The natural treasures of the Bocas del Toro archipelago on Panama’s Caribbean have lured the international community for centuries. Its nine major islands, 51 cays and 200 islets have inspired Columbus, traders, the United Fruit Company, adventuresome travelers and now affluent tourists.
Capitalizing on limpid-blue waters, nearly deserted soft-sand beaches and a cool Caribbean vibe, Bocas del Toro, literally “mouths of the bull” in English, is fast becoming home to high-end tourism. Resort hotels and lavish residential homes are starting to dot the islands. Adding to the usual leisure activities are fine-dining options and even a yoga center designed by a Vaastu (the Indian equivalent of feng shui, but for architectural design) architect.
Fading are the days of small, boutique hotels and mom-and-pop eateries. Today’s wealthy tourists stay in resort hotels, dine at restaurants and relax with massages and yoga.
9° restaurant and lounge has been open for six months in Bocas town on ColónIsland, and it is quickly setting the trend for luxury dining.
“It is no longer necessary to go to the city to experience good service, a flattering atmosphere and great food,” says Erika Justavino, restaurant manager. “For people who come from the city, they can change their high heels for flip-flops, or suit for a T-shirt, and still get that feeling that 9° offers.”
Like many good restaurants, 9° cares about the wine it serves, making the house wine not a bad choice. While the menu changes, hits such as the mushroom cigars, a mix of mushrooms, fresh herbs, goat cheese and white truffle oil, stay.
“I change the menu every couple of months, adjusting to the availability of certain fruits, vegetables and fish to keep it exciting, new and fresh,” says chef T.J. Bennett.
“I typically leave the most popular dishes to keep the locals coming back.”
Not letting go of the laid-back Caribbean feel, the white leather-cushioned chaise longues lining the water’s edge, complete with swing-out drink holders, make the perfect spot for post-dinner stargazing. Dinner reservations are recommended. For information, call (507) 757-9400.
For those who want to eat in or barbecue on the boat, a second gourmet foods market (in addition to the existing Super Gourmet Market) has opened in town in a new building called Tropical Markets, where 9° is also located. Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., you can pick up a tri-tip roast from the full-service meat market, a head of hydroponic lettuce from the largest refrigerated fruit and vegetable stand in Bocas, and imported wine or beer.
If you are looking for a little more exercise and peace of mind to supplement your day of snorkeling the coral reefs, yoga classes can fill that void. Bocas Yoga Center founder Laura Kay, a certified yoga instructor, was born in Panama’s Canal Zone to U.S. parents.
Kay returned to Panama from Tucson, Arizona, two years ago.
“When I got here, I missed the thriving yoga community that I was a part of in Tucson,” Kay says. “My mission was to open a yoga studio.”
BocasYogaCenter, scheduled to open this month, will offer different yoga styles, massage, movie nights and monthly moon circles, which Kay describes as “guided meditations and celebrations of growth and renewal.” For information, call (507) 6658-1355 or visit www.bocasyoga.com.
There are a few new places to lay your head on the islands, and, whether budget or deluxe, all are adding a few higher-end comforts.
Even the youth hostel market is going upscale in Bocas. Located in Bocas town, the recently opened Gran Kahuna Hostel offers clean dorm rooms, a kitchen and hangout areas with TV, wireless Internet and fluffy couches.
“Even if you’re a backpacker, you want a quiet and nice place,” says Fabio Acevedo, part owner. For information, call (507) 757-9038 or visit www.grankahunabocas.com.
Bocas Condos sits a few steps away from the main town in a brand-new complex. Fully furnished rooms with kitchens and wireless Internet are available for both short- and longterm stays. For information, call (507) 6499-6158 or visit www.bocascondosrentals.com.
Playa Tortuga Hotel and Beach Resort opened in July to become the first five-star resort in the archipelago, with 75 standard rooms, 40 junior suites and two grand master suites. It also has a gymnasium and two banquet rooms with a capacity for 75 people each. The resort is just outside of Bocas town, a 10-minute boat ride or drive away. For information, call (507) 757-9050 or visit www.hotelplayatortuga.com.
Careening Cay Resort on CareneroIsland is a two-minute boat ride from Bocas town. U.S. owners Stephen and Joan Crabtree from Florida bought the place four years ago and have just built their fifth cabina sleeping eight to 10 people. Careening Cay is also home to the new Cosmic Crab restaurant, which wades into the sea along with five covered gazebos and views of the main island. For information, call (507) 757-9157 or visit www.careeningcayresort.com.
