Defying the "Tree House" Stereotype
By Mateo Landau
About 45 minutes off the main island of Colon (Bocas) sits a tree house for adults. From the boat, you can identify it only by the sun's glare off its roof--almost like an unwanted homing beacon. Their secret, Tranquilo Bay, is a hotel that sits on about 100 acres of ocean-nudging rainforest on one of the archipelago's ten (or so) large islands.
The boat nudged up against the fresh-looking dock and I hopped aland. There was this relatively narrow wooden boardwalk that escorted me through droopy tropical trees and over intricately woven mangrove roots. About 100 feet ahead I stumbled upon this unexpected view of the resort's main building: which is an act about as breathtaking and climactic as any blockbuster big reveal scene. I climbed up the stairs to the top deck where I scanned the panoramic view of, what felt like, the edge of the world: a far off horizon which, for all I knew, could have been the end of everything. It was the kind of view that would have seriously dissuaded Columbus from trying to prove that the world was round.
The first thing I felt after having settled into my room was refreshed--refreshed to find an intimate hotel and refreshed to find personalized touches. I was getting sick of that typical generic sanitation experiment that many hotels offer as guest accommodations: a flaw which I'm starting to regard as "white box" syndrome. Here, I could see through every nut and bolt, every stitch of thread that someone had caringly and thoughtfully placed it there. My bed looked seductive but I had things to do.
AFTER LUNCH WE SET OUT TO VISIT THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY which was no Hershey's workshop. In a self-built two-story home overlooking the Caribbean Ocean live Dave and Linda (see photo). They are a retired couple who moved to Panama, bought a piece of land, and began the enviable life of tropical retirement nearly 7 years ago. Dave, both in appearance and fanatical interest, resembles Jacque Cousteau--his thinning grey pony tail and Smithsonian-style hobbies screaming of the great ocean explorer.
Some time after settling in on his property, Dave noticed several large cocoa trees which he began researching. Several submitted samples, and a few conclusive DNA tests later, he discovered that he had cocoa trees--cocoa trees so fine so fine and so sought after, that their nut was used in only the world's top 10% of chocolate. Realizing he was sitting on, literally a chocolate gold mine, David started assembling machines that could convert the cocoa pods into actual edible candy. This has been his hobby for the past 5 years. Today, he, his hand-crank oven, modified coffee grinder, and homemade chocolatilery, produce some of the finest organic, single-origin chocolate in the hemisphere (or so his wife says). I snapped a photo of Dave sifting through that week's crop.
SNORKELING IN BOCAS IS AMONG THE BEST IN THE WORLD. The water right off the main dock had some great clown-colored coral and surprising monstrous fish. I even played chicken with a 4-foot Tarpon--his beady little glass eye ogling me as we narrowly passed. The kayaks are great for a little paddle through the mangroves or perhaps some kayak fishing (note to self for next time: do not try to catch, or more dangerously, hook powerful fish from sedentary position in non-anchored vessel).
Zapatilla Islands. The boat ride was pretty bumpy, our 200 hp Yamaha bouncing us like a drumstick then hitting down hard on the hard ocean belly with a heavy thump. The island and its surrounding coasts have been host to the Survivor challenge of over 15 countries. Needless to say, it's pretty deserted. I circumnavigated the island in 45 minutes with my new, yet thoroughly trustworthy walking stick of beach wood. As you look inwards at the island you see this luscious rainforest--the rising mist and semi-threatening animal calls were so exotic and glamorous to me. It's the kind of island that is so wild and untouched, that you could really find anything. I uncovered, what we think to be, a century old opium vial used by Chinese workers during their years helping build the Panama Canal. There were also millions of coconuts sprouting plants--something that I hear is a trendy NYC restaurant decoration. I felt so distant from NYC, and any big city for that matter: so far away from the honking of taxis and men in suits. Things were slower and more peaceful here, somehow void of that hustle and bustle and stress and schedule. My mind wasn't clogged with the buzzing of TV or the worries about national security--it was clear and ajar.
Tranquilo Bay, off of the Bocas main island totally defies the "tree house" stereotype. It totally shatters any preconceived notions that a vacationer might have about staying in a jungle. It's this perfect blend of rugged tropics and modern comfort--where you can sip a margarita on the porch while listening to the ribbeting dart frogs and watch acrobatic dolphins in the sea. Where you can watch monkeys swing over head, snorkel off the coast of an Indian village, catch a 700 lb fish, and still get back in time for a BBQ dinner.
After my time here, I felt less like a visitor at a hotel and more like a guest in a home--a rarity in today's world of all-inclusive resorts, conveyer belt tourist traps, and haughty 5-star hotels. The management and staff were genuinely interested in where I'd come from and sincerely curious about my hobbies--a bit of a reprieve from pestering check-out managers and thumb-to-pointer finger rubbing bellboys. For someone who wanted to get away from all he knew...Tranquilo Bay ironically felt like home.
I am not a writer. Nor a wordsmith. I am an international man of mystery. For more information about Panama visit The Panama Report.
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Views expressed in the article are those of the author and are not necessarily the opinions of CaribbeanChoice, its staff or members.