Monday, July 9, 2018

Panama Trip - Day 5: Making Friends and Fighting Dragons

In late May, 2017 I embarked on a trip of a lifetime to Central America. Specifically, I visited Panama's steamy rainforest province of Bocas del Toro, a place I had never heard of before, but of which I had read many encouraging accounts.

But first, if you wish to read up on what has transpired before, click on the links below:

Day 1: Here There Be Balboas!
Day 2: Honor Among Thieves. Sorta (But No, Not Really).
Day 3: Making the Best of Things.
Day 4: We Have Fun and Games.

And now for the continuation ...

DAY 5: Making Friends and Fighting Dragons.

I awoke on this morning to more muffins and coffee delivered to me by some unknown porter of miracles just as the sun was beginning to rise. It had rained for most of the night in drenching, heavy sheets of water sluicing off the roof of my cabin and curtaining down the sides. At times I was awaken by such tremendous lighting and thunder that I thought the entire hillside was shaking. And then I fell soundly back to sleep when the rest of the storm went on its way to parts unknown. Apparently my body had become quite accustomed to the peculiarities of the rainforest, as unlike the night before I was barely fazed by it all. And once the storm left, it ushered in a refreshing, almost mountainous, cool breeze onto the farm that dispelled all that wretched heat and humidity. At least for a few hours.

As I carefully descended from the hilltop on this fine morning, I stopped a few times at strategically placed landings along the way to admire the actual crops being grown on the downward slopes.

Plantains, potatoes, tomatoes ... and a few other "'oes" (such as mangoes -- yum!!!) I spied as I gently arrived on flat ground near the main lodge of La Loma Jungle Lodge and Chocolate Farm. I had yet to see the actual cacao crops, but was assured by one of the friendly farmhands that it was being grown at a lower elevation in another section just behind the big house. What a wonderful place of untold splendors to explore!

I had a delicioso breakfast with my fellow travelers at the large communal table in the main lodge, and we all seemed eager for more adventures of the day. After so much fun snorkeling and beach combing the day before, the consensus ruled this day to ... do more beach combing! Hey, why not? I mean, when in Rome right? One of the older couples staying at the lodge that week opted out of having more fun in the sun, however. They had taken quite a beating on the previous trip, and really just wanted to laze about on the farm doing -- well, you know: not much of anything at all. Hey, I can appreciate that! And I would have joined them in fact, had I been on this vacation with someone else along. As it was just me, I didn't see much value in staying cooped up alone in my cabin on a sunny day.

And so, off to the yet another fantastic beach we sailed!

The motor boat ride this time brought us to a part of the island that was the opposite of the serene isolation we had experienced the day before. In short order we found ourselves jockeying for position among a veritable highway of small working boats and pleasure craft alike, and even a couple of pretty large private yachts, too! It seemed all of us had the same destination in mind: the marina at Red Frog Beach resort.

Red Frog can be two things: tourist trap, or secluded island paradise. It really depends on which part of the beach you head to from the marina: left or right. The left part with the resorts is as you would expect: perfectly landscaped and ... full of tourists. And locals seeking to exploit those tourists. But if you take the right path, you're in the part of the island that is secluded and less traveled. It's also where most of the locals hang out, and I've been told can be dangerous if you look like a soft target. I've been described as many things, but soft is not one of them. Coming from the dirty "Boogie Down" as I did, I wasn't too afraid of anything the locals could throw at me, so naturally I broke away from the group I had traveled there with and decided to hike quite a distance down the northeastern coast of the island -- toward a place called Polo Beach.

I had heard that Polo is one of the best beaches in Bocas to wind up on. It was supposedly the more secluded of all them, as it takes quite a bit of walking on the sand and over downed palm trees, not to mention a small detour into the forest and up and down a treacherously slippery muddy embankment to reach it. I did all that and then some, having apparently become an experienced beach explorer over the course of this trip already. Along the way on one of the trails leading through the forest, I happened across two attractive, young Swiss girls who wanted to know how to reach Polo Beach, too. The concierge at the resort had merely pointed them east from Red Frog, but apparently had not prepared them for all the detours. It wasn't as simple as following the coastline, after all. So I told them that I was heading in the same way; that although I had never been here, I had received more detailed instructions from our host at La Loma, Richard, on how to reach the place. The ladies, who introduced themselves as Michele and Carolin, were more than happy to have me lead the way. We chatted about this and that, where we were from, what we were doing here. That sort of thing. They seemed very excited that I was from New York, and intrigued as to why I was traveling alone. I explained that I usually traveled alone, and it was no big deal for me.

