Saturday, February 2, 2013

Isla Bastimentos: Wizards, Red Frogs, Fire Ants, and a Supposedly Fun Hike We'll Never Do Again

I stood sheepishly and breathless at the edge of the police station, with mud up to my knees and no shoes.  In order to try to make myself somewhat presentable and respectful, I at least figured I'd button up my shirt, and tried to slow myself down so I could think in broken Spanish.


The officer calmly listened to my tale of traveling woe.  Most importantly, nobody had seen or turned in a camera.  I repeated the details I had just told to the men outside -- the boatman and "the man who could help" -- and they interjected by repeating my own details in better Spanish.  No, it wasn't stolen -- se cayó (I fell or it fell, either one was accurate).  Well, at least they knew it was missing, and hay recompensa if anybody found it.  It wasn't a particularly valuable camera, so it was more about the pictures we had already taken and being able to take more.  But it was also possible that it was lost forever in the jungle or buried in mud.

So I also had to cross over the top of the island again, and return back to my wife, stranded a few miles away, and tell her that I lost our camera and previous pictures.  Which means I'd have to go past the damn fire ants, again, which probably caused this whole thing in the first place.  And where the heck did John go, anyway?

All we wanted to do was lie on the beach.


Isla Bastimentos is an easy, quick, 15-minute boat ride from Isla Colon in Bocas del Toro.  From the main harbor, anyway, there's always somebody headed across the bay in small boats for about $3 per person.  Soon enough, you're on another island, which has just a few amenities concentrated along the shore, but no roads --  "No Cars, No Stress" -- and is mostly a National Park.

Makeshift trails weave past simple houses and farms, with a popular trail leading to the north side beaches, supposedly an easy half-hour walk in dry conditions.  

After that, we'd be able several miles along pristine beaches before ultimately arriving at Red Frog Beach, where we'd hopefully be able to spot some strawberry poison-dart frogs in the jungle near the beach.  Also, the latter beach is more calm for swimming and wading, whereas the early ones have pounding waves and riptides.  Of course, there's a much easier way to get to the beach, by paying a few bucks more (and then a park entrance fee) for a boat ride further along the island, and just a short dirt-road away from Red Frog Beach -- but the longer alternative seemed more scenic and romantic, if not a bit wild.  On paper.

I thought more time in the jungle would increase our chances of actually seeing a red frog, because it seemed that spotting them even near the eponymous beach was becoming more difficult. This observation was gleaned from a discussion at the bar the previous evening, where we joined a bunch of other American's in watching the NFL playoffs.  We met a couple who said they hadn't seen any red frogs at all, and their friend, who seemed to be a "one-upper," claimed he saw one, but he said it in a way that I didn't believe.

So as we walked passed the houses, I hadn't really seen any signs for the beach (I saw one on a different trail later), but I knew that the trail went roughly over the high point of the island before descending to the beach, so being on "a" trail in roughly "the" correct direction seemed reasonable.

Along the way, though, we did see signs for a coffee and chocolate shop "Up on the Hill."  That sounded like a new good idea before heading to the beach.  And now we saw another person on the trail, who seemed to be studying something intently.  This was John.

John, looking for geckos

John was staying by himself on the island, and had decided to go for a walk to the beach, also hoping to later spot a red frog, when he spotted an interesting red-headed gecko.  He excitedly told us about this find and the picture he took, as he pointed to the tree where he last saw it.  J and I looked around the the tree, and I wasn't finding anything.  I asked J if she saw it.

"No," she replied, "but there's a little red frog here."  Nonchalant.

John and I rushed over excitedly to see (and photograph) it.  Sure enough, although we hadn't expected to see them in this area, we saw our first red frog.  J claimed it wasn't as big as she expected, but I don't know exactly what she was expecting, as they were as big as advertised in The Guidebooks: the size of an adult thumbnail.

Blends in pretty well

Cool, we had seen the fauna that I hoped to see for the day.  Soon enough, we were at a gate that led to the Coffee Shop, which also informed us that we had tagged the highpoint of the island -- 330 feet!

Conquistadors of the Islas

We passed through the gate and past the organic farm, with visible gardening activity and a compost pile, before arriving at a muy tranquilo respite in the middle of the jungle, run by Javi, an Argentinian ex-pat from the Tigre Delta, and his wife and young son.
With fresh cacao and fruit growing on the premises, we enjoyed a delicious French-press coffee, brownie, and passion-fruit juice.

