Bocas del Toro – Panama’s Jewel of the Caribbean

Bocas del Toro Waterfront

Bocas del Toro Waterfront

These palms at the Botanical Garden in Bocas were imported from Madagascar.

These palms at the Botanical Garden in Bocas were imported from Madagascar.

We are climbing off the water taxi in Bocas Town and walking the three blocks to our hotel when my friend, Bill remarks, “This place reminds me of New Orleans, Jamaica, and Key West and all rolled into one.” The comparison is appropriate. The town of Bocas is eight blocks of hotels, shops, hostels, and restaurants. Bocas is the focal point of an island tourism haven, part of an extensive tropical archipelago not far from the Costa Rican border. My first experience with Bocas was shared in Panama from the Caribbean Side. We are about to discover a couple of gems we overlooked on our first visit.

We are fortunate to be guests at the historic Gran Bahía Hotel where the owner, Tito Thomas, sits with us to discuss lesser-known attractions. No one knows more about Bocas del Toro than Tito. He was born and raised in Bocas, raised his family here, and still lives and works in Bocas as a hotel owner and as unofficial ambassador to the place he loves.

Tito drives us in the hotel van to our first stop, the Botanical Garden just a mile outside of town, Finca Los Monos. Because we are with Tito, owner-operator Lin Gillingham opens her gate and gives us a quick introductory tour. To say we are impressed with the beauty and diversity of the place is an understatement. Lin has created a haven for tours, weddings and receptions, retreats, and exploration and discovery.

Our friends Bill and Priscilla at Playa Bluff

Our friends Bill and Priscilla at Playa Bluff

Tito then takes us to Playa Bluff, a popular surfer hangout just a few miles from town. It is easy to find comfort and solitude as this beach stretches for over five miles up the coast. The golden sand and clear, warm water make this a relaxing picnic and sunbathing spot.

The following day we decide to divide and conquer. While the wives are heading back to fully explore the Botanical Garden, Bill and I hire a water taxi ($20/person round trip) to take us to La Loma Jungle Lodge and cacao plantation at Bahía Honda on neighboring Isla Bastimentos. Owners Margaret Ann and Henry Escudero welcome us even though we are unexpected, thanks again to the referral from Tito. Their 50 acre eco-lodge retreat puts visitors in the midst of nature with birds, butterflies, monkeys and lush forest literally at arm’s length. Among the adventure of nearby attractions is the fully operational cacao plantation. Henry invites us to join his guests on an interpretive tour of their estate with his extensive naturalist knowledge. Everyone gets the opportunity to help prepare and sample fresh chocolate after the tour.

Cacao pods harvestedPhoto credit: Henry Escudero, www.thejunglelogde.com

Cacao pods harvested
Photo credit: Kate Malone

In Bocas Town the backpacking traveler will find several inexpensive hostel and guest house lodging options. Adults and family groups will find a wide range of hotel accommodations. The town can be reached by driving the mainland route to Almirante and catching a water taxi, flying in from Panama City, or arriving by boat. English is more commonly spoken in Bocas than anywhere in Panama. Whether you wish to explore jungles, snorkel or scuba dive, go surfing or swimming, or just hang out, Bocas has something for everyone.

living in Panama

Back Home in Panama

We are on the turbo-prop commuter flight from San Jose, Costa Rica, and through the clouds I recognize the Pacific coastline of Panama coming into view. We’ve been traveling for over three weeks, and the now familiar landscape surrounding the city of Davíd below us evokes a visceral sense of contentment that comes with knowing we are almost home.

It seems remarkable to experience this sense of pleasure when I reflect on the fact that we lived in Panama for only three months prior to this trip. I compare living here to falling in love. Panama is like an attractive woman with a personality and charm that is irresistible. When you are with her you are immersed in a sensation of heightened pleasure. Food tastes better. Colors seem brighter. We have all experienced something like that. Likewise, when you are apart you can’t wait to see her again. It’s like that. And so I am comforted to be back in Panama.

From The Big Apple to The Big Easy

I’m cruisin’, Mon!

We flew to New York City October 20th from Tocumen Airport in Panama City to board the Norwegian Star for a repositioning cruise that ended in New Orleans two weeks later, our objective being to complete the International Guide Academy’s Certified Tour Manager Training. The seven days at sea were our classroom days. There were twenty-two of us in the class from five countries. Many had no prior group-leading experience. Ultimately, we learned a great deal and we all passed the course.

We were just a couple days ahead of Hurricane Sandy, which impacted a number of the guests on the cruise who didn’t know for several days if they had intact homes to return to back in The Big Apple. Nevertheless, spirits were high and we lucked out with great weather the entire cruise.

Our cruise ended in New Orleans. This was my first visit to The Big Easy, and it is like no other city I have ever visited. Total strangers walked up to us tourists (the camera hung from the neck is an obvious tell) to ask where we were from and if we needed help finding anything. The beignets were so good in the morning that I went back for more at lunchtime. Standing on the banks of the Mississippi River evoked recollections of Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn. Incredible music wafted from every direction. If ever there were a city I would want to revisit it would be New Orleans.

Florence brings a gift to Marie Laveau, The Voodoo Queen.

We had one last duty to perform before our departure. It so happens that my wife, Florence, had visited the grave of Marie Laveau, The Voodoo Queen, back in 2005 before we met, and wished for a husband. As this wish was obviously granted, Florence was obligated to return to Marie Laveau’s gravesite with a thank-you offering (because you don’t mess with voodoo). Florence had picked out a ring of beads to honor her pact, which she dutifully placed on the tomb with a blessing of thanks. We were immediately engaged in a conversation with a local visitor to this famous site, after which we turned our attention back to the tomb. The ring had disappeared. It had not fallen to the ground, and no one else had approached the site during this brief encounter. We are at a loss to explain this event other than to say that perhaps The Voodoo Queen recognized the gift as genuine and took it with her to wherever she now resides.

Now we can head for home.