In May of 2003, my wife Allene and I moved to Isla Colon in the archipelago of Bocas del Toro in the Republic of Panama. We had come here in 1998 on a surfing trip and it was love at first sight, even before we hit the ground. Coming in on the plane, looking down at all the islands, islets, mangroves, jungle, fringing coral reefs, white sand beaches and waves–lots of waves–we were awestruck, to say the least. To make a long story short, we spent a blissful week surfing, diving and exploring and ended up finding a piece of property in the rainforest on the north shore of the island, with a beautiful beach, coconut palms and a really good surf spot directly in front. At that time, land here was dirt cheap and the price fit our budget so we didn’t hesitate. We jumped on it. As it worked out, in 2002 we decided we weren’t getting any younger so we made the decision to retire from touring with our band and move to Bocas.
After arriving, we spent the next seventeen months cutting a road into the property, clearing the home site, planting fruit trees and building our own home. It was a daunting project, overwhelming to think about what all we had to do. So we just took it one day at a time, and with help from a few good friends, along with our hired workers Pepito and Castro, eventually we got it done.
Now, fourteen years later, here we are. On reflection, do we have any regrets? Yeah … one. We wish we had gotten here sooner. Do we still love it here? Absolutely! More than ever!
But before any of you who are reading this start selling everything you own to move down here, let me fill you in on a few more details. This place is definitely not for everybody. Thank God, or everybody would be here. People relocate here for a lot of reasons but there are always many people leaving here for other reasons. This place does have a high turnover. Some people come to visit when the weather is really nice and they get all hyped up and throw down on a piece of property and then leave to go back to wherever without doing any due diligence. Then they return later and soon realize what all you have to go through to get your building permits, find a good builder, get materials to the building site (especially hard if it is on one of the outer islands), and then build the house when it is pouring down rain every day. You find out soon enough what you are made of. It helps to have some toughness in your blood, with a little perseverance, stamina, patience and tolerance thrown in. And it is almost required that you have a good sense of humor.
Once you finally get your project finished, then the maintenance begins, and never ends. You have to fix little problems immediately or they quickly become major. The elements here are relentless. People who have homes here and leave for a few months are always shocked when they return and see how fast things have deteriorated. The salt, rust, mold, corrosion, termites, rain, wind and humidity will consume everything in sight. Then the jungle will take it over.
You can bet on the fact that the weather does get gnarly. This area between the equator and 10 degrees north is called the tropical convergence zone and the prevailing northeast trade winds serve as a conveyor belt carrying squalls and low-pressure systems straight to us. Boaters and sailors will tell you that the seas between here and Colombia are some of the roughest they have encountered. I can recall numerous occasions when we had to chop and chainsaw our way through blown down trees so we could get to town to re-supply. The work can take twenty minutes if it is only one small tree, or maybe two days if it is a bunch of big ones. So … yeah, at times this place can be harsh. And rain is part of the equation.
I’ve had several people come up to me at different times and complain about the amount of rainfall we get. And I always reply, “Well, if you don’t like a lot of rain, why in the hell did you move to a rainforest?” Duh.
There are two ways you can go with all of this. You can let it beat you down or, if you kind of like all these wild things that happen out here on the edge of the world, it’ll definitely make you a stronger and better person. But a common side effect that happens regularly is although you’ve become a stronger and better person, your significant other could end up hating all this. Then you’ve got a problem. You either leave with them, which you don’t really want to do, or you split up.
Many people come here to escape the drudgery of the life they’d been living elsewhere. They think living down here in the tropics will change their lives in a positive way and for some, it does. But there are those who soon get bored and fall into the trap of sitting around in different bars all day long, drinking. We’ve seen some of these folks go down hard. There’s also a whole other subculture that comes here strictly for the nightlife. I call them “Vampires” because they sleep all day and never come out until ten at night and then they party until the sun comes up and go sleep it off. We’ve seen a lot of these folks self-destruct as well, and go back to where they came from with their tails between their legs, burnt out and broke.
But for Allene and me, Bocas is a true paradise. We’re surfers. The waves here are world-class and very consistent most of the year. When there are no waves, there is kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, and the diving and fishing can be excellent.
The flora and fauna are mind-blowing. In fact, some of the scientists who come here to study call this place the Galapagos of the Caribbean. There is so much to love about this place but what tops the whole deal off is being able to live in this diverse and wonderful community. It’s bilingual, multi-ethnic, multicultural, friendly, caring and compassionate. When a cry for help goes out, whether it’s a family in need, students who can’t afford school uniforms, repairs needed at the Asilo assisted-living facility, a beach cleanup, or whatever, this community never fails to respond in a big way. The population in these islands is made up of indigenous tribes, Latinos, Blacks, mixtures of the aforementioned, Chinese, Arabs, Israelis, Europeans, Canadians, many gringos from the U.S., and other nationalities from the far corners of the Earth. We have Catholics, Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, gays, straights, transgenders, Democrats, Republicans, Independents, apoliticals, vegetarians, carnivores … and believe it or not, we all get along just fine. This outstanding community theoretically could be an example for the rest of the world. If we can do it here, it should be possible anywhere. There is always hope.
Do we have problems? Like everywhere else, for sure we do. Bocas is developing much faster than I would like but I guess it was inevitable. Along with development, crime has increased. The amount of trash we produce has become much larger and on small islands, disposal is a problem. Traffic has increased dramatically and sometimes it’s difficult to find a parking space on the main street in town. Our infrastructure hasn’t kept up with the rate of development. Consequently, during high season, when we’re crowded with tourists, the town is prone to having brownouts and blackouts. The same with water usage. When every single hotel and hostel is booked up, sometimes the town can run out of water, depending on the level of the reservoir.
But you know what? When these things happen, we deal with it and we get through it. As Allene likes to say, “Sure we have a few problems, but still … this is home. And like always, we’ll come together as a community and tackle each problem, one by one.” I like to say, “The problems are a small price to pay to live in this beautiful paradise.”
That brings us back to why we came here in the first place. Yeah … the waves. The waves keep on coming but now the more well-known surf spots are getting really crowded. It’s impossible to keep a location with this caliber of surf a secret forever. However, I will say this: If you have a boat you can still to this day always find a place to surf alone. And that’s almost unheard of in today’s surfing world. And for Allene and I, that’s our saving grace.
So for now, we’ll continue to enjoy our home here in paradise and keep on surfing until the day we die … hopefully in the far distant future. But you never know. If some billionaire comes along and buys up all the land around us and builds a huge high-rise hotel, we would be out of here in a heartbeat. It’s not likely that would happen but if it does, I can guarantee that we won’t be moving back to the States. There’s just no way to go backwards after experiencing all this. We’d have to go deeper. There are a million islands out across the south Pacific just waiting to be discovered by a couple of old surfers.