Bocas del Toro Boat Captains Protest New Tourism Attractions

Bocas del Toro Boat Captains Protest New Tourism Attractions

Nowadays visitors of Bocas del Toro are able to explore the archipelago on a variety of vessels; from traditional cayucos and pangas with outboard engines to catamarans and motor yachts to an actual 120 foot Spanish Galleon pirate ship. The Federación de Boteros, a local union of boat captains, consider the new offerings to be a threat to their tour businesses. They want these vessels anchored permanently and they are pleading with authorities to forbid their tour activities.

“Foreigners come here, they do whatever they feel like and we’re tired of that,” said boat captain Geovani Torres in a Bocas TV national broadcast. Torres went on to express how he feels that it is the Bocas foreigners who are the ones who own the supermarkets, hotels, restaurants, bars, and that locals don’t have the resources to do this, and the only thing they have left to provide for their families are boat tours.

Geovani Torres bocas del toro boat captain

Geovani Torres, member of the Federación de Boteros, during the November 12 meeting with local authorities. Screenshot captured from a BTV News broadcast.

The group claims that the offerings of the larger vessels present unfair competition. The counter argument is that having a variety of attractions encourages more visitors to the islands and that the end result financially benefits all hotels, restaurants, service providers, local workers in all industries and especially the very independent tour operators that oppose the vessels in which the tourists travel around the archipelago.

In a conversation with The Bocas Breeze, the president of the Federación de Boteros (Boat Captain Federation) Eustaquio Valencia informed us that if by Saturday, November 20, the group has not received a favorable response from the government, they will strike and create a blockade halting all boat traffic in the archipelago. Valencia also indicated that there may be support from the terrestrial taxi unions and the syndicate of banana workers in Changuinola.

October 30 Letter from the Federación de Boteros

While the group has expressed its discontent in general for non-traditional tour boat operations, they have made the new pirate ship, Black Magic Bocas, the focus of the protest. The Saturday November 20 strike date is strategic as it is the day the ship plans to set sail for their next event – a party cruise to Starfish Beach.

On October 30, the Federación of Boteros presented a letter to Black Magic requesting the business to cease their weekly cruises to Starfish Beach, reasoning that “your activities directly affect our main source of income, which is tourism.” The letter also mentioned that if their request is not respected, the union will take the “necessary actions.”

president of the boteros Valencia

President of the Federación de Boteros Eustaquio Valencia in an interview with BTV News after the November 12 meeting.

November 6 Letter from the Federación de Boteros

On October 30, the boteros opposed the pirate ship’s operation for one stated reason: the negative effect on their business. Then on November 6, they presented new complaints and demands not mentioned in the initial letter. This second letter was addressed to the Bocas del Toro municipality and national tourism and maritime authorities with the following demands:

  • The Black Magic be relocated because it is affecting the coral reef where it is anchored
  • Prohibited to travel to sites already established to tours already offered (Starfish Beach)
  • Only allowed to operate as a bar-restaurant/discotheque

The letter concluded that if the ship continues to operate, that the botero union will have to take more extreme measures of pressure and urging the municipality to enact a law that “rescues or promotes the activity of artisanal boats.”

November 12 Meeting

In a November 12 meeting that was broadcasted on Bocas TV, other boat captains mentioned more reasoning for their discontent. They claim the boat is too big and dangerous to operate around the archipelago, that the 11 foot draft is too deep for the coral in the area, that the pirate ship is held to less regulation by authorities and that it takes away businesses from not only boat drivers, but also the land transportation business to Boca del Drago and restaurants in Starfish Beach. In this meeting president Valencia announced the group’s plans to strike on November 20.

boats blocking the channel between Isla Colon and Isla Carenero in a 2018 protest

An aerial shot of the 2018 protest when transportation was shut down. This protest was directed at the national government calling for infrastructural upgrades. Courtesy of Bocas TV.

Black Magic Response

Captain of the Black Magic Bolivar Solis, told us this:

“We are not competing with the boteros. It’s a very different thing that we do. And I think Black Magic is one more good reason for people to come visit this archipelago and go see more of it with the boteros on different tours, so it’s a win-win for everyone.”

