MAKE TREASURED MEMORIES
The islands of the Bocas del Toro Archipelago have been called the Galapagos of the Caribbean. They are located in the extreme western part of the country, only 25 miles from the Republic of Costa Rica. This Archipelago has the perfect combination of historical and cultural traditions, with a charming variety of aquatic species, coral reefs, mangroves, beaches with crystal clear water and undisturbed jungles with all the flora and fauna you can imagine.
Without any doubt, the most famous visitor to this piece of paradise was the Admiral Christopher Columbus on October 6, 1502 on his fourth and last trip to the Americas. He entered with two vessels into a wide bay, now called Almirante Bay, took in provisions on the present Bastimentos Island and careened a ship in the vicinity of Carenero Island.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the brothers "Snap" arrived from Jamaica with their slaves, at the same time with the "Shepherd" family that inhabited Shepherd Island. A few years later various Scottish and English families emigrated from the San Andres and Providencia islands, also together with their slaves, in order to evade tax payments. An important commercial exchange started with the settled Indians of the region trading live turtles, turtle shells, cocoa and mahogany with the English people that came from Jamaica.
Bocas del Toro possesses a rich, ethnic culture that is reflected in its traditions, customs, gastronomy, music, dances and other afro-antillean manifestations; combined with the indigenous culture that remains intact.
It is not known for certain from where the name of this incredible Archipelago, forgotten by time, comes. It is said that when Christopher Columbus landed at one of the fantastic beaches, he saw various waterfalls in the form of "bocas del toro" (mouth of the bull). Columbus also distinguished a large rock on Bastimentos Island that has the form of a bull that is lying down. The sound of the immense waves hitting the large rock is similar to the roaring of a bull. On the other hand, there are locals that assure us that the last "cacique" (chief) of the region was known as "Boka Toro".
Tranquilo Bay is fortunate to be centrally located amongst the most biologically diverse protected areas in the whole of Panama and Central America. To put this in perspective, you can hike the lush cloud forest Bosque Palo Seco high in the Talamanca range teeming with jungle wildlife, then return to the Caribbean and enjoy the moonrise over the Zapatilla Cayes. There are few places on Earth where this diversity is possible.
The province of Bocas del Toro hosts two national parks, one of which is a world heritage site, and two protected cloud forests. In total the trans-boundary protected area consists of 1,400,000 contiguous acres extending from the continental divide to the Caribbean Sea, covering all five altitudinal zones known to the tropics.
Isla Bastimentos is a biologist’s fantasy and covers about 20 square miles, it is one of Panama’s 10 largest islands. The island is mostly forested and has no roads, cars, or airstrips. Tranquilo Bay is located on the southeastern end of Isla Bastimentos. It is a short boat ride from Bocas Town on Isla Colon by one of our boats. Access to different areas or beaches can be made on foot, boat, or kayak.
Bordering Tranquilo Bay is Bastimentos National Marine Park which encompasses a large portion of Bastimentos Island, and the Zapatilla Cayes, in addition to the waters and mangroves that surround the island. The western tip of the island, better known as Bastimentos (a small village), is clearly visible from Bocas Town, and is not part of the national park itself.
The eastern side of Bastimentos Island faces the Caribbean Sea, which tends to be rougher than the western side of the island. The landscape is much more dramatic, with large rock faces, stretches of long beaches, in addition to coves and inlets. While there are numerous beaches that provide ample space for boat landings, some of the beaches may be accessed only when the seas are calm because of the rocky shorelines. Between the months of August-October the water conditions tend to be the calmest, and at times you can access this portion of the island from the water.
Panama's weather is relatively mild in that the highs and lows year-round are within about 10 degrees of each other. While temperatures vary depending on the region, Bocas del Toro experiences a tropical climate with temperatures ranging from 70 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Bocas del Toro experiences relatively low humidity, with light breezy days and light temperate nights. From our quiet dock by the water to our wrap-around porch, relaxing outside and enjoying the weather couldn’t be more delightful.
The rainy season in Bocas takes place from December through January and then again June through August, however this season rarely produces enough rain to ruin a vacation. The dry season runs from February through May and during this period it is not uncommon to miss the raindrops all together. However, since we are in the tropics, short storms can come and go at any time. The great part about this tropical positioning though, is that we enjoy warm temperatures and light ocean breezes all year round.
