Simply, a Sophisticated Paradise

Travelers can co-exist with nature, and drink on the deck, at eco-friendly island resort

By: Bob Demyan

Mention Panama and most people think of the Panama Canal, fine straw hats or the U.S. military blaring rock ’n’ roll to flush out Gen. Manuel Noriega.

That’s a shame, really, because Panama has much more to offer. From the cool and rugged cloud-forest slopes of its western frontier, to the jungle of the Darien Gap in the east, Panama is a lot of country in a little package. And, with the U.S. dollar as its standard currency, Panama is poised to become a major destination in Latin American travel.

One entrepreneur banking on Panama’s tourism future is Michel Natalis, a Belgian lawyer who left a busy practice in New York City to pursue his dream of developing an ecologically low-impact, self-sufficient resort where nature and guest co-exist in harmony.

Natalis found his perfect location on Isla Bastimentos, in Panama’s Bocas del Toro archipelago on the country’s Caribbean side. There, using local materials, traditional techniques and Indian craftsmen, Natalis built the aptly named Al Natural Resort.

Travelers who want to disconnect from the wired world will be happy at Al Natural, although, as you might expect from a Belgian host, meals are quite good and candlelight dinner is served with a choice of red or white wines.

The Al Natural’s thatch-roofed bungalows are right out of Robinson Crusoe. Each one has a hardwood porch with a hammock that makes it easy to gaze across a seemingly endless expanse of tropical blue water.

It’s all designed for minimal impact on the terrain. Rainwater is stored for drinking and bathing; solar panels charge batteries that provide electricity.

“The idea was to create an experience that is elegant in its simplicity,” Natalis said. “On the surface it looks simple, but behind the scenes it’s fairly sophisticated.”

When guests tire of lounging, kayaking, swimming, sunning and snorkeling, Natalis can arrange for a journey upriver by cayuco, the Ngobe Indian version of a dugout canoe. Traveling up a narrow, mangrove-choked river in one of these boats is an experience not to be missed. You are shrouded in a canopy of dense tropical jungle, with mangrove tentacles reaching up ominously from the black water and three-toed sloths hanging from the canopy above.

At the end of the day, enjoy a beer on the dock and watch the “firefly” plankton that light up the water each evening. Thousands of flickering points of light put on a show that seems to reflect the millions of stars dancing overhead. It’s pure magic and lingering is required. But don’t worry, they’ll hold dinner for you.

Hotel Review

Hits: The getaway. This is it: Your own private tropical island accessible only by boat.

Misses: Sand fleas. You won’t know they’re biting but these little no-see-ums will leave you itching for days. Wear long pants in the evening and bring bug spray.

Be Aware: If you want snacks, bring your own. Meals are scheduled and there’s no snack bar.

Rates: There are six bungalows, two more are planned. Rates are $60 per person, $75 for the deluxe house, including meals, local transportation and use of kayaks, snorkel and windsurfing gear. The resort offers IATA standard 10 percent commissions.

Contacts: 507-757-9004 or 507-623-2217, alnaturalbocas@cwpana or

Getting There: Flights depart daily from Tocumen International Airport for the 50-minute trip to the town of Bocas del Toro. Roundtrip fare is $90. Visitors are picked up for the 20-minute boat ride to Isla Bastimentos.