In the far northwestern corner of Panama, tucked up next to the border with Costa Rica, the relatively undiscovered Bocas del Toro islands not only have both beautiful beaches and captivating marine animals, but this archipelago also contains intact indigenous Indian culture. In some locations, respectful visitors can be welcomed in an Ngobe Indian village.
I visited by taking a boat tour which began with a stop to search for dolphins near Isla San Cristóbal, then cruised out to Parque Nacional Marino Isla Bastimentos (Bastimentos Island National Marine Park) and ended with a visit to the Ngobe Indians’ village of Quebrada Sal (Salt Creek) on the southeast side of Bastimentos Island.
To begin this visit, our captain maneuvered our small boat up a quarter-mile channel through the mangroves and then up an even narrower channel barely wide enough for the boat. The jungle was quite except for an occasional bird’s chirp. When we docked, no one was around. We walked along a path past thatched huts and headed toward the village. Villagers here are poor with fishing their primary source of income. A Ngobe man in the window of a small blue house came out to talk with me even though we couldn’t hold a “conversation” beyond smiling. This was one of those sweet encounters that makes traveling so worthwhile. Farther along the path I came to a larger hut where a woman was selling baskets and jewelry she made from shells and beads. Although I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked in Salt Creek, I found the people to be warm and welcoming, and I treasure that brief visit.
I stayed only in the town of Bocas del Toro on Isla Colón, but I visited a couple lodges in these more remote parts of the islands. Laguna Azul Eco Lodge is on a private island off Isla Popa, seven nautical miles straight south of Salt Creek. It’s a lovely, old-fashioned-style lodge with a gourmet menu and a veranda facing the Caribbean Sea. Punta Caracol Acqua-Lodge has only eight small bungalows and one master suite, and all are positioned overwater on a walkway that extends out to the restaurant, which serves refreshing fruit smoothies. My choice was passion fruit.
While La Coralina Beachfront Surf Hotel & Restaurant is only 3.5 miles from “Bocas Town,” its location off a dirt road and on a bluff makes it feel isolated. As huge fan of handicrafts, I felt the gift shop alone with its handmade chocolates, gourd lamps, traditional flutes, hand-woven purses, finely painted ceramic plates and other items created by Central American artists was worth the drive. United, American, Delta, Taca, Copa and Lasca Airlines fly to Tocumen International Airport in Panama City, but flights for the one-hour trip to Bocas del Toro (Aeroperlas or Air Panama) fly in and out of Albrook National Airport, Panama City’s domestic airport.
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.