Together, we negotiated that aforementioned muddy slope together, and once past it emerged into the bright, sunny revelation of one of the most beautiful beaches I've ever encountered:

This stretch was even better looking than the one I had explored at Boca del Drago two days prior! And we literally had the whole beach to ourselves. No joke! Michele, Carolin, and I walked a little further down the beach until we found the perfect spot where the water was calmest. The girls wanted to snorkel, whereas I wanted to take photos. They pretty much twisted my arm to join them in snorkeling, and I politely declined. Truth be told, I was loathe to leave my gear on the beach unattended for fear that it would be pilfered while I was in the water playing Marco Polo (hehe, get it?) with these cute European chicks. It would be just my luck, wouldn't it? After what happened back on Isla Colon a few days prior, I thought to myself -- no thank you!

But as a consolation, I offered to take a very nice vacation pic of the two of them to share on social media:

Michele is on the left, and Carolin's on the right. I confess, I found myself just slightly smitten with Michele, who was shy and unassuming compared to her very outgoing friend. She was a really lovely lass, and she and I spoke at length while her friend went snorkeling under the waves. It was really nice. But alas, after lounging on the sand and chatting with both ladies for a spell, eventually I realized I was starving and it was time for lunch. As I had left my packed bag back on Red Frog beach with my friends from La Loma, I wold have to hike all the way there to get some. Cripes, why hadn't I thought of that?

So, I bid my newfound friends farewell with a promise to email the photo when I had processed it. That was a cool meeting, I must say. It was better than being on that beach all by myself, let me tell you. We had spotted a crowd of locals, and quite a few gringos of the crunchy-granola type, camped out in the overgrowth skirting the beach about 50 yards from the water's edge. They seemed to live there, and weren't bothering anyone or anything. But I could sense eyes on me as I trekked my way the thirty minutes back to my lodge companions. I don't think there was any malicious intent behind those stares, just curiosity. I figured Michele and Carolin would be fine.

And they were. Around two hours after I had left them, while I was lounging on Red Frog beach after enjoying an amazing lunch packed lovingly by the gourmet chefs at La Loma, I spotted my Swiss friends hiking back to their resort. Apparently they had had enough snorkeling for one day and were perhaps wondering about lunch themselves. I smiled and waved as they passed, and that was the last I ever saw of them. Such is life, you know?

I hung out with my La Loma friends on Red Frog beach for the rest of afternoon, splashing in the waves and sunbathing. It was a pretty much exactly what I needed. I felt so happy to be alive in that moment!

But, eventually the shadows grew long and it was time to pack up and head back to the marina where we were supposed to meet up with our pilot. On the way across the bay as we circled around to reach our lodge on the opposite end of the island, we spied a pod of dolphins keeping pace with our boat. They playfully sped up ahead of us, then fell back behind us, before eventually keeping pace with our speed and performing acrobatics to our delight. Luckily, I had my camera out in a flash and was able to pull off one of the best shots I would take this entire trip:

I only fired off a few shots, however, before putting the camera away and simply enjoying the merriment with my own two eyes. The dolphins followed us most of the way, and only broke off to head deeper out into the Caribbean as we neared the dock for La Loma.

I couldn't have asked for a better day.

That night, at dinner in the main lodge, we all exchanged stories about where we were from. Once again Henry and Margaret and the rest of the staff went all out and prepared us a true foodie's delight of a meal. I mean, seriously, I hear that gourmets from around the world chose La Loma to vacation at when they're in Central America specifically for the inventive menu these two serve up. And then added to that is Henry's quite mature collection of spirits and liquors, with which he is quite adept at mixing any basic cocktail you can imagine. These drinks cost a little extra, but I never let that stop me!

So as we went around the table and eventually it became my turn, just as I was subjecting them all to my terribly NEW YAWK accent and defending my beloved Yankees -- out of nowhere a gecko which had been crawling on the ceiling let go and landed dead center on my head! Without missing a beat, I simply reached up and plucked the gecko out of my hair and set it gently on the floor.

"Hey -- how did you do that so calmly? You didn't even break a sweat!" One of the guests exclaimed.

"He's from New York, dad," his teenage daughter dryly remarked, as if it was simple logic. "He's probably dealt which worse than a lizard falling on his head."

I merely laughed, but didn't say anything more. While indeed I had seen quite a few horrors growing up in the South Bronx, what none of them realized is just how much that damn gecko had scared the bejeebus out of me when it struck from out of the blue! It took all the mental strength and inner fortitude I could muster to suppress the urge to scream out like a little girl on Halloween night. Sure, I played it off all smooth and suave like ....

But even to this day that bold, deranged, suicidal mini dragon haunts my dreams. I swear it!

Photo credit: David Hegner

Continue on to Day 6 ---> (click)


  1. You KNOW I'm cackling like a maniac right?!!!!!! Well done my friend, well done!!!

  2. And way to rep New Yorkers, especially us BXers, as the super tough muthas we are to the outsiders!!!!!


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