Friday, March 22, 2013

Viaje en Bocas del Toro

I just spent a fun weekend in Bocas del Toro with Nick!

Map of the province of Bocas del Toro, Panama. We were in Isla Colon, in the northeastern part of the archipelago. 

We took a night bus--8:00 pm on Friday to 6:00 am on Saturday--to Almirante, a town on the Caribbean side of Panama by Almirante Bay, then a taxi to a water taxi, which put us on Isla Colon, the island of the surfer Bocas Town in the Panamanian province of Bocas del Toro!

It wasn't quite that simple, however.

After getting to the water taxi and buying our tickets, I realize I don't have any of my snorkeling gear with me, which I most certainly had on the bus before. It must be in the taxi! I scramble back to the street from the ticket building to find that our taxi had already taken off. I ask another driver to take me back to the bus terminal, figuring that our first taxi-man was probably going back and forth from the terminal to the water taxi all morning. He seemed to immediately understand my situation and hurriedly (and perhaps recklessly) drove me back to the bus terminal. Ten hopeless minutes passed in which I planned to buy new fins, a mask, snorkel, and swimsuit, but then, wait, was this taxi that just pulled up the same one that took me before? Yes! Can you open your trunk please; I think I left a maleta azul inside... yes, that's precisely it, thanks! Then I cram myself in the five-seater car with six other people and get a free ride back to the water taxi where Nick was waiting.

We arrive in Bocas town at about 6:45 am--well before most of the town opened. Our first task is to orient ourselves, then locate food, a hostel, and the dive shop where we would begin our course that day.We find the dive shop, La Buga, first, and also the sign outside that advertises vegetarian food. Perfect! Nick and I are both vegetarian. Unfortunately, it was not yet open, but a gringo worker there tells us a place down the road that is hopen and has local breakfast food. We go there and get some hot breakfast (mmmm patacones y arepas...), and then a room in the Hostal International, located across the street from La Buga. Also perfect!

The dock in the back of La Buga where we leave for diving trips.

After breakfast we throw our stuff down in the hostel and go to La Buga to begin the course. This consists of watching 5 lecture videos, which takes all morning and part of the afternoon. We took a break for lunch, of course, and got some vegan food at La Bugita, the cafe associated with the shop. After finishing the videos were are told we have to complete a list of questions for the five chapters in the dive manual, which doesn't sound as fun as going surfing, so we change and rent a surf board instead. We can do the homework later at night, but now it is getting late in the day and we can only go surfing while the sun is out!

The whistling parrot, perched at La Bugita Cafe. He spent the majority of his free time whistling cat calls. As a pet parrot at a dive shop in the Caribbean, you can imagine how much free time it has.

Breakfast at La Buga. We brought our own this day. Nick is reading the dive manual. Correction: Nick is contemplating whether something negatively buoyant would displace water with more or less mass that the mass of the object.

 View toward the town from La Bugita.

Surfing is great! We get a water taxi to a good surf spot and I let Nick go first since I know I'm a terrible surfer. He surfs for a couple ours, then comes back to shore and hands me a coconut! We sip fresh agua de pipa from the coconuts atop a sunny hill and realize how picturesque this all is. . .

 Then it's my turn to surf. Um, it's been a few years, but I know theory behind it, so I give it a shot. I catch a couple waves but can't stand up and end up getting stuck on corals and slicing my thigh. Eh, but I'm okay, so we walk back to the dock to catch the water taxi back to Bocas Town. Oh, and, oops, I broke a fin off the board, which I will have to pay $20 for later. We review some photos from Nick's underwater camera, take the taxi back to the town and almost immediately realize Nick doesn't have his camera anymore. He goes back to the dock, sees nothing, and comes back a bit disheartened. We go to La Bugita again for a late dinner and then remember we have all our homework to do. We meander back across the street to the hostel and work before bed.

Sunday! Breakfast at La Bugita. Today we start our confined water session. That means we get to put on all the dive gear and get in the water! I am so excited. We get outfitted and walk off the dock into the 2-3 m deep water. It is so easy to float with this stuff on! Basically all we do is practice breathing and putting our gear on. We finish after a couple hours and explore the town to have lunch somewhere else. My camera is malfunctioning, so I put it in rice then stick it in the fridge while we go eat some delicious veggie tacos. I come back to get my camera for the open water dives to find a surprise: the rice bag is in the fridge with only the rice and my SD card! Someone made off with my (broken) camera, but at least they had the courtesy to leave my memories. The memory card was probably worth more than the camera at this point, anyway. and then it's time to take the boat to a real dive site!

The first site is a small ship wreck. OooOooOoo, sounds exciting! "What's the story behind it?" I ask Jill, our dive instructor. "No story, they just sunk it for divers." Oh.                                   Despite this anticlimactic introduction, the dive site is fabulous! It is a sea-encrusted piece of art, with colorful fish, corals, and algae all over. We swim around it's exterior and I enjoy the three dimensions of diving. I examine up and down the sides of the wreck and we all go over the top, where there is a toilet sitting on what for obvious reasons I am going to call the poop deck. Jill sits on it and as I laugh into my regulator, I realize you totally can laugh in SCUBA gear and nothing bad happens. Qué bueno!

<--Nick diving!

Me diving! -->
We pass this St. Patrick's Day evening looking at the crafts the local vendors have to offer us. Then we go to a sushi restaurant and get some delicious egg rolls and salad! But it's not enough food, so we dine on cookies  from the mini super afterwards. Finally, we return to the hostel to finish our homework. Tomorrow we will complete our open water dives!

On Monday we continue diving! We eat more cereal at La Bugita and hop in the boat to complete the dive course. Today we go to dive sites named "white house" and "playground." They are both spectacular! Jill was nice enough to bring her underwater camera so we could have photos because she knows that Nick's was lost. She took an underwater photography course and took some great pictures of us; they follow.

Nick and me practicing neutral buoyancy. I'd never used my lungs for something other than breathing before!



 Oh hi.


Beautiful! It's really another world down here. 



Dive buddies.

An eel that Nick saw.

After our final dives, we learned how to calculate residual nitrogen levels in a diver's blood and then we took the final test. We passed! and had our pictures taken and we'll get our PADI Open Water certification cards in the mail in a few weeks. Exciting!

We want to go home that evening, but after some confusion we learn there is no space on the night bus so we have to stay another night in the hostel and wake up very early to take the day bus on Tuesday. That's fine, but it means an entire day is lost to sitting in a bus for ten hours. At least we will get home at a decent hour and get plenty of sleep! We take the water taxi at six am to Almirante, then buy bus tickets. This is about the point when we realize how badly we need to shower and how nasty my whole bag smells. Nothing I used the day before dried properly, so it likely was festering in mold and mildew. On the bright side, maybe we would get lots of space to ourselves on the bus. While waiting, we were offered some empenatas by a vendor, and since I hadn't had a proper breakfast, I buy one with plantains. I bite into it to find it is full with a tart, red filling: raspberry? In any case, it is delicious! Well worth the 50 cents.

Ten or more hours and a bunch of junk food and Fig Newtons and some raisin buns later, we arrive at the bus terminal in Panama City. What an eventful and fun trip! :)

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