Getting to Bocas Without Going Crazy

You know the feeling where you book a trip and aim to do everything and then as the weeks and days inch closer, you’re hounded with the thought of, “Oh shit, are we attempting to do too much?”

That happened to me, just this month, on a trek to Panama. The plan was to overnight in Miami for 4 days, jet to Panama City, spend the afternoon touring the sights before hopping on the fabled 11-hour bus ride through the countryside to beautiful, tropical, mystical Bocas Del Toro, on Panama’s Caribbean coast. Two nights in Bocas, we decided, and then back to Panama City to round out the trip before heading back to Boston and its harrowing cold.

Sounds good? Kind of.

Our flight from Miami was delayed due to fog, then delayed again, and twice more, so we decided heading straight to the bus station in Panama City was at the top of the docket when–and if–we ever left Miami.

We did. With our late arrival to Panama City, we immediately hopped into a taxi ($35) and headed to another airport–Albrook–the city’s secondary airport, bus terminal, and shopping mall. It is, in a word, HELL.

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There, we fought against massive crowds, long wait lines to buy tickets, and general mayhem and confusion, only to discover that our 8 p.m. bus to Bocas was SOLD OUT. Thankfully, I’d researched all scenarios and knew we could hop onto the next bus to Davíd, and transfer to Bocas from there.

But could we rest easy? Not yet.

Bus travel in Panama was a little trickier than I’d imagined. You’d think that getting those bus tickets in hand would be your ticket to peace of mind, too, but no. There are more tickets and bureaucracy to come.

After nabbing your bus tickets you’ll get the departure gate number for your bus, but to actually physically ARRIVE to the gate, you’re going to need another ticket (of sorts) — a Rapi Pass. A Rapi Pass is like a rechargable subway/bus ticket, similar to the CharlieCard that we use here in Boston. Simply put, if you want to go to the bathroom, you’ll need a Rapi Pass to get through the bathroom turnstiles. Similarly, to get to your bus, you’ll need to swipe the Rapi Pass through another set of turnstiles. We had to have several people assist us with this, including a police woman. Even then, the ladies at the Rapi Pass counter told us we needed like $4 of credit, but when I swiped the card, I had a balance of $1.75. They’d scammed us, for a few mere dollars. Not a big loss, but next time, I’ll know better.

Now for the nitty gritty: the bus.

I’d read all about the Bocas bus–modern, clean, safe, and allegedly freezing. Here’s my experience:

We checked our luggage beneath the bus and got a numbered ticket, which we’d use to claim our luggage at our final destination. The bus to Davíd was a double-decker affair and we got the penthouse suite. We departed as evening descended and darkness fell. The bus careened and shook down the highway and, at several points, I thought we were flying off the road. All I could see from the windows was blackness. No destination markers. A few stray storefronts. The moon. Panamanian drivers are no joke. That bus was racing. The sounds of honking were frequent but again I could see nothing. Maybe I’m a lightweight, but I was a little terrified. Then I looked around at the faces of the other passengers. The driving seemed like business as usual. So, I got over it. As the overdubbed Spanish movies started–and continued for four hours straight–I chewed into half a muscle relaxer and was finally able to drift off.

Was the bus cold? Definitely. Was it painful? No. The bus reviews all overemphasize just how cold the bus is–people bring sleeping bags, down comforters, etc. I didn’t find it to be that dramatic. You can turn off your overhead vent, should you choose. If you’re dressed sensibly, with a light cardigan or jacket, you’ll be fine. If you’re in a cotton sundress and sandals, you might have some issues. The bottom line: dress sensibly and comfortably for bus travel. I wore a tshirt and leggings and a lightweight cardigan. If you’re prone to being cold, plan accordingly.

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That’s a new zit, courtesy of stress, lack of sleep, blasting salsa music.

Sometime around 3 a.m. we pulled into Davíd, recollected the luggage, and hoofed it to what I imagined was another big bus. Instead, we hopped into a colectivo, a smaller vehicle, a little larger than a van, which typically seats around 15, but we had double that packed in. If you want a seat, I suggest rushing there as quickly as possible. Or you’re standing. Potentially for hours.

I nabbed a seat. From Davíd, the colectivo departed. The blaring movies were replaced by blaring salsa music, which we heard from 3:30 a.m. until 7:30, when we pulled into Almirante, the port town where you can take water taxis to Bocas. You’ll take a $1 taxi to the port (no tipping in Panama) and from there pay $5 or $6 (I don’t remember which) for the water taxi. You’re almost there!

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Bocas was, in a word, gorgeous. We used Airbnb and rented an amazing house on the bay and had a blast for the two nights we were there. TWO NIGHTS. A crime. This is what I meant about planning it wrong. The daunting travel time alone should’ve kept us on that island for a week, but we had a limited amount of time to do what we wanted to do, which included spending more time in Panama City. So, after two nights, we took the 11-hour bus back.

Here’s what you need to know.

Just fly. Go to AirPanama in advance and pay the $150-200 roundtrip fare for convenience alone. It’s worth it. Make sure you buy in advance because tickets do sell out. You’ll be in a puddle jumper, which sounds scary/exciting.

If you’re committed to doing this on the cheap, then the bus is your only option. We took the day bus back–and loved it. There’s a night bus too, but the day bus came highly recommended because the views are astonishing. You’ll want to be awake. Trust me.

Some tips:

Buy your bus tickets a day in advance–they will sell out. We bought our tickets from Taxi 25 on Isla Colón, the main island, where we stayed.

The morning bus leaves at 8 from Almirante, and you’ll want to get there early. On the morning of our departure, it was raining and the swells were rough. I thought our bus was going to crack in half. But we made it.

The bus station in Almirante sells coffee, empanadas, fried chicken, some other foods. There’s also a bathroom.

The bus makes a few stops, including at a strip mall where there’s an outdoor cafeteria and you can buy a very cheap lunch. A few doors down there’s a liquor store, and a few doors down from that, there’s an amazing bakery where I couldn’t resist a slice of pineapple upside down cake. Whoops.

You’ll get to Panama City sometime in the evening. With a shower, maybe a nap, you’ll be ready for the next leg of the trip or a return flight home.

Bocas is amazing and if you can get there, DO GO.

How was your trip to Bocas? Am I missing something? Leave a comment below!