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…

San Jose, Costa Rica

The thing about shopping for a sailboat on the internet is that you cannot actually see the sailboat. Sure, you read all the specifications, review the inventory lists, look through hundreds of photos…then make a spreadsheet to actually review this data back to back because you’re looking at so many sailboats that you don’t know which one is which. But you cannot actually see the sailboat; cannot actually tap on the hull, sit in the cockpit, inspect the deck, open the bilges, crawl into the engine space, feel the sailboat, smell the sailboat (because let’s face it oftentimes used sailboats smell funky). Shopping for a sailboat on the internet is a teaser; it gets you thinking, gets you prepared, and gets you salivating because there are so…many…amazing…sailboats!

And then, it’s time to SEE the sailboat! After narrowing our criteria, Brian, Bruce, and I had compiled a list of potential boats. We’d had the specs memorized and the photos imprinted on our brains. We were ready to make one of these prospective boats our own! But first…how exactly do we get out of Panama!?! Travel by land was an astounding idea to Brian and I. What would we pack? How would we transport ourselves from place to place without a dinghy? Where would we sleep at night without our home anchored nearby?

Cheap flights were found out of San Jose, Costa Rica. Great! We booked a flight from San Jose, Costa Rica to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida; where we would meet Bruce and view the first boat on our list. We’d learned that we could take a bus from Bocas del Toro to San Jose; but upon further investigation the “bus” involved a full day’s travel involving various cities and transfers…we’d also have to get ourselves to mainland Panama just to get started and without s/v Rode Trip we weren’t sure how the heck we’d accomplish moving across the water! We asked some good friends for a bit of travel guidance. I cannot thank enough our friends at Red Frog Marina, Steve & Di, and our good friend, Shera, who is presently backpacking Central America. Steve, Di, and Shera gave us valuable information and confidence that we could, indeed, get ourselves to San Jose. And here is how…

We bought two, one-way, tickets for a shuttle to San Jose from Bocas del Toro. The shuttle was a set price and it eliminated our having to be on time and to haggle for prices at each transfer city. We used the Red Frog Marina water taxi to get us into Bocas del Toro at 8:00am on the morning of our departure. We arrived at a hostel that was hosting the meeting place for the shuttle. A Panamanian confirmed our tickets, slapped a green bracelet prominently stating SAN JOSE onto each of our wrists, and walked us from the hostel to a water taxi station on the waterfront. We, and our luggage (all of the belongings we could possibly imagine needing for a trip with a one-way ticket were crammed into a backpack for each of us) were shuffled onto a water taxi. The water taxi brought us to the port town of Almirante, Panama on the mainland. At Almirante, again we and our luggage were shuffled directly from the water taxi into a van; our luggage was actually thrown into the back of a pick-up truck that we could only assume was going to the next location because the driver repeatedly stated, “Puerto Viejo! San Jose! Puerto Viejo! San Jose!”

We rode approximately 30 minutes in the van from Almirante, Panama to the town of Changuinola, Panama. We were squeezed into the backseat of the van with a fabulous couple, Courtney and Tim from Seattle, WA. We chatted excitedly with Courtney and Tim about our travels and theirs; the time quickly passed and soon we’d arrived at Changuinola, the next transfer location. The pick-up truck carrying our luggage was parked across the street, thank goodness, and the driver repeated, “San Jose! San Jose” as we hopped out of the van. Brian grabbed our two backpacks from the pick-up truck as we were shuffled into a coach bus. We noted that the other passengers were also wearing green, SAN JOSE bracelets. Prior to the bus departure from Changuinola, the driver had us sign a passenger list and he provided us with immigration paperwork. This bus would take us across the Panama/Costa Rica border. Here we go! We marveled at the speed at which we were moving as we watched the scenery pass by through the bus windows. We passed miles and miles of banana fields, even stopping once for the bananas to cross the street! Seriously! Each of the clumps of bananas on the trees were covered with a blue plastic bag. When the bananas were cut, they were conveniently already bagged, and the bagged clumps of bananas were hung on a manual conveyer belt to be moved from the field into the packaging area. One of the banana conveyor belts crossed the road; stop signs and barriers came down as if we’d stopped at a train crossing, and a man pulling the manual conveyor belt walked across the street and onward to the packaging area pulling a clump of bananas. While the bus was stopped, over two dozen clumps of bananas were conveyed across the street. Amazing! I’ve waited for cattle crossings and goat crossings but never bananas!

At the border of Panama and Costa Rica the bus stopped. We were instructed (in Spanish, so much of our action was purely mimicking the other passengers) to take our immigration paperwork and exit the bus. Our friends, Steve, Di, and Shera had fortunately prepared us for this portion of the trip. We exited the bus with our immigration paperwork and our belongings, after all we were only carrying a backpack each. We walked to the Panama Immigration window to clear out of the country. We really hoped we were doing the right thing by traveling because upon our arrival by sea we’d obtained a 1-year Visa which we would now void by leaving the country. But opportunity lay ahead!


