Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
Bocas del Toro: A Sojourn
Bocas del Toro includes an archipelago and a small part of the mainland on the Caribbean side of Panama. 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 rest of the islands are either uninhabited mangrove growths or little inhabited jungle.
The area’s hotel industry is dominated by North American expats that have updated some very interesting resort properties, many located on islands other than Isla Colón, as well as buying and upgrading hotels, guest houses and B&Bs in the town of Bocas itself. There are numerous 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 the 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 up their town properties.
Perched on the side of a hill covered with tropical plants and flowers is La Coralina Hotel & Restaurant. The hotel is a small, boutique property on six acres of land, with a South Seas décor, reminiscent of Balinese architecture and 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. Private nature trails radiate from the property. You have to walk downhill to the beach, and there are horseback riding tours if you are so inclined. This is a real tropical paradise.
Punta Caracol Acqua Lodge on Isla Colón is another noteworthy resort entirely built over water, in a semi-circle around a lagoon bordered by thick mangroves. Eight palm-thatched casitas with sleeping lofts 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 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 cottage located on a private island surrounded by mangroves, on 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; a wooden staircase will take you down to the water covering 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 the Mediterranean in the late 1950s 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 the next morning. 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.
By the way, food in Bocas is delightful; fresh fish and seafood from the surrounding waters as well as chicken or pork dishes, garden fresh salads and Spanish or Caribbean style rice dishes. The local version of ceviche was exceptional. Rum was the main ingredient for most cocktails, though other spirits 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. Wines are imported, and mid-priced Chilean, Argentinean, and Uruguayan wines were plentifully available in the restaurants.
Life is very good in Bocas.
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