Elsewhere in the Archipelago
New places to stay are beginning to pop up elsewhere in the islands. Some of these are nice and have surprisingly modern infrastructures given their location. They tend to be off by themselves, and the nearest population center or place to eat (besides your lodging) is likely to be a Ngöbe-Buglé village.
Note that Popa Paradise Resort, which is right above an attractive beach on Isla Popa, sometimes lets day visitors use its pool, clubhouse, and other facilities for a US$10 entrance fee.
There’s a quite appealing place to stay in Laguna Bocatorito (a.k.a. Dolphin Bay), near the village of Bocatorito. Dolphin Bay Hideaway (cell 6417 7351 or 6772 9917, www.dolphinbayhideaway.com, starts at US$126.50 s/d, including transfers and breakfast) opened in 2006 with three attractive, cheerful, and spotless rooms in a two-story Caribbean-style house. All have four-poster beds, fans, and stylish modern bathrooms with hot water. None has air-conditioning or TVs: This is a place for people who like to be close to nature. There is free Wi-Fi, however.
Two rooms are downstairs. The smallest room has a queen bed and looks out on the garden (US$126.50 s/d). The corner room is larger, with a king bed and view of the bay (US$154 s/d). It’s my favorite. The room upstairs (US$143 s/d) is also quite large and has the most traditional charm, with a queen bed and spacious bathroom. It opens onto the large shared veranda, so it’s not as private as the other two rooms. Lunch and candlelit dinners are served on the veranda, which is a pleasant place to hang out on or lounge in hammocks.
Guests need to be comfortable around animals, as the owners have friendly dogs, a restless parrot, chickens, and have been known to get the occasional visits from the odd kinkajou or howler monkey. Note that there’s no beach on the property.
The place is run by Erika, a Hungarian who moved to Bocas on a whim (ask for her story—it’s really interesting) and her Bocatoreño boyfriend, José.
Stays include free round-trip transport from Bocas, full breakfasts, Internet access, and use of cayucos (dugout canoes). They can arrange tours to all the surrounding attractions for an extra fee. Dolphin Bay Hideaway is about 20 minutes by boat from Bocas town.
Popa Paradise Beach Resort (tel. 832-1498, cell 6550-2505, www.popaparadisebeachresort.com, starts at US$132 s/d, including breakfast buffet) is the pioneering lodging on Isla Popa, and it didn’t start small. Opened in January 2009, the resort occupies 25 acres of what once was a farm. Only the front five acres have been developed; the rest is being left to return to forest as best it can, helped by the planting of hundreds of trees by the staff.
There are eight casitas dotted around the property on a ridge above a good-sized crescent beach. The casitas are linked by cement paths that lead to the large clubhouse, which has a dining terrace, a small spa, a lounge with a giant-screen TV, and a kidney-shaped infinity-edge pool with a swim-up bar.
The casitas are individual bungalows with balconies and attractive Balinese furniture and porches that look out onto the ocean. They either have a four-poster, a queen, or two twin beds, and all are air-conditioned, have satellite TV and DVD players, and hot-water bathrooms.
The casitas are either “ocean view,” which are set back a ways from the beach (US$352 s/d) or “ocean front,” right above the beach (US$385). Ocean-front casita number 10 has an extra little cement veranda and is nicest of all.
There are also two “executive suites” (US$440 s/d) on a point above the resort’s dock, but in my opinion they don’t have as much charm as the casitas and were looking a bit worn. They do, however, have kitchenettes and sliding-glass doors that open onto a lovely view.
For those who want a truly opulent experience, above these is the penthouse (US$550 s/d), which features 20-foot ceilings, a large bathroom with separate tub (the only room that has one), a full kitchen, a master bedroom, a second bedroom, a stereo, and so on. All three of these have air-conditioning and flat-screen satellite TVs.
There are also five simpler and more economical rooms (US$132 s/d) in the main clubhouse. These lack air-conditioning and TV, but they’re still attractive and have porches. Guests in these have access to all the facilities at the resort.
The food is reportedly quite good, cooked by a chef from Seattle. The menu features such interesting-sounding fusion dishes as yuca gnocchi. The fancier main dishes go for around $16–21.
There is free Wi-Fi in the clubhouse, table table, and a resident massage therapist and acupuncturist. There are kayaks and snorkeling gear for guest use. There’s a coral reef a few hundred meters offshore, but when the water’s not clear the staff can arrange transport to other snorkeling spots. Other boat and walking tours are also available.
Isla Popa is still mostly covered with tropical forest (fortunately) and it does have venomous snakes. Guests should take care if they go on forest hikes, just as they would in a tropical forest on the mainland. However, snakes do not hang out in areas that have been cleared, and all the facilities of the resort are on absolutely manicured lawns. The manager I spoke with told me that in 15 months of living on the island, he has only seen two fer-de-lance, and both were found by gardeners cleaning brush on the edge of the property (who promptly killed them, which is what locals do in Panama).
With all the upscale facilities, and upscale prices, it’d be easy for potential guests to forget they’re on a lightly populated, remote tropical island. This is a place for people who like the idea of being far away from everything and, ideally, are into outdoor activities. If it rains, there’s not a whole lot to do (though the staff do try to come up with creative ideas during long rainy spells—cooking classes, anyone?). And guests will need at least a slight sense of adventure, especially when making the 40-minute ride over from Bocas town in a small boat.
If the resort isn’t too busy, it sometimes allows (well-behaved and sober) day guests to use the pool and other facilities for US$10 per person 9 A.M.–5 P.M.
Those who stay three nights or more get free round-trip transfers between the resort and Bocas town at the beginning and end of their stay. Otherwise, it’s US$90 per person round-trip.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition