Return to Bocas del Toro, Panama

Home again, home again, jiggity-jig! It was finally time for us to return to Rode Trip. As we’d learned during our departure from Panama, getting to and from Bocas del Toro is not an easy feat. Our travels home began with a red-eye flight from San Francisco, CA to Miami, FL. In Miami we had a four-hour layover; then a direct flight to arrive at the Tocumen Airport in Panama City. From the Tocumen Airport, we took a taxi (overpriced but simple, cost us $40) for the roughly half-hour drive to the Albrook Bus Terminal. At the Albrook Bus Terminal, we found it relatively easy to purchase a bus ticket for an overnight bus to Almirante. We chose an overnight bus because then we wouldn’t have to spend a night at a hotel in Panama City; in the morning we’d simply have arrived at our destination. (You can also fly to Bocas del Toro from the Albook Airport for about $100 per person, which doing again I would choose in a heartbeat.) The overnight busses run nightly, with the exception of National Holidays, and tickets are first come first serve. Tickets were $27 per person.

Riding a bus across Panama overnight was very odd to say the least; I would liken it to the experience Harry Potter had riding the Knight Bus. Brian and I were seated in the very first row, directly behind the door to the driver’s cabin. Stops were made, people got on or off, the bus refueled, and passengers came to the cabin door to inquire with the driver. The bus wheeled around tight turns, at times swaying me nearly out of my seat. All the while Brian and I were somewhere between awake and asleep. The man seated beside me continued to explain to me, in Spanish, his discomfort while seated due to some kind of accident that occurred four years ago and from what I could render he was wearing a catheter which he continued to adjust around his thigh and knee throughout the ride. The bus stopped for some type of inspection. “Policia,” my seat-mate stated as I tried to focus my fuzzy, sleepy eyes. “Perro,” he stated, “su passaporte,” he continued as he took out his photo idea from his wallet to show me. Ok, we’re at a Police station and the dogs are snuffing out the luggage compartment and maybe the Police will ask to see identification. Where even are we!?! The luggage compartment closed and the bus rolled along. We stopped at a rest stop; my seat mate shuffled me out the door where I waited for Brian at the bottom of the bus steps. We used the restroom and sat staring at the bus so as not to miss it leaving again. It was a very…long…night. At approximately 5:00am we arrived at Almirante. Taxi drivers were already waiting and loading luggage into the backs of pickup trucks. “Bocas!” That’s our direction, we shuffled sleepily into a taxi pickup.

From Almirante a water taxi completes the trip to Bocas del Toro. We were dropped at what seemed to be the home of a water taxi driver, accompanied by about seven other people. It was still dark outside and flashes of lightening were lighting the entire river before us. One of our fellow travelers informed us that we’d wait until sunrise, approximately one hour, before the taxi could leave. So Brian and I got cozy on the plank dock beneath us and waited. At sunrise, the lightening continued now with defined bolts, and a light rain fell. The water taxi driver arrived; he and an assistant put all of the luggage into the front of the boat and filed us into the bench seating. Another taxi pickup brought about seven more travelers bound for Bocas. When the boat was full, the water taxi set out. Rain fell harder and thunder clapped loudly. The water taxi driver and his assistant closed the canvas on the sides of the boat. Driving out of the inlet and onto open water, the skies opened and torrential rain fell. Lightening was striking all around and so closely that the booming thunder was heard over the water taxi’s outboard. Oh dear lord! We were so close, please just let us make it across this bay!

The thunderstorm eased just as we were arriving at a dock at Bocas del Toro. Wow, welcome to rainy season! We walked out onto the vacant streets. It was still very early in the morning, we didn’t know what time exactly but nothing was open. Brian and I were tired and hungry. We meandered around the streets of Bocastown amidst newly arrived backpackers seeking out their hostel for the night. After what felt like hours, lights came on at a cafe we’d been eyeing for breakfast. We ducked inside just in time to escape another passing downpour. Breakfast lifted our spirits. We got a few staple items at the grocery store and then took our second water taxi ride out to Bastimentos where we’d reunite with Rode Trip at the Red Frog Marina.

We’d returned! All we wanted to do was drop our bags and collapse onto the v-berth for a few hours of horizontal sleep. Not so fast…the rainy season had attacked our poor boat. Without being home to keep the interior ventilated (we’d left a very clean, dry boat) the dampness settled and every surface had been coated with a film of mildew. EVERY SURFACE. There are not words that I can share openly here to describe our reaction to this homecoming. And so, we dropped our bags and began cleaning…

Hello, Bocas! Goodbye, Money!

We arrived at Bocas del Toro, Panama late in the afternoon with plenty of time to anchor prior to sunset. It was a good thing that we had Paul as a lookout while we debated where exactly to anchor because he spotted a shoal and kept us from grounding ourselves. Straight away we learned that the chart was a tad off kilter and that it was extremely difficult to read the water. To avoid the potential challenge of navigating the larger anchorage where all the boats seemed to be, we all agreed that the anchor should be set, “Here!” and we dropped the hook.


We were just off the shoreline of Bocas Town; so close that we could hear conversations among the land dwellers. It was not quite 4:00pm. Hopeful that I could get this clearance process finished before closing time I hailed the Port Captain on the VHF. No answer. I tried several times on VHF-16 and received no response, nor did I receive a response from any nearby boats. I had hoped someone would at least be listening to VHF-16 and give me some pointers. Brian pulled out the guidebook and our notes from Noonsite to see if we could locate the Port Captain’s office and dinghy ashore to inform the authorities of our arrival. This tends to be ‘Plan-B’ in many of the laid-back areas that we’ve previously visited. Brian discovered, per Noonsite notes, that the Port Captain’s office had closed at 3:00pm. We’d be stranded on the boat all night, since upon entering a new country we are under quarantine not allowed to go to shore unless we’ve been cleared by the officials. We made the most of this dilemma by pouring rum drinks, making supper, and sitting in the cockpit to observe our new surroundings.



