From Boca del Drago to Playa Estrella
Información útilDuring his fourth voyage over storm-tossed seas, Columbus and his crew were on the verge of collapse when they discovered this serene cove, now known as Boca del Drago. Golden sea stars found a spot here to fulfill their natural drive to reproduce.
Text and Photos Javier Pinzón
Once upon a time, there was a faraway place on a small passionate island, which appeared perhaps a bit raffish and jaded due to its bars, nightlife, beaches, and excitement from sunrise to sunset. About nine miles away, along a highway that crosses the island, a hideaway of sand appears in a placid turquoise sea. An aroma of fried fish with plantains and other Afro-inspired dishes wafts toward us from the Yarisnori Restaurant. This is Boca del Drago, the departure point for the magical beach of stars…sea stars.
Boca del Drago
It was October 6, 1502 when Columbus and his crew made their fourth ocean voyage through wild, storm-tossed seas. The crew was on the verge collapse when they heard what sounded like a dragon’s roar. They spotted a tempting opening that they breached, whereupon they found themselves in the serene calm of this cove, now known as Boca del Drago.
The morning sun reflects off white sand in the midst of a turquoise sea fringed with coral reefs. The boatman invites me on my first adventure: Isla Pájaros, or Bird Island. Ten minutes by sea brings us to the home of a wide variety of native and migratory birds: terns, frigate birds, pelicans, swallows, and gannets screech, sing, warble, and caw in unison. This is the only place in Panama that can boast the red-billed tropicbird, so famous for its long white tail feathers that birding enthusiasts come here from the world over to spot it. The island sits amidst pristine coral reefs that invite lovers of the depths to snorkel and scuba dive.
Back in Boca del Drago, I head for the only restaurant in the area, which, by the way, is closed on Tuesdays. The Yarisnori Restaurant serves exquisite, varied cuisine. I treat my palate to fish in garlic sauce as I admire the lovely sea view from my table. The afternoon is perfect for paddling a kayak, available free of charge to guests of the Yarisnori Hotel. The water is so clear that I can see everything that passes by underwater. If you’re here for the day, you might rent a kayak from Ricardo, who can also provide stand-up paddleboards. Dusk deepens as the sun drops below the horizon, introducing me to another of the sights of Bocas del Drago: its incomparable sunsets. A bit later, the night sky lights up with stars that hint at my next destination.
It takes no time at all to cover the mile-long distance to Playa Estrella (Starfish Beach); fifteen minutes of leisurely walking and we’re there. Palm trees on the shore shade the path from the dazzling sun and the trail soon curves away from the sand to make its way through a unique mangrove swamp. The crystalline waters reveal the marine life sheltered by the mangrove roots: crabs, small colorful fish, and colonies of coral intertwine just inches below the surface. Early morning is the best time to visit. Not yet glaring, the sun paints the waters of the mangrove swamp in magical colors.
Narrow wooden bridges lead to the path marked by fragments of calcium carbonate, remnants of Bocas del Toro coral. The palm trees shading the water evoke those classic postcards of any hidden tropical paradise. Halfway through the walk, I deviate from the path; I can’t resist taking a little dip in the translucent waters.
The characteristic aroma of fried fish tells us we are close to Playa Estrella (Starfish Beach). While there is only one dining option in Bocas del Drago, here we are spoiled for choice with eight restaurants with bars. This is where tourists gather and for good reason: a 580-yard stretch of beach bathed by beguiling waters is visited by dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of golden sea stars that have managed to find the most vividly-hued spot in this sweep of turquoise to fulfill their natural drive to reproduce.
Starfish flee from disturbances, so visitors cannot see the real number of sea stars, but scientists have observed that the Bocas del Toro archipelago is home to some seven million starfish, and this is their favorite beach. A 2002 report by scientists H. Guzmán and C. Guevara estimates that there are 800 to 1,000 starfish per 2.5 acres in the upper 33 feet of water; during the day they move from shallow waters to slightly deeper ones.
Before leaving paradise, my guide Jhovani leads me to Punta Manglar, the ecosystem that marks the boundary between land and sea. A five-minute walk brings us to the observation path, which is a perfect spot to end the tour: hundreds of small crustaceans walk on the roots, colorful birds soar overhead, and well-camouflaged sloths cling to the intermediate branches.
To get to Boca del Drago from Bocas del Toro, take a land or water taxi (20 and 20-25 dollars, respectively). A bus departs from the central square in Bocas every hour at a cost of 2.50.
Tel. +507 6419 2024.
Where to Stay
Tel. +507 6615 5580.
Cabañas Turísticas Estefany
Tel. +507 6956 4525.
Jhovani: Tel. +507 6475 0196.