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
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
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
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
ma.net or www.bocas.com
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.