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Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park, Bocas del Toro Province, Panama

GPS: 9.3200848038516, -82.143618100932

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Located in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago, off Almirante Bay, Bastimentos Island is home to Panama’s first protected marine park. It covers an area of 130 km², almost all of which is in the maritime zone. Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park includes a series of islands, islets and sandbanks of great scenic beauty, accessible only by boat. More broadly, this territory is part of the “New World” discovered by Christopher Columbus at the very beginning of the 16th century. When he landed on the coast of Panama in 1502, the Genoese navigator built one of the first Spanish colonial settlements on the American continent. Captivated by the splendour of the place, Columbus made initial contacts with the Cueva people and continued his journey to Jamaica in search of the Indies. The indigenous tribe of the Cueva disappeared completely after the Spanish colonisation in the middle of the 16th century and the Panamanian coast became an important base for pirates (English, French and Dutch) in the second half of the 17th century.

Founded in 1988, Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park has one of the largest mangrove areas in the Caribbean in its southern part. The latter provides habitat for red and white mangroves, a dense forest of tropical shrubs established along the shores of the Bocas del Toro Archipelago. At the other end of the spectrum, Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park boasts numerous white sandy beaches prized for their crystal clear waters, palm tree cover, abundant marine life and coral reefs. The largest island (Isla Colón) of the archipelago is home to the provincial capital of Bocas del Toro, built in the early 20th century. It is a meeting place for different cultures and languages and is an essential starting point for exploring the main curiosities of the park. Many of them lead to the island of Bastimentos, which is as much appreciated for its surf spots as for the beauty and tranquillity of its beaches. It is covered by a thick tropical forest in its centre (populated by countless frogs) and contains a cave where many bats escape at dusk.

This exotic paradise, rich in biodiversity, is entirely free of roads and traffic. Inhabited by some 2,000 people year-round, Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park is known as an important nesting site for four different species of sea turtles (some of which are threatened with extinction). Invariably and for reasons still largely unexplained by biologists, they come to lay their eggs in the same place every year. This phenomenon occurs from April to September on the beaches of Playa Larga and the Caribbean islands of Zapatilla Cays.

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  • The preserved character of the island and the exceptional biodiversity of the marine park
  • The density of mangroves, reeds, tropical forests and corals
  • The profusion of wildlife (exotic birds, sloths, howler monkeys, caimans, poisonous frogs, manatees, dolphins, whales, turtles, tropical fish, lobsters…)
  • The beaches and coral reefs of Zapatilla Cays, made up of two paradise islands to the south of the park (Zapatillas Major and Zapatillas Minor)
  • The beaches of Red Frog (named after the strawberry poison frog living in a nearby forest), Primera (or Wizard, one of the most beautiful in the country), Larga (more than 5 kilometres long), Estrella (one of the most famous) as well as Polo, Escondida and Bluff (no less beautiful); the botanical garden Finca Los Monos
  • The Nivida Bat Cave (home to bats); the sloth populations in Bahia Honda; the large number of dolphins in the waters of Bahía de los Delfines; birdwatching on Pájaros Island (tiny rocky island of 360 m²); the diving sites of Crawl Cay, La Piscina and Cayo Coral; the Almirante lagoon (freshwater lagoon)
  • The traditional villages of Old Bank (founded by slaves working on banana plantations) and Salt Creek (Quebrada de Sal); the small stilt houses on Carenero Island; the Afro-Caribbean culture of the archipelago; the indigenous Guaymí (or Ngöbe) people and their handicrafts; the fishing community on Solarte Island; the Guari-Guari language (local Creole, a mixture of Spanish, English and Guayami)
  • Swimming, scuba diving, surfing (at Playa Bluff), canoeing, kayaking, fishing, boat trips and jungle walks
  • The annual parade held every 23 November (Día de Bastimentos); other natural sites in the region: San San-Pond Sak (wetlands near the border with Costa Rica), Palo Seco Forest Reserve (rainforest called Bosque Protector de Palo Seco) and the rich biodiversity of La Amistad International Park (stretching across the Costa Rican-Panamanian land border)
  • During his fourth voyage in 1502, Christopher Columbus named the Bocas del Toro archipelago “Dragon Island”. Composed of nine main islands, this archipelago is also known as the green gold of Central America for its countless plantains (also known as cooking bananas or green bananas).
  • Legend has it that Bastimentos Island was the treasure hideout of the pirate Henry Morgan (a bloodthirsty British person also known as John King) who sailed the Caribbean in the 17th century. Long protected by the governor of Jamaica despite his repeated acts of barbarity, he was knighted by the British monarchy just before his death.
  • At the end of the 19th century, Bastimentos Island saw the American banana company United Fruit Company set up on the archipelago. It participated in the arrival of many slaves from Jamaica and the West Indies to work on the banana plantations. Renamed Chiquita Brands International in 1989, this food company remains one of the largest banana producers in the world.
  • The Bocas del Toro Archipelago is only about 30 kilometres away from Costa Rica.
  • Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park can be reached by water taxi from Isla Colon (the only island with an airport) or the town of Chiriqui Grande (based in the Chiriquí lagoon, fed by numerous rivers). There is also a ferry service between the towns of Almirante (on the Panamanian coast) and Bocas del Toro. It takes about 20 minutes to reach the park from Bocas del Toro by taxi boat.
  • Some beaches in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago may be inaccessible due to heavy swells and reduced visibility. Also beware of the power of the waves despite the idyllic setting.
  • Excursions within Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park are managed by the local community of Quebrada de Sal (Salt Creek).
  • If you are a tropical bird lover, head to Pajaros Island at sunset by hiring a taxi boat.
  • Guided night tours are sometimes organised between June and September to observe sea turtles laying their eggs on the beach (these tours take care not to disturb the turtles in the performance of this extraordinary natural phenomenon).
  • Renting a bike and taking part in boat trips is the best compromise for those who want to explore the archipelago independently.

Where to eat

  • Bocas Blended
    (full of energy)
  • Surf Break at Paunch Restaurant
    (high-rise tacos)
  • Guari Guari
    (surprise menu)

Where to go out

  • La Amistad International Park
    (biodiversity hotspot)
  • San San-Pond Sak
    (tropical lagoon)
  • Volcán Barú
    (high altitude hikes)

Where to sleep

  • Hostal Camping la Y Griega
    (peaceful and inexpensive)
  • Hotelito Del Mar
    (central and welcoming)
  • La Loma Jungle Lodge
    (wonderful ecolodge)

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