By: Juan Abelardo Carles
Photos: Carlos Gómez
Even though an unwritten rule of journalism tells us never to begin an article with a negative sentence, I cannot help but note that I have not had good reports of Boca Chica. More than eight years ago, one of my colleagues visited the Paridas Islands, which are easily reached from here. Her camping experience on Isla Bolaños started with an apocalyptic storm, a precursor to attacks by a legion of insatiable mosquitoes, which forced her and her group to cower in ocean water up to their chins in the early morning hours to avoid the itchy fate of becoming the main dish in a living buffet for hordes of insects. In spite of these dramatic circumstances, this bold and practical woman considered these contretemps merely the sort of annoyances a travel pioneer might expect. Her ordeal ended at dawn, when some fishermen returned from their morning fishing trip, rescued the travelers, and returned them to the coast.
My experience also began with a violent tropical storm, but unlike my colleague, I waited it out comfortably seated on the terrace of Seagullcove Lodge’s dining room rather than under a precarious tent. We reached the hotel shortly after noon; clouds still loomed over the horizon, but we were immediately lulled into relaxation mode by the tranquil atmosphere and serene landscape of the Pacific Ocean and the rest of the Paridas Islands, which were visible in the distance. I confess that unlike the person, who recommended this place to me, I am not a backpacker and I don’t like camping.
Seagullcove Lodge is an intimate hotel that can accommodate just thirteen guests in five bungalows. The accommodations are strung out along the mountain slope between the lobby and a small beach covered with rough, brown stones and featuring a pier leading to a Hawaiian style tiki-bar. The manager, Melissa, greeted us in flip-flops, reflecting the extremely informal atmosphere. “This hotel opened in 2007, so it has been running for nearly seven years,” she explained. “Before that there was just one hotel in Boca Brava.” I know which hotel she means because my friend’s hapless group had found it to be the only place to eat in the neighborhood.
Now there are more options, starting with the Seagullcove’s restaurant; it is open to the public and serves Italian-inspired cuisine introduced by its first owner. Given the likelihood of a storm, we postponed the boat excursion we had scheduled, deciding instead to tour other hotels in the area. Next door to Seagullcove is the Hotel Bocas del Mar, a slightly larger hotel in the modern style, where everything is white with wood and metal accents and there is soft lounge music playing in the pool area. It has sixteen bungalows that can accommodate up to forty guests.
María Luisa and Olaf recently took over management of the hotel. “People who choose our hotel in particular and Boca Chica in general are looking for a more placid sort of tourism. We focus on personal, relaxed service with a lot of attention to detail,” commented María Luisa. This seems to be generally true of all the hotels and lodgings in and around Boca Chica; there is greenery and ocean everywhere you look, and it’s hard to believe that the area contains some ten tourist accommodations—like Hotel Boca del Mar and the Seagullcove Lodge—in various styles, suited to different budgets.
What they all share is a commitment to offering small-scale tourism services with minimal impact on the environment. Here there are no sprawling monsters with three hundred rooms, five pools, a golf course, and all those deluxe goodies provided by conventional coastal resorts. We barely managed to return to Seagullcove Lodge before the clouds, which had been increasingly usurping the sky, poured down a storm that completely blotted out the islands before tapering off into an interminable drizzle. There was no way to continue exploring, so we returned to the bungalow, where the night arrived with the scent of jasmine, intensified by the cool temperature and the litany of cicadas.
There is much friendly cooperation here between the public and private sectors. Boca Chica is the gateway to the more than 36,000 acres of the Gulf of Chiriquí National Marine Park, which includes islands and Pacific Ocean waters off western Panama. Far from feeling that protecting the area is a hindrance, communities in the area have incorporated the concept into their development plans; in addition to hotels, there are boat operators, restaurants, and small businesses to serve the tourists who come to enjoy this natural reserve.
The geography and natural features of this area influenced Panama’s decision to protect its abundant biological wealth. The peaks of the Tabasará mountains rise in this province and continue west to Costa Rica; they look distant, but geologically they are almost on the coast. The rivers here rush rather than flow toward the sea in turbulent streams with no quiet stretches, so the nutrients torn from the ancient volcanic slopes don’t have time to settle.
