Somewhere between Almirante and Isla Colon, I began to breathe. Moments earlier, our water taxi, navigating through murky, stagnant waters in a narrow, outhouse-lined bight, had slowly picked its way through snack wrappers, pop bottles and an aroma that would have made a trash collector yearn for the back of his truck.
But then, as we passed an outsized container ship picking up a fresh load of bananas, the air began to clear. Our captain leaned on the throttle and, in the space of a moment, the scene completely shifted. Wind buffeted my face, civilization disappeared and I watched as a long bay lined by blue sky, jungle and mist-shrouded mountains emerged from round the point we were fast leaving in our wake.
We were careering across the placid waters of Panama's Bocas del Toro archipelago in a panga, a type of open motorboat. Although built sturdily for transport, the craft seemed, at that moment, to have been placed on Earth only to satisfy the driver's harrowing lust for speed. Gripping the gunwales, I watched a dolphin's fin arcing across the surface and a dugout cayuco slipping past a house built over shallows, its ramshackle frame supported by a tangle of twiggy stilts.
Situated on the Caribbean Sea, not far from Panama's border with Costa Rica, Bocas del Toro is a sprawling archipelago of islets, inlets and jungle-lined bights (a curve or recess in a coastline) that offer an out-of-the-way paradise to nature lovers, marine enthusiasts and – surprisingly – epicureans. The area began developing in earnest during the mid-1990s, after a wave of backpackers and surfers discovered one of the best breaks in the Caribbean.
Bocas Town, the province's capital, is nestled against a narrow channel of water separating the eastern end of Isla Colon from neighbouring Cayo Caranero. Christopher Columbus, the first European to visit these waters, named Caranero (also known as Careening Cay) after he used the small island's well-protected lee shore to pull his boats up the beach and clean their fouled bottoms. While the landscape is considerably altered since those early explorations, Caranero remains an ideal barrier between Bocas Town's teeming waterfront and the sea's relentless surge.
After a friendly bit of haggling, we climbed aboard a colourful launch and pointed the bow toward nearby Isla Bastimentos. A small town clings to the western tip of this thinly populated island; much of its elongated land mass, blanketed by virgin forest, has been set aside for the Bastimentos National Marine Park. A short walk over low, densely forested hills leads to the sparkling Caribbean Sea, where you are welcomed with a view of an almost storybook beach backed by palm-fringed rain forest.
This is Red Frog Beach, named after the indigenous strawberry poison-dart frog, a diminutive, blood-red amphibian that, with luck, you'll spy as you explore the island. But don't touch – the "poison" moniker is not a joke. Sloths, as well as Capuchin and howler monkeys, populate the woodlands, while neighbouring beaches and islands are home to important nesting sites for sea turtles, including hawksbills, greens, loggerheads and leatherbacks.
Our relaxing morning in the sand complete, we caught a water taxi across the bight to Los Secretos, a restaurant accessible only by boat. After climbing far too many stairs, we arrived at the top and collapsed onto bar stools, taking in what is considered the best view in Bocas: Hospital Bight and, it seemed, the entire archipelago stretched out before us like a painter's view of paradise. As we sipped on rum punch and ate wood-fired pizza in the midst of this jungle oasis, the hustle and stress of the outside world seemed a distant memory.
At Los Secretos, we listened to a couple of Americans chatting about the bat cave they had visited in the Bastimentos preserve. They giggled like kids as they relived their flashlight-illuminated tour through chest-deep water into the realm of a thousand grumpy bats. We briefly considered adding this to our itinerary but when a couple of underwater passages were mentioned I realized that, although I like to think of myself as a fearless adventurer, the conquest of another rum punch was more to my taste than a foray into the world of spelunking.
Back on Isla Colon, we strolled through Bocas Town. The neatly laid-out streets, lined with rambling clapboard houses, are a stark contrast to the cluttered waterfront, its colourful restaurants and hotels all built on stilts in a chaotic but beautiful argument against sensible urban planning.
The Bocas area, largely ignored by its Spanish masters, was home to several indigenous groups when English and Scottish settlers began arriving in the early 19th century. Emigrating to escape taxes, these well-to-do pioneers landed from the nearby islands of Providencia and San Andreas, bringing with them a large contingent of slaves to ease their settling in. The population was further bolstered in the late 1800s when banana companies set up shop, importing a hefty labour force from Jamaica and the West Indies. So although it is in the heart of Latin America, Bocas exudes a Caribbean flair and lightness of spirit that wouldn't seem out of place in the Windward Islands.
Every day brought fresh adventures. We snorkelled coral reefs in water so clear we need hardly have donned our masks. We dined at hastily built restaurants clinging to uninhabited islands and watched dolphins frolicking in mangrove-lined bays.
The end of each day found us back in Bocas Town sitting on a different bay-side deck enjoying the breeze and cold libations. Excellent dining, especially seafood, abounded, and the laid-back vibe permeated the dozens of restaurants and bars sprinkled throughout town. The air was filled with reggae, rock, the beat of house music and everything in between.
The whole of Panama could fit easily into Lake Superior. But after enjoying the delights of Bocas del Toro, it was evident that a country's size has nothing to do with the breadth of its bounty.
IF YOU GO
HOW TO GET THERE
Air Transat offers direct flights from various Canadian cities to Tocumen airport in Panama City. There, a taxi can take you across the city to Albrook airport where, during high season, Panama Air offers several flights daily to Bocas del Toro (about one hour). Travel time between the airports is normally about 45 minutes but traffic can be heavy so, when planning your trip, allow plenty of time between flights in case of delays.
The route to Albrook airport will take you past the Panama Canal. Should you have a longer layover, take a few minutes to stop and wonder at the behemoth cargo carriers negotiating the canal's historic locks.
WHERE TO STAY
Accommodation choices in the Bocas area are as eclectic as its culture. Bocas del Toro Tropical Suites, facing Cayo Caranero, provides a modern oasis from the heat and tempo of the busy Bocas streets. It's worth spending a little extra to be on the water side and catch the beautiful Caribbean sunrises. From $195 (U.S.) a night. bocastropical.com
A more rustic lodging than some, Koko Resort, overlooking beautiful Saigon Bay, provides private cabins hovering a metre or so above the water, on stilts. From $100 a night. kokoresort.com
To relax in truly grand fashion, stretch out by the pool beside a one- to six-bedroom private villa at Red Frog Beach Island Resort on Isla Bastimentos, overlooking the beach. From $434 per night. redfrogbeach.com
WHAT TO DO
The only way to really see the archipelago is from the water. Take a laid-back private or group tour aboard a sailing cat with Bocas Sailing and explore secluded bays and the azure waters of Crawl Cay and Isla Zapatillas. bocassailing.com
If you crave a true Caribbean feel, free from schedules, head to the water-taxi dock and hire your own driver for the day. The archipelago is vast and there's much to discover. Don't be afraid to haggle. They'll be surprised if you don't.
If the sea isn't for you, a day in the rainforest riding an all-terrain vehicle might do the trick. Flying Pirates, on Main Street in Bocas town, offers guided tours but, if you're adventurous, you can also set off alone.
WHERE TO EAT
The dining options in Bocas are surprisingly good and various. For a lunch-time treat, hop a water taxi to Cayo Caranero and get a different view of Bocas Town while kicking back on the over-the-sea patio at the Cosmic Crab. A varied menu is highlighted by crab cakes and local seafood and, if accompanied by a margarita, the deck is a great place to while away an afternoon.
As the sun sets low over the yacht anchorage and Isla Cristobal, one of the best venues to see it from is the patio of El Ultimo Refugio. Its menu changes with availability, but the service, atmosphere and food make it a must.