There are two main types of Caribbean island, as far as I can make out. The first is the classic desert island, with its golden sand beaches, coral reefs just off the shore, corn-blue seas and palm trees dangling over the water; we've already enjoyed that particular vibe on Caye Caulker in Belize and Little Corn Island in Nicaragua. The second type is the rainforest and mangrove island, where it's more about trees, biodiversity and greenery rather than paradise picture postcard shots; it's this second type that we've been enjoying in the Bocos del Toro archipelago.
The difference was apparent from the moment we arrived. We flew in from San José in a 20-seater, two-prop plane, and although it wasn't half as much fun as the 12-seater we took to Little Corn, it was still a lot more enjoyable than being in a bigger plane, and we had good views of the islands as we approached. But instead of turquoise waters and long stretches of gleaming sand, the waters were deep blue, the skies were dark grey and the islands were completely smothered in thick green forest, and after we landed and got through customs and immigration, the heavens opened and a tropical downpour smudged the taxi driver's windscreen into a muddy mess.
'Welcome to paradise!' he said as he cheerfully talked on his mobile while swerving through the island traffic one-handed. 'Sorry about the weather – it won't last long.'
And it didn't, though we did have to wait for it to clear so we could take a water taxi over to Isla Bastimentos, where we'd booked in for five days of rest and recuperation after our whirlwind tour of Costa Rica.
The Islands of Bocas
There are six main islands in the Bocas archipelago, among a scattering of tiny islets, but only three of them have any sizeable facilities for tourism. The main one, Isla Colón, contains the airport and Bocas del Toro town, and it's a predictably boisterous seaside town with lots of booming music, a mushrooming party hostel scene, a large number of restaurants, and plenty of traffic; our visit to the islands coincided with carnival season, which stretches all across South and Central America (though it's most famous in Brazil, of course), and Bocas town joins the party with gusto, which only adds to the noise and drunkenness levels in town. It's a fun place to visit, and it was interesting watching the drunks trying to beat the crap out of each other in the main park, but I'm glad we didn't end up staying there, as it's hardly a restful spot. That said, the restaurants that stick out into the ocean on stilts are pleasant venues for a spot of lunch, and the island does have some quieter beaches away from the town, but the best part of Bocas town is leaving it behind on a water taxi and heading to its more peaceful neighbours.
Right next to Colón is Isla Carenero, which is a quieter affair that contains a number of classier hotels and restaurants, though if you end up in one that looks across to Bocas town, which is only about 100m away, then you'll still end up enjoying the heavy bass of the party until the wee hours (water is an excellent conductor of reggae beats, as I discovered in a stilt village in Ghana). In comparison, the eastern shore has a bit of a beach and is nice and peaceful, though it also has quite a few friendly sandflies.
The furthest island with any sizeable community is Isla Bastimentos, which is a ten-minute boat ride from Bocas town, and not surprisingly it's the quietest and most Caribbean of all three islands. There's no traffic here at all, just a concrete pavement through the centre of Old Bank, the main settlement on the island, and we booked into a jungle cabin at the nattily named Beverly's Hill hotel and kicked back to do serious amounts of nothing while we washed Costa Rica out of our hair and settled into some proper Panamanian living.
We did manage to do some things while on the islands, though I can't remotely pretend that we explored them to their full potential, because we didn't. There is good diving and snorkelling round here, though we didn't try it, and there's also sailing, fishing and, of course, swimming, though we didn't try any of that either. We did, however, manage to walk to the beach, which took more than an hour of wandering through the rainforest, creeping over tree roots and side-stepping mud-holes on the winding path from the main drag in Bastimentos to Wizard Beach on the other side of the island. The locals told us it would take either 20 minutes, 30 minutes or 45 minutes, depending on who you asked, but we did get lost a couple of times, so it's hard to tell who was right.
In the end, Wizard Beach turned out to be remote (though not remote enough to be particularly tourist-free) and to have a certain rugged charm about it, though it's nowhere near as charming as the beaches on Little Corn, which are picture-postcard material. It doesn't help that there are signs along the beach warning you of the lethal rip tide that can suck you under and drown you if you don't know how to get out of it properly (for the record, if you get caught in a rip tide, you should swim parallel to the shore until you're out of the tide, and you mustn't struggle or try to swim against the flow; if you try to swim into the shore, against the rip tide, you will simply wear yourself out until you drown). After such a long journey through the humid forest, tackling the pounding waves of Wizard Beach just wasn't that appealing, so we turned round and walked back to town again, where we went back to doing nothing for a few days.
Luckily the hosts of Beverly's Hill made for excellent company. Simon, an ex-punk from England, and his Colombian wife Sandra and nine-year-old daughter Naomi, look after six rooms in three wooden chalets in a little rainforest enclave just up the hill from the main path in Old Bank. It's hot and humid and you have to share your life with the wildlife, but we loved it; at one point we had a bird fly straight through our room, in one window and out of the other, and the garden was alive with thumb-sized red frogs, the signature animal of the Bocas archipelago.
We went to sleep to the endless drone of the rainforest's insect population, and we slept like the dead and had long lie-ins, which is something we haven't been able to do for months. Central America tends to get up incredibly early, and can't help making a hell of a racket when it does, but in Bastimentos, with its lack of traffic and motivation, we slept straight through to double figures without thinking twice about it. It probably helped that we joined Simon and Sandra for a couple of late evenings for a few snifters on their verandah, where we gently sank into talk about life in the tropics and how it compares to life in England; it was all very relaxing after the preceding couple of weeks of relatively hectic travel.
We were sad to leave, but by the time we did, we'd got Costa Rica well and truly out of our systems, and we were ready to start our long journey east along the winding road of Panama, heading slowly to the gleaming skyscrapers of Panama City and the journey on to Colombia.