Sun, 06 Mar 2005
From:

Bocas del Toro, Panamanian paradise

Sanjida O'Connel, Guardian News Service, London

There's creature comforts and plenty of wildlife too at the laid- back archipelago of Bocas del Toro in Panama

The last thing I expected as I snorkeled through a shoal of sky- blue and daffodil-yellow striped parrot fish was to confront a metre-long barracuda. I froze for a minute, and then broke the water's surface only to see several faces grinning back at me.

The fish, I was told, was friendly. It was known as Barry. "He likes showing his teeth for the camera," said our guide. Barry was just one of the many surprises Bocas del Toro in Panama has to offer.

We flew to the archipelago from Panama City. From the plane the province's capital, also called Bocas del Toro, on the southern tip of Isla Colon, looked like paradise -- a collection of candy-colored wooden buildings jumbled together, stilts poking in to the aquamarine sea, fringed by coconut palms with a lick of white sand.

The town of Bocas del Toro is tiny -- you can cross it in minutes -- but its real attraction is the 13,000-hectare marine park, Bastimentos, which protects many varied and secluded beaches and reefs on the islands surrounding Isla Colon.

Most of the beaches are reached by water taxi: you glide past mangroves, the clear water dense with fleshy orange starfish, sighting the occasional dolphin. One of my favorite trips was to Red Frog beach, so called after the tiny amphibians that are endemic to the area.

A popular place for snorkeling is Crawl Cay, where I met the aforementioned Barry. Other highlights included giant brain corals, vast numbers of fish, sponges and sea slugs.

There are beaches on Isla Colon - Bocas del Drago, on the northwest side, is small but does boast a restaurant (Yarisnori) that is run by an ex-schoolteacher. It can be reached by boat or taxi. However, we opted for Playa Bluff on the east coast.

Isla Colon is mainly secondary rainforest (the kind that grows back after it has been cleared), but there are pockets of primary, and it was into this region we ventured with our guide Oscar. We carried a huge amount of paraphernalia -- sun cream, water, food, mosquito repellent; Oscar carried only a machete. After a couple of hours of marching, he allowed us time to cool off in a sea-water pool while he hacked down coconuts to replenish lost energy.

Among the local inhabitants who observed our progress were two- and three-toed sloths, a troop of howler monkeys, a two- metre-long iguana and a male montezuma oropendola bird, which was gurgling loudly and executing forward somersaults from its branch in the hope of impressing a nearby female.

We stayed in the pleasant Hotel Bahia, formerly the headquarters of the United Fruit Company when the islands used to be covered with banana plantations. For those seeking peace, tranquility and luxury, the Aqua-lodge at Punta Caracol is ideal. The cabins are suspended above the sea, connected by a wooden walkway to a gourmet organic restaurant and bar. The Spanish owners will pick you up from the airport, provide snorkeling gear, and arrange day trips from the lodge.

Although Panamanian food can get a little monotonous (rice, beans, fish or meat), there are many fine restaurants in Bocas. But perhaps the biggest culinary surprise was La Veranda, a self- catering hotel, which also sells coffee and chocolate handmade by owner Heather Guidi. The chocolate itself is heavenly - more delicious than any other I've tasted - although staying directly above the kitchen while the beans are being roasted and ground must be torture.

Factfile:

- Getting there: Aeroplas (+757 9341, aeroplas. com) flies Panama City-Bocas del Toro twice daily for $50. - Where to stay: Hotel Bahia (+757 9626, hotelbahia@ cwpanama.net); Punta Caracol Aqua-lodge (+612 1088, punta caracol.com); La Veranda (+757 921 100, laverandahotel.com) - Activities: J&J Jungle Tours with Oscar (+757 9259, oscarcuero.2000@yahoo.com). - Further information: Visit explorepanama.com/regions/bocas/bocastown/ bocast.htm.





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