- Shelly Sison
the wish to travel far away and to many different places
There comes a time in life when you can look back and say 'this was where it all began...' The idea of planning, exploring and learning about a different culture far outside your comfort zone can be exciting for many. Actually doing it can be another story. But, as we all know, everything begins with the first step. My first steps began in Bocas del Toro, Panama, and reaching out via WhatsApp to Doña Mara Beach Hotel. What I didn't know (at the time) is that they were about to ignite a fire and passion within me and set the level of standard for future travel to an almost (yes, ALMOST) unattainable level. Ariel and Zabrina have managed to create a place that exudes charm, offers unparalleled service at an affordable price and satiates the wanderer's soul all while giving back to the community, using locally sourced food and being a good neighbor.
Our (my traveling companion's and my) adventure began with a quick flight from Panama City to Bocas del Toro. A 2-min taxi ride to the docks and a 3-minute boat ride to the Doña Mara dock where we were warmly greeted by the barefooted Ariel and the drooling Lobo (their dog, and hotel mascot!). Shown to our room, Arcoiris (Rainbow), we were in awe. This little slice of paradise would be ours for the week. Cool table-side water and plenty of space to unpack, we were ready to hit the ground running.
First stop, Ariel. “What should we do?" So many options, so little time. Ariel asked some questions and oﬀered suggestions while we stood around admiring the beauty and taking way too many photos. We settled on a ‘jungle’ walk to check the local surf breaks. There are no streets or cars on Carenero (our island). The main ‘road’ is an oceanfront path surrounding the island lined with restaurants, surf breaks, small hotels and smiling faces. The dress code - bathing suits, shoes optional. We were greeted with smiles and what I can only assume to be ‘Hello’ in a multitude of languages. This was far diﬀerent from any place I had ever traveled. As the sun started to set (and boy was it spectacular), we were ready for a little more action. The small oceanfront restaurant at Doña Mara named Receta Michilá and run by chef and owner Joseph Archbold serves ‘Beach Bites’… small plates of island-centric cuisine, and amazing cocktails crafted by local Andres (see photo above). Both were outstanding and far surpassed my expectations. Ariel stopped by to check in on us and ask about our next day’s plans.
I planned to surf at dawn then we were oﬀ on a private boat trip to the bucket list-worthy hotspots around the island chain. First stop, Playa Estrella (Starﬁsh Beach, photo right), aptly named for all the starﬁsh on the ocean ﬂoor in this cove of crystal clear water lined with swaying palms and food shacks. This place was out of a magazine and did not disappoint. We snorkeled and relaxed on the beach and our boat driver chilled out with his fellow drivers under the shady palms while on the lookout for sloths for us! Of course, we were not disappointed.
The wildlife in Bocas was in full swing leading to our next boat stop, the monkey rescue at Urraca Private Island led by Francine. Orphaned or improperly raised as pets, Francine has created an amazing eco resort while bonding with the beautiful Howler, Capuchin and Geoﬀrey species of primates. The primates are well-cared for and guests are able to interact with the monkeys under Francine’s watchful eye. The passion and playfulness were contagious!! Those monkeys sure like to eat!
By this time it was mid-afternoon on a picturesque day under the tropical sun and we were ready for a few refreshments. Our driver suggested Aqui Hoy (Here Today), an overwater restaurant & lounge…something not to be missed while in Bocas. (Sidenote: since Bocas is an island chain the tidal shifts are minimal. Many homes and restaurants are built over the water on stilts and only accessible by boat!). Aqui Hoy had an excellent restaurant (ﬁsh ﬁngers were amazing), ﬂowing cocktails, comfortable loungers, kayaks and swim platform perfect for the after lunch cool oﬀ. As the sun was starting to wind down, it seemed our day was coming to a close.
Upon returning to our dock at Doña Mara (and thanking our wonderful boat driver for an amazing day), Ariel greeted us with a, ‘How was your day and what are your plans for the night’? Night?? First we needed a shower and a nap. Bocas can be as quiet or active as you please. Upon discussion with my companion (and it being a Friday night and no plans for the next day) we decided to take advantage of everything Bocas has to oﬀer. A quick 3-min boat ride to Bocas Town (Isla Colon), we sat waterfront at La Buga Gastro Market (which can be seen from Doña Mara) and indulged on local Panama beers and sushi pizza!!! Both were perfect after a long day and seemed to reenergize us for the Friday evening festivities ahead. Oﬀ to Bocas Aqua Lounge for an evening of dancing before we called it a night! We can conﬁdently say our ﬁrst day in Bocas del Toro was a success…followed by six more amazing days while planning our return trip!