Panama: Zapatilla Islands (Bocas)

We joined up with a boat tour this morning going to Zapatilla.  We paid $40 each for a full-day tour (9:30-4:00), which included lunch and a deep boarding activity (more on that one later).

The boat left from a dock right next to our hotel, so we didn’t have far to go.  We were the first on board and the boat filled up before we pulled away.  I think there were 12 of us in the small-ish boat.  It had wooden seats with no cushions, so it was a bit cramped and a bit uncomfortable, but not bad.

zapatillaboatAs we pulled away, we had beautiful skies – a good start to the day during rainy season.

boatviewleavingbocasToday is my birthday, so as we sped out across the water, I took time to really appreciate the wind blowing through my hair, the amazing person next to me, and the small dot that I occupy on the planet at this moment.  I’m grateful for another year and another adventure to start the year.  Life is definitely good!

rkboattripOur first stop was at a small mangrove island.  We trolled along the edge for a bit, looking for sloths.  The mangroves were super thick and it was hard to see up into the branches.

mangroves1 After several attempts of pulling the boat into little coves and scanning the branches above us, we finally found one!  We didn’t get a very clear view, but there was a mama sloth with a little baby on her belly, just hanging there, slooooowly reaching out and shoving leaves into her mouth.

slothsIt was cool to sit and watch for a bit.  Such a leisurely lifestyle.  No sense of urgency at all.  We sat for a bit and then we were off again for Zapatilla.  It was maybe another 30 minutes, and we looked for dolphins as we moved along but didn’t have any luck.

Zapatilla is a pretty island – not the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, but still a lovely place to spend an afternoon.  It’s a mostly densely wooded island with a thin beach around the perimeter.  As we approached the island, the sky was bright blue with puffy, white clouds.

zapatillafromwaterThen as we rounded the island, approaching the pier, they started to form into more of a solid layer of more ominous looking clouds.

zapatillafromwater3We unloaded the boat and headed for a shelter house to enjoy our lunch.  I was surprised to find that lunch wasn’t just sandwiches or something generic.  It was a delicious pasta with meat sauce, some canned refried beans with chips and beers/sodas.  The portions were pretty substantial, too.  I ended up eating way more than I should have and gave K the rest.  Not too bad for a “free” tour meal.

zapatillalunchAfter lunch, we set off to explore the island.  There were a series of boardwalks and gravel paths cutting across the island, leading from one side to the other.

zapatillacenterofislandzapatillaboardwalksIn a couple places there were little breaks from the main path that led down to small, semi-private patches of beach.

zapatillabeachaccessAt the end of the boardwalk we broke out onto the largest open beach of the island.  The clouds were rolling in thick and dark at this point, like a wall descending, so we were pretty well alone on the beach.

zapatillastormclouds2zapatillastormclouds1We cut a path around the perimeter, heading back toward the shelter house, taking our time to enjoy, but hoping we’d make it back before the rain.

zapatillafootprintszapatillaknutsThe wind was blowing like crazy, and the tide started to crash in more powerfully – enough so that it knocked me from a downed tree that I’d been balancing on.

rlogbalance1rlogbalance2In the end, Mother Nature won.  Just as we were about 3/4 of the way back to the shelter, the sky opened and it poured on us.  I’m talking huge raindrops that we could hear splat as they smacked onto our skin.  Drops big enough that I could feel them individually hit my head.  And the wind blew the rain sideways right into our faces.

zapatillarrainBy the time we got back to the shelter house, we were soaked and I was freezing.  And we had no towels, so I sat and shivered waiting for the sun to come back.  We passed the time huddled in the shelter house drinking Balboas.  And once the rain let up a bit, K went out and played soccer with one of the local kids who was hanging around.  I’m not sure which one had more fun!

ksoccer1After waiting for what felt like hours, the rain cleared up, but unfortunately, it was already time for us to start back toward Bocas for the rest of the tour.

zapatillaclearskiesThe next stop was snorkeling on a coral reef back near Bocas.  I wasn’t crazy about this experience.  The water was really rough making it hard to swim, and was tossing us around like crazy.  There wasn’t much at all for fish life, and the water wasn’t all that clear, but the coral was really neat.  There were some bland-colored rock coral and some really pretty, colorful tubular coral.

bocassnorkel1bocassnorkel3bocassnorkel2We snorkeled around for about 30-40 minutes and then back in the boat to head to another shallower spot for the deep boarding.  The deep boarding is a thing where they attach clear, plastic boogie board-type contraption to the boat by a rope, and then the boat pulls you and you can watch underwater as you go.  The board has grips and you can manipulate it up/down and side to side with your body weight.

deepboardingsetup2I have to say, this whole setup looked ghetto as hell.  It was basically a 4″x4″ post wedged behind one of the canopy posts on the boat.  The post had six super thin ropes (thinner than ski rope) attached to each deep board.  Six people went at a time – three on each side of the boat.  So the weight of six people, plus the drag of the water relying on the canopy post and a 4″x4″ to hold.  It worked, so…cool.

deepboardingsetup1I didn’t do this one because I hate having my face under the water – especially when I’m not in control of the situation.  So I sat on the boat and observed.  The boat was going SO slow, but everyone came out of the water thinking we were speeding around.  It was ripping people’s snorkels out of their mouths, but they all still said it was fun.

K said the worst part was that he lost perspective on how far he’d gone down, and then it took longer than he expected to get back to the surface for a breath.  He also got ropes crossed with the people on either side of him a couple of times.  Overall, though, he said it was awesome and he’d do it again.

deepboardingAfter the deep boarding, we headed back to Bocas.  We got back around 4:00, cleaned up and hung on the patio until time to drag ourselves out for dinner.

For birthday dinner, I chose La Italiana Pizzeria – a rustic little place with indoor/outdoor seating and fire-cooked pizzas.  The food and service were good, and the prices were decent.  Know before you go:  they only accept cash.

laitalianapizzeria1laitalianapizzeria2We had a supreme pizza with a couple of drinks, and finished with a brownie and caramel-drizzled vanilla ice cream.  Both were pretty good but not excellent.  And I left feeling miserably full.

laitalianapizzeria3laitalianapizzeria4After dinner, we decided to walk off our food a bit.  We wandered down the main drag of the island, and rounded into what appeared to be more of a quieter, residential area.  We didn’t find much of interest, but did find a giant pile of trash, just laying on the street under a streetlamp.  I guess maybe this is the unofficial landfill of the island?  Not a good find.

bocastowngarbagepileWe ended the night back at the hotel with a couple of beers at the walk-up bar.  As with the service yesterday, it was pretty bad again.  Even sitting right at the bar, it was difficult to get service as everyone was engrossed in their telenovelas.  Ironic since we were sitting right next to a copy of the Condé Nast article listing the hotel bar as a top destination in Bocas.  Maybe in high season?  Or maybe just when the people for the magazines show up?

hotelbocasbeerTomorrow we’re headed for Panama City.  Bocas has been fun, but I’m ready to move on!

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