Panama’s Islands: Emulating the Wise Sloth

March 5, 2010

BOCAS DEL TORO, Panama — The happy thing about Panama’s convenient size is that closely within this small country you can find white Pacific beaches, swampy jungles, cool highlands, the world’s most significant canal, nature reserves, a major league sophisticated city and, up on the northern side, Caribbean palms and snorkeling treasures.

And everything’s only just an hour’s flight or a few hours’ drive apart. We drove from the heights of Boquete to the landing for Bocas del Toro in three hours, a ride through hills and across the continental divide through a rural life that is as interesting to learn about as is much of the natural beauty within which it exists. Small clusters of basic wooden-plank homes top the hills, overlooking streams and valleys and the human endeavors of working hard to get through the day.

Catedral Metropolitan in Old Panama

Colon in Bocas Del Toro is the largest in a cluster of islands 45 minutes from the mainland by small boat. It is nearly a resort, almost a tourist center, close to being an edgy  backpacker haunt. It has a “downtown” of shops and small hotels and restaurants and government offices all jammed together as if they were short on space, which they are not. At water’s edge, like teeth in a smile, tiny hotels lean up against one another, built out over the low, lappy waves. Our Bocas Inn was one of those, with such an excellent view of the bay collecting the breezes and sounds of the sea.

Even with unseasonable rain, we went out snorkeling time and again to watch an underwater aviary of red fish and yellow fishes and creatures decked out in stripes, tuxedo blacks and luminescent sparkles. We found heavy starfish and a really ugly yellow lump of a fish (who probably thought we were really ugly white and pastel intruders) and a crab or lobster such as to give you the nightmares. We saw small dainty doily-like things that — poof — vanished inside themselves at one’s approach, like the jungle things, the helicordian, in Avatar.

Much like Panama itself, the snorkeling sites each offered, an island apart, something new. In one place it was all coral and nifty fish as if someone’s postage stamp album had fallen overboard. In another, slim sandy stretches separated South Seas palms from the galaxy of starfish below. In between we watched little dolphins popcorning out of the water as they went on their own journey. Very cool.

You are meant to relax here but no trip is enough without some jungle walking. We boated to a mangrove community and nature reserve where, between the mosquitoes, birds chirped away and we examined a tiny red, poisonous frog (poisonous if you eat them) and watched a mother sloth determinedly try to rub away the rain from its baby — the moisture likely to slow the creatures already glacial metabolism. Sloths, we are told, take up to 30 days to digest a meal and can risk starving on a full stomach. Mostly they do nothing all day.

Children at Salt Creek Village

It takes only a few moments to do the town which, happily, is built to serve the needs of the community more than those of the visitors. There are the required restaurants and one or two souvenir shops but mostly it is a matter of churches, vegetable and fruit stores, groceries and supplies markets.  We mostly ate at the Bocas Inn, a risky proposition only because they serve so much very, very good food that, well, it is important to rest and relax, like the sloths, while it settles in.

Flying back to Panama (as Panama City is always called), we note that the little airstrip of Bocas del Torro ends abruptly at the sea on one end and a worn down little baseball field at the other. A long fly to center risks clonking the pilot and kids stroll along the side of the runway watching the planes come and go.

Panama City itself is a rich congregation of modern skyscrapers and old, historic enclaves, marinas and frisky nightlife. Staying at the extremely comfortable El Panama Hotel is a Las Vegas experience — bright, huge rooms; poolside bars; restaurants; shops and a casino. I lost $20.

Housing is pretty basic in the Bocas islands

If American fast food is your vice instead, they have it here in in abundance — no American chain seemingly was left behind. There is a strong, residual U.S. air to the place from the days of the Americans running the canal and the military bases. But forget the burgers, see if you are lucky enough to get into the Rene Cafe at the Plaza Major in one of the old quarters, Panama Viejo. What a meal! Course after delicate course flows as unending as the boats through the Canal. There are only six tables but it well worth the effort to be there.

The old historical city, two of them actually, stand as islands of their own — ancient churches and weathered homes quietly and with fadied elegance standing apart from the modern, towering buildings of the new booming city itself. You can stroll around the old quarters in an hour and soon forget that just beyond lies high commerce and international trade and banking.

It’s a great place to see, this small isthmus (you cannot pronounce that word without sounding a little tipsy) between the oceans. History. Beauty. Nature. A handsome and bright people. Nice weather. Variety. Excitement. Take your pick.

A hotel in downtown Colon, Bocas del Toro

And I even bought a Panama hat.


The travel scene is growing but it is still early in the tourism game. Panama is less crowded and very reasonably priced compared to other gems nearby like Costa Rica.

We were very happy with the work of Wildland Aventures who arranged our tour and tidied up various special needs and interests. The basic 8-day tour we signed up for came in at $1,995 and includes everything: great hotels, wonderful meals, guides, transportation around the country. We added a day at the beginning to see even more. They also arranged side tours through the Canal itself which was well worth the effort.

Panama uses the American dollar as its currency so there is no confusion at all about money. They have their own coins, identical in size to the equivalents in American currency so it could hardly be easier.

Starfish Beach in the islands of Bocas del Toro

The weather is pretty much the same all the time: in the high eighties, swampy humidity everywhere but in the highlands. The dry season runs from December through April and when it rains during the rainy season it is often only during the afternoon but in tremendous downpourings. This is the tropics so expect it to be tropical.

Panama City offers contrasts between the modern and the traditional

Our itinerary was moderately strenuous on occasion but nothing that reasonably fit visitors can’t handle. We did not visit the legendary and menacing Darien (pronounced Day-rein) province to the east. All the guides say things like, “Panama is free of deadly diseases except in the Darien …” “You are perfectly safe from this or that, except in the Darien …” Accordingly, the Darien get the hardiest adventurers and they are welcome to it. It is said to be wildly beautiful. I’ll take their word for it.

Bring plenty of sun screen, lots of bug repellent, sturdy shoes and strong sandals — and a readiness to surrender to having a wonderful experience.

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