Bocas del Toro: Natural Bonds

For the June 2009 issue of ISLANDS magazine, associate editor Adrienne Egolf traveled to the Bocas del Toro islands off Panama's coast for a special trip with her father. This is how her story begins:
Maybe my dad was right. Behind me, he's in flip-flops. Bocas del Toro, an archipelago of untouched beaches and uncrowded seas, is a place for sand between the toes, after all. So why am I in durable Gore-Tex shoes? Because the island we're on, Isla Bastimentos, also has thick jungle, and the rugged trail winding ahead is steep and slick from this morning's rain. The canopy drips with condensation and life. Roots jut from the ground at every angle, and streams cross our path. Our Ngobe Bugle Indian guide, Delfina, is barefoot -- but her soles must be superhuman to manage this terrain with no tread. Surely, my feet are the best equipped here in hiking shoes and super-absorbent socks. "Uh, un momento, por favor, señorita," my dad calls in halting Spanish. Delfina pauses and turns, whether in understanding or lack thereof. My dad takes the moment to sit down on a log and trade out the flimsy flip-flops. I don't say, "I told you to wear different shoes," and he doesn't say, "I'm glad you said to bring these sneakers." Only a running stream narrates our intermission.

View Larger Map| |We're here, my dad and I, to bond -- to travel, just the two of us, to a place where clear, Caribbean water and golden sand might bridge the distance and years since our last trip together -- a simple getaway to North Carolina for a family reunion that still spurs laughter, stories and watery eyes. "What about hiking through the woods behind Aunt Hazel's house?" he'll ask, nudging my arm. "Yeah, you made me walk across that log over a raging river," I'll respond, exaggerating for the sake of the story. But since then, we've each made ever-growing lists of destinations to get to with ever-shrinking windows of time to travel them. When he does escape somewhere, he goes with my mom; I've gone with friends, and now almost always, my husband. My dad and I haven't made the time for a new adventure together. So when I heard about Bocas' two newest eco resorts -- one over the water and one in the jungle -- I thought first of him. My dad's a surfer, sailor and fisherman -- a man of the water. "It's all deserted beaches and sea," I told him. "Hardly any development at all. We'll have so much time to talk." Yet as we planned our weeklong stay, trading flight schedules and tour suggestions over e-mail, I started to worry: Was Bocas del Toro too quiet? I hoped the sounds of these islands would be loud enough to inspire us. (Read the full version in the June 2009 issue of ISLANDS.) Plan Your Trip: Bocas del Toro * Fly direct to Panama City (PTY) from several major U.S. hubs on Copa Airlines. Then catch Air Panama's or Aeroperlas Regional's hour-plus flight at Panama City's domestic airport (PAC) to Bocas Town (BOC) on Isla Colón. copaair.com; flyairpanama.com; aeroperlas.com * Stay at Eclypse de Mar Acqua Lodge on the northern tip of Bastimentos. Four overwater bungalows offer sunset views and open-air suites that sleep up to four people. Explore the property's nature reserve where you'll find red frogs hopping among banana trees, pineapple plants and even wild orchids. Rates start at $180, eclypsedemar.com. Popa Paradise Beach Resort offers beachfront as well as oceanfront cottages on the otherwise undeveloped Isla Popa. Paddle a kayak to the reef for snorkeling. Rates start at $215. popaparadisebeachresort.com * Shop for molas in Bocas Town. A booth at the end of the main shopping strip sells these exquisite story-telling tapestries, which are handmade by Kuna Indians. Search through the piles of tabloid-size cloths -- each one unique -- for the perfect mix of neon colors & nature-themed shapes. Cloths start at about $20. * Eat a mix of Panamanian and Caribbean specialties throughout the archipelago. In Old Bank, a West Indian village on the west coast of Bastimentos, try Roots, a local hangout serving Balboa beer and Creole-style fish. Red Rooster is an expat-founded restaurant whose varied menu features fresh wahoo and Caribbean lobster. In Bocas Town, munch on fried plantains and seafood salad at The Reef Restaurant. * See Bocas by boat. Take a water taxi to Bird Island, at the north end of the archipelago, and stop at Boca del Drago for a beach-side lunch and Starfish Beach, where the stars dot the shallows. Boat south to Zapatillas for snorkeling and picnicking.|