Today’s topic: water taxis! Love them or hate them they are a way of life in Bocas. Today we loved them. There have been multiple other days that I have hated them.
Bocas del Toro is on the Caribbean side of Panama, up closer to Costa Rica. To get there you take a long windy road through mountains and forests from the PanAmerican highway to Almirante. Almirante is a bit of a rough town but I’m told it’s perfectly safe and indeed we have had no problems there and plenty of nice experiences. Once you get to Almirante if you look lost some guy on a bike will lead you to a parking lot (and expect a little tip, more on that later). On this trip we parked our car at the same lot we used last October so no need for a guy on a bike. At first it’s a little unsettling handing off your car keys to someone who just happens to live near the dock and has a big yard, and then you take off to an island for several days hoping your car will be there when you get back. But it works out just fine and those people with the big yard are very nice.
Once you get your luggage out of your car some “helpers” appear and all of a sudden you are being whisked away to the nearest water taxi stand. It’s pretty chaotic and soon you’ve got your name on a list without really knowing what is going on. Then the hands of those helpers come out for tips and you start to get wise as to what just happened. Nothing dishonest but a bit of taking advantage of the confused gringos, for sure. We had one guy come and move our luggage about 5 feet closer to the boat and then ask for a tip. Again, taking advantage of us assuming he was part of the boat loading staff.
At this point as we wait in line for a boat we start to ask questions: Couldn’t we have carried our own luggage? Why did we come to the nearest water taxi stand? Couldn’t we have walked a little further to the next one and maybe encountered a shorter line? But you’ve already got your name on a list so you feel a bit obligated to stick it out (Dan: notsomuch). That meant about 45 minutes waiting on a pretty warm dock, watching pineapple upside down cake that was destined for Bocas sit in the sun while it waited for a boat too. We decided not to order any pineapple upside down cake while on the island.
Finally our boat arrives and chaos ensues once again. The three captains start discussing which of the boxes of food and supplies they were going to take (answer: all of them) and how many passengers were going to be allowed on. They argued about 10 or 12 (answer: 12, which did NOT make me comfortable) and then they started throwing luggage on. At the point your luggage gets thrown on you kind of have to get on too. Unfortunately our luggage got on at the end so we did too. Dan, Kim, Zoe and I had to sit at the very front edge of the boat on a bench with no back rest. And we had to face toward the back of the boat. This meant that everyone got to watch my fear and also that we felt every bump moreso than the rest of the boat. Yay. I’m already strung tighter than a tennis racket and now this. No es bueno.
The captain seemed to have no concern for avoiding other boats’ wake or mitigating any bumps. I was concerned that Zoe was going to fly out. I knew that gravity was working against that possibility and even if she flew out she had on a life jacket, she can swim, the water is warm, the water is shallow and land is never far away. Oh and I’d go after her. But still, I was concerned. Logic has no place in my head much of the time.
Thankfully I knew the ride was only 30 minutes and low and behold we arrived safely, pineapple upside down cake and all. Getting out at the Bocas dock was another chaotic experience but we did manage to turn down all helpers. We also managed to find a large cab (5 people with a fair amount of luggage is not the norm. Backpackers with one bag each are the norm). But off we went to our hotel and we were very happy to see a lovely pool and restaurant and home-away-from-home waiting for us. Food poisoning came from that lovely restaurant, but that was just a minor hiccup to an overall lovely stay at Playa Tortuga.
When we did our island hopping we hired our own boat that picked us up at the hotel dock. It had a very nice captain who reassured me that he specialized in people who were more limited in mobility so he would take good care of me too. Not sure I wanted to be lumped in with that older crowd just yet but I liked that he was kind. Indeed we had a great day with no concerns whatsoever. We asked him about taking us back to Almirante to avoid all the chaos in reverse and for the low low price of $60 he was happy to do it. Sold! To the guy in an orange shirt with the high strung wife! Between the regular price of a car taxi to the loading dock in Bocas town, the water taxi for 5 people and the tips of everyone helping us, the private boat was only about $20 more so it was well worth it. I would have probably sold my kidney to have that private water taxi.
So this morning we met our capitan on the loading dock in the garden area of our hotel and off we went to Almirante. We passed the loading dock in Bocas town with no water taxis in sight and a long line of people waiting. We felt even more justified in our decision. We had lovely calm seas and a great ride.
Once we arrived in Almirante chaos reigned once again. This time there was a band (read: drums and several guys with cymbals) to greet us, which only made it more chaotic. I think that might have been their purpose. We all agreed that we would not need any help since the dock was about 100 feet from our car. Fighting off all the tip-expecting helpers was like fighting off a pack of ninjas. We got all our suitcases to the parking lot of our car-sitters and watched while they moved a whole bunch of cars to get to our buried one. But they did it with a smile and soon we were on our way.
We made it back to Pedasi in record time (read: Dan drove) and no police stops. And thanks to Lucy we had dinner waiting for us in the crock pot. Three cheers for Lucy! And private water taxis!