ISLA BASTIMENTOS, Panama - Known for pristine white sand beaches, unspoiled lush green jungles, and tiny red poison dart frogs, Isla Bastimentos has become one of Panama's top ecotourism destinations.
Located in the archipelago Bocas del Toro on the northwest Caribbean coast, this magical island has just the right balance of development and wild natural beauty. It's tastefully nestled into the relatively untamed landscape, and you will find an eclectic selection of beach and jungle accommodations ranging from primitive huts to luxury villas.
Bastimentos' most famous attraction, Red Frog Beach (named after the little frogs that are ubiquitous there), is a glorious stretch of crystal-white sand on the northwest side of the island. This is also where you'll find Red Frog Beach Island Resort & Spa (www.redfrogbeach.com). The largest operation on the island, the resort offers a high-end experience for those who love their creature comforts: Large, sweeping marble stairways, massive kitchens, private pools, air conditioning, washer-dryers, and Internet are standard in the villas. They even rent electric golf carts to get you to the beach and back.
If you're looking for a more "natural" experience, Red Frog Bungalows (www.redfrogbungalows.com) offers a collection of Bali-style huts, tucked into the jungle a stone's throw from the sea. The resort doubles as a surf camp that caters to all levels of ability, from newbie to pro. And while surfing is not a requirement - lots of people stay there just for the cool atmosphere and the great food - you should give it a try. The owner and head surf guru, Scott Balogh, took my photographer and me by boat to an awesome reef break off Isla Carenero that was perfect for beginners. And if you're not staying with Scott, Bibi's on the Beach rents boards and serves some of the best food and drinks on Carenero.
For those looking for more of a jungle experience, on the mangrove side of Bastimentos is La Loma Jungle Lodge & Chocolate Farm (www.thejunglelodge.com). Nestled in the woods, La Loma is ecotourism in every sense of the word. The lodge has four casitas perched on a hillside. Built from naturally fallen trees, sustainably harvested lumber, and other renewable resources, these are open-air dwellings, where three "walls" of specially designed mosquito netting are all that separate you from the wild Panamanian jungle. Solar panels provide power, and your water comes from rain and local springs. Guests fall asleep to the music of the tropical night and wake to La Loma's resident rooster. For activities, there are excursions to rich snorkeling sites, local bat caves, and the picturesque Zapatillas Islands. You can also take an informative casual tour of the resort's chocolate farm, which ends at La Loma's "chocolate factory," where you can make your own chocolate bar.
If your tropical dream is miles and miles of nearly empty beach, ecoresort Al Natural (www.alnaturalresort.com) has five private bungalows that sit on a vast bay on the southeast side of Bastimentos. From your private deck you have an expansive view of the Caribbean Sea and the idyllic Zapatillas Islands. And while it's hard not to spend your entire day lazing in the hammock on your porch, or snorkeling the reef in front of your bungalow, I recommend visiting the nearby Indian settlement of Salt Creek. They charge a small fee for tours of the village and it's worth every penny.
Air Panama has morning and afternoon flights from Panama City to Bocas Town on Isla Colon. From there it's just a short water taxi ride to Bastimentos. Bocas Town, although a bit scruffy, is worth spending a couple of hours exploring. Hidden in the flotsam and jetsam of typical tourist-trap shops and honky-tonk bars are some great restaurants. Our favorite is a joint called Tom # 2, which serves cheap, delicious local food on a large deck overlooking the water. The town is also where you will find most of your "services," such as dive shops, surf rentals, and fishing charters. And if you plan to cook your meals, you'll have to shop here, as this is the only place with supermarkets.
If you decide to spend a day or so in Panama City, skip the downtown skyscraper scene and stay in Casco Viejo. Once the city center, this 17th-century colonial district is experiencing a renaissance. Century-old buildings are being restored to their former glory, streets have been paved with decorative red cobblestones, and boutique restaurants, hotels, and coffee shops have sprouted like daisies.
Once you discover Panama and Islas Bastimentos, I guarantee you'll keep going back. We went twice within a year, and are already talking about a third trip. Of course when it comes to ecotourism and Panama, Bastimentos is just one of many delightful destinations this isthmus has to offer.
That said, Bastimento is a great place to start, and a destination that delivers. I recommend going sooner than later - I'd hate to think Bastimentos' beautiful beaches could someday be lined with mega-hotels - but you never know.