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Typical Bocas scene..Photo courtesy ATP

Bocas del Toro, an archipelago of islands in the west of Panama, is recognized as Panama’s Caribbean jewel and is a prime tourist destination. The Bocas region boasts clean, calm waters, huge tracts of virgin hardwood and rain forests. It is a last refuge for many endangered species. The diversity of birds, coral and aquatic life are rivaled by few other places in the world.

The “feeling” in Bocas is pure Caribbean. The sea, the beaches, the architecture and the people with their relaxed pace is Caribbean with a Latin flavor.

Also setting it apart from the rest of Panama is the climate which is wettest during Panama’s dry season (Dec- April). and drier during Panama’s rainy season.

A standard for visitors is a trip to the Bastimentos National Marine Park. This 13,226-hectare (1,630 inland and 11,596 of mainly shallow waters) marine park is one of the most beautiful and important marine habitats that exist today. Apart from its reefs, it includes the pristine Zapatilla Cays.

More than a dozen coral reefs protect a marine environment unequaled in most of the Caribbean because its remote location has ensured that it has remained untouched; it is a protected zone for the endangered manatee and is a tarpon spawning ground.

Snorkeling excursions can be arranged with bilingual boatmen (the majority of Bocas del Toro people speak Spanish and English).

Bocas del Toro has several excellent beaches. On the northern tip of Isla Colón, we recommend Bluff and Boca del Drago (Mouth of the Dragon). These can be reached by boat in 45 minutes or by road (taxi) in 20 minutes.

A three-minute, 300-meter boat ride from Bocas town (watch for dolphins!), will land you on tranquil Carenero where there are several small hotels.

For guided tours, sailing, fishing or any activity in Bocas get in touch with Princess Haven Adventures. Call Capt. Andy at (507) 6849-0000 or Bocas Dive Center at 757-9739.

Bocas offers a number of good restaurants. The speciality of the islands is, of course, seafood, but a good variety of food is offered, from pizza to “typical” Panamanian.

Really good Caribbean food can be had at an elegant seafront restaurant with the beguiling name 9º.

Getting to the islands poses no problems. Domestic airlines fly from Marcos A. Gelabert airport in Panama City (one hour) daily to the Bocas del Toro International Airport.

Overland adventurers can go by bus or car from Panama City or David. From the Pan American Highway turn off and head north across the Continental Divide to the port of Almirante. From there, water taxis and ferries leave for Bocas del Toro.

Bocas del Toro was the first place in Panama to attract the wave of residential tourism which has spread to the whole country in recent years.

Populated by Caribbean and largely English-speaking people who migrated there after working on the Panama railroad and later the Panama Canal and attracted by the work offered on the banana plantations, Bocas remained a tranquil backwater until its “discovery” in the late 1990’s by backpackers and home-seekers from northern climes.

Two of the settlers have written books about their lives in the area. Ask for “Don’t Kill the Cow Too Quick” by Englishman Malcolm Henderson who recounts his trials and triumphs as a homesteader and Cindy Cody’s “Hubba Hubba” and “Banana Bay”, amusing and exciting novels also set in the Bocas area.

Because of its new residents, Bocas has acquired new attributes in the form of restaurants, waterfront bars and small hotels which have served to add to the charm of the town.

Any number of small, low and medium-priced hostelries are available in Bocas town and there are several small resorts a short boatride from the town’s waterfront. Hotel El Limbo on the Sea a charming hotel on Isla Colon. Al Natural Resort is unusual, with bungalows on stilts on the beach.

Outstanding among the island’s resorts is Punta Caracol Aqua Lodge run by José Luis Bordas from Barcelona, who discovered Bocas while on a special scholarship from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. José Luis combined his hospitality skills, and a love for the tropical wilderness, to create a “boutique resort”. It is not rustic by any means. Orthopaedic beds and haute cuisine come with the thatched-roof cabins built on piles over the water.

Recently opened in Bocas is Hotel Playa Tortuga whose 120 rooms all have private balconies facing the water. The three-story hotel is family oriented and operates under strict eco-friendly standards.

The hotel features a children’s swimming pool, adult pool, spacious meeting rooms, a private golden beach and two restaurants, one on a deck where guests can dine over the water in true Bocas-style.

Several marinas cater to the yachts for which Bocas is a popular destination.

The big traditional annual event of Bocas is the Fair of the Sea every September.