The mad dash slows only when the water reaches the large Bahía de Muertos, the destination for short but mighty rivers like the Fonseca, San Juan, Chiriquí, and Chico. The island of Boca Brava, across from Boca Chica, which forms part of the park’s buffer zone, as well as the islands of Parida, Paridita, Santa Catalina, Pulgoso, Gámez, Tintorera, Obispo, Obispone, Los Pargos, Ahogado, Icacos, Corral de Piedra, and Bolaños, among other rocky outcrops inside the protected area, serve to block the mouth of the bay, retaining rich nutrients from the mountains.
The next morning, we witnessed an immense cornucopia of life when a sunny pause in the monotonous rain allowed us to tour some of the islands in the archipelago. Endangered species of turtles such as the leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) and the loggerhead sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) nest on the island’s beaches, while the shallow waters between the archipelago and the mainland provide a place for humpback whales to feed and teach their calves to swim. Our group approached a whale mother and child cavorting above the waves; they spouted air and dove in, with the mother trying to help her baby stay on the surface, even for a moment. We also had the chance to zigzag alongside a group of dolphins.
Toward the south, the park’s outer islands are surrounded by a rich semicircle of coral interspersed with seagrass meadows, dotted with lobe coral and fire coral (Millepora intricata), the intricate folds and whimsical shapes of which provide homes for spectacular fish such as the passer angelfish (Holocanthus passer), bicolor parrotfish (Scarus subroviolaceus), and whitetip reef shark (Trienodon obesus).
This abundance of fish is what attracted the first tourists, who came mostly for fishing and diving, the latter being a specialty of the Hotel Boca Brava. Opened by a German nearly nine years ago, this establishment may seem chaotic, not in the sense of being sloppy, but simply because it was built in stages by adding a room here and a room there. The hotel is rather labyrinthine, a little like a pirate haven, which gives it an atmosphere of camaraderie very much appreciated by its regular customers. Julio, the manager, told us that December visitors come from North America, while from February to July, most of the guests are European. “Our guests are nearly always older people who enjoy nature and peace.” Counting hammocks, shared rooms, and individual rooms, the hotel can accommodate up to sixty-eight people.
Tradition holds that, during the era of sailing ships, vessels dropped anchor in the islands, mainly Parida, to gather manchineel (Hippomane mancinella), which they used to control rats on board ship. It is a geological oddity that the coasts of the Gulf of Chiriquí, including Boca Chica, are located on the continent’s only coastal strip seeded with coconut palms (Cocos nucifera), which were carried here from Polynesia by the powerful Pacific current. Along with coconut trees, coastal and island forests abound in cedro maria trees (Calophyllum longifolium), rosy trumpet trees (Tabebuia rosea), pochote trees (Bombacopsis quinatum), Spanish cedars (Cedrela odorata), wild cashew trees (Anarcadium excelsum), and elephant ear trees (Enterolobium cyclocarpum), which are home to colonies of howler monkeys (Alouatta palliata), raccoons (Procyon lotor), and agouti pacas (Agouti paca).
There are also modest lodgings in the town of Boca Chica, which is basically a stopping off point for fishing boats and the occasional small yacht. This is our last stop before returning to Seagullcove. Hypnotized by the sea breeze and the scent of the mysterious flowers that bloom in the depths of the estuaries, we imagined sitting in the hotel lobby and once again losing ourselves in the view of the islands and the setting sun, chatting with the other guests about the whale and her calf, the playful dolphins, the colony of ibis and great egrets in Mogote de los Pájaros, or the tiger herons we saw flying toward the mangrove swamps further inland. This time I have only one night left in Boca Chica before returning to Panama City, but I will be back, especially now that this reserve offers facilities for more cautious and pampered visitors like me and not just intrepid journalists like my friend. If I dared to begin this article with a negative remark, it was merely to enjoy the pleasure of telling you, dear reader, and my friend too, how much things have changed over the last eight years and how easy it is to luxuriate in this unique, secluded, and tranquil paradise.