As I sit here in New York City looking at the dreary, rainy day unfolding outside my window, let me reach back in time to almost one year ago when my view was not red brick buildings and alleyways of Astoria; but rather the jungle foliage and sunny weather of Panama. Back in March 2014, I flew down to Central America with friends in tow to visit Panama City and the archipelago region of Bocas del Toro. What had originally been a two day getaway on our greater tour of Panama City turned into the entire trip as we fell in love with the sleepy islands of Bocas del Toro, the laissez-faire attitude of its residents and the beauty and warmth of its climate. It took little more than a day on the islands for us to realize we preferred to spend the majority of our trip in Bocas del Toro, and so only two days were spent in Panama’s capital with the rest of our time passed as languid days riding vintage bicycles around tropical islands.
To say Bocas del Toro is a paradise is an understatement–it seems to be a haven for dreamers, surfers, beach bums and backpackers alike who all flock to the pristine beaches in search of something they’re missing back home. With a slew of island bars, colorful crafts, cultural experiences and sun-kissed, smiling locals–Panama’s Bocas del Toro region is truly memorable. If heading to Central America and making a stop in Bocas del Toro, the following experiences are a must:
The Oreba Chocolate Tour
If I close my eyes, I can still remember the first taste of that spoonful of freshly made dark chocolate. The subtle crunch of the sugar granules lending its sweetness, the slight bitter taste from the cocoa beans mixing with the smoothness of the whipped in milk. Moments ago I had seen all three ingredients come together like a choreographed dance–melting into each other while stirred by local Ngäbe women dressed in shades of vivid blue and pink. I had watched, transfixed, as one woman roasted the chocolate beans over an open fire and then passed it to another who crushed the mixture into a rich paste using a heavy, rounded rock.
It was all part of the Oreba Chocolate Tour, founded and run by the local Ngäbe community who uses proceeds from their sustainable tourism to finance healthcare and education in their village. The Oreba Chocolate tour takes guests through the jungles surrounding the Ngäbe village to show them how the locals live off and depend on the surrounding jungle. Medicinal plants, sloths, toucans and of course chocolate unveil themselves throughout the tour all culminating in the unparalleled experience of enjoying freshly made chocolate (made right in front of your eyes) with a view of the surrounding jungle extending out in all directions.
Seeing Starfish Beach for the first time (on the island of Boca del Drago) is like stepping into a desktop screensaver so often spotted in fluorescent-lit cubicles. Everyone has those idyllic beach photos hanging from their pushpin boards or splashed across their computer screen; wistfully imagining themselves being wherever they think the photograph was taken. Imagine a white sand beach with crystal clear waters and a variety of bright, orange starfish nestled beneath the light ripple of waves and you’ll get an idea of what Starfish Beach is like. It is perfection. You can spend the day snorkeling with more starfish than you could imagine or you can enjoy the freshest seafood and lobster at no-frills restaurants with tables placed right on the beach and sand between your toes. Just remember not to touch the starfish; even if the lure of that perfect Instagram shot is calling your name because the oils on our hands damage these beautiful creatures.
Isla Bastimentos–or Red Frog Beach–is a reserve where jungle life flourishes, beautiful beaches with rolling waves remain unspoiled and red frogs evidently run rampant. During my time at Isla Bastimentos I did not spot a red frog but I can attest to the beauty of the beaches and the wonderful hikes available through the jungles.
Ask anyone what they are doing on Saturday night on Isla Colon–the main island of Bocas del Toro–and most likely you will get the response of “Aqua Lounge.” This hostel/bar/water amusement park of sorts is where all the locals and island visitors converge to dance and drink on balmy Saturday nights. The hostel is known for their trampoline-into-the-ocean set up as well as their swing set that hovers above the water. If you’re overly confident in your coordination skills whilst drinking, you may attempt to swing or jump into the ocean although I wouldn’t recommend it. Nevertheless, Aqua Lounge brings people together from all over the world–whether surfers from Costa Rica, vacationers from Argentina, travelers from New York City or schoolboys from California–it is an eclectic mix of people bonded by wanderlust, music, and drinks.
Island Crafts on Isla Colon
I collect bracelets from my travels. Some have wrapped themselves around my wrist and never let go, while others have frayed and unraveled and now sit in a box of memories I have in my apartment. Each bracelet holds a memory–one is from my hike in Argentina’s Iguazu, while another is from an impromptu trip to Uruguay and another is from a voodoo shop in New Orleans. Unfortunately, my bracelets from Panama have long since fallen off but I can still remember eagerly buying these hand woven crafts from locals to commemorate a day spent biking around Isla Colon with friends in tow.