The Red Frog Marina at Bastimentos

The Bocas del Toro archipelago is a group of northwestern, Panamanian islands that separate Almirante Bay from the Caribbean Sea. This archipelago comprises the Bocas del Toro District; Bocas del Toro (or Bocas Town) the major city is located on Isla Colon. Numerous islands, much like a tropical version of Maine, are accessible by ferry, water taxi, and private boat. The archipelago is home to Indigenous people, Panamanians, ex-patriates, and ever wandering cruisers. At a glance, it seemed we would have months worth of cruising opportunities to explore islands.

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First, however, more guests were due to arrive! To accommodate our guests we’d made reservations at a local marina, the Red Frog Marina on Isla Bastimentos. Roughly 5nm from Bocas del Toro on Isla Colon, the Red Frog Marina on Bastimentos boasted excellent water, clean facilities, and a water-shuttle service to/from town. These homey comforts were right in the middle of a tropical rain forest! We were anxious to get Rode Trip docked and explore Bastimentos in preparation for our guests. We were also anxious for a long, pressure-water shower and use of the laundry machines. And so, still with our good friend Paul, we hauled anchor and sailed a beautiful sail to Isla Bastimentos.

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We found the entrance to the marina nestled behind a labyrinth of mangroves. One of our soon to be dock neighbors dinghied toward us in his skiff and met us upon our entry. Stephen (s/v Cinnimon Girl) directed us to our slip; he and another soon to be neighbor, Bob (s/v First Light) assisted with our dock lines. Within minutes Rode Trip was securely docked.IMG_9373IMG_9383

Brian, Paul, and I met with Dock Manager, Lee. Lee was fabulous! Not only did he welcome us to the marina and provide the usual run-down of information (pertaining to wifi access, bathroom door codes, water/electric hook-ups, etc.) but he took time from his busy day to take us on a tour of the area. Lee brought us to the local beaches and restaurants and shared with us what kinds of wildlife we might spot in the rain forest. We were anxious to start walking around the island in search of Sloths, Strawberry Poison-dart Frogs, Monkeys, Snakes…oh no, NOT Snakes!IMG_9376IMG_9378

 

These lovely facilities would be waiting for us later in the evening.IMG_9380And so, after getting acquainted with an unusual new neighbor…we were off into the jungle! This is a Rhinoceros Beetle and we hoped he wouldn’t visit us down at the docks!IMG_8958IMG_8959

 

First Look at Bocas del Toro

Walking down the main streets of Bocas del Toro Brian, Paul, and I felt as though we’d just entered a theme park (aside from the surplus of litter in the streets and alleys which reminded us that we had really landed in a third-world country). The streets were bustling with vendors, taxis, bicycles, backpackers, surfers, locals…everyone casually walking down the street, not along the sidewalks.

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Brightly colored restaurants, hostels, and shops advertised their daily specials on sandwich boards flamboyantly decorated with dragons, waves, palms, and parrots. “Private Rooms $10-20/night-Air Conditioning-Wifi…” “Surf Lessons…”

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A pirate themed restaurant lured us inside with their $5 lunch specials. They served coconut rice, plantains, and choice of chicken or fish with a soda included. Tasty! Cheap! And a fabulous waterfront view.

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After lunch we stepped off the main drag.

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We cut through a graveyard.

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It may seem unusual to be walking through graveyard, and well, it is. But Brian and I tend to check them out as they are all different country to country. In this one we noticed that many of the graves were raised and many were ornately decorated with tile. The trail was also a bit sketchy, but I skipped along ahead of the guys to see what might be around the next corner.

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And at the end of the trail…

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…we found a beach. There were some young guys playing a soccer game, some backpackers cooling their toes in the ocean water, and some dogs frolicking in the sand.

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The walk back through the opposite end of town did not disappoint. The local lumber yard was promoting synthetic thatch, something we didn’t even know existed! Keep that in mind when constructing your backyard tiki bars this summer.

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A nice first look at Bocas del Toro…and oh, so much more to explore!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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