John decided to head off to the beach and bid us farewell, following Javi's directions to a connecting trail through the property that would lead down to the main trail to the beach.
Surrounded by music, flowers, and handmade organic soaps and oils, along with conversation with Javi, we took our time to relax for a bit, before heading out on a supposed easy 20-minute walk down to the beach.

The trail across the property seemed clear and obvious enough, although part of it got a bit steeper.
"This trail can get muddy in the rainy season," said the guidebooks -- but it was the dry season, and it hadn't rained the previous day.  Did it?

There was just a bit sticky mud, now -- enough to slow down and be careful not to slip, but otherwise manageable.

This is Nothing.  But it was my last picture for awhile.

And then, on a steeper hill, while being careful not to slip, I saw furious activity on the ground, as ants passed each other in rows.
I've stopped to admire leaf-cutter ants before, but these were much faster and not really carrying anything.  Standing off to the side, I got out my camera to take a video, and leaned in to get a closer shot.  I was outside of the main line of ants, but undoubtedly there were a few stragglers, as I saw them near my sandals.  I wasn't too worried, even if one or two of them bit me.

Until they did.

I saw one on my foot and lightly brushed him, before returning to my camera.  A few seconds later, I felt an itchy sensation, and then I saw his head buried into my skin as he was flailing around.  At that moment, other ants were upon me, and they were all stinging.  I started flailing around to get them off me, when I heard similar commotion from J as she was getting stung.  I ran down the hill a bit and she came too, and then fell while I pulled slightly ahead, still swatting at real and imagined ants, and now she was mad that I got ahead of her and for the existence of the ants and everything, and by God, it itched badly more than anything else, and now somehow we were in deeper mud.

This wasn't the easy walk to the beach we expected.
Quickly, we had itchy little red welts on our feet and legs.  J had fallen and gotten some mud on her.  The mud had gotten deeper, but it was the way to the beach -- and that would be salvation, yes?  We could wash off the mud, soothe our itch in the ocean, and laugh about it as we walked casually on the beach, in just 10 or 15 minutes.


About half an hour later, we had just finished what was probably the worst part of the mud.  By now, some steps had us sinking more than knee-deep straight into the ground, sometimes having to stop and use an arm to pull out a leg and a shoe.  And then shoes were abandoned altogether, being worthless.  So now, in the jungle where I guess you're supposed to worry about diseases like tetanus and biting animals and plants and stuff, the only practical way to travel was to walk blindly through the jungle mud, barefoot.  We saw a few other people struggling along the trail, and some abandoning the endeavor.  But we had to be close!  And, symbioronically, the cool mud felt soothing on the ant stings.

Busy with trying not to fall, I didn't bother to get the camera out at this time, but I can assure you it looked pretty much like this:

No Matter What, Don't Despair!

Finally, after a steep and slippery descent, the trail leveled off, and the beach was close at hand.  This beach is known as Playa Primer -- "First Beach" -- but is also (and now more commonly) referred to as "Playa Wizard" for reasons unknown but probably awesome.  Finally, we could wash off the mud.
But first, I wanted to take a quick picture of how high the mud reached up on our legs -- I just needed to wash all the mud off of my hands, first, and then retrieve my camera...

...Which wasn't there.

I felt terrible, and J was understandably exasperated.  Right or wrong, though, I wanted to fix the situation as soon as possible -- I knew I had the camera by the ants, so it was probably around there, or a steeper spot later in which I fell to the ground.  Or maybe a passerby found it.  But either way, I should go look now so as to intercept anybody who found it heading the other direction but without a way to get it back to me, if not to find it myself, and rectify the whole situation.
But it meant leaving her by herself on an isolated beach.  I anticipated that there'd be occasional tourists going by and be relatively safe, and that I'd be back quickly, but I had already underestimated or lied about things earlier in the day -- if not our whole marriage -- so everything I said was suspect.

I told her to relax on the beach, which was likely impossible, and I didn't even bring my shoes, as I ran full-speed back up the hill, barefoot -- ants be damned!  Much as it wasn't planned, this actual running, barefoot, was actually a bit thrilling, and as much as the acolytes of barefoot running claim that shuffling slowly on First-World city pavement and then writing about it is an epiphany, I'd actually say that this sort of terrain was the uniquely perfect situation to run barefoot.

After having taken almost 40 minutes to walk down, I made it back to the coffee shop in 9 (yes, I told Javi this).  Desafortunadamente, no camera was to be found, nor was it among the people I encountered.  But at least now they'd be able to ask or hold the camera should someone encounter it.  I quickly headed back down to the beach, although this time scanning a bit harder among places where it might have fallen.  I was still optimistic, but soon passed the most likely spots, and then saw other places where it really could have tumbled and been lost in the brush.  I was running out of trail and now nearly to the bottom, and I had to tell my wife that I lost the camera.  And that I'm a bumbling, foolish husband.

