On Panama’s Carribean Coast lies an archipelago of islands, Bocas Del Toro, and from dipping my toes into Isla Colon and Isla Carenero, and sinking my teeth into Isla Bastimentos, the latter emerged as my unrivaled favorite. Maybe even my favorite tropical destination in the world!
I must say I’m biased from the incredible treat that was staying at La Loma Jungle Lodge.
Maybe it was the intimate nature of the lodge, nestled within a jungle and working chocolate farm.
Maybe it was the fact that I saw monkeys, sloths, red frogs, cane toads, and plethora of other flora and fauna, sometimes while on a casual hike around the property, sometimes by boat.
Maybe it was the fact that my hosts – Steve and Karen – provided hospitality at its finest, and I had the opportunity to meet an incredible group of travelers from France to New Mexico, and break bread over interesting conversations. (Steve also makes a mean cocktail, a unique drink every night, typically made with local ingredients. Note that they’re not the owners, and only work at the lodge for a few months out of the year, but from all of the great things I’ve heard about the owners, Henry and Margaret, I’ll bet they are gems, too.)
Maybe it was the delicious and nutritious meals, combining the best of Panamanian and Central American style cuisines using the local bounty (including chocolate). Oh – and that they catered to my gluten intolerance for EVERY MEAL. Mind you, there was also a vegetarian, lactose intolerant, a vegan, and other miscellaneous allergies at the table, and La Loma didn’t miss a beat when it came to accomidating everyone.
Every morning, I’d wake up to a hot thermos of Panamanian coffee (which gives you a great kick in the pants) with some cream as I like it, and specially made gluten-free chocolate muffins. I’d do a little reading, meditating, writing, maybe spend some time in the hammock, and head for a hearty, but healthy breakfast, and plan out my adventures for the day.
I snorkeled near the mangroves of “Sloth Island” (actually just an island of a bunch of mangroves, and sloths) and Coral Cay. Sloth Island featured mostly unique corals and starfish, while Coral Cay treated me to the best array of tropical fish I’ve ever seen. I lounged on Red Frog Beach and cooled off in the perfectly temperate waters of the Carribean. I also learned everything about chocolate production, realizing I knew absolutely nothing about the sweet treat I’ve overindulged in, maybe a time or two.
The best part was that I genuinely unplugged. There was one spot on the hill that I got cell reception for the obligatory “I’m alive” call home, but otherwise, I thought about myself and my life and let any troubles in my life or concerns about the world just dissipate. I did yoga as I faced the jungle, thought of the concept of a novel I’d like to write, and nearly finished an entire guidebook on Central America.
I also got briefly lost while kayaking and lost a flip flop in some quicksand, but thankfully didn’t go down like Atreyu’s horse in The Neverending Story, and a kind Ngobe woman kindly directed me back to the right dock. Speaking of the Ngobe Tribe, La Loma supports the indigenous community of Bocas Del Toro by providing excellent jobs, and funding and support for the local children’s education. La Loma sponsors 12 students for higher education, and fully funds an afterschool program and a pre-school. I had a chance to visit “La Escuelita” and my heart filled up with joy seeing the pride of these sweet little kids singing their ABC’s in English like we were special guests.
La Loma proves that it is actually possible to enhance and advocate for a community – that can often be at risk of destruction – through tourism. Sustainable tourism does not mean building resorts that your grandchildren can enjoy, and it’s a lot more than just solar power and rain catchment (though La Loma has that all down pat, and more). I heard talk of a development that tried to come in and build stucco houses with air conditioning and infinity pools for Americans, and a marina – that would block access for the school boat and dugout canoes that the Ngobe’s use to get La Escuelita – but thankfully that didn’t move forward due to the economic downturn. The cost was a tad more than I’d typically pay while traveling solo (there is a 50 percent rate add-on per night for singles), but was worth every penny, and I felt good supporting such a noble operation.
Getting there: You can fly into Bocas Town on Isla Colon via Panama City, or San Jose, Costa Rica, or take a bus from either of those cities (or most towns in either country, presumably) and take a water taxi to Isla Bastimentos (La Loma provides transportation as I’m sure other lodging on the island does too). Fellow travelers agreed that the Panama City option was much more affordable, but be warned that Air Panama has small planes, and not many flights, so book ahead and avoid a five to eight hour bus ride as flights can sell out quick. I nabbed mine about two months in advance, and flew into Panama City via United, and spent a few days there.
Staying there: La Loma turns away more guests that it can accept, as there are only four cabins. Stays are typically only offered for two or four nights, each cabin can hold up to four travelers (two queen beds), and I’m told one of the cabins is a bit bigger and optimized for families (there was a couple with a 9-year-old, and she loved it!). These are truly open air jungle lodges, so if the prospect of wildlife in your cabin (nothing there will hurt you, and a helpful illustrated guide will put any fears at bay), no TV or air conditioning (not needed), and sharing your meals and talking to fellow guests is daunting – this is probably not the place for you. At some point, I’d also be interested to stay at Casa Cayuco, and The Firefly – both of which seem to also adhere to sustainable tourism practices. Wherever you choose to stay, I urge you to read between the lines of marketing when it comes to “eco resorts,” and try your best to not introduce more garbage and plastic bottles to the island (reusable plastic bottles or pouches work great).
When to go: Although many sites describe the “rainy” and “dry” seasons, the locals say there’s really just a less rainy season. I went smack dab in the middle of the rainest part of the year (July/August), and experienced a few rainy days out of the 7 I was there. I actually enjoyed the storms, but the rain can interfere with some outdoor activities (not snorkeling, though!).
Spending two nights in Bocas Town after my La Loma experience made me appreciate Bastimentos’ magic even more, which I’ll elaborate more on soon!
Scenes from Isla Bastimentos
Cabin 1 at La Loma Jungle Lodge
Cabin 1 from below
Chocolate cut open
Snorkeling in Coral Cay
Red Frog Beach
Cabin 1 at La Loma Jungle LodgeMy amazing cabin at La Loma, and the hammock that I dove into a ton of novel reading.
Cabin 1 from below
Unripe chocolateChocolate in La Loma's cacao grove before it's ripe.
CaimanA baby caiman, and thankfully I didn't see its mom
Chocolate cut openThis is what cacao looks like right after its cut open. You can suck the white yogurt-like paste off of it, and it's pretty tasty, though tastes nothing like chocolate (similar to a plain yogurt).
Snorkeling in Coral Cay"Water so clear you can see to the bottom!" Isla Bastimentos has very clear waters, and isn't experiencing the huge onslaught of unpleasant seaweed that much of the Caribbean is currently experiencing.
Sloth IslandSloths move even sllllooowwweeerr than they do on tv, it's pretty hilarious. Apparently males will also murder a baby to mate with their mom, which is a bit messed up!
Red FrogThe famous, and poisonous, Red Frog
Red Frog BeachOne of Bocas Del Toro's best beaches for lounging (swimming is nice too, but be mindful of the rip tide, it gets dangerous over here!)
Panamanian CafePanamanian Cafe at your doorstep, every morning. Buenas dias!
PataconesPatacones are a Panamanian specialty, made with mashed deep fried plantains. These ones were topped with local fish and greens. Don't forget the Bocas Hot Sauce (absolutely delicious hot sauce made with banana oil). Buen Provecho!
Snake!We had a professional reptile expert in our midst, who found this poisonous (though not harmful to humans) rare variety.
La EscuelitaThe Ngobe school for the children of the Bahia Honda community.
Cranking chocolateCranking chocolate through the machine to turn it to paste, after its spent time roasting in the sun in two stages.
Chocolate completeThe final step of chocolate making. Yum!