Jose “Tito” Thomas remembers the Bocas del Toro of his childhood when its few hundred residents were on a first-name basis. “Everyone was like one big happy family,” Thomas reminisces. “People lived with their doors and windows open. Nobody would touch anything that didn’t belong them.”
Long before the first backpackers and surfers discovered the Caribbean archipelago, he was riding the waves in a cayuco, a dugout canoe. Today, he is still in Bocas, maintaining a bit of Bocas’ history as owner of the Gran Hotel Bahia.
The two-story hotel, located on the south end of Bocas Town’s main street, recently celebrated its 40th anniversary and added the “Gran” to its name.
Built in 1905, it is one of Isla Colon’s oldest buildings and was constructed to accommodate the main offices of the United Fruit Company, today known as Chiquita Brands International. In the early 1900s, when business boomed for local suppliers, the banana trade attracted a
rich mix of workers to Bocas. Thomas himself is a descendant of Italian, indigenous Indian, West Indian, Spanish and British settlers.
Today, hotel guests check in at the original counter where employees, local fruit growers and suppliers came to collect their payments. Adjacent to the window is a floor-to-ceiling safe, that while now empty, once held the fruit company’s operating cash.
When the “Panama Disease” fungus appeared in the United Fruit’s Panama crops in the 1920s, attacking the crop roots by cutting off the water supply, thousands of acres of banana plantations were lost and the United Fruit headquarters was left largely abandoned.
Compounded by the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the province experienced negative population growth. In the early 1940s, much of the Bocas workforce headed to the Canal Zone where the United States was building its military bases. The number of residents plummeted from
25,000 to a mere 400. With no laws prohibiting child labor, Tito and his friends were free to earn money to buy cayucos. He worked as
an assistant in a mechanic shop for twenty-five cents a week, barely paying for the soap to wash his hands at the end of a workday. He also worked for a furniture maker, at a sawmill and even cut hair for a few months. His goal, like the surfers who now come to Bocas from around the world, was to ride the waves. The boys fashioned sails from flour sacks, lighter and less expensive than canvas, and spent afternoons spearfishing. When he arrived home with 10-15 tiny fish, his mother would have him clean them and cook them himself.
He would “fry them dry and eat up to the bones”.
Aside from sailing, fishing and swimming, he and his friends loved baseball. A tennis ball stood in for a baseball and a broomstick served
as a bat. “It was very simple living,” he recalls. “The sidewalk was like Yankee Stadium to us.”
Over the years, the United Fruit Company would send representatives down from the United States. In the fall of 1967, the grown-up
Thomas met the company’s general manager at the inauguration of the Bocas fairgrounds. Over cocktails, he asked the executive to sell
him “that old deteriorated building on Third Street” (the former headquarters). When Thomas told him of his idea to turn the building into a hotel, the general manager asked him to make him an offer.
As the company had no use for the vacant building, Thomas bought it for a song. After a year of knocking down walls and converting the upper offices into 10 hotel rooms, the Hotel Bahia opened in September 1968. In 1970, Thomas added eight air-conditioned rooms on the ground floor. He regrets covering the original oak hardwood floors with shag carpeting that was in vogue at the time, but has since brought back the wooden floors. Early on, there was not much tourism in Bocas. Many times the hotel was ready to close, but he always managed to pay his bills. Leaving his father to run the hotel in 1973, he worked in David, Colon and Panama City to make ends meet and to provide for
the education of his four children. He earned his living primarily as an architectural draftsman, but also managed a plywood factory and worked as a manager for various construction projects in Chiriqui Grande.
Wherever he worked, he always made certain to return to Bocas every two months. “This is the place I like,” he says fondly. “No special reason. Just everything.”
After retiring in 1997 as project manager for the construction of the Atlantic Terminal Cargo Facilities in Chiriqui Grande, Thomas took over hotel operations from his father. In 1999, he completed a major renovation of the 18 rooms, including adding soundproofing, dropped
ceilings and hot water. Travelers were beginning to discover Bocas because backpackers spread the word, he believes.
Although he is pleased to have steadier business these days, he is concerned about the demands on the local environment as projects go higher than two stories. Not only are the new buildings out of character with the old, he worries the underlying strata will not withstand such a load.
Development also threatens to deplete the island’s freshwater reservoirs. More generators are now required to provide for the increasing demand for electricity, causing more exhaust emissions. Thomas also has reservations about how Bocas will handle sewage and garbage removal as more tourists and more expats arrive.
“When you get old, you live from memories,” he says, recalling the Bocas of his youth. Even though he realizes that change is inevitable, he
has the natural concerns of anyone that grew up in the sleepy, carefree years when the population was in the hundreds.