Panama’s Bocas del Toro archipelago has been discovered by the world, and the best news is that it hasn’t been ruined.
The green string of Caribbean islands is just an hour by plane from bustling, skyscraper-studded Panama City but a world away.
Polyglot backpackers spend a few nights in small hotels or hostels on the main island of Colón just off Panama’s coast — everyone just calls it Bocas town — and then jump on small motorboats and head for the ring of islands to low-key getaways or just day-tripping.
The young and the restless who roam the world after college have made Bocas a favorite stop along the way to Paris or India, it seems. Two young women we met from Switzerland hefted enormous backpacks and headed off to — where? One waiter, a student from troubled Venezuela, said he had met a French woman, and they will be off to visit France soon. Horizons are wide out here.
One of the most popular destinations is Red Frog Beach on the 24-square-mile island of Bastimentos, a few minutes away by water taxi. There’s a nature preserve, beaches, an Indian village, turtle nesting area, and the famed red frogs. Several dozen small hotels have sprung up.
Fabienne and Benoit Carouge left France to open what is arguably the best restaurant in Bocas town, MK, and plan to open a resort on a small nearby island. They’re a friendly couple.
My daughter, Wendy, and I found the tiny entrance of MK and sat down at the end of their dock, with a view of the bay ringed by South Sea island-like small hotels, each with a dock busy with speedboats laden with passengers heading out to adventure.
Our sunset culinary adventure began with a classic French Niçoise salad — chunks of savory tuna, fresh sliced tomatoes, lettuce, and more. Fabienne arrived with chilled wine from Argentina’s famed Mendoza valley.
Then came chunks of local lobster tail to gnaw on. I’m not a big lobster fan, but it was wonderful to sit in the warm March gloaming and watch the small boats zip across the water and the sun slide into the archipelago. MK is next door to one of the most comfortable hotels in Bocas town, the Tropical Suites, a modern three-story affair with large rooms offering town and sea views, air conditioning, Wi-Fi, and even TV. (We didn’t turn ours on.)
Mostly we existed on arroz con pollo: Panamanian rice and chicken, and traditional sancocho soup: chicken, potatoes, and yucca in a warm broth.
At first glance, Bocas town may look like Isla Vista, but there the comparison ends. It’s quiet, at least it was during pre-spring-break visit. There are few cars, except for the bright yellow taxis, and they all drive slowly, all the better for the locals and their children, and the dogs that saunter around.
It’s a peaceful place. But in the 15 years since I last visited, it’s grown: more hotels, more paved streets, more Panamanian families living there. There’s also a small clinic.
I didn’t get to Bastimentos Island this time — Wendy’s never been there — and I’m vowing to get back to Bocas, Red Frog Beach, and starfish beach. To get to starfish beach, you take a cheap shuttle bus ride from Bocas to Playa del Drago. Then walk to starfish beach and its clear water. You can easily see the starfish but it’s a no-no to touch them, of course.
We hated to leave, but we had Panama City kin to visit and gifts to buy: Panama’s Duran coffee and colorful traditional Kuna mola art.
In Panama City we avoided the noisy skyscrapers and enjoyed the beautifully renovated colonial Casco Viejo quarter, with its narrow streets and small shops and restaurants. We stayed at the beautiful Central Hotel and snacked at an open-air spot under the moon in the soft night in the old plaza next door. On our last night, we ate well among well-dressed patrons in the huge dining room at the nearby American Trade Hotel, adjoining the jazz club and bar.
Next time, we’re dropping our bags at the oddly named ATH.