Photo Credit: TN
Why Every Black Traveler Should Add Isla Bastimentos, Panama To Their Must-Visit List
Isla Bastimentos is one of the most unapologetically Caribbean destinations located in Bocas del Toro, Panama. I came across it by chance while visiting Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica. Apparently, $30 USD would get me to Bocas in under 3 hours. So off I went to cross the border and discover what Panama’s Caribbean was going to be like in contrast to the reggae-infused beach life of ‘pura vida’ in Puerto Viejo.
Bocas del Toro is a top destination for travelers looking to enjoy what can only be described as bliss in this Central American country. Bocas is truly enjoyed when each island is appreciated for what it has, that is to say, don’t expect to find everything on one island. This is why island-hopping in Bocas del Toro is an experience, because each island feels like a new country, despite being only a few minutes apart by water taxi.
Isla Bastimentos had the most distinct feel for me. It stood out because it has a wealth of Caribbean history and legacy that is hard to ignore, and usually quite hard to retain in hyper-touristic destinations.
When arriving on the main island, Isla Colon, everyone I came into contact with mentioned that I would love Bastimentos. The response to hearing that I am from Jamaica heightened the urgency; everyone, from taxi-drivers to stall vendors, were quick to tell me how much I will feel at home when visiting Bastimentos.
After a few days of getting a feel for the rhythm of Bocas Town in Isla Colon, the restaurants, the access to an ATM and the Caribbean corners of this particular island, I was ready for a new, more remote island experience.
When first arriving at the dock, already the difference between Isla Colon and Isla Bastimentos could be felt. The colors, the smell of food and jerk, the sound systems making their presence known at 9 in the morning, it felt more familiar than anything.
Another difference, the significant increase in Black Panamanians on the island. It always does something to my spirit to meet and have conversation with other Black people from across the diaspora while traveling. The beauty of Bastimentos was being able to hear the Creole, Guary Guary, which has huge similarities to Patwa in Jamaica. The conversation often switched between English, Guary Guary and Spanish seamlessly.
The inhabitants of Bastimentos are also deeply proud of their Jamaican roots. Conversations usually found themselves to Jamaica and how many on the island have grandparents or great-grandparents who came from Jamaica.
Black travelers will not only enjoy Isla Bastimentos for the vibe, but also for the retreat into nature. Isla Bastimentos ultimately has one main strip, 2 very small supermarkets, a handful of overwater restaurants and guest-houses and a lot of hilly nature. There is no ATM and no cars on this island, so it really is a place to take it slow.
One main natural attraction is Wizard beach, popular not only for the beach but the slightly excessive hike that it takes to actually arrive at this beach.
Wizard beach is on the other side of the island, the route to arrive is through the jungle. If it rained the night before, which it almost always does, then you’re in for one of the longest 25-minute hikes of your life, complete with mud, several water breaks and the occasional prayer that the end will be in sight very soon. The hike was intense, even for me, someone who enjoys hiking. The beauty is arriving on the other side and being met with an almost completely empty beach for yourself and the heartwarming sense of sea salt in the air, cooling you off.
A note, because it is so off-the-beaten path, it is advised not to make this journey with valuables and to have your wits about you while en route (as you would). Also, don’t wear shoes that are hard to clean or that are precious to you…
Bastimento, translating to ‘supply’, is a true description of this island experience. On Isla Bastimentos, there is unmistakable abundance. An abundance of authenticity – meaning the jungle is jungle, there is no path other than the one trampled by those who pass through, the coconut oil is pure and made fresh from someone who likely lives just around the corner. Likewise, when the electricity and lights shut out, you get no apologies, just Caribbean humor heard up and down the dock as locals make do until the lights and music are switched back on.
The island is attractive for Black travelers because it doesn’t pretend to be anything. Travelers come to rest, to soak up the good vibes, and to experience a version of the Caribbean that moves at its own pace. Unlike Isla Colon which is beautiful in its own way, it doesn’t seem to cater for anything or anyone, it doesn’t need to. The true fabric of Bastimentos is easy to reach and even easier to fall for as a Black wanderer looking for a semblance of home and ease.
Arriving in Panama as a Black traveler is sure to be a treat. In Isla Bastimentos, more so. It has that extra something, that perfect balance between going slow and living entirely.