 5 million years ago, therefore the Panama’s Cordillera Central does not form part of the great mountain chains of North America, and you have to go to the Colombian border to find highlands related to the Andean system of South America.
Big birds of prey soar into freedom from the highest mountain tops through thick tree canopy zooming in on their next meal. Bright blue butterflies with each wing the size of your hand flutter by from nowhere. You catch yourself staring at the endless jungle and guessing how many plant species and how many individual plants there would be just in one square meter of this impenetrable rainforest. The answer: uncountable… In addition, Panama’s wildlife is the most diverse in Central America, housing species from South and North America.
Half of Panama’s population resides in Panama City, the other half is dispersed over a handful of cities, and local pueblos. The rest of the country is untouched, tropical rainforest that has no problem growing on high mountains and disguising the shape of the land underneath. It is impossible to guess which surface lies underneath and what is hidden under the soil…
The local bus stops frequently to pick up and drop off passengers, affording you a better view of your environment. The local Indians stay in the ‘pueblo traditional’ along the road. They live in basic wooden houses on poles and wear specific dresses. Most of the ones we’ve seen (the Khuna in Panama City and the Ngäbe in the Bocas del Toro province) are quite a bit shorter than us, not exceeding 1.55m.
Another big advantage of narrow, steep, winding mountain paths is that the uncomfortably cold aircon is switched off and the windows are opened for a much more pleasant, normal airflow. After 4 hours ascents and descents, you get dropped off in Almirante. Hop into a yellow cab and ask for ‘la lancha’, the watertaxi.
There are currently 3 watertaxi companies providing fast watertaxis on the Almirante – Bocas track (Taxi 25, Torres Transportes or Valentias) every half an hour between 6am and 6pm. They have similar prices but different liaisons (e.g. Valencia works with some of the guest houses that offer trips where they get you all the tickets and you are guided from the one stop to the next; Taxi 25 works with Tranceibosa; Torres Transportes has a lot of the yellow cabs on a commission base and so on). Whichever one you take, the 20 to 40 minute ride is pretty much the same. Ranging on a 5 to 1 scale from a quick and comfortable ride through the sea, mangroves, with corals in the shallows, dolphins jumping up and birds flying along (5) to extremely uncomfortable and miserable where your guts have been banged out and your spine needs to be set (1). It never harms to put extra padding under your bottom. The fun is, you never know which type of ride you’ll get, but luckily the nice ones are far more frequent than the nasty ones… The majority of the rides are in the 3 or 4 region.
Finally, after all the efforts and impressions you arrive in Bocas town on Isla Colon, ready to experience four seasons in one day!