‘Where’s Boca Chica?” asked Laura, a Panamanian woman and my former student from back home in NYC where I teach English as a second language. Laura had been serving as my personal tour guide during my short stay in Panama City. Despite her wide smile and playful brown eyes, my heart sank at her question as I began to wonder just how far off the map my next destination in Panama really was.
I gave her a quick kiss on the cheek and thanked her. The sun was rising as I approached the doors of the airport and for a brief moment, the city appeared completely still. Rays of sunshine began to paint the buildings of the downtown. I took a deep breath and said goodbye to Panama City.
Inside the airport, the attendant behind the makeshift counter asked for my weight. “For the purpose of the plane’s balance since it is a small plane,” he added. I nearly choked on my gum. Not only was I headed for some unknown part of Panama, but now all 130 pounds of me was responsible for this airplane arriving safely at its destination. Unfortunately, it was too early to crack open a cerveza.
After arriving in David, a dusty city that mainly serves as a jumping-off point for other destinations around Panama, I found myself a 35-cent coffee and a hojaldre for a quarter. Those prices alone were a selling point. Soon after enjoying our breakfast among early morning risers in the sweltering heat, we were in the backseat of a white van with other passengers. The warm sun caught my face as we passed locals walking along the dramatic backdrop. When we approached the sign for the entrance to Boca Chica, my muscles relaxed. With a warm breeze sweeping my hair and the smell of saltwater grazing my nose, I began to feel confident about picking this destination.
Upon arriving at my guesthouse, a sun-kissed smiling Latina greeted us. “Hola! Welcome. I am Claudia.” She wrapped her arms around me and let out a lively laugh. I was able to catch a glimpse of the view during our long embrace. With the Pacific Ocean to my right and the Cordillera mountain range to my left, the bustle of Panama City began to seem farther and farther away. As I soon discovered, my purpose in coming here was to appreciate the natural beauty surrounding me.
A walk along the sand later with the sun beating on my back made for a quiet afternoon. Not a soul on the beach as I dipped my toes in the Pacific waters. Between skipping rocks and sticking my tongue out to catch the saltwater mist, the afternoon passed pleasantly.
Watching the sun gracefully exit the sky while sipping a glass of wine eased me into the quiet evening. Claudia prepared a home-cooked meal of local ingredients while salsa-ing around the kitchen, setting the tone for a true Latin dining experience. Claudia’s cooking dispelled any notions that Panama is not noteworthy for its cuisine.
The following day, we took a day-trip to a nearby island: Boca Brava. We arrived at the village marina to find a group of twenty-something Panamanian men texting, singing and drinking beer. With my serviceable high school Spanish I was able to secure a boat taxi there and back for 12 dollars. Claudia gave us a wise tip before she dropped us off at the dock: “Don’t pay first… pay after he picks you up. That way he won’t get too drunk.”
Boca Brava, a small island, can only be covered successfully on foot. (I later learned that I was just a short boat trip away from Isla Palenque, a jungle-covered island about a quarter of the size of Boca Brava — would have made sure to island-hop over to this little island gem if I had known. Another visit for another voyage.) The island is filled with howler monkeys and vegetation and would make an excellent location for the TV show Survivor.
After hiking, we enjoyed a cerveza, watching locals cruise around on their boats. Jose, as promised, did not forget to pick us up. I was so grateful that upon our return I gave him 3 dollars to buy himself a six-pack. As the sun began to set, dug-out canoes reflected off the Panamanian waters. Young boys climbed dilapidated fences and proceeded to do flips and other acrobatic dives off a corrugated roof. My boyfriend joined the young teens, while I snapped photos and joked around with the twenty-somethings while continuing to feed them beers. For the first time on the trip, I felt I was enjoying a uniquely Panamanian experience.
When I share my trip to Panama with friends, I hesitate when I begin to speak of Boca Chica. For me, it is an undiscovered gem that I want to selfishly keep secret from other travelers. The splendor of quiet evenings listening to summer’s breeze, endless stretches of sand void of footprints, and locals willing to bring you to your next destination in their family’s truck makes Boca Chica a traveler’s off-the-beaten-path paradise.
When our taxi driver arrived to convey us to our next destination, it was hard to leave. As the jeep drove off, I looked over my shoulder to see Claudia, waving her hands and shaking her hips with the ocean over her left shoulder and the mountains over her right.