Living on the islands of Bocas del Toro, Panama is certainly a change from living in my fast-paced lifestyle of the US. In my next few articles, I am going to try to discuss some of the welcome changes I have discovered as well as a few of the challenges I encountered. The most important thing that I feel we have to recognize as potential immigrants to another country is that we cannot pack our homeland and bring it with us in our suitcase.
As long-time residents of the place we were born, our experiences there establish a reference against which we compare all other environments we encounter during our lifetime. Even though I traveled extensively and felt like I knew a bit about other lands and cultures, I was surprised at how different it is to truly experience living in an off- shore location like Bocas del Toro, Panama. Visiting another country with a different culture is much different than becoming immersed in their culture.
If the native language is different than your first language, it can add another challenge to becoming an expat in a foreign country. Fortunately for me, in the Caribbean tropical paradise that I chose to live, many of the native peoples speak English. During the time I have lived here in Panama, I have acquired a working knowledge of Spanish. I am not going to say that it is absolutely necessary to learn the language in order to live and function in the islands of Bocas del Toro but I can certainly say that it is very helpful and appreciated by the local populace. Besides the experience of life here is so much more fulfilling when you can communicate and hear the stories from people who have generations of knowledge behind them about the hidden secrets of the environment that surrounds you.
Exploring that environment is one of the many joys that continue to thrill me as I continue my adventure in Panama. In a country roughly the size of South Carolina, one can explore two distinctly different oceans, tropical jungles, dry-land plateaus and scenic mountain ranges all filled with the greatest diversity of plant and animal life on the planet.
Fortunately, there are many ways to enjoy and explore the friendly, adventure-filled county of Panama. Depending on your time-frame and ultimate goal, options for travel throughout the country include taxis, buses, aircraft, boats and even small private companies that will be your personal transport system for a reasonable price. Car rental is possible as well but be prepared by bringing a map from home for the navigating through Panama and especially for Panama City. The map is only to give you some orientation. Street signs and road signs are shaky if they exist at all, so unless you are a real adventure seeker; make sure you have a good GPS mapping system in your car.
In Bocas del Toro, one of the reasons that we personally can live so economically is that we choose not to have an automobile. For one thing, the only island in the entire archipelago that has any public roads is Isla Colon. Although Bocas Town has a street grid and there are several roads extending around the main island, there are plenty of taxis and buses to enable us to travel wherever we want to go if distance or time is a factor. Otherwise, we walk or ride our bikes everywhere. If we need something bigger than groceries carried somewhere, there are several trucking companies that can comply.
That is not to say that there are not cars here. Many residents have cars if they live in the outlying areas of the island or plan to travel a lot on the mainland. To get your car from the island to the mainland it is necessary to use the ferry service but once there you can drive across the mountains to David (the second largest city in Panama) in about three and one half hours. From there you can get on the Pan American Highway and drive all the way to Alaska if you want. The road system in Panama is pretty extensive and for the most part adequately maintained. Most of the main roads are two lane highways although more and more are being upgraded into four lane systems. In and around Panama city there are a few freeway systems with on/off ramps to connecting side streets and highways.
For island residents of Bocas del Toro, water taxis run from Almirante (where the water- taxis and ferries from Bocas Town load and unload) to David or Changuinola if you have business or shopping in those nearby cities. That is almost always my choice of transportation on the mainland unless I want to do some personal exploring and then I rent a car. If Panama City is where you want to travel, there are two flights daily that leave from Bocas to the Albrook airport near the southwestern side of Panama City. Total flight time is around 50 minutes. Once there the most expedient mode of transportation is taxis.
From time to time, I have used the bus system to travel through Panama. For most people that congers up scenes from “Romancing the Stone” but believe me, the days of the “chicken buses” are over. Today the bus system is efficient and modern with very well kept, air conditioned, comfortable buses that run throughout the country. This is one place however where a little knowledge of Spanish is a big help in getting on the right bus at the right time.
One of the wonderful things about Panama is that you can explore to your heart’s content using any mode of transportation you can imagine from bicycles or horses to airplanes, boats and autos. Within the islands of Bocas del Toro almost every type of watercraft imaginable is available to let you explore the world of the tropical islands. Boat taxis will take you anywhere and are the most common form of transportation used. We are lucky to have our own boat here in the islands which gives us a great amount of versatility and freedom. If you like being on the water and exploring the amazing world that exists in the waters of the Caribbean, owning a boat is a wonderful thing. Watch future articles for tips and hints about boats in the tropics.
Article by: Anne Michelle Wand, United Country Bocas del Toro