Once over the border, the gringo magnets were on us in an instant trying to get us on a tourist bus to Bocas. Initially we declined and went to look for the regular buses, but upon finding none and hearing rumors of problems with the usual ferry crossing, we finally gave in and coughed up 8$ each for a 1 hour bus ride to Almirante. Pretty steep, but at least it was air-conditioned and about 3 hours quicker than a normal bus. Once in Almirante, we crammed onto a flat-bottomed panga and sped to Isla Colon, which was about 45 minutes.
Isla colon is the biggest and most developed island of the archipelago and the only one with cars and roads
. The town consists of about 15 blocks in total. It is pretty touristy, but super laid-back at backpacker friendly. Being the low season and all, there was an abundance of cheap places to stay and we walked for all of 5 minutes before being approached by someone trying to sell us on a hotel. Normally we just say no instantly and walk away when approached by strangers trying to sell us things, but this girl seemed honest and professional and she had pictures of the hotel, which looked nice. The place was about a 5 minute bike ride out of town (we borrowed bikes from a local business partner of hers to go look at it) and in a local area, complete with lots of dogs, little kids, and blaring Spanish ballads from some stereo that blew the speakers 17 years ago. The cabin was in a nice little jungle garden with hammocks and a little table on the front porch. It had a nice kitchen, bathroom, comfy bed and 2 bikes. We ended up staying 6 nights and absolutely loved it! It really felt like home, and we were very happy to be able to cook our own meals and pack lunches and have some peace and quiet and privacy.
The first day we just walked around and explored the town and had a million Caribbean boat owners come up to us and try to sell us boat tours. The second day we actually went on a boat tour, which left at 9:30 and went first to dolphin bay, which--you guessed it--is where we say three dolphins jumping and playing in their natural habitat
. They came RIGHT up to the boat and despite 45 minutes of snapping pictures, I was not able to get any really awesome pictures. It was really neat though and my first time seeing dolphins in the wild. Next stop was snorkeling in some mangrove reefs and a beautiful shallow protected bay where we saw tons of fish that are in all of the pictures. Then they took us to another little island where we were forced to eat a super expensive lunch since it was the only restaurant on the island...Business arrangement perhaps? Next stop was a hike on another little island where we say sloths in the trees and tiny poisonous red frogs, which are exclusive to this area and are being threatened by the development on some islands. Finally they dropped us off at Red Frog Beach on Isla Bastimentos, which is a very very beautiful white sand beach with the crystal clear warm water we have now grown accustomed to...We reflected on the fact that almost all of the amazing beautiful beaches we have encountered so far have been completely natural in the sense that there is zero development on or very near to the actual beach. Also, they have almost all been deserted or almost deserted. Probably because it is the low season, but we have had amazing weather on this trip. But despite the cloud and light rain, Red Frog Beach was pretty busy with beach goers of all types and was complete with a makeshift bar that served up over-priced beer (the outrageous price of 2$).
The archipelago is really beautiful and has tons to offer because all of the islands have something different to offer, whether you want a palm and sand beach deserted islet, jungle trails and hiking, wildlife watching, snorkeling and diving, surfing, swimming, partying or dining. We wanted to do some surfing but there werent really any waves...Most of the water surrounding the islands, which are super close to each other, was crystal clear and very shallow. There were a few sailboats and it seems like it would be a paradise to sail through.
We started an open water PADI certification dive course the next morning at the Dutch Pirate Dive Shop, which runs out of Bastimentos Island, a small island with no roads. Every morning for the next three days, we spent 9 hours a day learning underwater techniques, studying, writing tests, and diving! We got to go on our first real open water dive at Hospital Point on the first day, and it really is a cool experience breathing underwater and feeling like you are a part of the underwater world. We went down to 10 meters on our first dive and saw lobster, toad fish, lots of colorful tropical fish. It lasted about an hour but felt like 10 minutes. Our second open water dive was the next day at a ferry wreck that sunk 17 years ago. This was my favorite dive! We saw lots of big and small colorful fish and it was really cool to swim in and around the old ship, which is now totally overgrown with coral and sealife
. Next we went to some coral gardens and went down to our maximum depth of 18 meters. Finally the next day we went for one more dive, demonstrated all of our underwater skills, wrote our final exam and posed for our PADI certification pictures! All in all a super cool experience and one that both Jason and I never though we would do. The rest of the day was spend lounging on Wizard Beach on Bastimentos, which was a very muddy 20 minute trail from the dive shop on Bastimentos. The owner of the shop, Rob, offered us a free dive the next day and we gladly accepted. Unfortunately we had to wait until 3 PM to cash in, but is was still great!
That night we had a lovely dinner at a Thai restaurant built on stilts over the bay (which is the norm everywhere here). In the morning it was off to Boquete!
We crossed into Panama from Chiquita, Costa Rica at the Sixoala border crossing. It was fairly uneventful except we had to prove we had an exit ticket from Panama, which thankfully we had.