Near Bahía Honda
Bahía Honda is a long, deep bay between Isla Bastimentos and Isla Solarte that starts a few minutes by boat east of Old Bank. Some interesting places to stay are popping up in this area. The closest is Eclypse de Mar, near the beginning of the bay and just a two-minute boat ride to Old Bank. Next is a new hostel, Bocas Bound, just above the main trail to Red Frog Beach. The last is La Loma Jungle Lodge, in a much more secluded, forested area on the east side of the bay.
Opened in November 2009, Bocas Bound (cell 6949-0330 or 6671-8189, www.bocasbound.com, US$13 pp in dorm) is an increasingly popular hostel about a five-minute walk up the hill from the beginning of the main Red Frog Beach trail, where most boats drop off day-trippers.
There are 80 hostel beds and four private rooms. Each dorm has 10 new bunk beds, air-conditioning, tile floors, and lockers. The (cold-water) showers and toilets are in individual stalls with doors, but they are separated from the bedroom only by a doorway draped with a curtain. It feels a bit like bedding down in a dressing room, and it may be a bit awkward to share with strangers.
The “private” rooms (US$75 for five people) have exactly the same layout except with double and single beds, rather than bunks. Unless you have the entire room to yourself, these are about as private as an office cubicle. The staff tries to rent these out to families. The private rooms also have air-conditioning, plus water, a mini-fridge, and a seating area.
Down the hill from the rooms is a huge open-air restaurant/bar/lounge, Kayukos Restaurant and Island Lounge, that is the social hub of the place. Food runs about US$3 for breakfast, US$4 for lunch, and US$6 for dinner. There’s table tennis, widescreen TV and DVD player, giant chess board, and free Wi-Fi. Bathrooms are clean and the place is well-run.
New surfboards can be rented for US$20 a day, kayaks for US$15 a day, and snorkel gear for US$7 a day. The place is managed by two young guys from Oregon and Georgia, who have lots of ambitious plans for the place, including a zipline tour and swimming pool.
The hostel operates a water-taxi shuttle, the Red Frog Express, to and from Bocas town. This costs US$3 per person and makes the trip at 11 A.M. and 1 P.M., 2 P.M., and 5 P.M.
Note that the hostel is not actually on Red Frog Beach, though it is just a five-minute walk away. It is on a hill and faces south, overlooking a marina, Bahía Honda, and, at least for now, a construction depot with heavy machinery coming and going.
The very cool Eclypse de Mar (cell 6511-4581. www.eclypsedemar.com, starts at US$198 s/d, including breakfast) is one of my favorite newer places in Bocas. Run well by a friendly Argentinean couple, Malena Trevisan and Chango Castro, it shares the same concept as Punta Caracol (bungalows over the water that are linked by boardwalks), but has a very different feel. The bungalows are beautiful, made from dark, polished nispero and cedar.
The bungalows have a small glass panel in the floor so guests can watch fish swimming under their feet; lights illuminate the water at night. Bungalows are tastefully designed with modern fixtures, very firm beds, ceiling fans, warm-water bathrooms, and in-room safes. Each has a private deck with a staircase leading right into the water.
The four standard bungalows (US$198 s/d, US$264 t, $308 q) are plenty nice, but the two honeymoon suites (US$275 s/d) are even nicer. The bedrooms are bigger and feature king beds, and they have a desk nook and a small living room with a glass-topped coffee table fixed above another opening in the floor. It’s fun to have breakfast here while keeping an eye out for curious little fishies. The least expensive accommodations are two rooms in the main lodge. These are small but comfortable, with full beds, in-room safes, private baths, and a balcony strung with hammocks.
Eclypse de Mar is off the grid, powered by solar electricity and with clean, filtered water provided from a spring onshore. There’s no air-conditioning, but there are ceiling fans, and it’s breezy enough over the water you’re unlikely to miss air-conditioning. This is not a first-world setting, so as elegant and lovely as it is, it won’t be for everyone. There are lights only when the sun goes down, and toilet paper is deposited in a bin next to the toilet.
The vibe here is friendly and familial, so you’ll enjoy your stay more if you’re at least somewhat social. The staff are warm and make you feel at home. Malena in particular is utterly charming and works hard to keep her guests happy.