J was glad that I was back, and she said we could forget about the camera and move on.  But I couldn't.  I just felt terrible about letting her down and knew I'd keep worrying about it, so I begged for one more shot: there was a junction of our side trail with the main trail that would lead back to town.  Clearly, some of the other folks walking in the opposite direction would have taken this main trail instead.  If I left now I might see them, they'd have our camera, and all would be well. 
She begrudgingly agreed (I think) to this, and I took off again.  I scanned the side of the trail and soon enough hit the main trail and forged ahead -- it was also muddy, but not nearly as bad as the lower descent to the beach.  I was now on harder dirt and able to run harder as well.   I encountered a few people, but none had seen my camera.  There would have one more group ahead that I hadn't yet passed, and now I was back in town.

Most people in town would head toward the boat dock, so I sprinted down there, slapping my feet on uneven sidewalk, hoping to see someone familiar, but I didn't.  A boatman asked if I wanted a ride, but I gave him my story instead.  He drew over another guy walking by, a guy "that could help me," and we re-hashed the situation.  I tried my best to explain where I thought I dropped it.  Mostly, they thought if someone found it, I'd never get it back, but if it fell in the jungle, maybe somebody (like this guy) could find it.  They at least seemed interested and invested in the story, which I then quickly recounted to the police officer.

I retraced my muddy footprints before heading over the high point for the 4th time of the day (it was no longer interesting), and checked once again at the coffee shop.  Nada.  She said I should check maybe at the police station, which I did, if not Tio Tom's, which was kind of the only other main hostal/gathering place for tourists in that area.  Now, once more into the fray, as I ran past the ants again -- the trick is to keep moving, which I should have learned from the cartoons -- and back down toward the beach.  I checked some random bushes, hoping the plants weren't poisonous or allergenic or anything, but it was hopeless.

I lost the camera and now wasted an hour looking for it.

So we were done with that, time to move on.  We would enjoy our walk up the beach, and then take the easy way back.

We saw another traveler here, who had walked from Red Frog Beach.  That gave us hope.  He said it took about an hour and 15 minutes -- but he had taken pictures, he added -- although it seemed concerning that he was minimizing something, and he was eager to be done with the trail.  He did say it was an easy trail across the island near Red Frog Beach, however.

The problem was, the trail to get there.

It would be an easy and pleasant walk along the beach, at low tide.  Not only were we at high tide, but it was seasonally high as well, as we saw the previous day along the washed-out road near Playa Bluff.  So we'd have only a short stretch of walkable beach, before being blockaded by large drifted branches.  One could theoretically scamper along slippery, rocky cliff walls -- but the next large wave would quickly pull you out into the surf.  As J said at one point: "Uh-uh."  So our only option was to follow another, fainter trail back into the jungle.

Which meant, more mud -- no less muddy than before, and even steeper.

We backtracked a little and tried to find where the actual trail was.  Now things were getting ugly.  I promised J we wouldn't have to walk back the trail we came, which would take 45 minutes or so if we took the shortest main trail -- but we were also equidistant from Red Frog Beach on a trail that was just as bad, and now getting worse.
I didn't have a camera, and we were in a foul mood, but now we were seeing red frogs all over the place.  And hermit crabs.  And, among some sad, scattered garbage, we saw a small hermit crab, comically using a toothpaste cap as a shell!  I pointed this sad sight to J, hoping to elicit a smile as we swatted at mosquitoes, but our main goal was still to get off of this trail.

And then, after another half hour, the trail outright disappeared.

Now we had really, clearly, wasted time, and not been relaxing on the beach.  We were on a small rise, and it looked like there was wider, clean sand below, and it looked like there was a building there as well.  By line of sight, we could just bushwhack it, maybe...But everything else I said and hoped had been grossly wrong.

So I had one last shot at going over the rise and blindly looking for where a trail should be.  Finally, with a bit of luck, a cleaner trail right through the jungle appeared.  It was clear we'd be able to get to the beach.

We arrived at the more inviting expanse of Red Frog Beach: dirty, itchy, tired.  And thirsty.  Much as I'm nervous about the possible resort expansion on the beach, I can't say we were disappointed to get a cold beer and margarita.  I'd love to show you a picture.  Had we gotten here much earlier, it would have been nice to lie on the beach, and in fact this area was decently surfable.  The one thing we did acknowledge: we didn't see any red frogs anywhere near this area.

