Beyond the Zone

Bocas del Toro

Sep 1, 1999
Outside Magazine

Hundreds of green sea turtles keep a secret from the tourists who flock to Costa Rica's Tortuguero beaches each summer to see them nest. On their way north, the turtles migrate through Bocas del Toro, a luscious collection of 68 Caribbean islands that offer deserted beaches as well as snorkeling among dolphins, eagle rays, soft corals, and shallow volcanic tunnels.
Dubbed Veraguas, or Greenwaters, by Columbus, Bocas is now surrounded by a huge banana-growing belt. The ethnic mix of workers is so diverse that the archipelago has adopted its own hybrid language, called Guari-Guari, a melange of Spanish, English, and at least two indigenous dialects. The laid-back Caribbean style of life here is evident in the use of the word tranquilo—the locals' invariable response when asked how it's going—and in the languid pace of the water taxis that provide the primary means of transportation. For a few bucks, a taxi will drop you on an empty beach like those on Cayos Zapatillas, where you can stretch out on white sand under a coconut palm all day.

Or you can kick back, as I did, on the veranda of one of the clapboard guest houses on stilts in Isla Colón's hot spot, Bocas del Toro town, where plantation workers drink rum and dance to reggae bands like the Bastimentos Beach Boys. With a three-stringed bassist and a thumb-strumming guitar player, the ragtag but rhythmically impeccable quartet played an impromptu session at my hotel one night while I gorged on lobster-and-crab seviche and rondon, a seafood potluck—style stew.
Bocas fishermen also traditionally hunt green sea turtles for meat, but Ancon has been working to change attitudes and recently helped secure protection for 14 miles of nesting beaches (and 32,000 acres of reefs and mangrove forests) on Isla Bastimentos and nearby islands. For divers and snorkelers underwater conditions are excellent (except right after rainstorms, when silty river flow cuts visibility). If you're certified, head out with Bocas Water Sports to Cayo Crawl, the Garden, or Hospital Point, a 50-foot wall off Cayo Nancy. Snorkelers can hire water taxis to ferry them out to the reefs.
Despite the convenience of a 55-minute plane flight from Panama City, Bocas gets only a trickle of foreign travelers. That's starting to change, however, and Europeans and Americans have begun scooping up beachfront lots for as little as $2,000 an acre. Development in these paradisiacal islands is inevitable, but for the foreseeable future, unpolished Bocas remains slow, peaceful, and nothing near a resort.

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