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 the canal.

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 in dispute.

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.