Popa Paradise Beach Resort on PopaIsland, a 20-minute boat ride from the main island, opened four months ago with the concept of providing guests with “barefoot luxury” accommodations. The place is the product of English-born Peter Winn’s lifelong dream to create an eco-friendly resort introducing visitors to the diverse natural environment of Bocas. For information, call (507) 202-1498 or visit www.popaparadisebeachresort.com.
Sunset Point Hotel is another five-star project in the works that will further solidify Bocas’ place on the international luxury travel scene. This hotel will have about 120 luxuriously appointed suites, which will be sold and rented under the condo hotel model. Owners will be able to have their own vacation property for one month of the year. Sunset Point will manage and market the property for the other 11 months, with the owner receiving a 50 percent share in the income.
Sunset Point Hotel will link to its sister hotel, Volcán Pacífica in Panama’s western Chiriquí province, via a private seaplane and helicopter operation. Both hotels will offer other amenities such as private deep-water protected marinas, saltwater and freshwater infinity swimming pools and water-sports centers linked to the marina for water-skiing, skippered fishing trips and luxury power and sailboat charters. For information, call (507) 757-9566 or see www.sunsetpointbocas.com.
Sunset Point managing partner Mathew Whant says, “Bocas seems to be receiving more and more cruise ships now, along with bigger and bigger private yachts, during the hurricane season, especially as Bocas is a hurricane-free zone. And with the Lloyd’s of London statement to not insure cruise ships in hurricane zones from 2015, this trend is sure to continue. … This is why we are investing in a world-class 210-slip marina.”
Hurricanes or not, a potential storm is looming. Bocas is in the eye of the developer.
When you ask people here what they think about growing tourism, the first word to roll off their tongue is “infrastructure.”
“When it was cheap, people would put up with it. Now they won’t,” says Jim McCarren, longtime Bocas resident and owner of local real estate company Buena Vista Realty. Beyond the horizon, some developers are clueing in to the fact that sustainability is great business.
“We are going to be self-sufficient and have the capability to recycle 99 percent of our water usage with low-maintenance activated sludge treatment plants,” says Micah Roberts, Sunset Point’s technical director.
“We are offering full solar power options for all clients. We can even run our water pumps on solar with a battery and/or hardwire backup.”
Lending a helping hand, The Nature Conservancy is working closely with Bocas del Toro Mayor Eligio Binns and the city council to implement an environmental plan within the next six months to protect the archipelago’s fragile reefs and marine life from the effects of development.
Though Playa Tortuga and Sunset Point are the only top-end developments to have broken ground, several more luxury resorts are slated to begin construction in the near future. Despite the buzz, McCarren is taking a more conservative view of the boom.
“The next six months to a year will really tell the tale,” he says. “So far, it’s been a lot of hype; we haven’t seen a lot open.”
History continues to repeat itself as a new class of inhabitants falls in love with Bocas the minute they discover that exoticisland desktop designs really do exist. Bocas is developing the trappings of high-end tourism found in other parts of the Caribbean.
Things are booming, but in that laidback Caribbean way.
You still find yourself wondering where the waiter went long before he or she has even thought of working on your order. Bocas still reminds you that you need to slow down, count flying fish and be in the moment. Now, you’ll just be doing it in comfier chairs.
By air: A quick flight from Costa Rica on Nature Air makes Bocas an easy weekend getaway. Nature Air flies from Tamarindo, Liberia and San José on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays (Saturdays in high season). For information, call 2299-6000 or visit www.natureair.com.
Nature Air affiliate company Nature Vacations offers various package deals to Bocas, including flight, hotel and tours. For information, call 2521-5226 or visit www.naturevacations.com.
By land and water: Direct buses leave from the Caribbean bus terminal in San José to the border town of Sixaola (5.5 hours), where you cross into Panama on foot over a 100-year-old bridge. Once across, you can easily arrange a collective taxi to either the Changuinola or Almirante boat launch. From the border, Changuinola is a 15-minute drive and a onehour, “Apocalypse Now” boat ride up a river and into the Caribbean Sea to the Bocas del Toro archipelago. If you tend to get seasick, you can take the 45-minute scenic drive to the Almirante launch and a 20-minute boat ride to Bocas.
Bocas Marine Tours travels between Bocas and Almirante, $5 one way, and between Bocas and Changuinola, $7 one way. For information, call (507) 757-9033.
Jampan Tours travels between Bocas and Almirante, $5 one way. For information, call (507) 757-9619.
Express Taxi 25 travels between Bocas and Almirante, $5 one way. For information, call (507) 757-9028.