Jeff and Justine are a young and ambitious couple from San Diego who decided to move to Bocas del Toro, an archipelago on Panama’s Caribbean coast, where they’ve opened Taco Surf. This is the place to go for some of the best food and certainly the best tacos and burritos in town. You’ll pick up the friendly vibe of the owners as soon as you walk through the door, and the experience gets even better when you taste the food.
(Tip: Be sure to try at least one taco, but, if you’re really hungry, think burritos and wash it all down with a milkshake.)
One afternoon, after serving a few dozen hungry patrons, Jeff sat down to share his and Justine’s story with Panama Letter readers.
PL: What brought you to Bocas?
Jeff: I came here in 2006 as a surfer. The waves drew me here. They’re really good in Panama, specifically here in Bocas del Toro. I just kind of fell in love with the small-town community here. It’s really laid back and easy to get to know the community. In a way, I imagine it’s a bit like parts of the United States in the 50s or 60s, with that small-town kind of feel.
The truth is, I really just got tired of the hustle and bustle of chasing the dollar and the hopes of some false American dream. That’s what landed me in Panama.
PL: What is your favorite part about Bocas?
Jeff: I’m a surfer, so I would say the waves. But the people, too. The people here have a natural mellowness. Most places in the Caribbean have that vibe, low key and chill. It’s even more so here in Bocas. People here are simple in their ways, and they don’t need a ton of material things or gadgets to be happy.
PL: What’s the surf like in Bocas compared with other places in Panama?
Jeff: The surf here is good. On the Pacific, they get more consistency in the swell. But, here in the Caribbean, it’s more powerful and with cleaner, turquoise water. It’s better. The breaks here are more world-class, similar to those in Hawaii or Puerto Rico.
PL: What changes have you seen in Bocas since you arrived?
Jeff: It still has the small-town, sleepy kind of feel to it. It definitely has changed, though. It seems like waves of foreigners and expats show up every few years, start businesses, start projects… they come and go every few years. But the charm stays the same.
PL: There are for sale signs on many of the hostels…
Jeff: Yeah. I think some people have pipe dreams when they come here. They might be kind of ego-driven, thinking they’re big shots from the United States or Europe or wherever. They think it’s easy, then they come here and realize it’s a local community and that you really have to capture the local audience as your foundation and reach out to the international crowd through social networking and online marketing. The world today is all digital, and I think a lot of people just show up and throw money at projects that don’t fit the community.
PL: Does the local community get along well with the foreigners?
Jeff: Everyone gets along really well here. It’s a melting pot. People from all over the world have come here and teamed up and partnered up. I know people who have been here for up to 17 years and are still here, and they’ve brought a lot of opportunities to the local community, which is cool. It’s a bit of a catch-22, because sometimes you do hear from some locals that there are too many gringos or outsiders with money. It’s usually with the older generations.
PL: Do the local residents—foreign or Panamanian—get annoyed with the tourists?
Jeff: A little bit, yes. Some of those who have lived here a long time and remember when hardly anyone came here, when there were still a lot of dirt roads… they get bothered. Bocas has grown. It’s more developed and established now, but sometimes it can draw backpackers or gypsy types, who are traveling, barefoot, without money, looking for handouts or odd jobs, and that that can get on some peoples’ nerves. Some of the older expats get annoyed by that for sure.
PL: Can you think of anywhere else that compares to Bocas?
Jeff: Not anywhere I can think of. Bocas is its own place. Some of the older gringos tell me that it’s like Key West, Florida, like 30 years ago, before it got too large. But it’s really its own animal— a unique and eclectic mix of indigenous, Caribbean, and expat people. It’s really funky.
PL: Do you think that the changes that happened in Key West could also happen here in 10 or 20 years?
Jeff: I think every good place that has its charm and coolness could get exploited eventually. But Bocas has been able to keep the major developments out. There are no huge resorts or anything like that. No big chains for hotels or fast food or gas stations. That’s all been kept out, and it seems that’s how people here like it. But money talks, and the government is opening up to a lot of incoming capital flows and investment projects. So, eventually, that will probably come in.
PL: What is one of the more difficult parts about living in Bocas?
Jeff: I would say that the lacking infrastructure can be a pain. The government hasn’t put the capital into the infrastructure here, even though this is such a tourist hotspot. There are big issues with trash here, not having a regular trash collection program. There also isn’t any recycling program. People have to reuse and recycle on their own and be conscious of that.
PL: Any tips for anyone moving or opening a business in Bocas?
Jeff: Be realistic and don’t have major expectations. Come in with a unique concept and do your due diligence. Find a gap or void in the market rather than opening just another hamburger or pizza place or hostel. Some people don’t have enough creativity and just copy what they already see. Open something that would be useful to people.
Editor’s Note: Need more? The full story on Bocas del Toro is featured in this month’s issue of Panama Letter.