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We Have To Go Back, Kate

March 2019

On February 28th 2019 I achieved something few people thought possible: I turned 40.

As part of my birthday present, I was gifted a flight back to Panama. Back to Bocas. Back to Jinja. But this time I would not be returning alone, for my gorgeous girlfriend (and old schoolchum) Kathryn (aka Kate/Kat) would be coming with me. We’d only be in Bocas for a just over a week, so the mission was fix the island up as best we could. And, of course, pack in as much fun stuff as possible!

In the wee small hours of March 1, my mum dropped us off at Manchester airport (because she’s a total legend).

Day 1

A couple of hours later we shot up into the skies towards Panama. OF COURSE I had a cranking hangover from the night before. Do you even know me? 😆

We arrived in Panama City around 5pm local time, too late to fly to Bocas that night, so we checked into a cute little hotel in the old town, Casco Viejo, set down our backpacks and set out to find ourselves a bite to eat.

To the Cinta Costera! (The Promenade.)

Unbeknownst to us, there was a fiesta going on along the Cinta Costera. Turns out it was Mardi Gras week! What incredible timing! We grabbed ourselves some street food and watched the show: singers and dancers on a stage based on Game of Thrones. We were young, we were innocent, we had no idea quite how bad the final season (which wouldn’t begin broadcasting for another month) would turn out to be.

So much for getting an early night!

Day 2

The following morning, bright and early, we took a domestic flight from Albrook Airport to Bocas del Toro. Exciting stuff, to be sure, and a rare treat for me… when I usually did this journey I’d have to suffer the Arctic air-conditioning of the overnight bus.

And the best bit? The free beer! (Kat was less impressed…)

It’s a short flight from PAC to BOC, just 45 minutes, so before I knew it I was b-b-b-b-back in B-B-B-B-Bocas!

Returning to Bocas after a year away was as delightful as it was disorientating. Many of my usual haunts had moved (like the staircases in Harry Potter) and at least two of my faves — the Bookstore and Hotel Brisas — had disappeared entirely.

Although…… now for the good news! The almighty $1 cerveza was still available (phew!).

It was good to be back. We buzzed around town, dropping in to say “hi” to Dyllan, Nico, Tony, Dave, Chad, Josh, Till… all the usual suspects! Ariel was still running the taxi dock, Robin was still running the Toro Loco, (almost) everything was in its right place.

We stayed at the absolutely gorgeous J&H Garden Cabinas on nearby Carenero Island. Can’t recommend it enough. Exactly the sort of thing I’d love to do with Jinja, given half the chance.

Of course I wanted to get over to Jinja Island as soon as possible. Although, once again, the trip would be filled with trepidation… for reasons that I shall come to in a moment.

Day 3

So, the following day, Kat and I teamed up with my mate Till and his friend Yuri and set off back to Jinja.

Or at least we would have if the padlock on Dave’s boat — the hilariously named Sea Bass-Turd — hadn’t rusted so badly we couldn’t get it open.

Happily, the locals have bolt-cutters! So then… back again to my Sacred Isle!

Over the past year, the island had gone for several weeks without anyone being there. Whilst Bocas Town can arguably be described as booming, the province of Bocas Del Toro is a relatively impoverished area, especially out in the islands. It’s no surprise then that if things are left out for days or weeks on end, they’re assumed to be abandoned. Nothing is allowed to go to waste!

That being the case, although I had been paying local caretakers to look after the place for the preceding six months (and the current caretaker, Ismael, is a bona fide legend), before then the island had been, well, looted.

And by “looted” I mean L – O – O – T – E – D 😲

Dude.... where's my toilet?

The solar panels, solar batteries, my cooker, the exterior doors and several floorboards had been ‘alf inched! (They tried to take the watertank, but found that the house had actually been constructed around it, so it wasn’t going anywhere.)

Like I say, I had been prepped for what to expect, but still, it was sad to see the state of the place.

Dude... where's my cladding?
Dude... where's my cooker?
Dude... where's my floor?

It was nice to meet the new Jinja Island dog though — Pickle! Isn’t she cute?!

We spent a good few hours on the island, taking stock of the situation and working out just how much wood I needed to buy in order to fix the place up.

It was great to be back though, all things considered. No squatters, the house was still there, as were the palm trees and my poor wee boat! 

Our recce completed, we returned to Bocas Town with Till, measurements in hand!

It being Mardi Gras week, the devils were out, and there was a mini carnival going on up and down the main street. More super-great timing!

I honestly couldn’t have hoped for a better time to bring Kat to Bocas!

Day 4

The next day, the 4th March, we took the minibus north of Isla Colon to Starfish Beach.

As you can see from the map, the road goes to Boca Del Drago (Mouth of the Dragon). From there, you have to jump on a panga boat around the little promontory around to Starfish. The weather wasn’t amazing, but something I didn’t know was that Kathryn had never tried lobster before. Since there’s a string of little tiki bars along the coast that sell fresh langoustine, that was something we’d have to rectify!

Ice cold beer, piña colada, lobster fresh from the sea?

After lunch we returned to Bocas Town before jumping on a boat over to Red Frog beach. There I took Kat to the fantastic Palmar Tent Lodge. I caught up with owners Sebastian and Aaron and we whiled away the afternoon drinking sangria and just, y’know, chilling the hell out (with a 15% discount).

