Panama’s Bocas del Toro.


Story and photos by Manos Angelakis

Panama City, the capital of Panama, is a blend of a very modern city and a Spanish Colonial town separated by a harbor that is the Pacific-side entrance to the Panama Canal. If you look across the water from the colonial to the modern side, it looks very much like the view of Central from Hong Kong’s Typhoon Harbor. You have to pass through Panama City to get to the airport for Bocas del Toro, as the airport serving Panama’s interior is separate from the larger international airport.

An interesting feature not found in any other country in my travels: if you are a tourist and have a medical emergency, the Tourism Authority of Panama gives you free medical insurance for the first 30 days from the entry stamp in your passport.

Bocas del Toro is comprized of an archipelago and a small part of the mainland, on the Caribbean side of Panama; it feels as if time has stood still there for the last 40 years. The main island, Isla Colón, is the location of the Bocas del Toro town that used to be the Panamanian headquarters of the United Fruit Company - when bananas were the major cash crop in the area - and the majority of the rest of the islands are either uninhabited mangrove growths or little inhabited jungle. Now, tourism is the major industry and Bocas del Toro is setting itself up to take major advantage of incoming tourism from both the United States and South America.

Transportation between Panama City and Bocas is mostly by daily flights of the regional airline Aeroperlas, a division of Taca Airlines, one of the major national carriers that connect Central and South America with North America. Taca is associated with Avianca and Copa Airlines and all are members of the Star Alliance. Rolando Pereira, Aeroperla’s Commercial Manager and a Bocas resident, thankfully accompanied us through our exploration of Bocas.

The area’s hotel industry is dominated by North American expats and they have created or updated some very interesting resort properties located on islands other than Isla Colón, as well as buying and upgrading many hotels, guest houses and B&Bs in Bocas itself. There are many properties geared towards vacationing families with children, while others, especially in Bocas, are geared towards singles or adult couples. I spoke with a number of these hotel owners/managers and they all have one thing in common, they feel that their investment has allowed them to escape the US rat-race, and gives them quality of life, even while they have to work long hours to keep their smaller town properties competitive with the larger resorts. No one would be spending too much time in the rooms anyway, as there are too many swimming and snorkeling beaches to visit, scuba-diving reefs to explore, deep-sea fishing boats to go fishing on, and in the evenings bars and clubs where music and dancing go on to the early morning.

Most of the town properties we saw feature classic furnishings design with tropical flavors and much of the furniture is locally made from indigenous sources. For example, the boutique Hotel Bocas del Toro, owned and managed by Carla Ranking, provides large comfortable rooms with custom-made furniture in an intimately personalized environment. It features a nautical themed open-air dinning room and bar over the Bocas harbor.

Another main-street property that I thought might be enjoyable was the Palma Royale Hotel & Suites, a four-story classic island building, with balconies overlooking the sea, managed by Melissa Werle. It has charming studios on the ground floor with patios and 5 suites with full kitchens on other floors. There are another 5 suites without kitchens and the penthouse features a 2 bedroom, 2 bath suite, with an incredible 360º view.

I stayed at Tropical Suites, right on Bocas main drag. A nice mid-priced 15 room hotel (a little pricier than other similarly located hotels in Bocas) with what used to be known as “efficiency suites” i.e. the rooms are larger with a full kitchen. My room had a king-size bed. This is a luxury property for Bocas, and was taken over by an American couple Chip and Jamie (ex investment bankers from NY City) that are doing their best to provide a low key, pleasant, friendly environment. There is a plan to create a dinning room and better bar on the ground floor where the in-building boat slip was. The view from my balcony was of mooring slips and open-air dinning rooms of other hotels nearby.

There are a few luxury properties on the other islands, and all the hotels we visited were immaculately clean and are decorated with paintings and sculptures from local artists.

Perched on the side of a hill covered with tropical plants and flowers is La Coralina Hotel and Restaurant. The hotel is a small, luxurious property on six acres, with a South Seas décor, reminiscent of Indonesian art. The open air dinning room offers well prepared seafood dishes and the bar creates scrumptious tropical drinks. Platforms around the grounds have tables with market umbrellas and handcrafted armchairs and benches with a view of the ocean; a swimming pool and Jacuzzi were being installed. You have to walk downhill to the beach, and there are horseback riding tours if you are so inclined. Private nature trails radiate from the property. This is a real tropical paradise.

Punta Caracol Acqua Lodge on Isla Colón, is another noteworthy resort entirely built over the water, in a semi-circle around a lagoon bordered by thick mangroves. Eight palm-thatched casitas with sleeping lofts that will sleep up to 4, and one two-level Master Suite that will sleep up to 6, are built on pylon-supported platforms that connect with a boardwalk to the office and restaurant/bar. Packages include transportation to and from the Bocas airport and are on a modified American plan basis i.e. breakfast and dinner are included in the price quoted. There is a special Honeymoon package that includes activities and snorkeling equipment as well as the use of a kayak, breakfast and candle-lit supper, afternoon tea (or coffee) and cookies and numerous other benefits.

Laguna Azul Eco Lodge is a British Colonial-styled cottege located on a private island surrounded by mangroves and a corral reef on Popa Island. The lodge has 6 spacious suites with private balconies. Gym equipment and a pool-table are located in an outside structure connected to the main building by a covered boardwalk, and a wooden staircase will take you down to the coral reef. The kitchen, also in a separate structure, is exceptional creating appetizers, main courses and desserts of quality equal to much larger properties on Bocas.      

The town of Bocas reminds me of life on some of the Mediterranean islands in the 50s and 60s. Practically everyone speaks English, even though Spanish is the official language. On the week that I spent there, life did not really start before noon and continued at the bars and nightspots until early in the morning (though we were up early and ready to take the boat that the local Chamber of Commerce used to show us different areas of the archipelago). Bocas del Toro’s nightlife has something for everybody; a different bar and/or restaurant and/or club for each night of the week or if you prefer, you can visit them all on the same night; most are lined up, one after another, on the main street.

By the way, food in Bocas is delightful; mostly fresh fish and seafood from the surrounding waters as well as chicken or pork dishes and garden fresh salads and vegetables, and Spanish or Caribbean style rice dishes. The local version of ceviche was exceptional. One day for lunch we had a clawless local lobster that looked more like a giant crayfish but did taste like langouste. Rum was the main ingredient for most cocktails though other spirits for cocktails were plentiful at the bars. Fruit and rum based drinks, or just fruit-juice drinks were universally available and very tasty since they are made from ripe fruit, freshly cut and pressed. The same fresh fruit is used in making delicious desserts and ice-creams. Wines are imported mostly from South America and mid-priced Chilean, Argentinean, and Uruguayan wines were available in most restaurants.