A Place Where No Cars Go


Somethingyousaid.com’s Tenley Nordstrom learns the value of a machete:

When I close my eyes and think of my happy place, I think of Bastimentos, Panama. I think of the sun dancing off of the marvelous water colored with varying shades of turquoise, green and blue. Water that is just the right temperature and just the right saltiness. Beneath lies incredible multi-colored reef full of sea life. I stayed for three weeks. My hostel was built over the sea. The town has no roads, only foot paths. Hammocks were plentiful. The only way around was either on foot through the jungle or by boat. Some days we would take the kayak across the bay to snorkel. The beaches are made of powdery white sand and some days we were the only ones there. Beautiful trees line most beaches, so finding the perfect shady spot was a breeze. Reggae music was blasting constantly around town. The locals may not have much, but some manage to find the biggest speakers possible. Often the power went out. In which case, you slap on the headlamp and enjoy blissful silence. In the night, there are more stars than you thought possible, and we watched as Venus and Mars would rise into the sky.

Bastimentos is not your typical spot in the Caribbean. If you’re looking for all the comforts of the first world and luxury dining, this place is not for you. It is exactly the fact that it doesn’t have those things that made it so special to me and it was the start of a very large learning process. The day that we arrived, it had been raining. We asked our host if the path to Wizard Beach would be possible that day. He told us that it would be muddy, but we could make it. It took us something like an hour (when dry it’s about 20min) trudging through the mud (at times up to our shins) to get to the other side. We were handsomely rewarded when the jungle opened up to the most heavenly beach you could ever imagine. The only other person around was a local who was working on gathering coconuts and would break to eat and to play guitar. After my first time snorkeling, ever, we headed back to town and picked up some pasta from the general store to make a quick and easy lunch. I thought the water would be okay in which to at least boil the pasta. Boy was I wrong! It tasted like rotting fish. We had to buy big jugs of water for the rest of our stay. Imagine being a local who can’t afford that. Big blue rain catches would become a constant sight for the rest of our trip through Central America.

We spent the rest of our time exploring the Bocas Del Toro island chain by boat, hiking, snorkeling and relaxing in hammocks. It wasn’t the right time of year for surfing. That would have to wait for Costa Rica and Nicaragua. I loved hearing the the mix of English, Spanish, and native language but I never could figure out why they would decide to use each one at which moments. The great thing about Panama is that even on this little island there is diversity. The Panama Canal’s effect is evident in this way. We made friends with a Spanish chef and artist from Madrid. We were treated to a concert by the infamous local “The Jaguar” and his wife. He was the brother of the guy who ran our hostel. They were right next to each other. These men built those two-story stilted hostels by hand. Their family lived up the stairs in a humble home. They ran a boat service too. We made friends with their young family member, Pootchi (which may or may not be spelt like that). He was 13 and he taught us how to fish with a liter bottle of soda. You take the empty soda bottle, hold it sideways, and wrap the fishing line around it. We enjoyed fishing off the dock trying to catch our dinner. Most of the time we were unsuccessful, but the locals caught huge fish this way. Jaguar also taught us how to catch the bait with a weighted net. Not an easy task but he caught a foot-long fish with that net. I’ll never forget the moment Pootchi disappeared and came back floating on discarded styrofoam. My guess, it was from someone’s new speakers. His paddle was a little piece of wood. I got one of my favorite pictures that day.

It was here that I would learn the value of a machete and it was here that I learned how to properly open coconuts (nothing felt more rewarding than finding and opening those coconuts). He told us about a man who used to make his living gathering coconuts. He was blind but never cut a finger with his machete. It was here that I learned how lucky some of us are to have two seemingly simple things. You flick a switch and a light turns on. You turn a handle and clean water comes out. These things are not promised to a large percentage of people on this planet. I have travelled to a good amount of countries in my short time on this Earth, but nothing taught me more than traveling in some of the poorest countries in the world. The people have so much less than the rest of us, and yet, they are so much happier. That was an invaluable lesson, and I will never be the same.


Words and pictures by Tenley Nordstrom