Bocas del Toro, Spring-Summer 2009
For most of the time from May through
August, Akka has been in Bocas del Toro, Panama. Bocas (as everybody
calls the town) is in the very northwest of Panama, on the Caribbean
side, a few miles from the border with Costa Rica. We were originally
reluctant to visit there, because, with the easterly tradewinds, it's
downwind of just about everywhere else in the Caribbean, so we feared
that when we left Bocas we would have to beat to windward to go anywhere.
But we'd heard good things about it, so we decided to go; and as it
turns out, there are enough northerly and even westerly winds in the
region so that we can get out without difficulty.
We were charmed by the place. This island community is a cross
between Key West of 50 years ago (without the chickens) and Venice,
Italy (without the palaces). There is no land route to Bocas, and
long, outboard-driven launches ("pangas") are the standard
form of transportation. There are streets in the village, and they're
paved, but you kind of wonder why - the traffic is sparse and no
car ever seems to go faster than 15 miles per hour. People walk
down the middle of the street all the time; once, we saw a tourist
couple standing in the exact middle of Main Street, waiting for
a taxi, with their luggage at their feet. The passing cars simply
drove around them. Nobody honked.
There are several internet cafes in town, but we discovered a much
nicer alternative: the Bocas del Toro Hotel has wi-fi, and it's
free. So, almost every day we'd pack up our laptops, take the dinghy
into the dock at Lili's Café (where we were greeted by Lili
and her daughter, who have the two prettiest smiles in the Caribbean),
walk 50 yards down Main Street to the hotel, and access the internet.
Naturally, we ordered something to drink - the hotel serves delicious
coffee in the morning, and ice-cold beers cost 85 cents (75 cents
at happy hour). If we grew bored with the internet, we could watch
the hummingbirds, two or three of which were perpetually at the
feeders a few feet away from us, or the constant boat traffic in
On one of our trips to the Bocas del Toro Hotel, we asked to see
the rooms. These were all spacious and neat, and some had a pretty
view out over the water behind the hotel. All rooms have ensuite
bathrooms. According to their website, the rooms cost $125 and up
- but they admit to being "high end". There are plenty
of other nice-looking hotels in town, and dozens of bars. Basically,
everything is on the water - many homes and hotels, and almost all
the bars, are built out over it.
There's a busy canal between Bocas and the neighboring island of
Carenero (so named because Columbus once careened his ships there);
there are also hotels on Carenero, and we've heard good things about
a couple of them. One of the hotels has a "swimming pool",
which is actually just a large rectangular hole in their deck, for
guests to jump into. Another posts a sign on its deck: "No
skinny-dipping before 9 PM".
English is the first language for many Bocas residents - until
a few years ago, school was taught in both English and Spanish.
The area was first settled in the 18th Century by plantation owners
from Jamaica who had relocated to Providencia and then had been
driven from that island by high taxes imposed by a Spanish governor.
Other Jamaicans moved to Bocas at the turn of the 20th Century,
when times were tough back home and then again when the French Panama
Canal failed. The net result is a strong connection to Jamaica (lots
of red, yellow, and green paint everywhere; one of the water taxi
services is called "Jam-Pan", for "Jamaica-Panama"),
and lots of mostly black natives who speak English as their first
language. Of course, there also lots of Panamanians in Bocas for
whom Spanish is the first language, and so we always had to guess
which language to greet local residents with. We ended up using
racial profiling. A very white person is a Gringo: try English first.
Tan-colored people are generally Panamanian: try Spanish. Deep black
people are probably descendents of Jamaican slaves: try English.
Amerindians are shorter, shyer, with obviously Indian features:
try Spanish, though of course their first language is an indigenous
one. Finally, the only Asian-looking people in town are the Chinese,
who own the grocery and hardware stores: either English or Spanish
will work - in addition to Mandarin, of course; but we don't happen
to speak it.
The population of Bocas is said to be about 5000 souls, of whom
several hundred are American ex-pats. Most of these ex-pats are
also ex-Hippies, which adds to the Key West flavor. At least some
are fugitives - we hear that Panama has no extradition treaty with
the United States. (Of course, if you were a big enough crook, the
U.S. could simply come get you, as they did Noriega; but we reckon
none of the Americans we know are in his class.) Many of the Gringos
have bought property and built homes in or around Bocas; most are
"pole" construction, i.e., on top of pilings, and all
appear to be well-built.
Well, "bought" may not be the right word: They paid for
the property, but they don't exactly own it. What almost all local
landholders have in lieu of title is something called Right of Possession
(ROP). This is something like the English common-law concept of
adverse possession, but instead of requiring 7 years of occupation,
ROP can be attained almost instantaneously. As soon as you occupy
land and build (or grow) something on it, you can go down to the
local courthouse and claim ROP. If Indians formerly held the property,
you have to show that you bought the ROP from them - though how
the purchasers (or the court) know that they've paid the right Indians
isn't entirely clear.
