After crossing the arduous border from Puerto Viejo and Costa Rica into Panama, fuelled only by plantain crisps and the desperate hope for a nice place to stay that night, we tried to find our bus.
Turns out Panama wasn’t as keen on you finding buses as Costa Rica, where the buses were immediately available after crossing the border from Nicaragua. Instead we had to scout around the area, jump over a wall and walk to what seemed to be a shop, with a ridiculous number of wasps. Why wasps? Why not butterflies or, in fact, no flying things near me at all? Either way, despite my black and yellow tormentors, I did recognise the fact that other people did seem to be waiting for a bus. The bus did arrive and it took us to Changuinola where we took another bus towards Almirante and then were dropped in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, it turned out from here we could get a boat to the main island of Bocas.
The boat wasn’t what you’d call comfortable or particularly safe but we did make it to the main island in one piece from there we got a water taxi to the tiny island we were staying on, which was maybe 100m away.
Aqua Lounge was the hostel of choice. A hostel on land? Nah mate. Hostel above the water. Yes. I’ve always said it, stilts will be the next big thing, just like the internet and look how big thats got. The main area of the hostel is centred around the large bar area with lots of seating, the dorm room was big and enormous fans were a welcome sight for me. However, they were the centre of a scandal. Brendan, of all people, was the culprit. His crime? He had turned off the noisy fan at night, causing me to wake up hot, sweaty and unhappy. All was resolved as with most things with the presence of food.
Luckily, an advantage of being above the water is that all they had to do was cut a big hole in the floor and there you have it, a swimming pool. 2-tiered diving board, a swing and a trampoline were fun welcome additions next to the water. It was a great place to cool down and have fun (drunk or sober). The decking outside faces the main island and it was a lovely place to watch the sunset with a beer or two.
On arrival to the hostel we met Pete, of the lanky Dutch variety. Dutch Pete just came and sat with us on his arrival and we instantly got on. He spoke great English and was a funny guy so we ended up doing all of Panama with him as he was heading to Panama City afterwards too then off to Colombia. Other than Dutch Pete we also met Irish Sean who I can’t tell you much about because his accent was so strong, half the time I had no idea what he was saying. The one thing I do know is that he swears a lot and was working at Aqua Lounge for a month or more, other than that he’s a man of mystery to me. Lastly, we also had the pleasure of meeting Ash and Dave (from Paradiso) again.
Bevs, booze, birds and banter
Aqua lounge is a usually a chilled place but once a week the whole place gears up for a big party. We assembled the dream team of us two, Dutch Pete, incomprehensible Sean and Ash and Dave for an alcohol fuelled evening of fun, beginning as many good nights out do, with a game of ring of fire. One stand-out moment was the categories round of ring of fire, where someone had chosen to get people to name ‘N’ countries and Pete went for Niger. However, not sure how to say it he just went straight for that word that shall not be named, kind of like Voldemort but without the whole magical backstory. Of course, we all found it hilarious (after the initial shock) but Sean who had just come to join us at this moment was quite, let’s say surprised, to hear the word without its context (especially from Pete’s mouth). Wondering whether to leave the racists alone to their game of cards, we then supplied the context and all was well. We finished the game and the hostel was still completely empty but we were too drunk to care. We hit the dancefloor hard, throwing down some pretty crazy shapes and then all at once it was packed. Everyone had come over on water taxis at the same time and you couldn’t move for inebriated travellers. It was the beginnings of a brilliant night of dancing, dubious deeds and debauchery. Perfect.
Another night and after some beer pong and a feeling a little drunk, Pete, Brendan and I attempted the crossing over to the main island. This had been failed the day before by Brendan in the daylight due to being shouted at by the many water taxis. At night, it felt much more safe, especially since we took rubber rings with us, which had the dual purpose of keeping us afloat and maybe adding extra protection from a rogue water taxi. We made it to the other side and back without too much hassle but we were a little chafed and tired at the end. Nothing that another drink or two didn’t solve though.
These nights, especially the first required some recovery the next day, and just as in San Juan del Sur, we relaxed on a beautiful beach. Our beach was on the other side of our island, had perfect turquoise waters and white sand the only negative was the mental energy expended trying to ignore the sand fly bites on our legs. Sand-flies if you’ve never experienced them are a neigh on invisible minuscule fly which has a bite so much itchier than a mosquito, and to add insult to injury, often they feed in a little swarm so you can be covered in bites. Luckily, however, we avoided the little blood sucker’s hunting parties.
A food experience
Not wanting to get a water taxi to the main island and back every night, and unable to cook our own food, our dinners were from the hostel. But when it’s the chef’s birthday and there’s no prior warning improvisation must happen. It was dark and we were starving, being told there was a restaurant on the island we went for an explore. We passed a hostel and some very fancy houses above the water and then not seeing a restaurant, one of us spotted a tiny sign half covered in plants saying ‘food’ with an arrow. The arrow pointed towards a narrow rickety jetty with no lights on and plant pots all over the place. Feeling very sceptical we went over the water, narrowly avoiding going for an unplanned swim and then into the building that was more like house than a restaurant. The guy inside had long dreadlocks, a small kitchen and sofas to sit down and eat, we think it was his actual house. The menu was small and a mixture of Central American, Caribbean and Hindu influences. We took off our shoes when we entered and waited for our food with these two girls, who were a little annoying but the idea of food allowed me to look past that.
I had ordered a Pad Thai and Brendan an enchilada. We were both in heaven. The food was gorgeous and despite being a little bit expensive the whole experience was incredible. Watching him cook he just seemed to eyeball everything, the Pad Thai was coconuty but with Indian spices and with peanut butter mixed in. (I’m currently sat on a train, very hungry, so writing this is not helping me cope with the hunger in the slightest). Ever since returning from this trip I have adapted this recipe for my own use because it was so fresh and tasty.
In my post about La Fortuna in Costa Rica I outlined some difficulties with my card and ATMs which was annoying but the lovely lady at the bank did everything to help me. Not in Panama. There was no lovely lady. Only a man, who to be fair to him could speak English which was a start but who shut me down very quickly, telling me there was no way to get money out using my card without an ATM. This was very worrying. We got back to the hostel and I transferred my money to Brendan’s home card account but thanks to his new travel card he had to then move the money over to that. Full disclosure here, Brendan is terrible with technology. And banks? You can forget it. The transference of the money across to somewhere we could use it was not working, after many attempts over 2 days and we ended up working out how much money we would have left by the time we got to Panama City, where we would spend 5 days. It was around 40 dollars each. Not enough. So, living in the airport had become a possibility. After finding out all his details from his mum and collating the long list on a notes page, Brendan went off for another long call with the bank. It worked and we were back on track. We could afford to live comfortably in Panama City and as a reward to ourselves we did exactly that.
Special mention must go to our hostel on the main island (Hostel Heike) which we stayed in for one night before getting our night bus to Panama City. Everywhere does pancakes for breakfast but this place, they were game changers. We just had a massive vat of beautiful cinammony batter and could cook them ourselves, and to accompany them, mini banana’s which were the most bananary bananas I’ve had in my life. It was heavenly. Hostel Heike also has a roof terrace and balcony where we sat with Pete and at one point Sean who we had shouted at from the balcony. We listened to 80s music as the sun set, stomachs full of plain rice that had been our dinner (would not recommend), and thought about our pancakes the next morning.