Return to the Blue Lagoon in Bocas Del Toro
In the part of the year she is not in Colorado, Anne-Michelle Wand experiences her continued romance with the warm Caribbean and the idyllic beaches that dot the shores of Bocas Del Toro, Panama. Anne-Michelle tells Jet Metier how lovely it is to boat on placid waters, camp on a deserted island and other reasons to pack your surfer jams and sexy, black maillot to see for yourself.
Jet Metier: How are you?
Anne Michelle Wand: Amazing. And yourself?
Jet Metier: I‘m praising God, I'm alive and talking with someone who is living a dream life.
What is the common greeting in Bocas? Is there a slag phrase that means “Hello” or “How are you?” or “Good day,” besides the common Spanish phrases? Something that is more Caribbean, perhaps?
Anne Michelle Wand: Mostly we say “Buen dia” to anyone we meet or “Que pasa?” to a friend.
Jet Metier: Buen dia? Not Buenas dias?
Anne Michelle Wand: Yes, it is “Good day,” not” Good days.”
Jet Metier: Let's turn back the clock to when you first arrived on the shores of Bocas Del Toro. What did you know about it? What drew you to it? And what did you find when you got there?
Anne Michelle Wand: That is quite a question. My friend and I were traveling in Central America looking for our "place in the sun". We both had wanted to live on a tropical island for most of our remembered past, and we were finally in a position to do it. We started in Mexico, both the Pacific and Caribbean side, then moved on to Belize, Guatemala, studied Honduras and Nicaragua, but did not go there, and went to Costa Rica three times (different areas) hoping to find the dream property. Costa Rica was hot in the 90's and we already had friends there, but nothing quite hit us right until we reached Panama.
I had previously owned a vacation rental in Hawaii and recently sold it. We were looking for something closer, more affordable, with friendlier people and lower prices. When we got off the plane on the small island of Bocas del Toro, Donna said immediately upon looking around, “Gee, I could live here.”
I wasn't so sure, but by the time we left four days later, we had put a deposit on a small piece of land. Later, we came back and bought everything we could afford to buy, because we realized the signs of a boom to come, and we loved the weather and the people and the quaint, funky town that reminded us of Key West in the 70's.
Jet Metier: Smart girl! Tell us how Bocas was a quaint, funky town. What did it look like? How did people live? How did you do your thing?
Anne Michelle Wand: Well, there was one main street two blocks from the ocean where most of the restaurants, hotels and stores were. The traditional Caribbean style homes were of all shapes and sizes and painted colorful bright colors. There was evidence of construction everywhere with new buildings next to old ones and new businesses opening as more people came. The locals had booths on the main street showing their wares like molas, hammocks and carved animals. It was primarily a surfer and backpacker town then, with the most expensive hotels being about US $60 a night.
We spent most of our time in boats exploring the archipelago of islands, trekking through jungles and looking at beachfront land, as well as swimming in the ocean, snorkeling in gorgeous spots and eating wonderful food consisting of fresh fish, fruits and vegetables.
Jet Metier: For those of us who have never spent any time exploring an archipelago in a boat, can you give us some do's and don'ts and pointers so we can experience the thrill of the waterways around Bocas Del Toro. And what are molas?
Anne Michelle Wand: Molas are the embroidered cloth that the Emberá Indians make (there are seven Indian tribes who are indigenous to the area) and sell to help pay their living expenses. In Bocas, you take a "water taxi" like you take a land taxi, since most of the places you want to go, you can only get to by boat. Those boats are called pangas, which are wood or fiberglass boats from 20 to 30 feet long and have variously sized motors on them. Sometimes they have Bimini tops to shade you from the sun. When you hire a water taxi and driver you don’t have to worry. Most of the drivers have grown up here and know the waters very well. The know where all the coral reefs are and steer clear, they know where all the beaches and islands are and where to take you for lunch or dinner on an island, where the restaurant is on stilts over the water and you can snorkel while they cook for you.
