The Caribbean coast of Costa Rica and Panama merges in a seamless sequence of barely-explored mountains and rivers, dense forests opening onto turquoise waters and pristine white beaches, mysterious mangrove channels, coral gardens and exotically-coloured wildlife.
This is the Panamanian province of Bocas del Toro. Its capital, Bocas Town, is on Colon, one of the 68 Bocas del Toro Islands that fill the Laguna de Chiriqui for 100 km (60 mi). Collectively, they are one of the Caribbean’s richest, unspoiled eco-surprises.
Columbus careened his boats here in 1502, on Isla Carinero, as he named it. For 300 years the Bocas Islands’ remote bays were shared between the indigenous Ngobe-Bugle people and a variety of official and unofficial pirates, until in the early 1800s the bananas and cacao business attracted immigrant Jamaicans, and turned the archipelago mm into an English-speaking part of a Hispanic nation.
Island culture is much more Afro-Caribbean than Latin-American. Towns and villages have a bright but dilapidated air, and the residents are perfectly matched to the young, hip crowd of international visitors. The high funk factor of thatched bars on stilts and infinite versions of incomers’ fantasy tropical getaways, is driven by residents’ own appreciation for the natural paradise in which they live.
However hard they party, people respect the marvels of the Marine Park surrounding Isla Bastimentos, where one beach is the world’s only home to the black polka-dotted, scarlet frog, and another to scores of – rare sea-turtles; and to the 350 bird species, sloths, caimans, dolphins, and monkeys that you see throughout the islands.
Only on Isla Colon is uncontrolled tourist development beginning to threaten the very high diversity of marine and terrestrial ecosystems that – along with its delightful, quirky, retro-culture – has made Bocas del Toro famous.
Population: 9,000 (2007)
When to go: The rain never entirely stops, but the islands are driest in September/October and February/March. Happily, at these times the islands are both cheaper and less crowded.
How to get there: By air, from Panama City, David or Changuinola, to Bocas Town; by bus/car from Chiriqui Grande (S) or Changuinola (N) to Almirante, then by water-taxi or car ferry to Bocas Town. Highlights:
Toucans in the pristine rainforest of Isla Popa – where the ancient Ngobe culture predominates in the five main villages. Laguna Bocatorita, on the east of Isla Cristobal, where a labyrinth of mangroves forms a giant natural aquarium 6 km (4 mi) across, drawing in fish, manatees and bottle-nose dolphins. The only Panamanian nesting site of red-billed tropic-birds, on Swan’s Cay.
Snorkelling among the mangrove channels of Cayo Crawl, en route to the magnificent coral gardens on the southeast coast of Isla Bastimentos.
The candy-coloured houses of Bocas Town, heritage of the banana boom, when 25,000 people lived here.
You should know: The rocks and fossils around Bocas hold the key to understanding the formation of the Isthmus of Panama, the separation of the Atlantic and the Pacific – and the triggering of the Gulf Stream.