Panama, Part 3: Bocas del Toro—The Beautiful, Bold, Barrier Breaker

Bocas beach before the storm.

Bocas beach before the storm.

This is the leg of the trip, that will, no doubt, leave the longest impression. An experience I never thought I myself would ever have, or even wanted to have, was sort of nudged on me by a few adventurous friends and I was not going to back down from the challenge. I wasn’t the only one thrown outside the safe confines of my comfort zone, and I will say that the camaraderie of uneasiness helped us conquer our fears.

Back to the story…

We board a small puddle jumper to an island near Panama, Bocas Del Toro. Jenny promises it is beautiful and for accommodations we have agreed on the Palmar Tent Lodge. Initially, when this option was offered, I’m thinking it will be a high-end camping experience. Out in the elements in a way, but with walls, electricity, and running water. Nope. It is absolutely, 100% outdoors and this knowledge has been plaguing me since I’ve agreed to it, at least a month before the trip. Each new reality hitting week by week…bugs…bathroom access…bugs. And now it’s here and I can’t back down. We are going to do this. 

Our plane lands and we walk out onto the main island, in search of breakfast, when Tim realizes he has left his phone on the airplane. Oh well, he says, not overly panicked like the rest of us would have been. We turn back and the plane is still there, but getting ready for take off. Next thing we know, Jenny is running towards that plane, flip flops slapping, maxi dress bunched to her knees so she doesn't trip, and she disappears into the tiny airport. There is no way, we say. What is she going to do, we say. Quickly realizing, of course, she is going to get that phone—it’s Jenny after all. And as we watch, the propellers of the plane slow and come to a stop. A man runs onto the plane and comes out. Tim has gone in search of Jenny by this time and as we stand there, in this foreign land, marveling at the impossibility of such a move in the U.S. without being tackled by TSA and locked in a room by the NSA, Jenny and Tim come strolling out, Tim’s cell phone in hand. Just like that.

After the morning’s excitement, we manage to find breakfast. In about an hour, sweating through our clothes in the swelter of the island, stray cats and dogs circling our feet, we secure passage on a water taxi over to the beach/rainforest where we will be staying. Once we step off our open boat onto the island, we wind our way through the forest, stopping to marvel at the lines of worker ants and enormous sized versions of houseplants in their natural habitat, until we find our way to the tiki bar that is to be a our main hub for the next three days. It is nestled just on the edge of the rainforest, right on the beach, and I marvel at the other visitors, trying to figure out how to channel their chill, laid back vibes. 

I won’t go into every detail of our stay in Bocas, some of which I view as a kind of sacred experience I wish to keep to myself but I will say it was unforgettable. 

Our tent accommodations are large swaths of canvas strung between trees over a wooden platform. Each tent includes a bed, small fan, and trunk to lock our belongings in. We have a front porch of sorts, with adirondack chairs and a line to hang our towels on. For two nights, I share my bed with sand from the beach and a collection of tiny ants that I swear refuse to leave my side. Cicadas accompany me in the shared bathroom. I bathe with rain water that only comes out 30 seconds at a time with the push of a button. 

The cheap drinks help ease any discomfort and the amazing food at this place. I do not have a bad meal. For breakfast, granola with almond milk and fresh fruit, pineapple pancakes, all you can drink coffee, fresh passionfruit juice that chases away my hangover from the cheap drinks. For lunch, veggie and quinoa wraps, hummus, fresh salsa, mozzarella sticks. Dinner with quinoa lasagna and fresh exotic salads. Sangria, rum punch, margaritas, other drinks I cant pronounce but that include cucumbers and exotic fruits. I don’t sleep much and I feel like my inner amazon is coming out, taking over my body, my mind floating up in the clouds to a safe bug-free place until we are back in the U.S. I live outside for three days in a hot humid sticky buggy forest/beach. I am uncomfortable and I’ve never looked forward to a shower this much in my life, but I am surviving and I am enjoying myself.

We go DIY snorkeling and see tiny fish and crazy shaped coral. We learn that riptides are strong in this area of the world, and not to go too far out (thank goodness you-know-who was a lifeguard in high school). The staff at Palmar Tent Lodge are young college-age kids there for three, four weeks at a time, earning their keep, half day behind the bar and the rest of the time hanging out at the beach. They are from everywhere from the U.S. to Germany. We drink wine on the beach and share intimate stories. We play in the ocean, acting like little kids as we freely dive under the waves and get knocked around in the water. And then it’s over. Like a dream. We suddenly wake up in our bed, no bugs or animal sounds, (except the cat) and a feeling that all had shifted ever so slightly. Things that were once a big deal were now a bit trivial and I felt braver than ever before, imagining what would happen if I traveled the world.

I, Angela Milkie, camped outside in the rainforest of Bocas Del Toro in Central America. I, an anxiety ridden neat freak with a deep hatred of all things bug-like camped outside in the rainforest. And I wondered, what else then, I could do.