There’s a rundown rustic charm to this place. I’m sure that’s what attracts the characters here. If I had run out of money and luck, I’d try to find myself a piece of paradise, too. Nothing wrong with that.
I got here on Air Panama (motto: flying is good, landing is better). They kept us waiting at the Albrook Airport in Panama City for an extra hour and a half for no real reason other than we were on Panama time, I guess.
Albrook is an old US Air Base, so it’s pretty Spartan. The waiting area doesn’t have a bar, or even a vending machine, but it does have an interesting expat named Julie who left America seven years ago and never looked back. She gives me her number and asks me to give her a shout when we arrive, though I doubt I’ll be able to find her overwater bungalow that is on a remote island and is only accessible by boat. That’s just the way people live out here in the hinterlands, far from the madding crowds, I guess. I admire them and their free spirit, “live for today” attitude.
When the plane finally pulls up, it’s no surprise that it’s a twin-prop job that hasn’t had a bath since Noriega was in charge, but I’m more impressed with the airline when we’re underway, because they offer not only free snacks for your $218 round trip, they even throw in all you can drink adult beverages during the 70 minute flight as well. So I’m able to land (sans seat belt, BTW) with an open cocktail, and that’s how I greet the early evening in Bocas Del Toro, tripping lightly down the doorway steps into the warm night air, a drink in my hand and a smile on my face, which is a very appropriate way to start a vacation, or perhaps a life, here.
I take a $2 cab ride to the Tropical suites (highly recommended), which are right on the docks facing the sea, drop my gear, and immediately head over to a local eatery named the Ultimo Refugio, where I watch the sun go down while enjoying some incredibly well-seared tuna.
For the next three days, I don’t draw a completely sober breath, but I can tell you Bocas is a great place for those who really have no plan except to just enjoy the laid-back ambience and watch the ships roll in. I guess that’s why it attracts so many interesting, quirky, and shady characters, like something out of a set from Casablanca.
I met a woman from Canada who decided to take off with her husband on a boat trip fifteen years ago. They never went home. Now they live on a trawler and have been docked somewhere nearby for the last five months. The 44-footer is shared with a cat and granddaughter, who has been home-schooled on board since she was just a toddler.
Then there was the lanky German who owned a “booze cruise” catamaran. He was smoking pot with his employees when I met him (marijuana is VERY easy to come by here). I thought I had him all figured out until I met his American wife and two daughters, who were both charming little girls.
Ricky, my fat black cab driver, offered to provide me with ganja or women, or both, before I was even checked into my hotel. I didn’t ask the price. OK, I lied. $100. You guess for which.
Erin, the twenty-something girl at the Wine Bar where I drank my dinner one night, is pregnant and looking for a new boyfriend. She used to be a real estate sales agent in New York before she came down here on vacation after the big crash. That was seven years ago. Now she tends bar.
Jamie and Chip are from Florida and Tennessee, respectively. They own the place I’m staying in, which they opened three years ago. A more fresh-faced, wholesome, “Ken and Barbie” pair you’re not likely to meet. Yet they fit in just fine with the locals.
The Dive Master on my two-tank trip is Javier. He’s in his teens, but he’s been on or in the water most of his life. He speaks broken English but is willing to teach me Spanish in his spare time.
The thing about places like Bocas is, they attract free spirits. They’re “end of the road” locations, cultural and geographic cul-de-sacs that attract boozers, losers, brawlers, dreamers, loners, schemers, and loony tunes in equal measure, and whether we’re talking about Key West, FL, Netarts, OR, Santorini, Greece, or Barrow, AK, there’s some truth that these people are here because they didn’t fit in anywhere else. They’re the round pegs in society’s square holes, and they just kept moving from place to place until they stopped because there wasn’t any road left, and when they looked around, they liked what they saw.
They saw a community full of characters. People who just didn’t care what others think of them, and who generally don’t like authority of any kind. People who revel in the bizarre, like the guy with the pet iguana (Lacy) that accompanies him to the bar. Far from being met with social approbation, the more strange and outré` your behavior, the more you are generally accepted. In fact, sobriety and ordinary behavior is a warning sign to those who mistrust society as a whole.
But there’s also a real sense of community, of taking care of each other that you won’t find in most places outside of the American South. People care more about how well you can tell a story or carry a tune than what you are “worth” around here. You make your reputation one truth at a time…or one lie.
So this place doesn’t have great diving or the best surfing, even in Panama. It doesn’t have fantastic resorts or fine weather. It doesn’t have big city sophistication or even so much as a movie theater. It’s got a bad reputation for ripping you off, there are LOTS of seedy places and faces here, and Bocas Town doesn’t have any beach at all. Plus you can’t drink the water.
What it DOES have is some good food and good people on a hot tropical island surrounded by great fishing, good water sports, lots of places to drink…and lots of weirdos. It fits that “end of the world” criteria. I like it.
Yep, I like weird. I’ve got feeling if more people were just a little weird, even off the charts strange, the world might be a better place. After all, it doesn’t seem like “normal” has worked out so well. It’s hard to imagine one of these guys starting a war or raping your sister. They’re just having too much fun with their own lives, and taking life way too easy to get bent out of shape over what color their neighbor’s house is painted (which is can be anything from chartreuse and purple to Day-Glo orange and bright blue). They live off the grid, literally and metaphorically. And there’s nothing wrong with that.