The Exodus crew has settled in Bocas del Toro, an island group or archipelago consisting of Isla Colon, Isla Bastimento, Isla Solarte, Cayo Carenero, Isla Cristobal, las Zapatillas, and several cayos.
The main island for business and tourism is Isla Colon, where you have Bocas town. Bocas town is truly a city on the water. It has Caribbean style houses, many of which on poles. Most pubs and bars boast a scenic waterfront you would never expect from walking through town.
Bocas is the place where you arrive with the watertaxi from Almirante on the mainland or by plane from Panama city. It is the hub from where you can take watertaxis or tourboats to the different islands.
The ferry brings in supplies that are dispersed to numerous shops. The main street has several small sized shops, which are packed to the brim. To complete your shopping list you will have to stop at different shops (especially if you are in the habit of comparing prices), but as everything is centered in a few streets all within an easy walking distance, there is no cause for complaint. There are a few fruit and veg shops where you can get fresh produce and local cocoa at good prices. Fruit and veg is brought in in crates by the local indians, fresh from the fincas, and cycled around the supermarkets on the island. Tomatoes, carrots, peppers, never look perfect (thank god!), but are tasty. It is impossible to buy broccoli and cabbage without small caterpillars on it. Hooray! No mass production, deep frozen vegetables full of pesticides in this neck of the woods! And as our captain states ‘meat roams freely here until it lands on my plate’.
Hardware shops and supermarkets are all owned by Chinese, offspring of the workers in the banana industry that collapsed in the nineties and Panama canal diggers. In general they are friendly, have been around for a long time, and are very much part of the community. There are a few ‘Bosluis to Ferrari’ shops, where you can find basically anything you can think of, spear gun rubbers, haberdashery, school supplies, essential and less essential oils, boat paint, cooking pots. Just name it and they’ve got it.
The bottom line is that everything you need can be bought on Isla Colon, the small shops keep on surprising us on what they have available. For larger, more specific boat spares we tend to order online and have the goods delivered in the very handy and inexpensive Bocas Mailboxes system.
The Bocas population consists of Panamanians, American expats (alternative pensionadas as well as young families and tweens), long term sailors from around the world, 8 South Africans, a recent invasion of Brazileiros, and lots of South Americans from Uruguay, Paraguay. Bocas del Toro is a popular place for surf and other tourism. It chiefly attracts young backpackers and lots of Panamanians and Latin Americans during the Panamanian school holidays.
Panamanians themselves are a colourful nation, having adopted a fair amount of Jamaicans and 1 million refugees Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina, Nicaragua, people from troubled economies in more recent years, and with a rich mixed heritage. Its 5 million inhabitants are comprised of Latin American Indian, Hispanic, Black, White, Chinese and all possible combinations (mestizos, mullatos, …). Half of the country’s population resides in Panama City, the capital. The rest is spread out over the country. As one of our friends put it: ‘Panama is like a small city. Even though we are spread out, we maintain a small city mentality, we all know each other.’
But back to Bocas. Bocas town boasts a vibrant nightlife, where bars take turns in hosting happy hours. Happy hour starts as early as 2pm and happens in consecutive hot spots. One can basically move from happy hour to happy hour from 2pm till 8pm. Apart from that is has an active music scene, with bars taking turns to host live music events. Tuesdays and Saturdays there is rock in the Bookstore Bar. Wednesday and Friday there is reggae in Barco Hundido. Jazz and Soul nights happen in Bocas Dive club. Every Friday is Filthy Friday, a 3 island/ 5 stop pub crawl that attracts lots of youngsters. The local bar Jamundi loves blaring out music on ungodly hours over the anchorage. And the discotheques Aqualounge and Summer tend to compete for who can party longest (4 or 5 pm). Selina is another popular party spot. Even Zen places like the Om café can be found…
Apart from numerous places to let your hair down and party, the town itself seems to have a drive for flamboyance. Fireworks, crackers, … are lighted on every occasion. The whole sound and light works, stages, stalls are raised at 6 week intervals. The recently adopted Halloween was a big deal and set the scene for a plethora of public holidays, all of which had to be celebrated with marching bands. Panama takes it marching bands very seriously, meaning that every town has at least a few: the primary school band, the secondary school band, the kindergarten band, the teacher’s association band, the bomberos, the dance school band. Each marching band has its own uniform and banner. Bocas, celebrating its 115th existence, was not only the place to be for the province’s 62nd birthday but also hosted the national marching band competition. An event that lasted from early morning till deep in the night for 2 consecutive nights. Apart from that we had the following public holidays, just in one month:
- 02/11 Dia de los Muertos
- 03/11 Dia de la Separacion de Colombia (1903)
- 04/11 Dia de la Bandera
- 05/11 Dia de Colon (official seperation from Columbia)
- 10/11 Dia del Grito de Independencia (start of the freedom cry, the movement towards independence from the Spanish Crown)
- 15/11 National marching band contest
- 16/11 Bocas day, rumba bumba y plena… lots of parades all night and day
- 23/11 Bastimentos Day, same thing but on a different island
- 28/11 Dia de la Independencia
December is peak tourist season (Panamanian and Latin American school holidays), which comes with its own dynamic of party-all day and night, and of course the whole town needed to be dressed up for the impending festive season. Picture fake snow, Santa clauses and Christmas angels on tropical trees at temperatures exceeding 35 degrees. This was accompanied by, you will never guess, a marching band! The marching band was followed by Christmas wagons where not only santa claus was present but also Disney’s Queen Elsa and Olaf (from the movie Frozen).
And recently we experienced the Bocas version of Carnival. End of February the trucks arrived with the stalls, stage and light and sound works, and we realized another party was brooding. 5 days of bacchanals ensued. One noteworthy fact is that in Bocas they have a peculiar tradition of los Diabolitos. These red and black devils wear intricately designed scary masks, a devil costume and bells around their ankles. They are set loose after 6pm and roam the streets making a racket of noise, blowing fire and cracking whips. The hair raising devils are chased by plain looking devil catchers who put on a great show on how the subdue all evil. Not just anybody can join in. To become a devil you need to go into training, the red ones are the recently initiated. The more black you can discern in the costume and mask the longer the devil has been at it. Our 6 year old was suitable intimidated by the great show, jumped to safety and refused to be put down…