The food is the only thing that’s still a work in progress. It’s tasty and plentiful, but don’t expect gourmet. The coconut bread is a nice touch but doesn’t have much flavor, and the seafood I’ve had was overcooked. But they make a delicious pumpkin soup, and food is nicely presented and reasonably priced. There’s good wine as well. The restaurant closes one day a week to give the staff a day off. There’s free Wi-Fi in the restaurant area and kayaks and basic snorkeling gear are free to guests (visitors can rent kayaks for US$5/hour). The lodge arranges boat tours to all the usual destinations, plus a few that are lesser known.
One nice thing about staying here is you feel secluded without being cut off from everything. Old Bank is a stone’s throw away (if the thrower is incredibly strong, anyway), and there’s a 2.5-hectare nature preserve onshore, just behind the lodge. This used to be pasture land, but the lodge has replanted it and is trying to restore mangroves that have been cut away and start an iguana-breeding project.
Easy walking trails run through the preserve, the centerpiece of which is a series of ingeniously designed lush artificial “lagoons” on different levels. The water flows slowly from one level to the next, which prevents mosquitoes from breeding, but provides a home to a family of caimans. Some fake Mayan statues, salvaged from one of the many Survivor programs filmed here, are dotted around the preserve, which adds a nice Indiana Jones feel to the preserve.
La Loma Jungle Lodge and Chocolate Farm (cell 6619-5364 or 6592-5162, www.thejunglelodge.com, US$104/person, including meals, transportation, and day trips) gives one hope for the future of Bocas. It bucks the trend toward generic, resource-gulping resorts with a unique, low-impact but comfortable little hideaway in harmony with its beautiful surroundings. It’s one of my favorite spots in Panama.
A 23-hectare former farm right next to the border of Parque Nacional Marino Isla Bastimentos, La Loma is set back from the mangrove-covered shoreline of Bahía Honda and features secondary-growth forest, a cacao (chocolate) growing and processing operation, and coconut and banana groves. The main lodge has a dining area and an upstairs mirador and is bordered by a creek that ends in a little wading hole and waterfall. The three guest ranchos (and a fourth on the way) are on the side of a hill behind the lodge. This may be the most environmentally friendly place to stay in Panama. Visitors are welcome even if they don’t spend the night.
Note that beaches are a short boat ride away, but there are no beaches on the property itself. La Loma is sort of the jungle counterpart to the beach retreat of Al Natural Resort. As at Al Natural, accommodations put guests as close to nature as possible without sacrificing comfort. The spacious, immaculate Ngöbe-inspired ranchos are “rustic” in the sense of being simple and open-air, but they’re quite lovely. Made from handsome wood from fallen trees and sustainably harvested lumber, they are designed to let in evening breezes and look out on the forest and bay.
The first rancho is close to the main lodge and is best for those who’d have trouble with the rather aerobic climb to the other ones. The second one is a 149-step climb from the lodge, which can be a bit strenuous for those unused to humidity. The third is a bit farther up the hill. (Look carefully at the hill trail; there were tons of red frogs all around it when I visited.)
The second rancho is my favorite because of its panoramic views of the bay, but the third is surrounded by trees that sometimes attract curious white-capuchin and night monkeys. An armadillo sometimes comes sniffing around, too. Each rancho has one double and one single bed with mosquito nets, hot-water showers, and flush toilets. They are spaced far apart from each and are quite private. Nights here are wonderfully peaceful, especially with the moon shining on the sea and forest.
A butterfly breeding project was on hiatus in 2010 to allow the lodge to concentrate on its cacao farm and a few other micro-enterprises that guests are welcome to explore.
Among the best things about the place are the owners: Margaret, who’s English, and her husband, Henry, a Peruvian-American. They are delightful people who make guests feel like welcome visitors to their home, which is what this place is. They are lively and fun to talk to, but they’re also gracious hosts who will leave you alone if that’s what you need. Their small staff is warm and friendly.
Stays include round-trip transportation from Bocas town (about 20 minutes away), all meals, day trips to Red Frog Beach, and tours of the garden and butterfly farm. The food is delicious and features produce from the lodge’s organic gardens.
Part of the proceeds support community projects among the Ngöbe in Bahía Honda. Other activities are easily arranged for an extra fee, including tours of the Bahía Honda cave, forest hikes with Ngöbe guides, fishing or snorkeling trips, surfboard rental, and so on. The lodge can arrange for guests to participate in or observe a number of activities with members of the nearby Ngöbe community, including cooking lessons, cacao-processing, and craft-making.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition