Bocas del Toro

ARCHIPIELAGO DE BOCAS DEL TORO CONSISTS OF SIX DENSELY forested islands, scores of uninhabited islets and Parque Nacional Marino Isla Bastiementos, Panama’s oldest marine park. Although Bocas is Panama’s principal tourist draw card, a fair measure of authenticity remains. Low-key development has maintained the charm of small-town Caribbean life and the absence of mega hotels has preserved the archipelago’s idyllic beauty. Even the most developed of the islands, Isla Colon possesses a strong local flavor and appealingly slow way of life, while the oft-forgotten Isla Caranero is a lovely, peaceful haven.

Located 32km from the Costa Rican border, Bocas’ laid-back Caribbean vibe is enhanced by the archipelago’s spectacular natural setting. The islands are covered in dense jungles of vine tangles and forest palms that open up to pristine beaches fringed by reeds and mangroves. Beneath the water, an extensive coral reef ecosystem supports countless species of tropical fish while simultaneously providing some seriously gnarly surf breaks. In Bocas, hiking through huge swaths of rainforest to arrive at an empty stretch of wave-pounded shore is pretty much the norm.

The mainland is home to the Panamanian half of the binational Parque International La Amistad. Here, primary rainforests are home to unforgettable fauna such as the elusive jaguar, as well as a handful of Ngöbe-Buglé settlements that are still clinging to their traditional ways of life.

Unfortunately, the secret is out, and although local opinion is divided on the merits of increased tourism in Bocas, there’s no sign that development is likely to slow. Bulldozers have already started clearing land for condos and resorts, and the influx of foreign investors is an economic force to be reckoned with. It’s difficult to predict the future of the province, but one thing is certain – see Bocas now; its unspoiled beauty won’t last much longer.