In all his 76 years, Tito has never been away from the islands of Bocas del Toro for more than 2 months at a time. He’s travelled abroad, worked all over Panama building everything from airports to hotels but has never taken his mind and heart away from his home. He has always loved this place and has been long working to see it grow and prosper; with a vigilantly vested interested in seeing the archipelago blossom in only the right ways. Even though the development hasn’t gone exactly according to plan, Tito can certainly be proud of his pristinely preserved piece of Bocas history. I’m talking about no other than the 108 year-old building known as the Gran Hotel Bahia, arguably the most important standing historical landmark in all of Bocas. This is the profile of the hotel’s owner: José Thomas, better known as Tito.
Tito is Bocatoreño, born and raised. Growing up he spent most of his time in the sea; diving, snorkeling, fishing, boating and surfing waves in 8 foot canoes. This was back when every kid had their own boat and outboard motors were a thing of the future. If you wanted to go to Almirante or Basimentos, you had to rely on sails and paddles to get you there. He spent his childhood wanting to be a boat captain. Unfortunately, there were no nautical schools available to him so he elected to study architecture at the National University of Panamá in Panama City. He has dedicated his career for the most part to construction and has played a role in building in what seems like pretty much everything in the Republic of Panama.
His résumé is quite an impressive one. He was the General Super Intendant in the construction of the Tocumen National Airport. He has worked remodeling parts of the Panama Canal and building houses for the US Army and Navy in the Canal Zone. He’s taken part in the building of the Atlapa Convention Center, Panama’s first Marriot Hotel, the port in Chiriqui Grande and the road from David to Almirante, as well as being the Administrative and Human Resources Manager for Petroterminal de Panamá, the crude oil pipeline from Chiriqui to Bocas. After his illustrious career as a builder of all things Panama, he retired in 1999 and returned to his beloved Bocas Town to oversee the operations of his Gran Hotel Bahia.
Gran Hotel Bahia was originally the main offices of the United Fruit Company. Built in 1905, the building had been practically abandoned years after the company moved their headquarters to Almirante in 1929. Tito bought the building in 1967 and immediately remodeled the upstairs to convert the former offices into 10 hotel rooms. An architect by trade and lover of Bocas history, Tito has done all he can to preserve the integrity of the building, keeping its original charm well intact. While the inside has been renovated over the years to meet the needs of the hotel guests, the outside of the building retains its original design. Tito’s office was once the office of the United Fruit Company paymaster and you can even find the original bank vault directly outside his office. The reception desk was actually the bank teller’s window where the workers would come to pick up their checks. Furthermore, each side of the building’s entrance is adorned with displays of 100 year-old photos of Bocas Town, the main street and the building itself. The history of the building is something that can absolutely not be ignored at the Gran Hotel Bahia, and I’m sure Tito wouldn’t have it any other way.
Tito made his return to live full time in Bocas amidst the boom of the late 90’s. He had long been a firm believer in Bocas tourism, however at the same time a huge proponent of the island developing in a way that maintains the place’s original charm. Being well-travelled himself, he was enchanted by cities like San Juan, Santo Domingo, Antigua, New Orleans, Washington D.C., Boston and San Francisco that in his opinion are fine examples of highly developed cities which haven’t allowed their growth to destroy the traditional culture. He doesn’t want to see Bocas lose its charm, but nowadays he can’t help but be disappointed in the some of the changes to his beloved home town:
“It’s good because everyone can get a job, but what I don’t think is good is that it’s changing the character of the town. Somewhere along the lines, it’s not going to be attractive anymore to the tourists. We are losing most of our culture,” Tito believes. “For example, the language; when I was growing up, we spoke Spanish at home. On the streets it was English, or what they call Guari-Guari. That is lost. Very few people speak it. If I speak to a kid in the street in English, he would understand me; probably at home they speak it, but he will answer me in Spanish.”
Ironically, just as Tito was explaining this change in Bocatoranian culture, a friend of his passed by and greeted him in Spanish, to which Tito responded “Wha’ppen?” (What’s happening?), a standard Bocas English greeting. He also went on to explain that the traditional dances that were brought to Bocas from the Antilles are also being lost. Dances like the Cuadrilla, Pasillo and May Pole that were once commonplace at evening get-togethers are now rarely seen. Food is another big part of the culture that he’s seen change. According to Tito, it’s hard to find a good Caribbean meal anymore. Coconut rice and beans and Journey Cakes (coconut bread) used to be made from fresh homemade coconut milk. Nowadays everybody is using canned coconut milk from the supermarket.
“You can’t eat turtle anymore. That was the basis of our diet: turtle and fish. We never used to eat beef. Only very special occasions,” he says. All this as I am diving into a 16 ounce rib eye steak at Carlos Steak House. True to the seafaring Bocatoranian way, Tito has ordered tuna off the menu. “We used to eat a lot of lobster that we’d go out and catch ourselves. In the market, they would kill 14 or 15 turtles a day. And it was cheap; 12 ½ cents a pound,” he explains. Eating turtle was banned in the early 90’s to protect against the extinction of the species.
Lastly, one big change in Bocas culture that is particularly dear to Tito’s heart is the architecture: “Bocas was considered the only wooden city of Panama. All the houses were made of wood. There used to be regulations that you cannot build anything except wood, and the design had to be a Caribbean style design. You couldn’t build higher than your neighbors. All that is gone. Now they’re building structures that are completely covered with tile. I think those are things that are making Bocas less attractive to some type of people. I know people go to cities because they are old and they are maintained with the same tradition. That’s the only reason they go there.”
It seems like this breaks Tito’s heart. He has long been fighting to see Bocas preserve its heritage. After the beginning of the tourism boom of the late 90’s, a group of professional developers were contracted by the government to make a master plan for the proper development of the city. They drafted up a document of building regulations and turned it over to municipality. The document was ignored at first. However, Tito, being an architect and builder by trade, read the document and was a firm believer in it. He fought to get it approved, meeting individually with government officials and explaining why it was important to adopt the principals of city development in the document. Finally, he convinced them and the building regulations were approved in 2002.
It wasn’t very long before the first change was made. A man was complaining because he had just bought a piece of property and wasn’t allowed to build a third story. “I had a clipping that I cut out of a magazine that recommended that people who are going to buy properties to investigate what they could do and what they could not do and check with the government agencies; check what you can do before you buy it. I took it to him and said look.” The new land owner was furious. He argued that if he was in the US, he would be able to do this. Anyway, this man must have met with the officials and presented a different type of paperwork, because the law was soon modified to accommodate his building plans. Today, those building regulations have long since been forgotten. The same restriction on height has been changed 4 times.
Tito loves his home and that is probably what makes him so concerned. He’s not opposed to the growth and development; but he feels it’s being done without the proper foresight and may jeopardize the future of the islands. According to him, “Bocas is losing its character because of uncontrolled development.” If you want to see an authentic piece of Bocas that has yet to lose its character, visit the Gran Hotel Bahia. If you want to meet a real Bocatoranian historian who truly cares about this place, ask for Tito.