Water taxi thrill riding in Bocas del Toro, Panama.

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Bocas del toro, panama water taxi
Most Bocas del Toro water taxis are unlit at night.

“Cut like a spiral ham.” That’s how George Ingenthron described the victim of a fatal boating collision to us. We were sitting in George’s restaurant and tiki bar — the Pickled Parrot — on Isla Carenero in the Bocas del Toro archipelago in Panama. An American expat, George was fond of telling stories about Panama and he served a damn fine pina colada (“The Best in Panama!”)

The Pickled Parrot had quickly become our favorite bar in the area. It sat at the end of a small pier, jutting over the shimmering Caribbean waters. It was a simple place with a round, thatched-roof and open sides. It looked like one of those places featured in a photo spread titled “25 Top Tropical Vacation Getaways,” or something equally dream-inspiring.

Once you got inside it was a little rougher, but that was okay because the view was fantastic, the stories came fast and Jimmy Buffet videos played endlessly above the bar.

Bocas del Toro water taxis
Water taxis zipping between Bocas Town and Isla Carenero, Panama.

To get here, we had caught a ride in a water taxi from our hotel in Bocas Town on Isla Colon. That’s how you got around here. In fact, the narrow channel separating Bocas from Isla Carenero is infested with water taxis and small boats. The islands are close: A strong swimmer could probably swim the channel, but you would have to be a bit suicidal. The boat traffic is constant, even at night.

And that brings up a serious problem. Most of these boats lack anything I’d call a good light. Some have those dim green bulbs on the bow or stern, but they’re not much help in the dark, tropical night.

We had caught a rare taxi that was well-lit. It was still light out when he ferried us across the channel and around the east side of Isla Carenero. Just before the Pickled Parrot, he slowed as he slipped his boat through a break in the reef. He gave us his number and told us to call him when we were ready to be picked up, which would be well after dark.

Pickled Parrot Bocas del Toro Panama
The Pickled Parrot is in the middle distance, Isla Carenero.

We sat at the bar, ordered ceviche and drinks and listened to George talk about Noriega henchmen, real estate scams and life in Bocas. I brought up the menace of unlit boats and he told the following tale:

It was a night like any other. Warm breezes and small waves washed through and around the Pickled Parrot. Beyond the melodies of Jimmy Buffet (it had to be “Margaritaville”), a boat’s motor roared in the deep, tropical darkness. By the sound of it, the boat was larger than the typical pangas zipping around. It passed by, unseen, and then crunch! They listened for yells wondering if the boat had hit the reef, but only heard the sound of the boat fading as it headed toward Bocas Town.

Then someone thought they saw a green light bobbing in the water, and with growing dread George asked a couple of friends to go check it out. They returned ashen, and said they could smell the blood before they got to the scene of the collision which had killed a man in another boat. George’s wife, who was a nurse in Bocas and later saw the victim, provided the vivid comparison to a spiral ham.

The first boatman, the one roaring along without lights, was never caught and it was assumed that he didn’t stop because he had been drinking.

With this sobering story in mind, I had George call our water taxi driver to pick us up. When George returned, he said the driver couldn’t make it but would send someone else.

About 20 minutes later we heard the sound of a boat coming toward the shore. We saw nothing and Julie and I looked at each other, not saying what we were both thinking. Then a boy, maybe 16 or 17, walked into the bar. “Your ride is here,” said George.

I ride a water taxi to Isla Carenero. Our nightime ride was on a similar dinky dingy.
I ride a water taxi to Isla Carenero. Our nightime ride was on a similar dinky dingy.

The boat was little more than a dingy and there were no lights whatsoever. In the stern sat a bored, teenage girl. Julie sat in the middle and I took the bow seat. I had a small rucksack and pulled out my headlamp. “I’ll be damned If I end up looking like someone’s Easter dinner tonight,” I thought.

Our boatkid fired up the outboard and pulled away from the dock at full throttle. I remembered the reef and waited for him to slow down when we approached the gap. It was pitch black and my light was useless for illuminating the water in front of us.

But he didn’t slow down. As we barreled toward the reef, my heart leapt into my throat. There was no way he could possibly see the gap, which was maybe 8 feet wide. I braced for an impact that I knew would fling me over the bow.

The impact never came. When I realized we had passed through the reef, I calmed down but still slowly waved my headlamp back and forth until just before the dock at Bocas Town. As I stepped out of the boat, I handed the kid an extra $5 with his tip and told him to buy a light.

Our sphincter-clinching Ride of Terror occurred in March of 2009. In 2010, a water taxi traveling from Almirante to Bocas collided with a smaller boat and killed four people. The Islas Bocas del Toro are an amazing place, but you might want to avoid traveling by boat at night. Just saying.

Pickled Parrot and Blue Marlin Suites


  • The atmosphere, the drinks, the stories.
  • Hamburgers were good.


  • Isla Carenero features biting sand flies. They didn’t seem to bother us out over the water.

Getting to Bocas Del Toro archipelago:

Air Panama has regular flights from Panama City to Isla Colon (Air Panama). Nature Air can fly you to Isla Colon from San Jose, Costa Rica.

From the mainland, you need to catch a water taxi from Almirante. Buses run regularly to Almirante from Panama City and David. You can also catch a bus from San Jose, Costa Rica to the border at Sixaola, then a taxi or mini bus to Changuinola, where you can taxi on to Almirante.
[geo_mashup_map] Pickled Parrot and Blue Marlin Suites

Telephone/Fax:  +507-757-9853


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