You can't and wouldn’t want to take a boat out yourself at first because you would probably hit one of those coral reefs and sink the boat. We also went out in kayaks, paddling around the islands like it was a lake. When islands are surrounded by islands there are no waves and it’s like a lake. When you want waves, say for surfing, you go to the outside of the island facing the open ocean.
Jet Metier: Were you in sailboats, a kayak, dugout canoes?
Anne-Michelle Wand: Some of the boats were cayukas, which are canoes dug out as you say from the trunk of one humongous tree. They are amazing.
Jet Metier: What are your best memories of that time?
Anne Michelle Wand: One of my best memories is taking a ride in the boat on a wonderful, perfect day. On the way to one of our favorite restaurants for lunch, we stopped in a place called Dolphin Bay and were surrounded by playful dolphins running round the boat and jumping up out of the water. After that, about 30 minutes later, we arrive at Rana Azul ( Blue Frog) for lunch. There we enjoyed wood-fired pizza and beer and danced to expat oldie music we enjoy. This restaurant is only open on Fridays and Sundays and has great food, so those days the restaurant is packed with locals and expats alike having a great time. A few hours later, we hopped in the boat for a wonderful breezy ride back, stopping to swim in the ocean along the way. I'm easy to please. I just love being on the warm Caribbean ocean in a boat. By the way, the water here is 84 degrees year round. No shock when you jump in.
Jet Metier: My inner water baby is bouncing off the walls, Anne-Michelle. When you went out into the jungle, did you learn what not to touch, eat or avoid? Does Bocas have a friendly Disney-esque jungle (I am kidding here), or one filled with danger and peril?
Anne Michelle Wand: I am not so much a jungle person and we aren't quite at the Disney stage... but when I have hiked through the jungle trails, I have felt relatively safe and no snakes or spiders jumped out at me. Once we spent an hour watching a sloth cross the road though. There is a botanical garden where you can take a tour and learn about the flora and fauna. I highly recommend Los Monos (“The Monkeys”) Botanical Garden. There are very tiny red frogs that are supposed to be poisonous and are a protected species. I'm an ocean girl; I would not spend a week in the jungle. You do have to watch out for some scorpions and fire ants.
Jet Metier: Would you be able to survive in the jungle, say for a week? How would you survive and live?
Anne Michelle Wand: What I would do is sail out to a deserted island with my sweetie and we would catch fish, eat them, and camp on the beach for a couple nights under the amazing stars with no artificial light to pollute the sky.
Oh, and drink coconut water. It is wonderful and tastes very different than what you buy in the stores. You pick a green coconut from the tree and hack it open with a machete, then drink the liquid.
Jet Metier: Are you a bad mamma jamma with a machete, too?
Jet Metier: The coconut milk sounds wonderful. When you camp out at a beach, are these public beaches? What do these islands look like? How big? Any accommodations? The romance of it all is quite stirring, Anne-Michelle.
Anne Michelle Wand: All beaches are public beaches by law. Some islands are uninhabited and the weather is so perfect you can sleep under the stars on just a pad or blow up mattress, or in the boat. Yes, we can build a fire to cook the fish. Sand is pretty comfortable to sleep on, too, over a blanket. These islands are usually small with white sand beaches around the edge and jungle in the middle. You can walk across them in a few minutes.
Jet Metier: Are you glamping (glamour camping) with tents and propane stoves and lanterns? Or do you build a shelter from found materials and gather wood for cooking fuel and soft boughs for beds.
Anne Michelle Wand: The inhabited islands will have hotels and B&B's from the rustic to the elegant, all with wonderful food. On Bastimentos there is a tent lodge and you can rent a tent on a platform for the night. They have a restaurant and bar to eat and hang out and chairs on the beach. On Isla Popa they have an all-inclusive that starts at $400 per night and you fly in on a private helicopter.
Jet Metier: Watch out, Anne-Michelle, by reading your story, well, I can just see the rollaway luggage packed with tankinis heading out your way.
If you were to advise someone who loves the water as much as you and your sweetie do, what kind of property would you steer them towards? Shoreline, mangrove, pad in town, or private island?