The ease of obtaining ROP is a two-edged sword: Just as it's relatively
easy for a Gringo to get ROP and build a nice house, it's just as
easy for somebody else to move onto the property and make his own
ROP claim. If ROP owners go anywhere for vacation, they risk returning
to find that somebody else has moved in and is, quite legally, now
in possession of their land, their garden, and their home. This
threat of claim jumping makes for a thriving business in house-sitting
amongst the ex-pat community - though one wonders how the owners
know they can trust the house-sitters not to simply claim the property
while they're gone. ROP holders with fairly large claims (or their
house sitters) routinely walk the boundaries of their land, in order
to find and chase off squatters before the latter can get to the
courthouse and file a counter-claim.
There are stories around town about a Gringo couple (who were apparently
big in local charity, and whom everybody liked) waking up one morning
to the arrival of bulldozers, sent by some folks from Panama City
who had ROP claims that conflicted with theirs. Nobody seems to
know what gave the folks from Panama any right to this property
- the conjecture is, they bribed a judge to give them the ROP papers.
Panama has a notoriously corrupt government, including the legal
system, so this is pretty believable. In any case, the bulldozers
apparently didn't knock the place down - the local ex-pats got a
local authority to stop them - but rights to the property are still
And of course, though ROP can presumably be willed to one's children,
they only benefit from that inheritance if they're willing to move
to Panama. As our friends with the pole house said, "There's
no way our kids are ever going to move here - so the money we paid
is essentially a lease on the property for our lifetimes."
So why not buy titled property? Well, basically, there is none
in the Bocas area, and almost none on the Caribbean coast of Panama.
The Spanish Conquistadores never settled the coast - it was basically
all mangrove swamp, with no gold. The Jamaican immigrants were mainly
squatters, and the Indians never gave up their claims to the land.
In the 20th Century, United Fruit Company came into the area and
grabbed all the arable property (plus a lot of non-arable property;
they were pretty greedy), and they found it to be cheaper and more
convenient to hold property through ROP than to try to obtain title,
so even abandoned banana plantations aren't titled. All the Gringo
owners we met hope to get title to their property eventually, and
all are in the middle of some kind of court proceedings to do so;
but nobody actually knows anybody who has succeeded in that venture,
and there's a general feeling that at least the land bought from
Indians will never be titled.
In addition to not having clear title to their homes, ex-pats have
to contend with the local culture, which makes a lot of the rest
of the Caribbean look efficient. Plus, the Gringos' nice houses
make them obvious targets for theft, and this remote corner of Panama
is a perfect location for narco-traffickers, so there's an established
criminal element around. One couple we met told us of two serious
crimes against Gringos in just the last six months - one of them
an armed robbery, the other an actual murder (which happened when
a burglary victim tried to chase away robbers). Given that there
are at most a few hundred ex-pat Gringos in the Bocas area, two
serious crimes in six months gives the Bocas ex-pat community a
violent crime rate that's comparable to that of Washington, DC,
and a homicide rate even higher than that of the "murder capital
of the world".
For cruisers and tourists, though, Bocas is pretty nearly paradise.
The temperatures are never below 75º Fahrenheit, most days
are in the 90's, and there's generally a light breeze. It only rains
about 6 months of the year, (May-November) and during most of that
period, it usually only rains a few hours a day (though from July
onward, it can rain - really hard - for two or three days on end).
The Caribbean water is clear and beautiful, the people very friendly,
the fish are jumpin' and the livin' is definitely easy.
Just about the only negative from the tourist point of view is
the chitras, or no-see-ums. The ones in Bocas are literally too
small to see, but they sure do bite. From about 6 to 8 PM, you don't
want to be outdoors unless you've coated yourself with bug spray
or at least have a Citronella candle or mosquito coil burning nearby.
But everybody seems to get used to taking the appropriate precautions.
Carrying repellent is like carrying your wallet. Some hotels and
restaurants use blowtorches to ignite whole coils of mosquito repellant
on their porches. Others burn coconut husks to generate smoke. And
of course, there's always Deep Woods Off.
If you're looking for an out-of-the-way vacation destination, we
definitely recommend Bocas del Toro. Though there are no roads to
it, there is an airport with daily flights to Panama City and three
flights weekly to San Jose, Costa Rica - and those cities both have
lots of connecting flights to the U.S., Canada and Europe. But we'd
suggest you shouldn't plan to retire in the Bocas area, unless you
need a good place to avoid the Feds.