Day 5

On our fifth day, I finally *FINALLY* took up Tony’s offer FROM FIVE YEARS AGO to go for a scuba dive with his crew.

Kat had never been scuba diving before, she absolutely loved it. We explored a sunken ship, helped pick up some litter and watched as the team speared a couple of lionfish. A beautiful animal, but not native to the area, and therefore regarded as a damaging and invasive species.

Post-dive, we met up with Till and grabbed some burritos from the Bocas Blended bus for lunch.

Then Kat and I took a stroll north along Chiquita Beach to the new Bocas Del Toro sign to get us some selfies.

Later, in Bocas Town, we were just coming out of the supermarket next to Bolivar Park when, would-you-Adam-and-Eve-it, I met with Chris Tayo, the captain of the old Jade Dragon back in the day. He had just that morning got back from St Vincent and the Grenadines… on a pirate ship.

I shit you not. An actual PIRATE SHIP. Yep, he had been paid to bring the ship over by Tom, the guy who owns the Bambuda Lodge over on Solarte Island. The idea was to take it out for parties. This was a great idea. And the first party…? That would be tonight at 8pm!

TIMING! You can’t really tell from the pics, but we were on a pirate ship. I also got to see some familiar faces!

Day 6

On the sixth day, we got up late and decided it would be a bloody good larf to hire a quad bike and explore to the very northeast of Isla Colon.

We raced along Pablo Escobar’s secret jungle runway, kissed in the Blue Lagoon, swam in La Piscina and then got a bit lost in the monkey forest on the way back to the ranch.

It felt like we had the place to ourselves. It was perfect. We even got complimentary beers afterwards. Lou Reed had nothing on us.

Day 7

But we couldn’t monkey around forever. We had work to do. On our trip to Jinja Island the other day we worked out the kit we needed to make the island not just habitable, but also reasonably comfortable. Ismael would be staying on the island full time after we left, so the house needed to be as safe as, well, houses. While Kat mooched around town looking for souvenirs, Till and I made a beeline for the hardware stores and stocked up on everything we needed. Till, being an absolute LEGEND, let us take the timber and equipment over on the Bass-Turd, so we loaded up the boat with timber and put-put-putted our way over to the island.

It took an absolute age to get over to Jinja, with the weight of all that wood in the boat.

Ismael was on the island and helped us shift the wood from the stone dock over to the house.

By the time all the stuff was moved over, it was late afternoon. We thanked Till and Ismael, shared a cheeky pack of Atlas, then they jumped on their respective boats and went home, leaving Kat and I alone on Jinja together.

It would be my first night on my island since I left at the end of April 2017. It was Kathryn’s first night ever.

We put on some tunes, drank some rum and went for a swim in the bioluminescence. We spent the night huddled together on a hammock down at the boat dock, two castaways on a deserted island.

Day 8

Ismael returned the next morning, dropped off by his brother Leo onto the stone dock on the east side of the island, which gave Kat and I (on the main boatdock) a bit of a surprise! A welcome one though, he called us to the house where he had rustled up some scran (scrambled eggs with fried plantain – amazing!). We cracked on with replacing the missing floorboards and wood panelling.

Ismael had cut the grass before I got there, so it wasn’t an overgrown nightmare, but there was still a lot of work to do.

While Ismael and I worked fixing up the house, Kat went around the island on a litter pick-up. Ah the joys of island life!

I think whoever took the floorboards also nicked the coconuts off my trees an’ all. Grr. No worries: they’ll grow back.

Replacing the floorboards was a pretty straight-forward job, although replacing the solar panels will be a lot more hassle (and a lot more expensive).

Yep, my little empire may be in need of some TLC, but it’s still there, still kicking ass, still bursting with potential.

Later that afternoon Till returned to the island on the Bass-Turd. Kat and I gathered our stuff together, and I left Jinja in the capable hands of Ismael, who has heroically agreed to look after the place until I return (whenever that might be).

20190308_142628-1

Till needed some fuel for the boat, so I suggested we venture out to Dolphin Bay.

We motored through the cut to Tierra Oscura to pay a visit to an old friend I had not seen for a long time.

Ernie!

We didn’t have the time to fill our boots with chicken from Ernie’s chicken shack, but we did pick up enough fuel to get us back to Bocas.

That evening Kat and I enjoyed a final delicious meal (and drinkies) at the Cosmic Crab on Caranero Island.

20190308_180945

We whiled away our final evening in Bocas lounging around in our cabaña at J&H… we had to be up super early the following morning for the flight back to Panama City.

Day 9

At first light we took a boat taxi over the channel to Bocas Town. It was time to say goodbye… for now.

But the adventure still had some way to go. We flew to Panama City and took a taxi over to Casco Viejo. Our flight out of here didn’t leave until later that night, so we thought we’d have ourselves a bit of a mooch around. 

Panama City's famous arch behind us there...

Later, we ambled along the promenade towards the big PANAMÁ sign. And jumped for glee!

After a late lunch at the fish market (the Mercado De Marisco) we found out that our flight back to the UK was delayed. No worries, we walked back to Casco Viejo and found ourselves a rooftop bar to while away our last few hours in Central America.

It had been a perfect week.

I’m going to miss this place.

Graham Hughes

Graham Hughes is a British adventurer, presenter, filmmaker and author. He is the only person to have travelled to every country in the world without flying. From 2014 to 2017 he lived off-grid on a private island that he won in a game show, before returning to the UK to campaign for a better future for the generations to come.

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