Tag Archives | Panama



Jack and I shower (separately) and dress (I carted heels 2,000 miles for this dinner) and take a car to Astrid y Gastón, a restaurant owned by the famous Peruvian chef Gastón Acurio. We haven’t had the chance to eat since breakfast so we’re growing a little tetchy.


We follow the maitre d’ through the Astrid y Gastón dining room, past several elegantly dressed couples (I am still finding mud on parts of my body I missed in the shower). He pulls my chair out for me. Our server greets us formally, places our napkins onto our laps and hands Jack the leather-bound novel of a wine list while another server adroitly fills our delicate wine glasses from an ornate silver pitcher. A basket of bread materializes. Jack stabs the butter with his left hand while reaching across the table with his right, then goes to town on a piece of bread that he has placed on his cover plate, oblivious to the smaller plate and knife just to the left.

Strike three.

Astrid y Gaston Panama City


“I really like you,” says Jack, inviting me back to his room. This is awkward. I have had a wonderful time with Jack this past week, and I’m sure that the trip was more fun with him than it would have been without him, but I cannot wait to be on my own again. I realize that I am hypercritical and that if I find fault with him wearing shorts and not using his bread plate then I am probably destined to lead a solitary life. I want to have fallen for him — he’s a catch — but the ridiculous fact is, I’m physically attracted to the dangerous Erwin and emotionally attracted to the worldly Price Peterson persona that we concocted. I guess that means I want James Bond, and 007 is a fictional character.


“So, uh, have a good trip back to Minnesota.”

“Yeah, you too, Chicago.”



And Jack and I have not run into each other in a bar since.

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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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