Anne Michelle Wand: You wouldn't be disappointed as long as you spend enough time here to discover the beauty of the islands. The worst mistake people make is planning too short a vacation here and they really can't get the feel of it. I would advise them to buy a home that has some small elevation over the ocean, or a small island with the same, within 30 minutes of Bocas, if they want quiet and don't mind the boat ride, or in Bocas, if they want to be where the action is. If you are going to live on an island, you want to see the ocean from your window, right?
There is a big turnover going on now, of people who came and built homes when there weren't many and have been here 15 or 20 years. They are ready to pass the dream on to the next generation. So there is a lot to choose from. If you want to create your own from scratch, it's more work, but there is plenty of land for sale, too. For those that want the “lock and leave” style, we have something we did not have 15 years ago: condos from $60,000 and up to $500.000. There is something for everyone.
Jet Metier: Anne-Michelle, how does one build a house over water? Are skin divers involved to get the posts in the sand of the beach or the mangroves?
Anne Michelle Wand: Good questions. We have a company that specializes in planting the posts into the water for you. First they build the posts that are PVC pipe with rebar in them and a T at the bottom. Then they have a special vacuum that blows the sand away at low tide so there is a hole. Then they drop the posts (it takes four guys) into the hole and the weight of it makes it go down about 12 feet. Then they put the sand back and let it settle. After that they pour concrete into to the post. The locals who can't afford that use wood posts and I don't know how they do it. Wood posts are not allowed anymore, anyway.
Jet Metier: How do they get their electrical?
Anne Michelle Wand: The electrical that is not in Bocas is usually solar. They have better reliability with power generated by solar and generators than they do with the electricity in town, which has regular brown outs.
Jet Metier: What’s the deal with toilets?
Anne-Michelle Wand: People either build a regular septic system, if the land permits, or they put in composting toilets. In Bocas proper, we have a city water and sewer system.
Jet Metier: Do lashing winds and rains ever pose a problem for the people with the stilt homes on their walkway to the shore?
Anne Michelle Wand: We do have tropical storms but no hurricanes and you learn to watch the weather to plan to be inside when we get a big storm. If your boat is not tied securely, you may see it floating down the bay in a storm or sinking from the rain if your bilge pump stops working. Everyone usually helps if that happens to someone. The beauty about rainstorms here, is that even if you are out in them (on land anyway), it’s warm rain. I personally would not want to be out in the boat in six foot waves, though.
Jet Metier: What would your dream house (or condo) in Bocas look like? How would it incorporate everything you love doing with your sweetie?
Anne Michelle Wand: One of my dream homes is listed on my web site right now; it is 13019. It is a home up on a hill overlooking the ocean with a 270 degree view on an acre. There are palm trees and various fruit trees in the landscaping. A boat house is built on the ocean with a lift to get the boat out of the water when we are not using it. It has four bedrooms, three baths and a wraparound deck. A small swimming pool is in the back. There is even a caretaker’s quarter off the laundry room. It has state of the art solar and rain catchment for water. We can snorkel right off the dock; for there is live coral right there or take the boat out easily to Bocas or another island.
Jet Metier: What would an ideal day be like in that house?
Anne Michelle Wand: An ideal day would start by us waking up early so we could lounge around and fool around, then get up and have breakfast and exercise. Then go out in the boat to explore, doing some of the various things I have described earlier. We love tooling around and having a picnic on the beach, visiting friends etc.
Jet Metier: I know you are in Colorado right now. Speaking to people who would love to have two homes, two careers and two different worlds like you do, what is a solid piece of advice you could give them?
Anne Michelle Wand: Come explore and use an experienced guide, like me, to help you learn what not to do and who the trusted resources are, without having to make the mistakes yourself. Save time and money by doing this.
Jet Metier: Thank-you very much Anne-Michelle. You have given us a peek of a beautiful life skimming across the blue warm waters of Bocas. How you have managed to work and play in such a paradise is an inspiration.
My best to your sweetie, Doug. Bye.
Anne Michelle Wand: Thanks, bye.