Trip to Bocas del Toro
Sunday, May 13th, 2012
It was time for Costa Rica passport renewal. If you live in Costa Rica, unless you are an official resident or citizen (I am not), you are considered a tourist and must leave after 90 days. But of course you can come back. Most people go out of the country for three days or more and then return, obtaining the required new passport stamps. I don’t mind doing this. I love to travel. And with my recent overwork overload at my lovely little guest house, Hidden Jungle Beach House, I knew I would enjoy a three day break. Bocas Del Toro is in Panama, right across the Costa Rica / Panama border. That’s where I’d go.
Bocas del Toro is an archipelago – a cluster of islands – near Panama’s northern Caribbean border. The main island is called Colon. The secondary Islands are Bastimentos, Solarte, San Cristobal, Cerro Brujo, Cayo Agua and Popa. There are numerous smaller islands. The area is known for its crystal clear waters and beautiful beaches – a diver and snorkelers paradise enjoyed by tourists from all over the world. It is an easy four hour trip from Puerto Viejo. A shuttle service can take you for around $35.00. Some people prefer that, as all the details are handled by someone more experienced. But not me. I prefer to learn by experience. I did it on my own for half the price and I am going to show you how.
PART 1: TRAVEL
Morning buses leave for the border every hour on the half hour. I took the 8:30 a.m. bus and arrived on the Island of Colon, in Bocas del Toro at noon. Go to the bus station in Puerto Viejo fifteen minutes early to purchase a ticket to the border town of Sixaola, for about $3.50. The bus stops in Bri Bri and then continues the hour and a half drive along the banana plantations and their villages. Upon arrival in Sixaola you make an exit stop at Costa Rica customs. Then you’ll take a walk back in time across the precarious old wooden bridge.
It is hard to believe that huge, heavy 18 wheelers drive over this bridge! I’ve taken my car across this bridge several times and each time I say a prayer. The new “Bailey Bridge” will soon be open. That one looks a bit sketchy to me, too. I’m happy to be on foot.
After crossing the bridge you’ll see the customs window. Walk right past it and go down the stairs to the bus ticket office. That’s right – to get into Panama you have to buy a $15.00 bus ticket out. Never mind if you’ll never use it. They just want to know you have a way out of the country.
Now you can go to the customs window, show your passport and bus ticket and get your passport stamped. Next is the tourist visa. They’ll show you where to go to the next office. I paid $3.00 for a tourist visa this trip but in the past five years it has varied from 0 – $8.00. They also inspect your bags here. After this you are free to go and continue your Panama adventure.
Now here’s the fun part. Walk back down the same stairs again. You’ll see groups of tourists and shuttle vans to Bocas and you’ll be asked to come along – for $5.00 to $10.00. But you will just smile and say, “No, gracias,” walking on to look for the school bus to Changuinola. It’s a standard yellow school bus, brightly painted with fancy designs outside and in. You’ll see “Changuinola” on the front window. Get in and take a seat, you’ll be asked to pay the $.95 cent fare just before arrival. As the only Gringo on the bus, you’ll get some giggles and inquisitive gazes from the kids. But don’t worry. Most of the passengers are local Indigenous, Panamanian and Mestizo (mixed). They are usually quiet and somewhat shy. Just smile and say, “Hola!” They’ll appreciate your friendliness. Enjoy the scenic 45 minute drive.
In Changuinola you’ll be dropped at the bus station. Right near by is the comfortable, air conditioned shuttle van to Almirante. Look for the one with “Changuinola Almirante” on the front window. Hop in. The fare is $1.45. You pay later. Be sure to let the driver know you want to go to Bocas.
You’ll get off in Almirante and walk a short way down the road for a water taxi to the island of Colon. The water taxis – or pangas as they are called – go only to the main Island, Isla Colon. There are several water taxis to choose from. The first and biggest is Bocas Marine Tours ($5.00), but if you plan to stay where I did at Casa Verde, walk down further to Transporte Torres ($4.00). Their office is just a few doors down from Casa Verde. Their slightly smaller boats give a more comfortable half hour ride to Isla Colon. You can stay in Bocas Town for the shops and entertainment or from there you can get another panga to explore the secondary islands.