Like many other parts of Panama, Bocas del Toro is a mixture of old and new, rich and poor, Panamanians and foreigners. The cultural, economic and social waters of Panama have been churning for hundreds of years. I am just seeing the latest composition in a small beautiful corner of the country. The lines are constantly being blurred, erased and redrawn. The descendants of Spanish conquistadores are now Panamanians. The descendants of black West Indians, who were the descendants of West African slaves, are now Panamanians. The indigenous people that flowed into the deserted Caribbean islands hundreds of years after the Spanish arrived are now Panamanians. The white American and European entrepreneurs who have come here to open hotels and dive shops seem to be slowly accepted into the community and if they stay long enough they also may become Panamanians. This is a very American phenomenon. Of course this experience is pervasive in this country that bridges the two Americans, but also allows the flow of trade that makes the new world prosperous. Panama is in the eye of the cultural hurricane that is the two great American continents.
Of course with all change there is motion, resistance and conflict. There will always be those that are left out, those that cheat to get a head, and those that fight the change. In Bocas the natural beauty and the tourist dollars have lubricated the situation so that most can get along.
Bocas is at the lovely tipping point where there is so much to do; there are several dive shops, water taxis, tour companies, many excellent restaurants, several rowdy bars and hostels and one bank. But the all-inclusive resorts, water front high rises and inflated prices are still years away. If you go a block over from the main street the shabby Caribbean houses and trash dotted vacant lots remind you that this is Central America. In some strange way it is these features that make me love this place the most. These elements remind me that this place is genuine.
It is the searcher’s dilemma; if you find paradise do you tell someone else about it or keep it for yourself? If you are alone in paradise is it really paradise? Can you make paradise just a little bit better if you open a bar that will attract beautiful women from all over the world? Without a dive shop and a few boats you can’t fully explore and enjoy the beauty around you. After a few years of carefully planned improvements paradise looks a lot different. It is louder, more crowded and there are too many beer cans on the ocean floor. After a while you might not even recognize it. At that point you might find yourself disgusted and ready to move on. So you leave and if you are very luck you will find a real paradise and this time you won’t tell anyone about it. At least not for a few months and then you will think; I wish there was a place to get a beer around here.