Tourist First

Travel notes and advice from around the world. Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Panama: On the Beach at Al Natural on Isla Bastimentos

    We spent two nights here in January 2014 before moving on to Bocas del Toro and an apartment owned by the same Belgians who own Al Natural.
       Our experience at Al Natural was mixed.  We liked our hut, shown at right, on stilts above what looked as if it would be our own personal beach.  There were twin and queen-size beds, all with somewhat tattered mosquito netting.  The open-air hut spilled onto a sunny deck where swimsuits actually had a chance of drying. Comfortable chairs and chaise-longues were welcome amenities, as was the hot-water shower. There were also electric lights.  Click HERE to visit the lodge's website.

    Above, the beach in front of our hut as seen from our deck. What looked like a private beach wasn't; a seaside path linking a local community with several lodges like ours actually went just below our hut, and some people using the path used the opportunity to cut over to the beach and others continued on Al Natural's more inland path.  The people were always polite and kept moving, so we quickly got used to a bit less privacy than we expected.
     At left is Al Natural's dock and beach as seen from the loft above the dining area.
     Another slight disappointment at Al Natural was the lack of bar service.  Although it boasts what is supposed to be a full bar, it is not staffed until 7 p.m. each evening.  Beer, sodas and bottled water are available on the honor system from a cooler, but if you want a passion fruit daiquiri, you have to wait until 7 or even later if the bartender is slow setting up for the evening.  One thing that can delay him is the arrival of night monkeys, small creatures that swing into the dining structure around sunset, almost as if they've been trained to entertain guests.
    Food at Al Natural was nothing exceptional during our stay, perhaps because the Belgian chef was off those days, arriving just as we were leaving.  The two nights we were there we had the same fish -- kingfish -- although prepared different ways.
       Al Natural offers excursions to snorkeling and scuba diving sites in the area; it can provide all the gear you need for either.  The level of service at the lodge itself is, well, extremely casual, even when the Belgian owner, who is in Panama only half the year, was there. But, all in all, not a bad place to spend a couple of days.


Panama: Bocas del Toro: surfers and backpackers ... and us

We spent two nights in January 2014 in the Caribbean town of Bocas del Toro, Panama, the major town in the island group that shares its name.  It's actually on Isla Colon.  We stayed in a  studio apartment in a small dock apartment building known as M&M -- that's for Michel and Michelle Natalis, who also own the beach lodge Al Natural on nearby Isla Bastimentos.  The apartment was quite nice -- cable TV and air-conditioning, though we didn't use the later -- but noisy.  Motor boats sped by our private deck at all hours, and our fellow tenants were noisy young men with surf boards.  Sometimes they used the diving board near our deck, swimming and putting themselves at risk of being hit by one of the motor boats.  Despite the noise, this is an easy place to recommend (click HERE to visit its website).  We had the sea front studio.  This photo -- the view from the bed -- shows the deck and its hammock.

Restaurants, bars, grocery stores, souvenir shops, outfitters and tour companies line Calle 3, the main street in Bocas del Toro. There's even a wine bar -- though it offers only a handful of wines by the glass.  Below, snapshots of Calle 3 and the waterfront.

There is no beach to speak of in the town of Bocas del Toro, though there are good beaches elsewhere on Isla Colon.  Surfers and sunbathers flock to Bluff Beach.  We went to Starfish Beach, which has gentler waves, usually good snorkeling (recent rains meant we had no decent snorkeling anywhere in the Caribbean), and loads of swimmers.  Our visit coincided with a bunch of people from a giant cruise ship anchored a few hundred yards offshore. Below, photos of the crowded and uncrowded parts of Starfish Beach. One photo shows the cruise ship.


Panama: Getting Away From It All

Above, the Guna community at Playon Chico, Panama. 

No, that's not some sort of Nazi flag. The one on the left is the old flag of Comarca Kuna Yala, the homeland of the indigenous Guna (pronounced KOO-nah and often spelled "Kuna") people of Darien province in Panama. It's supposed to represent interlocked arms, a symbol of community unity.  The idea is a bit more clear in the new flag, shown on the right.  The eight stars are for the eight traditional chiefs of the Guna, though we're told that there are only three chiefs at the moment.

Jane and I stayed three nights in January 2014 in the traditional eight-sided Guna hut at right.  It's at a Guna lodge called Yandup (click HERE for link) on a tiny island a short boat ride from Playon Chico.  The only way to reach this place is one flight a day on Air Panama to Playon Chico's small landing strip. Our flight from Panama City was in an eight-passenger plane (photo below) with air vents in the windows and everyone sitting immediately behind the two pilots. There are almost no roads in Darien Province.

Below, two fishermen worked the waters near our hut using a dugout canoe. One speared a squid and one caught an octopus, both popular on menus here. Octopus frequently shows up in ceviche.

Below:  Yandup has five huts that are over the water and several others on land. A large open-air dining building is also over the water.   The lodge is building a large spa hut -- bamboo and thatch, like everything else -- that will add a little luxury to what now are pretty basic services.  But, when you're in a hammock on a deck over warm Caribbean waters, how much more luxury do you need?

The walls of the huts are sections of bamboo nailed to a frame. The wind easily comes in through spaces between the pieces of bamboo. Windows have bamboo latticework but no screens and no glass. The roof overhang is sufficient to keep out rain and enough sun so that the inside stays pretty comfortable. Our hut had electric lights and fans, a double bed, one twin-size bed, a hanging chair, and a bath with a flushing toilet and a cold-water shower. Both beds had mosquito netting, which we didn't need. There were two hammocks and a rocking chair on the deck.

Meals at Yandup ("dup" means island in the Guna language) were pretty simple: pancakes or an omelet or fried eggs for breakfast, and fish or other seafood for lunch and dinner.

Guests are all entitled to two excursions a day -- a guided tour of the Guna community (no photos of this because having been told that the Guna object to being photographed, I didn't take my camera -- turns out they don't mind if you ask first and offer them a little money) , a hike to a Guna cemetery, and snorkeling trips to neighboring desert islands, such as the one below.
 Being at so remote a place can pose unexpected problems.  Jane became pretty ill on our second day, so we tried to cut our three-night visit to two, but we had missed the early-morning plane and would have to wait until the next day anyway. I thought we could arrange to have a car sent for us from Panama City, but I hadn't looked at a map.  The staff at Yandup told us that getting to the nearest road to meet a car would involve a three-hour trip in a small boat over rough seas.  So Jane toughed it out and we left as scheduled.  The plane back to Panama City was a bit larger and a little more comfortable -- it had maybe 16 seats and a center aisle.