What the Lonely Planet won’t say about Bocas del Toro
… I will, without hiding bits and pieces of information that travellers of our age – that is, not in their 20s anymore – may find useful and may indeed change his plans during his vacation and travels.
As I left home in November, I eagerly carried with me two heavy volumes, convinced they would make a difference in my overall journey throughout Central and South America: Lonely Planet’s latest editions of “Central America” and “South America” on a shoestring. Heavy as they are, they are also packed with useful information, and I am somewhat attached to them to the point that during my travels in the past I jokingly called the Lonely Planet “the Bible”. Whatever I can’t find in the guide, for any reason, I look for online or ask the locals.
Yet, none of what I have read throughly prepared me for what I really got to see and experience. I will just use one example to – hopefully – make my point.
On 16th January 2014, I set foot in Bocas del Toro archipelago, whose marvels I had read about in the Lonely Planet which lists it as one of the top 16 destinations in Central America, somewhat of a lost paradise. The reality of things, however, is very different. What the Lonely Planet fails to say is that Bocas del Toro can get extremely crowded with tourists, mostly young travellers in search of good waves, who are in to surf and get cheap booze. And booze is just about the only cheap thing in Bocas del Toro, which is unreasonably priced. Mind you, I am one who eagerly pays for a service. But the problem in Bocas del Toro is that no matter how much you can pay, there hardly is any service.
Another thing the Lonely Planet omits is that half of the islands of Bocas del Toro are owned by Americans – restaurants, hotels, bars, diving companies. The other half is equally shared between Italians (who have loads of restaurants and hotels, although apparently lots of restaurants who have an Italian name or label are actually owned by Spanish, Panamanians and what not) and Chinese (who have their hands on the only reasonably priced and consequently the most crowded hostels and on all of the supermarkets).
Most of all, what the Lonely prefers not saying is that really, the islands are nothing special, the sea is seriously polluted and you won’t be able to get to any beach unless you either take a taxi, a bus, a boat or walk under the sun or in the mud for a good 90 minutes. It also forgets to say that there is a serious problem with the sewage system: sinks and showers empty directly on the ground or in the lagoon. And, worst of all, there is no garbage disposal system in the archipelago. So, as you go for a quiet walk to get to the beach or around town, you come across dumpsters with piles of garbage, nicely left in the sun where they can rot faster and spread all sorts of illnesses and become a health hazard (and – remember what I said before – the islands are crowded, something which makes it easier to spread disease).
It also won’t tell you that drug dealing is pretty much anywhere in the island. The same guy who sits across you at the bar at night, you will meet in the morning and he will offer you a hand to find a hostel room or, should you care, to get whatever drug you may want to try (which, needless to say, is none in my case). Same with sales assistant, who happily offer you “the white one” together with flip flops; or hostel receptionists, who hand you the key and with a wink of their eye will point out that “you let them know whatever you may want” (and start give you a full description of prices and substances).
Finally, throught Central America, I have realised (also by meeting other travellers who had the same problems) that the Lonely Planet on a shoestring books are geared toward a much younger, possibly American audience (what they call gringo, here), who all go on the same loop, making prices rise considerably, and that really, the vast majority of hostels listed are “not for us”, meaning that they are “party hostels” – the kind of places where dorms are cramped, bathrooms filty, guests do little else but drink, play loud louzy music, get noisy and possibly leave the dorm a complete mess, just to reiterate the concept that they are young, cool and careless. It is geared towards an audience of people who eagerly eat junk food (not that there is much of a choice here in Latin America), and towards travellers who mostly want to meet other travellers, but do not really have much of an interest in mingling with the locals or learning about their culture and way of life.
I don’t know about you, but this is not the kind of environment I am looking for in any place I visit, and had the Lonely Planet warned me that garbage would be one of the attractions of Bocas del Toro, I would have never gone. The irony of it is that I got really sick there (btw, the Lonely Planet at least does say that water is not drinkable in Bocas), and ended up spending 10 hellish days there.
The good news is that I am past that now, in a less touristy and way more peaceful location, and forever (but never say never!) out of Bocas del Toro!