Both Bocas del Toro and Panama are very unique places with very long histories. Christopher Columbus first came here in 1502. Bocas del Toro’s identity is very unique, and extremely different from that of the rest of Panama. There’s a lot of fascinating things to know and learn, but these are the main ones you should watch out for while staying in Bocas:
- Drinking in public spaces is illegal. Yes, that means you cannot walk down the main street, sit in the park or even stand on the street outside of a bar (or your own hostel!), holding a bottle of beer. But don’t panic: the generally accepted solution is to pour your drink in a plastic cup, so make sure you do that!
- It is mandatory to ‘dress properly’. We’re not even sure what’s the actual wording of this law but yeah, it basically comes down to not walking around town without a shirt (for men) or only in your bikini (for women). We know, we know, but it’s the law. Sorry guys!
- Buying, selling and possessing drugs is illegal. This one is obvious, or should be, but it’s worth repeating. And please, take it seriously. The police ain’t playing!
You were probably left wondering where all these laws and rules come from, right? Well, if you’re one of those curious/intellectual types, then you’re in for a treat. Here’s a bit of context:
The first thing you need to consider is the history of Panama as a country. As you might have heard, this country was founded in 1903 because the Americans wanted to build a Canal and the Panamanians wanted to secede from the Greater Colombia. Well, yes and no. What most people don’t mention is that all this happened at the end of a terrible civil war called the Thousand Days War.
The Thousand Days War weakened the Colombian state considerably, and made any attempt of defending its territorial integrity much more difficult (to make things worse, Panama has always been physically isolated from the rest of Colombia by the Darien Gap, which to this day is still among the most formidable borders in the world). But it also helps to understand Panama’s turbulent relationship to the Armed Forces: as part of the Greater Colombia, Panama was a country with deeply embedded military ethos. After 1903, however, the Americans and the ruling oligarchs decided to leave the country only with a police force (let’s say they weren’t dumb). This lasted until the beginning of the Cold War, when the Americans themselves encouraged the formation of a proper military force (as long as its commanders were anti-communists, of course!). And so the National Guard was born.
The National Guard grew in power and took over the government in a coup in October 1968, starting 21 years of military dictatorship. It was renamed and reorganized as the Panamanian Defense Forces in the early to mid-80s and was finally destroyed by the full wrath of the American military in the 1989 invasion of Panama. When we say “full wrath”, we mean it. Entire neighborhoods were leveled, unnecesary weaponry was used/tested and even stealth aircraft (the B-117) flew for the first time in our skies. The invasion of our country was, at the time, the biggest American military operation after the Vietnam War.
After the invasion, Panama essentially went back to pre-National Guard times. The army was abolished, and the country was left only with a Police Force. Ironically, this Police Force was organized and manned by… members of the former army (who else was gonna do it? Aliens?) Anyway, this has resulted in a gradual re-militarization of the country’s Police. On one hand, this has happened for obvious reasons: we have a jungle border with Colombia where all the ‘bad’ things in the world are happening, from drug trafficking to guerrilla warfare to human trafficking and beyond. It’s hard to tackle those problems with a Police force, as you might imagine. So for those purposes, the National Border Service (SENAFRONT) was created. It is an army in all but name, and it effectively controls the Darien, which borders Colombia and is territorially the largest province in the country.
But then, of course, there have been more subtle reasons in which the police has re-militarized. In a way, it’s been less than 30 years since the destruction of the army, and you could argue that a Police Force trained by soldiers will produce, well, soldiers. And that’s kinda what has happened. And that’s why, as a tourist, you’ll notice that most Panamanians tend to have a rather awkward—to put it mildly—relationship with the Police. After three decades of “democracy”, both parts haven’t quite learned to treat each other and that’s why, as a general rule, Panamanians tend to avoid the police when possible. There have been, of course, efforts at improving this, and there’s a Tourism Police around as well, but keep this in mind while in Panama.
The next thing you need to know has to do with the history of tourism in Panama. I’ll keep this one brief. Basically, Panama’s just starting with tourism. Panama, in other words, was never about tourism. It was about the Canal, logistics, banking, the Free Trade Zone in Colon… but never about tourism. Seriously, no one gave a shit about that until about 10-15 years ago. I know, you’re probably coming from Costa Rica where tourism is really developed, but bear in mind that, when it comes to tourism—and some other things—, Panama and Costa Rica are like day and night. Costa Rica’s economy is half of Panama’s. They don’t have a Canal, or a strong banking sector and blabla, so the ticos have been almost forced to focus on it. And they have truly excelled. So Bocas del Toro, being closer to Costa Rica than to the main population centers in Panama, has been unofficially integrated into the Costa Rican tourism industry (kinda like an appendix of Puerto Viejo). The main point here is this: Panama is a centralized country, and Bocas is as far as can be from its center—Panama City. Tourism-wise, Panama is a baby, and Costa Rica is a giant. But Bocas is right next to Costa Rica, so we live in a kind of mixture. For practical purposes, though, bear in mind that most of the above mentioned laws (public drinking and dress codes) all come from Panama City, where they probably make more sense than here. So, the fact that they are enforced in Bocas has a lot to do with Panama’s lack of expertise and sophistication in the tourism industry.
And finally, we need to talk about Bocas itself. At this point, you’ve probably deducted the most important things. First, Bocas is an extremely isolated place. Even today, it takes more than 11 hours to come from Panama City by road and boat. A few years ago, it took much longer. This means that, for Panama City—and thus for the national decision-makers—, Bocas is little more than an afterthought. Again, this has improved somewhat, but it still holds. Second, Bocas has a unique culture and identity. But perhaps more importantly, you gotta understand that Bocas, as a community, came to depend economically on tourism only fairly recently. Yes, for decades the economy of this whole province—islands and mainland—revolved around banana production. Bocas Town, in fact, was built by the banana company! So this, coupled with the central government’s lack of interest/attention in Bocas and the democratic system, creates an environment that sometimes tends to hinder tourism development. A big part of the local population—especially the older ones—don’t really care/understand the tourism industry, but they vote, of course, so they not only elect candidates who think like them, but also complain about things like “noise” in the main street and stuff like that. It’s not uncommon to perceive hostile attitudes towards touristic development as well, including nostalgia for the past and how quiet and relaxed the island used to be, etc. And honestly, who can blame them? The truth is that, while tourism is here to stay, we all gotta work together to preserve the unique Bocas culture. It’s a big task, but we’re up for it!