But also: where the heck did John go?  In my numerous traversals, I never saw him again.  We joked, with a little worry, about him getting caught up in the mud (wearing Crocs) somewhere.

So it was time to head back and get cleaned up.  Indeed, there's a shortcut, easy 10-15 minute dirt road that leads to a small harbor on the other side, that had waiting boats.  We were able to hop right back in for a ride back, no more surprises.

Except, I suggested to J, rather than heading back to our hotel, why not head back one more time to Bastimentos Old Town, and check one more time with the police station?  It was on our way, time-wise, and at least felt like one last attempt at finding the camera.  

I got off and headed to the police station.  He asked me if I found it, as soon as I walked in, so that answered my question.  The boatman from earlier had also spotted me and checked for an update.  No suerte.

Remembering the last conversation at the coffee shop, I tried one more thing: stopping at Pension Tio Tom's to check that out and put the word in there.  The owner opened the door, and we talked in English about the whole thing, he listened intently but hadn't heard anything.

This would be an even more boring story if I gave you all these extra details without finding the camera, so let's say this: a woman rushed up to the door and said, "Sorry, I heard you guys -- you're the one that lost the camera!  I found it and left it at the coffee shop!"
She -- a friendly Canadian -- had been there after us, and returned the camera sometime after my (3rd) visit there.  I was incredibly grateful, but she wouldn't accept any sort of recompensa.  Instead,  I asked her about her favourite charity, and thus made a donation to WWF.

I smiled and then tempered it as I looked at my wife, as I figured I'd make one more quick trip up there, but she was fine to go up the hill again with me.  Now late afternoon, we made our way past the houses again, with dinner cooking smoke wafting through the air.  A young woman was walking ahead of us, but slowed down and stopped.

"Do you mind if I walk with you two?" she asked.  She was house-sitting on the island, and had been for a month.  She loved it and had no problems, but she said it was always a little easier to walk with someone than alone.  So if nothing else, we enjoyed accompanying each other up the hill.  Oh, and one more thing: when I commented on the mud, she mentioned how it had rained there last night.  Funny, even as it hadn't on the other island just a few miles away, but that's how the weather works around there.

Back at the shop, Javi smiled and said, "Sorry, I don't have it!"  I told him the other details and that I knew he had it.  He laughed,  And -- living simply in the middle of the jungle -- also wouldn't accept any sort of tip for helping me out.  "I just like to help people, that's enough."  And that was clear from the donation jar he had at the shop, for raising school supplies for kids on the island, so I added to that instead.  And I asked if I could take his picture:

Muchas gracias amigo!

The camera and pictures were intact.  It wasn't what we expected, but I love this stuff -- travel instead of vacation.  It all worked out -- except for not spending much time on the beach, of course.  It'd be a good story, I pointed out.  And eventually, I promised, when we're old and grey, I'll allow myself to be imprisoned on a cruise ship, or some sort of all-inclusive deal, where interesting things and people are guaranteed not to happen. But for now, I still owed J big time, and we mellowed out some other parts of the trip later.

Now, on our way down, we saw a familiar face -- John!  He was staying at the hostel as well and heard the commotion, and was going for a walk.  Earlier in the day, he got turned around in the mud, so he just headed back, never making it to Playa Wizard, let alone Red Frog Beach.

We made it back to our hostel and got all cleaned up.  Camera in hand, again, I was back on pace to take hundreds of pictures of nonsense.  But anyway, we cleaned up, and enjoyed some terrible headache-inducing box wine by candlelight before heading out to a nice dinner.


  1. That was quite an ordeal though in search of some warm and relaxing sand. But hey, Red Frog.

    Losing a camera on vacation would be a bummer. I lost a trip journal in Italy (college), with a month's worth of observations, and got a bad grade when I had to totally re-create it from memory (zero slack from that professor).

  2. Yeah, it was a bummer (but admitted First-World problem) to have lost the camera, so glad I found it. Interesting though how digital cameras and social media have likely changed our perspective so that it feels like such a loss, because you would lose hundreds or thousands of pictures, which as is much a function of the technology and the way we use it.
    Losing a trip journal is certainly more personal. At least it inspired more thought and reflection that you were likely to remember to a degree, but still a bummer to lose it.

    Thanks for reading and commenting, people say they like some of the travel stuff (that I think is more interesting) yet are more likely to comment on some of my inane running posts. Ha!