“The ship is not damaging any coral reef. We revised the area with divers before ever placing a mooring in that location,” commented Solis, in response to the Federación de Botero’s claims. He continued, “And our ship doesn’t travel where the other boats go. We go where the ferry travels and the rest of the trip is in the channel where the big container cargo ship of Chiquita Banana goes. We only cruise at 5 knots. Super slow…We are very much legal. We went through every step to get this done right from the get-go.”

black magic bocas pirate ship bocas del toro

Previous Agreement the Water Taxi Union

Also mentioned in the original October 30 letter from the boteros was an agreement that was made between Black Magic and the Boteros federation that the local captains would have exclusive rights to all passengers checking in at Taxi 25 and taxiing to the boat. Valencia expressed in this letter that this agreement was not withheld and this seems to be the initial reason for their disapproval of the pirate ship.

Solis says that this agreement has been honored. When guests check in to the Taxi 25 Black Magic reception desk, they are directed to the boat taxis who are on site and all form part of the union. Advertised on the flyer is instructions for the Black Magic guests to “taxi from Bocas Town.”

Solis pointed out that while 99% of the time transportation comes from local water taxis who are able to profit from the drop offs and pickups, there are residents with their own private boats who elect to arrive at the Black Magic while it’s anchored in the channel. This is what is happening that could be perceived as a breach of their agreement. Solis related that much like how people arrive at a nightclub in a taxi or their own vehicle, the ship’s crew cannot regulate how 100% of their guests arrive.

When it comes to the short boat ride between Taxi 25 and where the pirate ship is anchored, passengers pay $2 each and there are frequently 15 passengers per boat. Based on the fuel consumed and time spent, this has to be one of the more profitable water taxi rides in the business, according to our conversation with Solis.

Comments from local captain Hernaldo Napoleon

We reached out to boat captain Hernaldo Napoleon who summed up the concerns of the Federación de Boteros:

“We are looking to preserve our product in the market in a way that is equitable for future generations, so that we as locals are the only ones that can be providing this service to the tourists. We are not against foreign investment but we consider that it shouldn’t be in the way of unfair competition…It’s very important to emphasize that it’s not only Black Magic; there is a lot of other competition out there and we have been working on this for a while.”

Status as of November 19, 2021

The Bocas del Toro municipality is currently mediating the situation, seeking that both parties reach an understanding. “A strike does not benefit anyone,” commented Mayor Emilano Torres in an Bocas TV interview after the November 12 meeting.  As it stands now at the time of this publication, Black Magic is set to sail Saturday and the boteros are planning to strike and form a blockade.

boats blocking the dock at Taxi 25

UPDATE: November 20 Protest

At 11:30am, the boteros arranged their boats in the docks at Taxi 25 and Brother’s Burgers, preventing guests passage to attend the pirate ship party. The boat captains of the local union also proceeded to block the entrance of the actual pirate ship, gaining access to the dock, pushing arriving boats away while getting into altercations with boats and passengers.

In the end, 79 guests were refunded and there were a lot of confused and disappointed national and international tourists seen fleeing the scene. We spoke to two tourists from the US who mentioned that they already had to walk through a terrestrial taxi strike to arrive to Bocas and then another protest canceled a party they had been looking forward to.

The business community is hoping for a resolution that will suit both parties soon, as the conflict portrays a poor image of Bocas del Toro and its tourism offer at a time where recovery is essential for its tourism based economy.

boatmen protesting the black magic pirate ship, standing on a duck with the arms crossed
UPDATE: November 24 Agreement

On November 24, 2021, a meeting was held at the ATP office (Authority of Tourism). Officials from Panama City came representing the national Authority of Tourism, Maritime Authority, Presidential office, along with local ATP director Lesbia Rubides and governor of Bocas del Toro Estela Stephenson. The parties came to the following agreement, which will be in place for 15 days and then evaluated by both parties:

Black Magic will stay away from Starfish Beach, Zapatillas and Cayo Coral and they can navigate anywhere else in the archipelago, on any day of the week and as many times per week as they want. The Black Magic will be anchored in front of Tropical Suites. With this agreement, the Federación de Boteros has agreed to leave them alone.

