The moment we pulled up in front of the anconField Station, our base for the next three nights, we felt that our vacation was hitting its stride. With aquamarine clapboard walls, an open-air dining room-cum-dock built over Bocas del Toro's harbor, and upstairs suites opening onto a balcony strung with hammocks, the field station breathes Key Largo-style, laid-back adventure. Within minutes the kids were in their swimsuits and diving off the dining-room porch into the lagoon, clambering back for more while Jeff and I lounged in big teak deck chairs. The water was warm as a sigh, and the boys swam until dark, demonstrating their cannonballs, swan dives, and even a front flip. As it got dark, they drip-dried in the warmth of the night, and a pair of dolphins swam by, maybe 100 yards away.
The next day, as we were finishing an alfresco dock breakfast of melon and mango, scrambled eggs, toast, flat-cakes with jam, and dark Panamanian coffee, a fiberglass skiff pulled in and a huge, rotund man stepped out. This was Livingston, our local guide and a native of the neighboring island of Bastimentos. His enormous belly and Houston Astros baseball cap, strapped on tight by gold aviator goggles, lent him the jolly aspect of a West Indian Santa. The boys were mesmerized by his girth and deep voice. Along with Ivan, who flashed me a big thumbs-up sign as we hopped onto the boat and sped out for the day, we were joined on our excursions by the Bowditch family from Massachusetts—a couple traveling with their grandchildren—who were also staying at the field station. Fortuitously, the grandkids, Po and Z, were the same ages as Sam and James. Since we were all traveling with Wildland and were roughly on the same itinerary, we decided to join forces.
Livingston began by taking us to Bastimentos, where we docked near a remote Guaymi Indian village and hiked to the first of the untouched beaches we'd be visiting over the next few days. Everyone waded into the gentle surf, except Livingston, who sat smiling encouragingly amid the pile of cast-off T-shirts and shorts.
"One time the Panamanians didn't come much to Bocas," he said when we got back, "but now the hotels are full-up. All different nations here—that's the way it is now." Jeff and Sam walked along the beach, a thin strip of café con leche-colored sand lined with coconut palms and West Indian almond trees. Ivan and James returned to the shallows for a snorkeling lesson—James's first—and because the emerald water was nearly still, he could see straight to the bottom. For a long time I sat on the beach, watching their snorkels bob about.
James emerged waterlogged but ecstatic: "Mom, we found manatee grass, and turtle grass, and some little parrot fish, and Ivan taught me how to say 'cool' underwater"—and he made the "okay" sign.
Along with laid-back biology lessons and beautiful beaches where the only tracks might be those of tiny red frogs, what makes these Panamanian islets so memorable is the locals. In the San Blás Islands, to the northeast of Panama City (which we longed to visit, if only we'd had enough days),the Kuna women dress as their ancestors did. They wear wrap skirts, shirts sewn from intricate reverse-appliqué fabric, and iridescent bands wrapped tightly around their arms and legs, making them as brilliant as tropical birds. On Bastimentos, the Guaymí Indians we encountered live by fishing and subsistence farming, travel by dugout, and reside in thatched-roof huts without electricity or running water. While we played on the beach, small children eyed us from the trees. Jeff and Sam returned from a walk, having watched two Guaymí boys bodysurf on pieces of driftwood.
Not that all of our encounters were this cross-cultural. Much of our time was spent simply hanging out at a series of docks and thatched-roof cabanas built over an aquarium-like snorkeling spot known as Coral Key. Cervezas and refrescos cost $1 at the mint-green snack bar with the robin's-egg-blue tin roof; we drank them sittingon the wooden walkways between the docks, dangling our feet in the water and watching schools of parrot fish and angelfish endlessly shape and reshape themselves. At one point, snorkeling with the Bowditches, we looked like a school of fish meeting schools of fish. It took a sinister and extremely territorial barracuda to herd the kids back toward the dock—and even then they hung in the water for ages, thrilled by the threat of such a predator.
By late afternoon each day, we'd boat back to the field station in time to mess about some more. Sam, James, and their friends smashed coconuts in the courtyard, swung from hammocks overlooking the harbor, pestered the imperturbable Ivan, and stayed up late playing blackjack. Jeff and I felt comfortable enough with the setup that one afternoon we spontaneously sneakedoff to explore the town of Bocas del Toro, once a busy center for banana trading. We'd intended to walk just a block but found ourselves drawn on—down the main drag, where jazz floated out of a whitewashed café, past a band of men playing dominoes in a park, to the docks. Here young boys dressed as roosters, with bells fastened to their ankles, were celebrating a carnival by playing an elaborate street game thatinvolved slapping long whips at one another.
The town, with its run-down colonial architecture, tin roofs, and turn-of-the-century details, had a completely seductive, dissolute charm. As Jeff would saymuch later, apropos of nothing, "If I ever wanted to disappear for a while, I'd go to Bocas." On the wide, sand-strewn boulevard, in front of the old Hotel Bahía(once the headquarters of the United Fruit Co.), we watched islanders ride their bikes down the middle of the street, dodging potholes as the island's few taxis dodged them. Music played, bicycle bells rang, roosters crowed, hammers hammered, and the whole place thrummed with the sleepyyet rough-and-ready vibe of an uncharted outpost. An expat community has begun opening a few barsand funky dockside restaurants, and we saw small bands of surfers flag down water taxis or even dugout canoes, load up their boards, and take off for distant reefs.
On our next-to-last night at theField Station, tables and chairs were pushed aside and the local band, the Beach Boys of Bastimentos, showed up (by boat) for a dance party. They weren't always in tune, but before we knew what had hit us, everyone was dancing to reggae. The bass player had brought along his seven-year-old son, Moises, and he teamed up with James, who learned that, in both their languages, the word barracuda is the same. Moises joined us for snorkeling the next day, and after we'd returned to our rooms, James made his new friend a present: a good-bye note with three colored pencils taped to it. We figured the odds were slim we'd ever see Moises again, but a few hours later, what do you know?
"Hola!" he said, jumping off a sidewalk.
"Hola!" James said, and handed over his gift.
We adults watched, incredulous at the coincidence, while Moises unwrapped the pencils and ran off to tell the town.
Traveling in Panama wasn't always easy, but the experience—despite, or maybe because of, the complexities—thrilled us. We decided the country is, in fact, a long way from being the next Costa Rica. Call it the next next Costa Rica. There are few luxury lodges on the outskirts of its rain forests, few English-speaking wildlife guides, no safari vans ferrying nature-lovers about. But we had encounters we will not soon forget, and we loved the feeling of being someplace most of the traveling world has yet to discover. There is still much talk about turning Panama into an eco-tourist's dream-come-true, but from what we saw, it's going to take a while. And for that we were glad.
Back at Panama City's Caesar Park Hotel—cotton sheets for Jeff, blow-dryer for me, Nintendo for the boys—it was clear the boys felt slightly bereft. I knew the feeling. Although wefinally had regained our creature comforts, we hadfelt closer to one another in the rain forest and on the reefs, unknown territories that cast into relief our identity as a family. We might be cleaned up and headed home, but we already missed the wild places.