Bocas del Toro province is a series of six islands on the Caribbean coast of Panama, near the Costa Rican border. The eponymous town is a hub for water-based adventures and partying, and acts as a gateway to the other islands. We spent most of our time there studying Spanish, watching humming birds from the hammocks outside our cabaña and partaking in the local custom of cycling around in a relaxed manner. Also spotted were some vultures hanging about in unexpected places.
We made time to enjoy the nearby beaches and sea as well.
Moving on for a couple of nights on the road-free Isla Bastimentos, we stayed in the historic West Indian town of Old Bank. Intrigued by the local Spanish-English Creole language and pleasantly surprised by the lack of traffic, it felt like a more authentic experience of the Caribbean.
Up the hill from Old Town is the organic cocoa farm Up In The Hill. Converted from cow pasture land over 20 years, the farm now boasts an impressive variety of botanical life, as well as practising permaculture, sustainability and some inventive upcycling.
We took a tour provided by Javier, who founded the farm with his wife, and came away inspired by his passion and their achievements in growing and maintaining such plant diversity, using only materials produced by the farm itself.
Also on view were examples of the animal life in the area, including the tiny rana rojo (strawberry poison-dart frog) which even has a local beach named after it.
As part of the tour, Javier demonstrated the process by which cocoa fruit is converted into raw cocoa balls or niblets, ready for consumption.
As well as the cocoa, we were also treated to other farm produce: pineapple, jackfruit, papaya, fried sugar cane, jackfruit seeds, chia (a spinach-like superleaf) and custard apple.
Well-fed, we trekked on to Playa Wizard, via the muddy jungle path that had been made even more perilous by recent downpours. This necessitated bare feet for most of it!
Wizard is known for petty crime and we were strongly advised not to display valuables, so chose not to take any photos. The beach was quiet due to its relatively remote location, with a handful of surfers and the odd sunbather our only company. The sea had strong currents and waves, but was shallow for a long way out which made it more fun than dangerous.
Our final full day in the region – and indeed Panama – was spent on a boat tour taking in Cayos Zapatillas, a pair of protected, uninhabited islands. Even in the prevailing morning rain, hiking around the mangrove and palm tree rich surroundings was a magical experience and the warm sea made for a welcome break from the cooler air! En route, we also stopped to snorkel over coral reef and see dolphins, sloths and starfish.
Next, we hop over the border to Costa Rica!