Headlines - USA Today, "Paradise off the Coast of Panama"

Paradise off the coast of Panama

By Mike Madden, Gannett News Service
BOCAS DEL TORO, Panama — When Liza Belkin and Brian Steele told friends they'd be going to some small Panamanian islands for vacation in December, they got only one question: "Why?"

But once the Palo Alto, Calif., couple arrived at this Caribbean archipelago dotted with lush jungles, white sand beaches and protected coral reefs, they had a ready answer.

"This is awesome!" says Steele, 30, a marketing executive.

Long overshadowed by eco-tourism heavyweights Costa Rica and Belize to the north, Bocas del Toro is starting to emerge as the newest star in the eco-tourism pantheon. Guidebooks and promoters tout the islands as "the Galapagos of the 21st century." Hundreds of species of fish, parrots, toucans, monkeys and sloths live on the islands, which include a 20-year-old national marine park to protect endangered manatees and sea turtles.

Already a popular destination for vacationing Panamanians from the mainland, Bocas del Toro, which means "mouths of the bull," is a collection of nine islands and more than 200 keys sprinkled about 25 miles off the coast near the Costa Rican border. Christopher Columbus named the archipelago, which today counts 10,000 residents, in 1502 when he landed on Isla Carenero, the smallest island. American banana companies built the main settlement, known as Bocas Town, on Isla Colon, the largest island in the chain, not long after Panama declared independence from Colombia in 1903.

But with its rustic facilities and end-of-the-line feel, it's not for everyone. Now, as eco-tourism increases, Bocas Town, with only 1,200 people, feels like a sleepy beach place poised on the verge of a big boom. The government-run Panamanian Tourism Institute has started promoting the islands to U.S. travelers, launching an English-language Web site that features Bocas prominently.

With an airport, Internet cafes, ATMs and plenty of hotels and restaurants, Bocas Town has enough infrastructure that visitors have no problem quickly making themselves comfortable. Concrete-and-steel frames for more hotels seem to be popping up everywhere, and a Bocas Business Association, with a big sign in English, sits prominently on downtown's main strip, Calle 3. The official currency is the dollar, the legacy of U.S. involvement in Panama, and most stores and restaurants accept credit cards. Many merchants speak English as well as Spanish.

But chickens and roosters still strut the unpaved side streets with impunity, and the chirps of tropical birds often wake tourists well before the alarm clock rings. Most of the few cars are taxis, and pedestrians stroll down the center of Calle 3. Palm and banana trees provide shady spots. The islands are still wild enough to have hosted the Italian and Russian versions of Survivor.

"It's kind of rough around the edges, which we like," Steele says.

Getting around the islands is easy. Touts for boat companies wander the streets, offering to ferry tourists to less developed spots in the archipelago. Once out of town, the biological diversity sparkles. Mangrove forests bump up against beaches with coral reefs just offshore.

On Isla Bastimentos, a 10-minute ride from town, a little village of brightly painted open-air huts and cheap hotels sits at the foot of jungle-covered hills. Tourists can take a 20-minute hike through sunny meadows and down muddy paths to Wizard Beach, a nearly deserted slice of white sand between warm turquoise water and steamy rain forest.

Along the way, ants carry bits of leaves twice their size across the path. Thick mud oozes underfoot after a common early morning rainstorm. A jungle-covered hill looms to the north, vines drooping from the summit almost all the way to the sea. Coconuts fall from trees at the beach's edge. Surfers willing to lug their boards through the forest ride rolling waves.

Back in the village, tourists sip beers and listen to reggae music under a thatched-roof bar where water taxis dock.

In Dolphin Bay, boats circle to watch bottlenose dolphins surface, although there are too many jellyfish to swim alongside them. Perfectly clear water covers a sprawling reef at Coral Cay. Barracuda lurk as snorkelers watch white snappers, angelfish and other species in dazzling shades of yellow and blue.

From there, a short boat ride ends on Bastimentos, where another hike goes through forests teeming with rare poison-dart frogs. Bright red and not much bigger than a thumbnail, they dart from one leaf to another. (They're only dangerous if handled with open cuts.) At the end of the trail is Red Frog Beach, less empty than Wizard Beach but just as relaxing.

Another popular snorkeling stop is Hospital Point, where an enormous variety of sea life clusters along a coral reef at the edge of a 60-foot underwater cliff. Live sponges mix with coral on the seafloor. Eels slither alongside crabs and tropical fish. Guides can provide snorkeling equipment.

Over the past couple of years, some lodges devoted specifically to eco-tourism have opened outside Bocas Town, with private beaches and snorkeling spots.

Still, until more development comes, visiting Bocas may take a slightly more adventurous spirit than a trip elsewhere in the Caribbean. But for many who come here, that's exactly the draw.

"Our clients that choose Panama want something that is off the beaten path," says Denise Page with Lost World Adventures, a Decatur, Ga., travel agency that has booked trips to Bocas for eight years. "It's people who are more well traveled and comfortable going to places that are off the beaten path. That's what they seek."