government officials, president of the boatman federation and representative of black magic come to an agreement in a meeting, a picture of them and the agreement

Editor’s Note:

If I were planning a trip to Bocas del Toro, I would be very intrigued by the Black Magic and would probably want to attend one of their cruises. I might want to book a catamaran tour as well. However, I know I would definitely want to experience the traditional tours with local captains as well. Though if the only option were panga tours, Bocas might seem less attractive when compared to other destinations. In my opinion, Bocas del Toro is the best, but it’s not the only place…

When you visit Bocas del Toro, we encourage you to experience the islands the classic way, cruising around on pangas with local guides. Support local Bocas del Toro boat captains and tour guides!

– Nicholas Corea

a panga boat and a pirate ship

The Bocas Breeze is a digital and print newspaper proudly serving the Bocas del Toro community since 2004; reporting news, advertising local businesses and promoting tourism in Bocas del Toro, Panama.

6 Comments

  1. Chango Reply

    Man! I can come to Bocas to experience a cruise on a pirate ship AND experience more personalized tours with local guides on pangas?!?!

    That’s a win win for me – and I know everything…

  2. Susan Thomson Reply

    My husband and I are coming to Bocas in January and will try to support the locally owned businesses when ever there is an option to .
    I appreciate this article in making us aware of the conflict .

  3. Hermann Reply

    ¿No se permite este tipo de visitas a los lugareños?
    ¿Por qué los locales no tienen también esas ideas?
    Entonces, ¿por qué los boteros de Bocas sólo hacen las excursiones de siempre, que no son nada inspiradoras o que sólo pretenden dañar o asustar a la naturaleza (por ejemplo, la de los delfines!!!!)?
    Are such tours not allowed to the locals?
    why don’t the locals also have such ideas?
    why do the boteros of Bocas only do the tours they have always done, which are not inspiring at all or are only there to harm or scare away nature (e.g. the dolphins!!!!)?

  4. Hermann Reply

    How many jobs does a pirate boat alone create, for example (there are many more businesses), and how many a panga captain? who ultimately pays taxes? i believe that the contribution of the local people is very small.
    the bottom line is that tourism is down. and the biggest mistake now is to fall into racism, stupidity, etc. with disgruntled tourists, who will be affected in any case, no reconstruction can be achieved in the long term. so what’s with the small war? what’s with the insistence on the traditional? there’s nothing to be gained by that.

    ¿cuántos puestos de trabajo crea un barco pirata, por ejemplo, y cuántos un capitán de panga? ¿quién paga los impuestos en última instancia? creo que la contribución de los locales es muy pequeña.
    el resultado final es que el turismo ha bajado. y el mayor error es caer en el racismo, la estupidez, etc. con turistas descontentos, que se verán afectados en cualquier caso, no se puede lograr ninguna reconstrucción a largo plazo. entonces, ¿qué sentido tiene la guerra mezquina? ¿qué sentido tiene aferrarse a las viejas costumbres? no se gana nada con eso.

  5. Emily LaRusch Reply

    My family has lived in Bocas many years so I want the locals to succeed but this attitude is all wrong! Locals YOU must change or die like Netflix to Blockbuster. You must create more exciting tours, advertise them better. You can take back ownership of local establishments if you put in the work to study and become disciples business owners. I have faith in you to grow and create more prosperity for your families. If you need business advice, I’m here for you. I’ve spent years learning and growing my own business. Please keep Bocas in the hands of locals and make changes to stay ahead of your competition. No one can offer the stories and experience you can!

    – The Great, Great Great Granddaughter of MT & Seveline Snyder (Snyder Canal, Snyder Bananas)

  6. Anonymous Reply

    Before all of those pangas it was just Cayucos and that reef was very much alive…
    Not that long ago… The Pangas are a huge part of the reason why the reefs are dead. With all due respect… If they truly want longevity in their livelihood they should educate themselves on what’s causing the death of their oceans. instead of fighting other business owners that are clearly way more educated when it comes to the sea. The owner of black magic has way more knowledge and respect of the ocean and reefs than anyone driving those Pangas.

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