There were all different kinds of boats whizzing and paddling to and from. Taxi boats called pangas were transporting people; these are fiberglass skiffs with large outboards and bench seating. We saw dug-out canoes, dinghies, and boats we couldn’t quite describe like this one below which had two boys aboard.


This motorboat blazed past the two boys on that, whatever it was, and left the poor kids in a huge wake! He did a few sweeps back and forth. He’d spotted my zoom lens and on his last pass he gave a look in our direction.



Some backpacker dudes took a dip off this dock; not sure if they were cleaner before or after that dip. The water around Bocas Town was absolutely disgusting! There were all sorts of trash floating by. We of course hadn’t noticed the trash until after our dips to cool off. Yuck! Ah well, nothing a little soap and fresh water can’t handle…hopefully.


Soon, darkness and rum concealed our surroundings and we enjoyed the cool night air while listening to music blaring from the local bars. The next morning I was relieved to see that none of us had mutated after having swum in the disgusting water. The guys took quite a while to get motivated; the rum was still wearing off and it was a rainy morning. Rainy! Brian and I debated hauling anchor and moving to a sunnier location. I was anxious to get cleared into the country however, so Brian made pancakes while I hailed the Port Captain on the VHF – every 15 minutes – and tried to refrain from doing laps up on deck in the rain between calls. Another sailboat had arrived and sure enough on their first attempt to hail the Port Captain they received an answer. I piggy-backed on their call and told the Port Captain we’d also just arrived. The Port Captain replied that he would be out within the next hour and a half. And then we waited…

The ferry arrived from Almirante, a town on mainland Panama.


I’d cleaned the breakfast dishes, and we waited…

We reviewed Noonsite notes to get out the appropriate amount of cash, and we waited…

We watched a US Coast Guard ship anchor. Why the ship was there we had no idea, but this was indeed good entertainment. The ship anchored essentially backwards by setting the hook with their stern to the wind. Makin’ us proud, USCG (she said sarcastically)! Paul and Brian busied themselves to determine the exact location of the ship by using our radar and chart. And then we watched as the ship slowly pointed itself into the wind, and we waited…while the Port Captain visited the USCG first. But hey, we were here first and we anchored appropriately!


A panga delivered a slew of officials to Rode Trip. (By the way, they came to us first even though I had piggy-backed on the other sailboat whom had originally hailed them first. Sorry ’bout that, fellow cruisers.) The panga driver and the Port Captain remained in the panga. Customs, Immigration, and we assumed a second Port Captain came aboard. They each wanted copies of our boat documentation, crew list, passports, and Zarpe. I was handing out papers left and right, one copy of that, two copies of this…This was the first location that required so much paper! I may need to spend a day at a print shop just to replenish my stash. (Thanks to my friend, Kim on s/v Anthyllide I had ample copies because she had forewarned this about Central America.) Customs and the Port Captain completed their paperwork simultaneously. Immigration, a woman, told us that we’d need to visit her office prior to 4:00pm that same day to get our Visas. She said the Visas would cost $105/person (more than Noonsite stated). We explained to her that Paul, who had arrived by sea, would be departing by airplane in just three days and asked if he could obtain a lesser Visa. “No,” she replied, “when you arrive by yacht the Visa is good for one year.” We tried again to explain that he wouldn’t be staying for one year and showed her his flight reservations. It seemed a long shot that we could save Paul the expense, and so we told him he’d just have to stay for the year instead. Customs had Brian sign the Customs Declaration, provided us a copy, and then searched the boat. His search was not very in-depth, because he had pulled on one of the cupboards to open it and pulled off the toggle on the back that keeps the cupboard door shut. This embarrassed him, although we observed it and he acted as though maybe we hadn’t, and so he stopped searching and he went outside where it was much cooler anyway. The Port Captain was wiping his brow and cursing the heat under his breath. He provided us with our Cruising Permit. He explained clearly and slowly that this permit is valid for one year, after which we may request an extension for a second and even a third year. The Cruising Permit cost $103 (boats under 10 meters cost less and we measure in, without our bowsprit or boomkin of course just below the high price mark at 9.7 meters). Then the Port Captain told us we had to pay him $20/person for all these officials who had boarded the boat and that we had to pay $50 for the panga fee for them all to get here. Paying for the panga we’d anticipated, not at $50. But we’d not anticipated shelling out $20 a pop for the officials ($100 total) whom we could have easily gone to ourselves. Brian and I looked at each other in one of those moments where we expect the other to make a decision. Brian asked if he could get a receipt. We were assured we could get receipts by visiting each office. This was a bribe, a scam, an unnecessary fee. Naturally, we paid it. Stupid. We did not, however pay the panga fee.

Kicking ourselves, but at the same time thinking it simpler to just pay than to argue with officials we took down the yellow quarantine flag and hoisted the Panama flag. Paul helped us to get the dinghy ready and we ventured ashore. Still not completely cleared, we headed to the Immigration office. En route, we found a print shop where we made copies of Paul’s passport and a copy of our Cruising Permit; Immigration requested we provide this at our visit to the office. Apparently the government can’t afford to supply copy machines even though they are raking in the dough for travel visas. The office building was at the center of town and our visit with Immigration was pleasant. While there, we were also met by Quarantine; received yet another document and an official government receipt for the cost of $15 for Quarantine’s services. Quarantine conveniently searched our boat from the comfort of the air conditioned Immigration office.



Only $428 and we’re IN! Maybe we should get our year’s worth…