Sometimes small storms can swing through but they usually do not last very long. More often, are the stretches of bright sunlight and clean skies. The most common wind direction in Bocas del Toro, Panama is North and there are several popular spots for surfing.
For the most part, we enjoy calm sea conditions. Because Bocas del Toro is an archipelago, many of the islands protect us from rough weather and high seas. These outlying islands also make for a picture perfect horizon line.
Most people say that the best time to visit Bocas del Toro is in the Fall and Spring when there is the least rain and the clearest waters. But in reality, almost year-round you can find a sunny beach to enjoy. Our terrific climate is perfect for snorkeling and boating trips as well as all other water-related activities. For the less adventurous members of your family, this may simply translate into relaxing afternoons at the beach. Either way, come see what all the fuss is about!
In 1988 32,700 acres of Isla Bastimentos and its surrounding marine habitat were set aside to form the national park. This park is an important nature reserve for an array of Caribbean wildlife species. Of the total area, 4,100 acres create a corridor through the middle of the island forming a land bridge between the windward and leeward coasts of the island, and 28,600 acres are marine habitat. Two beautiful islands known as Cayos Zapatillas, and the pristine reefs surrounding them, are also included within the park boundaries.
The interior of the park consists of beautiful primary and secondary rainforest. Due to the archipelagos seclusion, the wildlife in lowlands of western Bocas del Toro includes many species endemic to the region, some of which are found on Isla Bastimentos. White-faced capuchins, night monkeys, two and three toed sloth, conejo pintado, margays, armadillos, exotic birds, bats, turtles, caimans, frogs, lizards, butterflies, and rare tropical insects, are but some of the animals living beneath the canopy. Thousands of plant species exist in the park including hardwoods, forest palms, vines, bryophytes, ferns, bromeliads, orchids, and other epiphytes.
On the windward side of the park jungle canopy careens onto the white sand beaches, which are nesting sites for four species of sea turtles. The landscape is dramatic with large rock faces, coves and inlets, spring fed creeks, offshore rock outcroppings, and long stretches of beach. Just offshore, ocean impact reef and deep ocean reef meet to form a dramatic underwater topography. Rock and sand chutes, crags, pinnacles, and tunnels converge to make shelter for over 200 species of tropical fish. There are also several unmapped sub-sea caves dispensing fresh water into the Caribbean. Hard and soft corals are abundant, and come in an array of different formations.
On the leeward side of Isla Bastimentos, coastal forest merges with lush tangled mangrove, and plays an important role in the ecology of the nearby reef. Hundreds of mangrove Cayes dot the marine park where beds of sea grass cover shallow flats of white and pink coral sand. Just as with the mangrove, the health of this diverse coral reef is dependant on the sea grass. Throughout the maze of mangrove islets lie patch reefs of staghorn, brain corals and sponges providing habitats for vivid tropical fish, sea stars, sea cucumbers, crabs, conch, octopus and lobsters. Some of the mangrove islets serve as rookeries for frigates and boobies.
This World Heritage Site includes the single largest remaining tract of virgin forest unit in Central America. The Cordillera de Talamanca (continental divide) begins its decent from 11,400 feet and makes its way to the Caribbean Sea in less than 35 miles. It is an explorer’s dreamland.
The Talamanca range sheds its mountain waters into the archipelago creating an area so diverse that it contains at least 9 of the Holdridge life zones found in Panama, including 4 found only on Caribbean facing slopes. Tropical rain forests have covered most of the area since at least the last glaciation, about 25,000 years ago, in an assemblage ranging from lowland tropical rain forest to cloud and sub-alpine paramo forest.
In terms of biodiversity, no other protected area in Central America contains as many species, life zones, or viable populations. The area still supports jaguars and the world’s most powerful bird or prey, the harpy eagle, both of which require enormous amounts of territory to survive. Approximately 180 species of flora and 55 species of fauna are found only in the Panama Talamanca range, giving this region one of the highest frequencies of endemism in Central America. The convergence of North and South America, as well as altitudinal, varied climatic, and edaphic factors provide a biodiversity of Flora and Fauna perhaps unequalled in any other reserve of equal size in the world. The Talamanca range is estimated to harbor about 4% of all terrestrial species on earth.
CONDE NAST TRAVELLER
JACK HANNA’S “INTO THE WILD”
AMERICAN BIRDING ASSOCIATION