The definition of tropical surf bliss. (Lucas Rogers, by Mike Gleeson)
Stab Recommends: Panama's Caribbean Micro Season
Bocas Del Toro is an off-season eden.
The local bus route from David to Bocas Del Toro is the most beautiful I’ve taken.
It ducks and winds its way through Jurassic Park-looking country, every shade of green, and peppered with lakes. As I’m approaching the point of starvation the bus stops and a few ladies selling crunchy empanadas and bags of sliced, sweet pineapple hop on and I get the feeling that it’s going to be a good trip.
This is the sort of country that fills the window of your plane as it starts to dip into Bocas. (Photo by Scott Balogh)
You’d be unlikely to come this way if you were doing a shorter strike from the States (LAX/JFK-Panama City-Bocas) but I’ve been floating around this part of the world for a while and have time to kill and pennies to save. I’ve pointed the boardbag in this direction due to a long-seeded fascination with the area. There’s something about it being on the Caribbean side of this well-trod surf continent that’s just so, alluring. Every time I’ve become mystified by Bocas on film or in stills the name ‘Red Frog Bungalows’ inevitably pops up. I fired an email into the abyss and had one back instantly from Scott Balogh: “Just come, we’ll work it all out,” and within a week I'm covered in pineapple juice on the bus.
Bocas del Toro.
June/July in Bocas has been dubbed a 'micro season’ because it’s outside of the established surf season and is really consistent for waves. The town is noticeably quiet when I arrive on the dock - just the locals, a few wandering American tourists and some European backpackers. There’s still something fascinating about the little town, with it’s unique blend of Panamanian and Caribbean cultures. Coming north from South America it feels like Bocas is where the continent collides with the Caribbean Sea. It's a great place to have a cold beer and watch the world drift by. A short boat ride from town is Red Frog beach, home to Scott’s bungalows and restaurant (Nachyo Mommas).
Home for the week.
Scott’s place is in an incredible spot, set back from the beach in thick, jungle. It’s sleepy and warm, perfect for an afternoon relax after surfing all morning, which is exactly what we did the next day. I thought Bocas was a one beachbreak and couple of fickle, scary reefs kind of town, but that’s far from the reality. We surfed an A-frame (better left) across the bay from Red Frog first morning that I can only describe as like the spawn of Aussie Pipe and Balian, which is a fun mix. Eight am, five people sleepily bobbing in the lineup, yeah this is my kind of surf town.
Chippa's a certified Panama fan. (Photo by Scott Balogh)
Scott’s been in Bocas for 20 years and loves the surf, locals, Caribbean sea, everything about the place in equal measure. I arrive in-between guests, and for a few days Scott and I cruise around surfing, eating plate lunches, doing a few running repairs on the resort, watching the sun go down and slurping Balboas; it’s a fascinating insight into what goes on behind the scenes at a surf camp in ‘paradise’.
It’s a lot more work than you'd think, especially when you’re as passionate and hands-on as Scott. One afternoon we have a beer and walk through the garden (which is something else) and Scott’s tells me about the plants they’ve brought in from different parts of the island, the timber and beautiful carved doors he’s imported from Bali... “You could never sell this place,” I remark, “It’d be like selling part of yourself.” Scott looks at me and growls. “Argh, I know,” he says, laughing.
You can even get tacos and cocktails out front, it's a pretty guilty joint.
When it comes to surf I slept easy in the knowledge that no one in Bocas was getting better waves than me. It's a rare feeling, one that I certainly don't enjoy at home. In short, Scott reads the Caribbean like a paperback. One day in particular stands out: a beachbreak (not that one) in a Panamanian Indian reserve. It's an hour away and we set off early, easing into the day with a large thermos of coffee and Dolly Parton on the boat as we zipped through the mangroves. Scott's been going to the island for years and the locals welcome his return every couple of months. Scott and the boss lady of the village gossip about another gringo who bought a corporate photo team down and didn't buy as much as a coconut from the village. We gave the local kids a load of boards that Scott's mustered from various surfers blowing through town, and set off through the jungle to the beach on the other side. What greets us is two, three foot peaks up and down a deserted beach backing onto pristine jungle. The water's as clear as it gets and the warmest I've felt.
Scott and I surfed all morning on our own. It was a magic day.
The children of a magic isle. (Photo by Scott Balogh)
Although I don't harbour delusions of stuffing a four foot dredging tepee metres from the sand, I'm dying to see Bluff, the jewel beachie in Bocas's crown. One morning Scott and I zip across to town in the boat then get a taxi out to the beach, bumping along the sandy track in a pimped-out yellow ute Taxi with a pink fluffy rear view mirror and reggaeton blaring. Bluff's lurching and clean, lots of closeouts but some ludicrously steep and makable corn chip-shaped tubes too. There's no one surfing, again, and Scott and I spend a few hours hooting each other into pitching caverns with low make rates but big smiles. Then it's back in to town for a plate lunch at El Chitre, the original Bocas eatery serving all manner of stews and fish, rice, salads and beans. After that an afternoon back in the tranquil Red Frog garden, and a few sunset beers on the beach. It's not hard to string the good days together here.
Where else can you surf with a backdrop like that? Filipe Toledo indulges. (Photo by Andrew Schoener)
I was under the illusion that seasonal travel, surfing or otherwise, was a thing of the past, but Bocas proved me wrong. Given it's proximity to the States, I can't believe how quiet it is. And that's why Scott's keen to give the micro season a push. I assumed that the Caribbean was going to be wind-plagued, but days were hot and still, conditions clean, and swells backing up. Whether it was sitting on the dock trying to keep up with the Afro-Caribbean boatmen speaking a Spanish/English blend like Patois, flying through the mangroves in the boat, pulling into crystal clear spitters or just cruising around town picking up wood and cement with Scott, I can't remember a week where I've had more fun or felt more relaxed.
Most evenings I sat back at some point and wondered for a moment what the rest of the world was up to, then decided that I really didn’t care. Surely that’s the definition of a good trip.
Dane's facial expression echoes Bluff's intensity (Photo by Andrew Schoener)