“Buenos días Doctor, ha llegado el guía para llevarles en la excursión de snorkeling!”
I hang up the phone and we burst out of the room towards the reception, still gobbling up what’s left of our breakfast. A tall old man awaits there for us. “Soy Manuel, su guía y capitán en la excursión de hoy.” “Mucho gusto Capitán”, I say, sputtering bread crumbs all over him. We follow him towards the dock at the back of our hotel, where a skiff full of eager excursionists awaits. He invites us on board, and his teenage boatswain, his son perhaps, hands us life jackets. We take off, leaving behind the colorful buildings of Bocas Town rainbowing in the greyish morning.
Besides us, 5 other people join El Capitán’s snorkeling tour today. Two couples and a solo traveler, all somewhere in their mid twenties, early thirties. The solo traveler, sitting in front of us, overhears Zeza and I talking and turns around with an “Oi amigos brasileiros!” George is an American who lived in Brazil for many years, but apparently not long enough to tell the difference between Brazilian Portuguese and Portuguese Portuguese. As a powwow ensues, Roberto also joins in. His father is Spanish and his mother Portuguese, from Barcelos. Precious place, Barcelos. His girlfriend, from País Vasco, doesn’t seem to be too familiar with the language.
And neither does the other couple, curiously trying to understand the spontaneous burst of socialization that has materialized out of the blue right in front of them. Daniela, Mexican, and Olaf, Norwegian, living in the USA, probably never heard so much Portuguese being spoken at once on such a cramped space. Still, five minutes into the ride and conversation flows in Portuguese, Spanish and English. Long lost friends who somehow managed to bump into each other on a snorkeling excursion to a deserted island in Panama.
El Capitán needs to request our silence to share the details of the trip, killing the vibe of our high school reunion. Right now we’re heading to Dolphin Bay, where we’ll look out for tiger sharks. I mean, dolphins. Then, on the way to Cayo Zapatilla, we’ll stop briefly at Coral to order lunch. After snorkeling in Zapatilla, we’ll return to Cayo Coral for a second dive and to eat. Finally, we’ll visit Sloth Island and Star Island, also known as Hollywood, ending our journey back in Bocas.
We have been to Dolphin Bay, staying for a night in the huts we now see in the distance. The waters here are the calmest I have ever seen. If not for the thick line of trees over the horizon, sea and sky would be impossible to tell apart. A contiguous silver stillness, disrupted only when a dolphin fin pierces through the mirror, turning the whole bay turns into a giant game of whack-a-dolphin. One surfaces right in front of our boat, proudly showing his perfectly sawed teeth. As more boats enter the bay, the dolphins shy up and become scarcer. After a while without a hit, El Capitán deems dolphin time is over, and points his skiff west.
At Cayo Coral, we stop at a complex of overwater cabanas including a restaurant. How clear and full of life the surrounding waters are. We place our order, get beers and sit at the docks, easily spotting coral, fish, sea cucumbers and even a stingray. The weather seems to be clearing up, and I’m predicting a great day at the beach.
Snorkeling in Zapatilla
I had just cracked open the second one when El Capitán calls us back on board. As we sail west, away from Coral and the coast of Bastimientos, the calm waters of Dolphin Bay fade from memory with every thump of the waves on the hull. Fighting through the choppy sea, the skiff closes in on the two dark mounds growing between the salty splashes on my sunglasses. Por favor, El Capitán, ¿puede usted manejar un poco más despacio? No puedo tomar mi cerveza así.
Less than 10 minutes later, we land on the southeastern side of the northeastern Zapatilla Islands. El Capitán advises the best snorkeling areas and hands out the gear. Rendezvous at this exact spot in 2 hours.
Zeza and I break from the rest of the group and head to the northwest shore. After deciding on a spot, more or less around the area El Capitán recommended, we throw ourselves in. But we did not strike gold at the first attempt. No coral or fish, just rocks and brown algae. I stranded into a shallower part, where for more than once a vicious undertow threatened to grind me against the craggy reef.
I fight to get out, finding Zeza already set to carry on along the beach, searching better snorkeling grounds. A few meters ahead, the beach slightly curves into a subtle bay. The sand strip becomes narrower, allowing the crashing waves to tickle the surfacing roots and to fondle the lowest hanging branches of the first line of trees. We found our new snorkeling spot, and this time I’m taking our GoPro camera.
A thick carpet of algae covers the seabed, swaying to the waves’ back-and-forth. The hues of green resemble the jungle outside, dotted with red sponges and yellow fish, quickly hiding in the rocks as I get too close for their liking. Even if there’s no coral in sight, we’re enjoying ourselves here.
