Most foreign visitors to the Bahía de Piñas  area stay at the Tropic Star Lodge (U.S. toll-free tel. 800/682-3424, U.S. tel. 407/843-0125, www.tropicstar.com ), a four-decades-old institution that looms large over the area and has made the Bahía de Piñas world-famous in fishing circles.
An exclusive fishing resort that can accommodate no more than 36 guests at a time, the lodge is set on lovely, landscaped land right above the bay. There’s a small beach in front, flowering trees all around, a swimming pool with a bar, and a river that cuts across the grounds.
It’s the kind of place pop stars, screen idols, and famous athletes frequent—notable guests have ranged from John Wayne to Walter Peyton to George Strait. Ask about the time Lee Marvin was kicked out for throwing a chair through the restaurant window. It’s entertaining to thumb through the old guest books looking for familiar names.
This was originally the vacation home of a Texas oil millionaire named Ray Smith, who turned it into a fishing lodge in 1965. It has been owned by the Kittredge family since 1976. The current owners are Terri Kittredge Andrews and her husband, Mike Andrews.
Accommodations are, as one might expect, quite comfortable, though this is definitely a fishing lodge and not an ultraposh hotel. Given the lodge’s remote location, however, it is remarkably well maintained and filled with creature comforts. It’s easy to forget the nearest road is more than 100 kilometers away.
Most rooms are in two-unit cabins with wraparound wooden porches or in a single long building near the beach. The rooms are spacious, with air-conditioning, twin beds, and large private bathrooms/dressing rooms. All have a view of the bay. Up the hill is El Palacio, a three-bedroom house with a sunken living room that was the original owner’s home. It can accommodate up to six guests. It’s reachable by climbing 122 stairs or taking the more popular cable car.
The food is delicious, with multicourse candlelit dinners served at night in the circular, air-conditioned restaurant/bar or out on the veranda. There are no telephones, fax machines, or televisions at the lodge, so guests can have a true sense of getting away from it all. Expect pampering: A staff of 80 serves the 36 guests.
The lodge still has a 1960s vibe about it, though a 2004 updating of the facilities has meant some welcome changes—such as replacing wall-to-wall carpet in the cabins with tile—while retaining the vintage feel of the place.
Daily fishing trips are made on 31-foot Bertrams, of which the lodge owns 14. The prime black marlin season runs mid-December–April. Pacific sailfish are caught year-round, with April–July especially good months. The lodge is open December–September. Guests have free use of kayaks to explore the bay or travel up the Río Piñas.
Several kilometers of trails wind through primary and secondary forest. These are well worth walking, especially in the early morning when there’s the best chance of spotting wildlife. I came across a group of curious coatimundis during a hike shortly after dawn. Don’t expect to see many animals, as hunters from surrounding villages have taken their toll through the years. But pumas, three-toed sloths, and foxes have been spotted near the lodge, and the staff has found jaguar prints on the beach.
The staff can also arrange a trip up the Río Jaqué to visit the Wounaan village of Biroquera .
None of this comes cheap, of course. The basic fishing package in the high season starts at about US$5,150 per person, including seven nights of lodging, six days of fishing, and three meals a day, but not transport from Panama City . Rates vary depending on the season, length of stay, and number of people in the boat.
Nonfishing packages are sometimes available. Charter airfare to and from Panama City is US$500 per person. The lodge is small and popular, with lots of repeat business. Reservations must often be made a year or two in advance.