Now cleared out of Panama, we walked across the street and up the hill, following recognizable bus passengers and occasionally being directed by the bus driver.


At the top of the hill, we entered yet another Panama immigration office; this one local for the Bocas del Toro District. The stop into this office cost us a grand total of $4.00 and we obtained a sticker indicating that we’d cleared out of the District.


While the bus proceeded ahead without passengers…


…we walked across a rickety, old railroad bridge and entered Costa Rica. The immigration office stamped our passports and we boarded the bus once again to continue the drive to San Jose.



The bus wove its way up steep, narrow roads. Thick jungle lined the roadside banks and waterfalls cascaded down from above. Fast moving tractor-trailor trucks whizzed by within inches of the coach bus. Rain poured down during intermittent thunderstorms. We were stopped for nearly an hour and one-half due to an accident; and the bus wasted no time once we were moving again!


We arrived at San Jose late in the afternoon at the “Coca Cola” bus stop, one that travel guides had warned us about visiting due to crime. Fantastic! No sooner had we stepped off the bus than taxi drivers had attached themselves to us like velcro. “Taxi! Where you go?” The taxi driver was pushy, and snatched Brian’s luggage tag from his hand so that he could step forward and claim our bags. Brian was on guard, “No thank you,” he said as he reached for our bags himself. Brian haggled with the persistent taxi driver until they reached a price that the driver said he could go no lower than. We took the taxi from the bus stop to Maleku Hostel where we’d made a reservation. This taxi ride was CRAZY!!! It was rush hour in San Jose. Our driver was weaving in and out of traffic. I’m certain he did not stop at a single stop sign or red light, he merely honked the horn as he continued through intersections and merged into traffic. There were moments when I didn’t think we’d survive this taxi!

I’d never been so happy to step onto solid land as when we’d arrived at Maleku Hostel and exited the taxi! Maleku Hostel was clean, secured, and comfortable. We settled our belongings and took a walk just around the corner to a fabulous Italian restaurant for dinner followed by a stop at the grocery store to pick up food for cooking our own breakfast. What a day! Water taxis, a van, a coach bus, a taxi…so this was land travel! I settled into my bunk-room bed for the night wishing that home had been just a dinghy ride away.

The Butterfly Farm

We’d found an ad in a local paper for a Butterfly Farm near Bocas; this sounded like a great little excursion that the kids would enjoy. On the morning of our butterfly tour, it seemed everyone had planned to go to town via the water-shuttle. How many people fit into a panga? The answer is 26! Our driver, Felo, is fabulous but I think even he was surprised that everyone fit. The panga was riding low in the water for that trip!IMG_9280 IMG_9281Once at town, Felo taxied us over to the Butterfly Farm. We’d never have found this entrance on our own. Just arriving was an adventure!IMG_9283IMG_8130IMG_8131

This way to the butterflies!IMG_9285IMG_9286



The Butterfly Farm was not what we’d expected, but we’re learning quickly not to set any expectations in Panama. It was someone’s private property; trails wound through the jungle and educational signs were posted pertaining to wildlife and plants. The area was a bit run-down, but the farmer was engaged and helpful. At one time it looked as though this farm was thriving, just not today. We were disappointed that our Spanish is so poor and we were unable to really communicate to learn about the butterflies. We were led inside and left to ourselves to explore the butterfly house. IMG_8143

Butterflies fluttered all around; large ones with bright blue wing-tops, small orange butterflies, and small black butterflies with a bright red stripe on their wings. The butterflies were constantly moving. The house was hot and humid. There were several beautiful flowers to admire while walking along the little pathways though the house. Annika and I played “Hot & Cold” on the paths; I’d stand in one location and let her know if she were getting closer (hot) or farther (cold) away as she wound around the paths through the vegetation.


Darren was on a mission to get a non-blurred photograph of a butterfly, and he succeeded!

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Outside of the butterfly house, along one of the paths, we found a large terrarium where several tiny frogs were living. These were the poison-dart frogs and they were brightly colored green, yellow, blue, and red.IMG_9363

Brian had struck up a conversation with the farmer, although limited conversation due to our language barrier, the farmer shared his knowledge with us in Spanish and elaborate hand gestures. We returned to the butterfly house where he showed us butterfly larve.IMG_9362

We’d spent an hour at the Butterfly Farm and had to return to the docks to meet Felo, our water-shuttle driver. We welcomed the cool breeze from the boat ride after having been in the steamy jungle.


Felo brought us to Bocas Town where we had lunch and did a bit of touristy shopping before heading back to the Red Frog Marina.IMG_8207

Our afternoon was spent swimming and snorkeling from the dinghy in the mangroves. It was refreshing and peaceful; Darren and Katie admired the sunset over the Panama mountains as we returned the dinghy to the docks. That night we dined on tuna that Brian and Darren had selected from the fish market. Brian spiced up the tuna with an onion and pineapple chutney and made coconut rice and broccoli for our sides; all plain for Annika and Gavin, both loved the fish and rice. Once the kids were asleep, we put our feet up with rum and/or red wine in hand and once again enjoyed the cool night air out on the dock.