Typically, my preferred style of travel–if it hasn’t become obvious yet–is slow and thorough; plodding, one might even say.
In South America, I spent anywhere from three to nine weeks in every country I visited, limiting myself to a handful of cities so as not to spread my time too thin.
I love to get to know a new destination well, beyond the major sites and tourist attractions and Lonely Planet “Top Picks.” I like to wander aimlessly around cities taking in the energy, the nuances, and the distinct flavors of life each place has to offer.
I like to think Mak and I achieved this to some degree in Panama despite flying through the country in just 10 short days, a quick and dirty visit by my standards.
How could we possibly achieve slow travel with only 10 days in a country, you ask?
Quite simple, really–we only visited two destinations (not counting our sailing trip through the San Blas Islands, of course–only mainland Panama).
Bocas del Toro, a stunning, postcard-worthy archipelago in the Caribbean a few hours’ drive from the Costa Rican border, was the first on our two-stop tour of Panama.
The glowing reputation of Bocas del Toro certainly preceded it; having been underwhelmed by many of the beaches we’d seen in Central America up until that point, I was already daydreaming of the white sand and leaning palm trees that awaited us in Bocas as we boarded our ferry from the mainland.
We had just come that morning from Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica, having arranged a door-to-door transfer and border crossing all in one convenient package. The price was great ($26 for everything) and saved us the hassle involved with DIY border crossings, and with our onward travel secured, the process was a breeze.
The ferry was taking us to Bocas del Toro Town on the main island of the archipelago, Isla Colón. We then hopped on a $1 water taxi for the quick jaunt to the smaller Isla Carenero that was home to the hostel my traveling friends just wouldn’t shut up about, Aqua Lounge.
They were absolutely right to rave about this place. Built entirely over the water, Aqua Lounge is half hostel, half water park. Swimming holes, swings, a trampoline, and a slackline were all at our disposal to indulge our inner 8-year-olds and stay cool in the unrelenting Caribbean heat. Indoors, hammocks were slung everywhere and friendly hostel dogs nuzzled their perpetually wet muzzles into your hand at every opportunity.
Almost immediately upon arrival, we made friends with a group of Canadian girls and joined their tour for the following day. We visited Dolphin Bay, chilled on beautiful Zapatilla beach, snorkeled terrifyingly close to jellyfish, and hunted for starfish and sloths.
The wildlife sightings were rather disappointing and I didn’t much care for the way the boats chased the dolphins around the bay when we did finally find them, but the rest of the day was relaxed and carefree, a Cerveza Panama in-hand at all times.
And it was great to have new friends to hang out with. Not that Mak and I don’t love each other, but too much time with the same friend can drive a person…well…you know. But in nine years of friendship we haven’t killed each other, so there’s that.
The next few days were spent wandering Bocas Town discovering the most delicious jerk chicken, a pineapple that refused to be like all the other pineapples, cool local markets, and the chilled out essence of the Caribbean beach town.
We debated heavily how to spend our final day in Bocas del Toro; should we visit Starfish Beach? Red Frog Beach? Bird Island? But what I really wanted to try ever since reading about my friend Alex’s experience earlier this year? Deepboarding.
Imagine, if you will, that waterskiing and snorkeling got together one night. Maybe they drank a little too much, maybe some mistakes were made…and nine months later (or whatever the gestation period is for water sports) a baby was born, and they named it Deepboarding.
Sometimes known as coral surfing, this aquatic adventure involves being pulled behind a boat while holding onto a curved piece of plastic that allows you to dive deep under the water and resurface for air as needed with a simple flick of the wrists.
With nothing more than a head strap to secure my GoPro, I was unable to get any useable footage of this experience. What I do have are some pretty spectacular shots of the secluded beach where we snorkeled, a much less jellyfishy location than our previous tour. We thoroughly enjoyed our tour with Undersea Panama ($25 for deepboarding and snorkeling), but I’ve heard mixed reviews so keep in mind they are not the only such tour operator in town.
All up, I was pretty satisfied with how our days were spent in Bocas del Toro. It didn’t feel rushed, we squeezed in a fair amount of activities, exploring and chilling, and when it came time for us to shake the sand out of our bags and head for our next destination, we were ready.
Coming up in Part 2 of the Quick & Dirty Panama Tour: Panama City.
Do you prefer to spend less time in more destinations, or more time in fewer destinations when you travel?