So Panama, you’ve got these Caribbean islands.  But you’ve been dealt an interesting hand here – it isn’t like you’re dealing with a Barbados.  Not even a Roatan.

No – your Caribbean islands can, above anywhere else in the entire region, be hosed with torrential rain at a moment’s notice any time of the year.  You’ve also got the ecotourism behemoth of Costa Rica just across the border, with slick and well-established facilities.  While your tourist industry is a little more raw.  Backed up with a wider population that at times comes across not just ambivalent to the whole enterprise, but some verge on the destructive.  We’ll come to that.

And yet, and yet….

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I’ve already blogged about CocoVivo – the off-grid lodge on Isla San Cristobal, but our main time in Bocas was on Isla Caranero, no more than 60-90 seconds from Bocas Town on Isla Colon.  It’s a perfect place to stay as the lively bars of Bocas Town are easily accessible, but the resulting noise is kept distant.  Pretty beaches line the coast of the island also.  Bars and hostels have surf schools attached, and this novice was successfully guided through to standing on that first adrenaline-injecting wave.

The water taxi to Bocas Town, which will be your main mode of transport, delivers a town which accommodates locals and tourists alike, with a particularly high standard of restaurant on hand.  Bike hire takes you to a range of beaches, with the road / track out to Playa Bluff a fun highlight.  The far side of the island (cycling only for the hardcore in this instance) is Starfish Beach – exceptionally calm but with a scarcity of Starfish it must be said.

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Isla Bastimentos, with ziplining and Red Frog Beach is another attraction.  Notwithstanding being doused in some of those showers, we had perfect weather for at the very least the majority of every day.  It is a place you can happily be active or sedentary, and would certainly merit a return visit.

But it has its problems.  And one huge one.  Go no more than two minutes back from the coastal walk around Isla Caranero and you will find the most chronic litter problem I have seen anywhere.  For all the world, it appears as if a minor natural disaster has swept through.  Now you could say there’s nothing in these largely residential areas for tourists, but many travellers want to see more than the tourist board-approved strip.  It was horrendous, and extended back to the area past the notorious Aqua Lounge Hostel.  This is why I wonder about the standing of tourism here – is it seen as the industry which will provide a life and livelihood or is it merely tolerated.  There was a view expressed to me that the local government neglects Caranero, as evidenced by occasional power cuts.  But this truly felt like years of refuse sacks have been scattered across the interior of the island and on a pure self-interest level needs to be addressed..

Other issues are less serious – the service isn’t at Costa Rica levels as mentioned, and isn’t so much variable as utterly random.  Moments of real warmth mixed in with indifference and chaotic response.  Caranero is known for its sandflies, though luckily we escaped their attention.

Yet for its shortcomings, I can’t help but feel fond of Bocas.  As you skip across the water on your latest water taxi and see the latest set of trainee surfers at work, you’ll be smitten.  Good beer and rum, amazing seafood, warm tropical sun and a range of beaches with character all their own is a decent start for any Caribbean destination.  Just time to borrow a few tricks from the next door neighbours.

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