Postcard from Panama: Bocas to Boquete

Playa Bluff
Today was earmarked as a transit day in our eight-day odyssey through Panama, which depending on where you’re traveling to and how you’re getting there can be something travelers dread or something they think probably won’t be so bad. For us, the trip from secluded (but unseasonably rainy) Playa Bluff in the archipelago of Bocas del Toro to the heart of coffee country in the highlands of Boquete easily fell into the latter.

First-time Panama visitors likely have both Bocas and Boquete high atop their to-visit list after starting with a few nights in Panama City. It doesn’t matter in which order you do it–PC to Bocas to Boquete, or PC to Boquete to Bocas–but I’m happy to say that despite these three destinations all being on the average tourist circuit, they’re well worth a visit–and none of them have been built up to the point of tourism ruin. Yet.

If you’re going from Bocas to Boquete, here’s a very brief summary of how to do it and what to expect (you’ll have to fill in the blanks here–this IS supposed to be a postcard, after all):

– First, strongly consider staying outside of Bocas Town if you can. There are mondo smaller islands outside the main island of Colon that purportedly provide for dreamy beach getaways far away from the average backpacker, but La Coralina is a stunning, totally secluded option on Colon’s Playa Bluff that’s highly recommended (pay extra for a room with a private bathroom if you can). Check back in the coming weeks for more thoughts on this beautiful property.

– Okay, so you stayed at La Coralina, checked out, and are heading to Boquete next. Piece of cake. From Playa Bluff it’s a scenic-but-bumpy 15-minute ride in a taxi/truck back along and literally on the beach into Bocas Town. The taxi is free if you grab Coralina’s daily 9am shuttle, or approximately US$10 if you don’t (yes, Panama uses American currency).

– In town, hop on a water taxi (essentially just a speedboat with enough bench seating for about 20 people) for a quick $5 spin across the bay to ramshackle Almirante. You’ll be immediately approached at the dock by well-meaning taxi solicitors, who’ll hustle you into a waiting car for the short $1 per person trip to a tiny bus “station”.

– Here, wait for one of the coaster buses that come at least every 30 minutes. Find a seat, sit back, and relax for a breathtaking and surprisingly comfortable 4-hour ride through the Panamanian countryside. Think banana plantations, distant mountains shrouded in mist, lush valleys, tropical vegetation, the hiss of your bus’s air brakes, farmers and uniformed schoolkids hitching a ride, the rhythmic beat of Latin-Caribbean salsa, small waterfalls cascading from rocky roadside bluffs, and everywhere green, green, green. Pay the attendant $8.50 once you arrive in David.

– At David, walk to the other side of the bus station and find a yellow school bus with “Boquete” spelled out in big, black stickers across the windshield. Squeeze in, somehow–the bus is going to be really fucking packed.

– Be patient as the bus driver maxes out in second gear as he trolls for passengers along the main road to Boquete, reaching a top speed of no more than 20mph. There will be many, many stops along the way.

– Finally, arrive in Boquete after a 45 – 60 minute ride. Pay the driver $2. Either walk to your hotel/hostel or hail a taxi–we’re staying at the beautiful Boquete Garden Inn, which is a $2 or $3 taxi ride from “downtown” Boquete.

All in all, today’s transit day was taxi to boat to taxi to bus to bus to taxi. Tomorrow’s agenda is vastly different: a coffee plantation tour, followed by horseback riding, followed by a bottle of wine at the Inn.

Sounds like an absolutely terrible trip, dunnit?

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