The currents, though, surprised us. One always tends to imagine the Caribbean Sea as a flat and peaceful tropical duck pond. Of course when you think about it, this must be but a whiff of the turbulence that sunk many galleons in these very waters throughout the years of European colonization. Countless treasures were never retrieved. Still, nothing that scares off two veterans in the art of the supersonic dip in the bone-chilling, death-gripping Atlantic waters of Northwestern Iberia.
A treasure at the bottom of the Caribbean Ocean
What should have scared me is the fact that I am not an experienced ring wearer. If I happened to be one, I probably would have remembered to put my wedding ring in my backpack before getting in the water. Or of simply tightening my fingers against each other while swimming. But since that’s not the case, it takes me a while to figure out what’s wrong with my left hand as I come out the water after snorkeling for 45 minutes.
That’s right, the Caribbean Sea just took away my wedding ring. After the initial blow, we get back in the water to search for it, even though we know it’s useless. We swim for another 45 minutes, fruitlessly scanning the algae covered ocean floor, expecting a coruscant sign amid the green entanglement, or perhaps a crab flaunting his newly found bling. Anything that would deliver me from becoming that guy who lost his wedding ring on his honeymoon.
But it’s useless. As a last resort, we turn to the GoPro, watching the videos and trying to point out the exact second when the ring swam out of my finger. But even if we could catch that moment, the current would already have taken it away by now.
It’s past our rendezvous time. Worse than losing the ring, would be getting stranded on a deserted island in the process. As we desperately gaze into the crashing surf, trying to figure out what to do, rain starts pouring down, adding the missing touch to make us definitely feel like we’re in a cheesy romantic comedy. I’m sure I’ve seen something like this in a Ben Stiller movie. I wonder if it ended well.
Heavyhearted, we pack up and run to the meeting point. Leaving yet another treasure sinking into the Caribbean Sea.
The skiff is already on the water. El Capitán scanning the beach one last time before he makes the call that would leave us in Zapatilla. We made it just in time.
Are you mad at me, wife? No, I don’t need you to answer. Yes, you did ask me just yesterday if the ring was tight. Yes, I did answer affirmatively. I’m sorry… You’re right, I should have thought of holding the camera with my left hand while swimming with the right. I don’t know, I guess it didn’t cross my mind. I said I’m sorry!
But think about it, a symbol of our love will endlessly drift along the Caribbean currents. A golden statement of our time together, resting on the bottom of the ocean long after we leave this world. A piece of us that we leave here, on our honeymoon, forever branding this place as a little bit of our own… It’s a romantic thought, you got to admit!
I’m not making this any better, so I’ll just shut up. First marital crisis, not a fortnight into the marriage. If we had gotten wedding ring tattoos like I wanted, none of this would have happened.
Ah, I remember now. Ben Stiller’s wife leaves him for some French guy on that movie. I hate Ben Stiller movies.
The best snorkel in Bocas
El Capitán stops the boat near Isla Popa, a stone’s throw from Cayo Coral. He gives us 30 minutes to explore this spot, to his best knowledge the best snorkeling site in the whole archipelago. We get in the water, and in fact there’s another treasure right here. And rather than gold it’s all coral, of various shapes and forms: tube, fan, tapeworm, cabbage, brain, mountain, lichen. Covering all colors in the pallet, from simply red to deep purple. Black and yellow sea cucumbers drag themselves between the coral. George says he dived and snorkeled in many places around the world and had never seen such diversity.
At lunch, the group all sits at the same table. We tell them about my unfortunate swim, and their jokes and laughs help to lighten the mood. The food has also done its share: the Pulpo and the Camarones a la Creola were spot on.
Full stomachs, we carry on to Sloth Island. We circle its mangroved shorelines, scanning the branch mesh for sloths. El Capitán is quick to spot one “¡Eh, Pepe! ¿Como estás, Pepe?” Pepe el Perezoso is fast asleep and is not bothered by our presence, despite our attempts to get his attention. A few trees to the right, another sloth looks us right in the eye while scratching his foot. “Capitán, ¿cómo se llama este?” “¡Pepe!” Can’t beat Panamanian naming creativity.
Hollywood is a pretty sight, even though we had our share of starfish at San Blas and Bocas del Drago. We drop George at Bastimientos, and carry on to Bocas Town, where the rest of us get off. We say goodbye to El Capitán and his son, and head out for a beer with our new friends.
To anyone reading this: if you happen to find a wedding ring while snorkeling around Cayo Zapatilla, please contact me.