As I write this, another hurricane season has passed. In hundreds of harbors and marinas, sailors are breathing a sigh of relief. I know the feeling since I rode out eight spinners aboard my sturdy 30-footer. I can recall the precise moment when I said, “No more!”
It was in 2005, during Hurricane Wilma in Key West. My expensive Aries self-steering vane was being attacked by a 500lb freezer, filled with bags of ice. Both the Aries and my stern were losing the battle. What made it even more irritating, was the cutesy polar bear logo grinning at me from the side of the ice locker, as I tried to repel it with my flimsy boathook. Suddenly, I realized that I was repeating the Spanish word for “enough”—“Basta, Basta, Basta…”
A few days later, I turned my resolution into action, flying to a spot that was first brought to my attention 10 years earlier. My informant had been sitting at the bar at the Balboa Yacht Club on the Pacific side of the Panama Canal. He looked like one of those ancient mariners who might have logged too many upwind miles.
In exchange for my buying him a few shots of the excellent local rum, he promised to share with me some “valuable nautical intel.” Three glasses later, his counsel turned out to be just two words. After transiting the Ditch, I should, “TURN LEFT.”
When I asked for some clarification, he told me everybody turns right and goes to the San Blas Islands. Better, he said, to turn left and head for Bocas del Toro. When I replied I had never heard of Bocas, he answered, “That is exactly why you should go there.”
Unfortunately, I disregarded his advice and sailed to San Blas, admittedly a splendid place to cruise. But his recommendation stuck with me—and now here I was finally making the trip on my post-Wilma mission to find a surefire hurricane hole.
Thirty seconds after exiting the mid-sized turboprop, I knew this was no ordinary place when I saw the hulk of a crashed plane (nobody was seriously injured) sitting a mere 30 yards from the terminal. The wings, nose and tail were missing, but the fuselage was intact—just waiting to be converted into a sort of Jimmy Buffet bar. This nonchalant attitude toward airline safety public relations made it clear they did things a little differently in BDT.
The town itself is—how should I put this—“rustic.” On the gentrification scale, it is a 3 with little, if any, interest in ever becoming a 4. It has character, though, and characters.
The local population is a mix of Hispanic, Indigenous and Afro-Caribbean. The ex-pats are pretty much all surfers, backpackers, adventure travelers and sailors. Everyone gets along. At any given time, at a single local bar you will likely find all groups represented.
My first day exploring the town I found good grocery stores and a number of well-stocked pharmacies. No big marine supply outlets were available, but the regular hardware stores were way above average. For such a tiny place there was an amazing variety of bars and restaurants. In the years since the nightlife in BDT has ramped up even more. Google “Filthy Fridays” for proof!
After that, I spent the next few days focusing on the real purpose of my visit—to see whether I wanted to sail here. As I was doing so, I think saying to myself, “Why doesn’t everybody know about this place?” Although I was searching for a hurricane hole, I felt like I’d found hurricane heaven.
The town of Bocas del Toro is located on the main island of a large archipelago, consisting of nine biggish islands and hundreds of smallish, mangrove islas. Gorgeous pristine anchorages abound.
Because of the way the islands are arranged, they create a kind of inland sea in the southwest corner of the Caribbean. On an average day, the waves are knee-high. On a rough day they may come up to your waist. There are so many alluring places to cruise pounding upwind is rarely necessary. If the wind is blowing from Starfish Beach, just fall off and head for Dolphin Bay instead.
Once anchored, there are diversions galore, including hiking, surfing, snorkeling, body surfing and enjoying the area’s many over-the-water restaurants. There is great flora with jungle so thick, only a fugitive could love it. You will regularly see sloths, dolphins, toucans and troupes of howler monkeys.
There are three nice marinas in the Bocas del Toro area. My favorite is Bocas Marina, which is American-owned and has friendly, bilingual staff. It offers U.S.-style amenities, at radically lower prices. The electricity, Wi-Fi, docks and bathrooms are clean and efficient. There’s also a nice bar and restaurant with a lovely view of the anchorage.
One of the other two marinas in the area, Marina Carenero, is located almost exactly where Christopher Columbus careened his ships to clean their bottoms on his fourth and final voyage. The third, Red Frog Marina, is set close to a very fine beach noted for its body-surfing. The three, toes-in-the-sand restaurants there, aren’t half bad either.
The newest addition to the Bocas cruising scene is a full-service boatyard. I have hauled out there twice in recent years and have been well satisfied. For those on a tight budget, they happily encourage DIYers. However, you can also give your boat the full drop-her-off and pick-her-up later treatment.
Needless to say, my scouting trip convinced me it was time to swap out hurricane headaches for hurricane heaven. A few months later, I sailed down and have remained there to this day.
I’ll close with a little anecdote that highlights the special something that is Bocas del Toro. A sailing buddy and I were renting some bikes to explore around a bit. When we asked the vendor how much of a deposit we would have to leave with him, he smiled and said with a thick island accent. “No deposit needed. After all, I know you two didn’t sail all the way down here just to steal my bikes.” BDT in a nutshell!
Photos by Ray Jason