Theme Song: One Particular Harbor Jimmy Buffett
Europeans, South Americans, and Central Americans have been vacationing here for years, yet few Americans have heard of Bocas Del Toro, let alone visited. One exception is Jimmy Buffet, who wisely picked this as one of his vacation destinations.
It is time for more Americans to join the fun in this Caribbean paradise. Like I always say, what would Jimmy Buffet do?!
The History of Bocas Del Toro
The Bocas Del Toro Archipelago is composed of seven inhabited islands and over a hundred smaller ones, and it has a fascinating history.
In 1502 Christopher Columbus’s fleet of ships sustained significant damage in a storm off the coast of Central America. His crew needed rest and shelter from the open sea to repair the boats. On October 6 he anchored amidst a group of pleasant islands dotting the crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean Sea. He anchored in Bocas Del Toro.
While resting and repairing boats, Christopher Columbus gave names to some of these islands, including Isla Colón (Columbus Island), where Bocas Town is located, and close-by Isla Cristóbal (Christopher Island). Hmm – I think he had an ego. Christopher Columbus would later be credited with their discovery though indigenous people had been living there for thousands of years.
Panama was part of the Spanish empire for nearly three hundred years, from 1538 to 1821. During this time Inca silver and gold were shipped from South America to Panama City, carried across the country to the Caribbean side, and loaded onto fleets of treasure ships bound for Spain. This made Bocas Del Toro a logical hideout for pirates who in the 1600s and 1700s frequently attacked on-land treasure caravans and ships bound for Spain.
Fast forward two hundred years to 1899 when the United Fruit Company, which later became Chiquita Banana, established itself in Bocas Town. Bocas Del Toro is now the cradle of the Chiquita empire. Banana growing on the mainland was and still is the largest employer in the region. The area grows and exports 750,000 tons of bananas annually. In the early 1900s United Fruit Company built many of the charming colonial style wood structures that dominate the streets in Bocas Town.
Today, Bocas Town is the hub of activity in a cluster of islands where “cars” are colorful panga boats and “roads” are the waterways between islands. In Bocas Town there are more bicycles than cars.
Twenty years from now I can envision people saying, “Remember the vibrancy of Bocas Town in the old days? When the streets were active with young people from around the world? Where wealthy tourists were just discovering the area? When you could take a locally owned panga boat to an adjoining island for $5?” It feels like Bocas is in that Golden Age when everything feels just right.
A Destination for Adventurous Travelers
Christopher Columbus, pirates, and Chiquita Banana loved Bocas Town, and so will you!
You couldn’t build a town like this today. Part of the magic is the fifty-plus wooden structures that extend on stilts over the Caribbean Ocean. Most of these are restaurants, hotels, and bars. Many of them are colonial-style buildings over one hundred years old built by the United Fruit Company (Chiquita Banana). An evening sipping a cocktail in one of these establishments while watching panga boat taxis zip by is nothing short of enchanting.
Traveling to Bocas del Toro still feels like an adventure. Direct flights depart daily to Bocas Town from Panama City, Panama, and San Jose, Costa Rica. The five-thousand-foot runway, located on the edge of town, easily accommodates twenty-passenger jets. And once you land it is an easy five- to ten-minute walk to the main street in Bocas Town. Once our resort, Bocas del Toro, is complete, it is only a fifteen- to twenty-minute boat ride from downtown Bocas Town to our island.
Bocas Del Toro, once a sleepy little community, is transitioning rapidly from a millennial adventure destination to a more upscale vacation paradise-for-all. You won’t lack for lodging and food. TripAdvisor lists 244 properties, including 32 hotels, 125 “specialty lodging” places, and 87 B&Bs and inns. Prices range from $15 to $600 a night. TripAdvisor also lists 123 restaurants with half of them in Bocas Town. Live music provides the soundtrack for a vibrant nightlife year-round.
Young people from around the globe bring energy to the town, and a walk down main street will reveal a wide-ranging mix of ages and ethnicities. The past few years have seen dramatic improvements to the downtown, but not at the expense of its charm. The restaurant and hotel improvements make them more inviting than ever, and the new shops are a nice addition.
Once in Bocas, you’ll discover endless activities to keep busy and entertained. A local favorite is Filthy Fridays Bocas, Central America’s first and only island-hopping day party experience, which happens at three locations on three tropical islands.
Excursions abound. Starfish Beach, ATV adventures, Plastic Bottle Village, Dolphin Bay Preserve, deep sea fishing, Zapatillas Islands, and Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park are just a few of the enticements. Divers and snorkelers will not be disappointed, either, with eighteen dive sites.
Four species of marine turtles call this area home, including the rare, giant leatherback. If you time your vacation right, you can watch them make the laborious climb onto shore to lay their eggs in the sand.
How Does Our Proposed Resort Fit In?
Bocas del Toro, our proposed over-the-water resort, will be located on a private island fifteen to twenty minutes from Bocas Town by boat. Our island faces the Dolphin Bay Reserve on one side and Bastimentos National Marine Park on the other.
Two other over-the-water resorts are in Bocas Del Toro: Azul Paradise and Punta Carocal. Red Frog beach on the island of Bestimentos is home to the most upscale lodging available in Bocas today. It is not an over-the-water development but in some ways will also compete directly with our resort.
Bocas del Toro will likely be the most luxurious over-the-water resort in Central America and the most upscale resort in Bocas Del Toro. It will be one of the easiest over-the-water resorts to get to in North, Central, and South America and one of the most affordable in the world when comparing luxury amenities.
The location and facilities are important to a resort; however, what really matters is the overall experience. We have learned from our resort El Castillo www.elcastillocr.com in Costa Rica that the experience begins and ends with staff, but there are also creative ways to make the guest experience unique and memorable. The next blog post will be dedicated to ideas for making our guest experience at Bocas del Toro unique to the world.
Here’s hoping that Jimmy Buffet will follow our blog and make another visit to Bocas Del Toro, only this time staying at Bocas del Toro.
Have you been to Bocas Del Toro? If so, what was your experience like?