Panama City, Chiriquí, Bocas del Toro

I’m sitting on the front deck of a small open speedboat, beer in hand, speeding through a vast archipelago of lushly green islands covered in flowers and palm trees. The sun is high in the sky, beaming down with striking intensity on a hot and humid world below. My swimwear, still wet from a whole day of catching crystal-clear waves at a secluded beach, is clinging to my salty and sandy skin and cooling me down somewhat in the 35 degree heat. I’m headed back to my hostel, a wooden sprawl built on the water and comprising jumping towers, slack lines and swings into the ocean. Close to two hundred people are drinking, dancing and jumping in and out of the water at one of the largest parties all year, Saturday night during Semana Santa. I’m in Bocas del Toro, and it’s a paradise on earth.

But let’s start at the beginning. Arriving in Panama City from Guatemala City is kind of like trading a 20-year old Citroën Berlingo for a brand-new Audi. At first glance, the dense array of skyscrapers reaching into the hazy red-hot sky seems like something out of the limbo dream stage in Inception. Tall and narrow, dotted throughout the landscape as if dreamed up on the fly by ambitious collectives riding on a wave of increasing economic growth and prosperity that has swept through the city as a consequence of the ever-expanding Panama Canal. Called the Miami of Central America, Panama City definitely has a decidedly American feel to it, at least in the business districts where scale and impersonal shops and chain restaurants are taking over. The old town however, Casco Viejo, is a beautiful colonial part of the city, under intense renovation and the place to be for the emerging upper middle class and of course the tourists. I spent close to a week settling into this new country. Besides visiting the technological marvel that is the Canal and watching immense container ships pass through its locks, I did little other touristy stuff. I went to the mall, watched Beauty and the Beast and loved it, ate pollo con arroz every single day at a local diner down the street and tried to figure out my plan for the upcoming few weeks.

A few months back in Laos, a traveler I encountered had recommended a hostel in Panama that he described as an unmissable experience there. I’d held on to the information and so I decided to make my first stop at the Lost & Found Hostel. Deep in the Cloud Forest in the hills of central Panama, this place is only accessible through a steep 20-minute uphill hike, and is as secluded as it is beautiful. I arrived after dark, and found myself clambering over slippery rocks with just a flashlight and my full pack, the jungle around bursting with nocturnal insects buzzing all around. The path before me suddenly opened up to a group of buildings set right in the middle of the sloped jungle forest. Tired, I settled into my dorm, feeling immediately welcomed by the atmosphere and fellow people working and staying there. After waking up the next morning, I truly discovered the unique magic of the hostel. By daylight, the whole place opens up to breathtaking views of the surrounding hills, clouds flowing through and around them all day long in ever-changing patterns and shapes. Exotic birds and bugs are all around, each one more beautiful than the next. After a few days I knew I wanted to spend a lot more time here, and so, after nearly eight months of travel, I’d found my place to settle. I decided to volunteer at the Lost & Found hostel for at least three weeks, but not after one last stopover in the quintessential Panamanian beach/surf/party destination.

Which brings us back to the beginning of this story. Island life continues to be highly satisfactory, and Bocas del Toro was a highlight of my trip in that regard. The week leading up to Easter is a big deal in the whole of Latin America, and many locals have time off to enjoy the holidays. So too in Bocas, where they even went as far as to ban the sale of alcohol for two days prior to Sunday. Which obviously had almost no effect on consumption, since human creativity knows no bounds when the incentives are powerful enough. Blissful days were contrasted by raging nights, making this by far the least Christian Easter weekend I have ever witnessed.

My Spanish continues to improve at a slow yet steady pace. Having been in Latin America for over one and a half months now, I’m definitely making some headway. The fact that almost nobody actually speaks English is a big help, after all having to ask where the toilet is in Spanish or not finding out at all provides a more than decent motivation to learn. People usually react way more friendly if they notice you’re making at least an effort to communicate in the local language, and here is no different. The remainder of my trip will be spent mainly in countries where Spanish is the official language, so I intend to continue to work at it and perhaps come home with a new language ability.

Over the course of the next three weeks I’ll remain at the Lost and Found hostel to volunteer. I’ll spend my days working, hiking, relaxing and finding some much needed structure and an outlook on the months to come.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

April 19th, 2017

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