I had heard Panama had great bird-watching, eco-lodges and indigenous cultures, but until recently, I had never heard of the country’s Bocas del Toro islands – or that this archipelago excelled in bird-watching, eco-lodges and indigenous peoples’ culture. With nine main islands, several large bays and a national marine park, this area in the northwestern corner of Panama along the Caribbean Sea offers space for getting away from it all to sail, dolphin-watch, hike, snorkel, beachcomb and relax. And people aren’t the only beings who want the seclusion of these islands’ beaches: four types of endangered marine turtles nest here.
Fighting extinction, hawksbill, leatherback, loggerhead and green turtles lay their eggs on Bocas’ dark beaches. Lights (including flashlights and camera flashes) distract adults and babies from the sea. Artificial lights lead them onto land, and that is fatal for these gentle creatures. For that reason, the only way to see the marine turtles nesting is by going to certain beaches with trained guides.
With Bocas being relatively “undiscovered” with little development, most beaches are still dark at night. Laws are being passed to keep beaches dark so these magnificent marine turtles can lay their eggs and so the hatchlings can have the best possible chance to survive. Two of the beaches where guides take visitors are 2.4-mile-long Bluff Beach on Isla Colón (Colón or Columbus Island) and 2-mile-long Long Beach in Parque Nacional Marino Isla Bastimentos (Bastimentos Island National Marine Park).
June and July are when the green turtles migrate to Bocas’ beaches. October, when I visited, is one of the most pleasant months with the calmest seas. During certain times of the year, the area has large and sometimes dangerous surf.
Bocas is no mega-resort destination. The main town, Bocas del Toro or Bocas Town, is on Isla Colón near the small airport. A number of recently remodeled and refurbished hotels line the main street with some backing directly on the water. Here’s a sampling: I stayed at Hotel Bocas del Toro, which was colorful and charming with a comfortable, rustic feel. From the deck off my room I enjoyed watching the sunrise and first boats heading out to fish or ferry locals and visitors across the water. Breakfast (included) was served on the hotel’s large deck (with gazebo) over the water.
A few doors north was Tropical Suites, which had large, modern rooms with views of either the sea or the busy main street. The pink Palma Royale Hotel & Suites had colorful, stylish rooms, but it’s not on the ocean-side of the street. While definitely more rustic with very small rooms, the lower-budget Gran Hotel Bahia was once the headquarters for Untied Fruit with its huge early-20th-century banana production. (A massive safe sits in the lobby.) The Playa Tortuga Hotel is a new resort on a beach two miles north of town and has multiple pools, floating lounge chairs, meeting rooms and so on.
About the Author: April Orcutt is a contributor to TravelandLeisure.com (website for Travel+Leisure magazine), the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. Her stories – often along with her photographs – have been published in National Geographic Traveler, MSNBC.com, Yahoo.com, the Chicago Tribune, New York’s Newsday and many other American and Canadian newspapers and websites. April won the Gold Award in the Personal Comment category of the 2011 Society of American Travel Writers Foundation’s Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Competition. April’s travel essays have run in newspapers and five anthologies published by Lonely Planet and Travelers’ Tales. She writes and photographs destination pieces, journey articles, round-ups and essays. April emphasizes nature, environmental awareness, quests, road trips, independent travel, local cultures, women’s travel, voluntourism and humor.