Tag Archives | Bocas del Toro



Stacy told Jack and me that Erwin is the sole gringo guide who has gained the trust of the natives. We are eager to interact with them. Erwin complies.

We trace the banks of an island as Erwin scans the shore for a hidden entrance into the mangroves. He finds it, and we enter a narrow, twisting channel, the tree branches forming a tunnel over our heads. The effect is pleasantly eerie. Several tight turns and low-hanging boughs later we arrive on the natives’ shore.

Bocas del Toro Mangroves

Indian Village Bocas del Toro

We stay in the boat and watch as Erwin navigates the village. He approaches a young man, they talk, and money is exchanged. He returns to the boat: everything is arranged. We will follow the native guide beyond the huts to the clan gathering.

Erwin and Indian Guide


“It might be a little muddy,” challenges Erwin, looking my way. Is he flirting with me?

“I’m not afraid of a little mud,” I reply with what I hope to be a dash of insouciance.

The knee-high grass turns damp, then slippery, then yielding. Erwin and the guide hop nimbly across the ground’s surface, but Jack and I simply sink. Quicksand?

I persevere. Fuck it, you’re in Bocas. Fuck it, you’re in Bocas. Fuck it, you’re in Bocas.

It’s sucking me in alive! The Earth swallows my foot, my calf, finally stopping at my knee. Mustering my strength, I free my leg from the muck with a belch, my sandals still stuck deep in the mire. No choice: I roll-up my sleeve, close my eyes, dig into the slime, grope and pull —  like birthing a calf.

Stuck in the mud

Muddy sandals

Slogging through knee-deep mud, my sandals slipping forwards, backwards, and around my foot proves difficult. After twenty minutes, I ask Erwin how much further, trying not to sound whiney. He asks the guide. Twenty minutes, the guide tells him. We’re forced to turn back or we’ll never make our flight.

Steve and Esme in the mud

We trudge back to our boat: Erwin and the native guide look like they walked straight out of a Tide commercial, but Jack and I are covered in muck and sweat.

Muddy Esme

A young Indian girl emerges from her hut and chases us down the hill, yelling (in Spanish), “Look at all the mud on those people!!”

Best (new) line of the trip!


Jack and I have a little time to kill until our flight, so the three of us dock at a waterside bar: we want nothing more than to hang with locals and hear their stories, and no one tells them better than Erwin. He transfixes us with his tales: defenestrating prostitutes in Africa (apparently they will kill you if you don’t), reversing voodoo curses, guiding naked snorkelers, etcetera, etcetera. We are having a blast and hate to part company with him.

Bocas del Toro Bar


I wear my mud-plastered clothing with pride at the airport. I’ve earned it. I’ve survived quiksand. Two girls of elementary school age (whose mother is the TSA agent) point at me, laughing openly. Could be the mud, could be this farmer’s tan that I acquired during our catamaran trip. I’m a mess.

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Erwin — a cross between Brad Pitt, The Crocodile Hunter, Carlos the Jackal, and MacGyver —docks the boat at a restaurant/bar: he needs to see a man about a dart frog. We meet (respectfully) with The Dart Frog Expert of Bocas del Toro. We detect a bit of friendly competition at our table: Erwin’s frogging business is booming. As Erwin and his frenemy talk amphibians Jack and I people-watch, entertained by Speedo offenders at play.

Man in Speedo

Erwin asks what Jack and I would like to see today and we tell him wildlife and natives, but we need to be at the local airport by 4:00 for our flight to Panama City. An easy request, he assures us.


Erwin shares his secret dart frog spot with us. On land, he spies the tiny critters everywhere, although we’re completely blind to them. He catches a red and gray specimen: it’s a new morph that he discovered, as verified with The Dart Frog Expert of Bocas del Toro earlier today. Each morph is specific to a part of Bocas del Toro (they’re green around La Coralina). The poison from one button-sized dart frog, Erwin informs, us, can kill 20 men. Or something like that, I’m checking out his dimples more than I’m listening.

Dart Frog Bocas del Toro

Erwin regales us with dart frog stories as we tramp through the long grass back to the boat. Apparently dart frogs are big business in Europe: (legal) photos are lucrative but the actual dart frogs (illegal) — status symbols for the terrarium set — are worth big bucks. Erwin knows of one frogger who, four times a year, smuggles out 250 of them in film roll cases, selling them for €1,000 each. Every third time or so Customs catches him and charges him €5,000.

That’s a lot of cash.

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Jack and I belly-up to the bar, Stacy asks us about the catamaran trip.

“We loved Dieter!” I reply.

The Frauleins, The Froggers and The Spaniards (sounds like an opening to a joke) join us on the deck, in addition to some Locals, including Erwin and his daughter.

Stacy had already raved to us about Erwin, a Belgian naturalist who leads private tours in Bocas. Erwin strolls the deck with confidence and converses easily with our fellow deckflies, who he has guided this week. We’ve booked him for tomorrow.

Stacy introduces him to us. OMG he looks just like Brad Pitt. I should have done something with my hair.


Erwin explains that he’s thankful the two of us have booked him for tomorrow: The Spaniards had asked him to take them on a grueling, eight-hour hike on a remote island and we provided him with a legitimate excuse for declining the request.

“Are they masochists?” I ask?

“No,” he replies guilelessly, “they’re Spaniards.”

BEST line of the week!

Erwin invites us to join him, his daughter, and assorted La Coralina characters on a walk to Bluff Beach in hopes of spotting sea turtles (it’s spawning season). Jack accepts and I retire to my room, tired out from today’s swimming.


La Coralina Deck

Jack fills me in on last evening’s events. No turtles were spotted, although Erwin caught a live caiman with his hands. Regardless, The Froggers were pissed that he failed to magically produce turtles (even though they were invited guests on the walk).

On Erwin, Per Jack: he joined the Belgian army at age 15, served for 17 years. Former sniper. Previously married to the daughter of a voodoo chieftan in an African village. Wanted by the Belgian government for leaving the country without signing the appropriate paperwork. Built his own house in Bocas (it cannot be reached by car; only boat). Had run a butterfly farm until his partner swindled him. Etcetera, etcetera — your typical life.

After breakfast, Rick drives us to Erwin’s boat, describing the multiple struggles (a tree falling through the roof, odd local customs, vandalism, etc.) that Stacy overcame while transforming La Coralina from near-ruins to a functioning, charming home-away-from-home: I admire her spirit and gumption. He informs us — crossing his fingers — that the local government promises to repair the road “next week,” words they’ve heard before.

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