Birder Nick Athanas is a full-time trip leader with Tropical Birding. But he discovered this gem of a lodge on a much-deserved vacation to Panama. I spent four nights at Tranquilo Bay in March 2014. From their website and my emails with Jim Kimball, one of the owners, I already knew I would love it even before I went there, but it exceeded even my high expectations. I was impressed by the comfort, service, location, great guides, and the variety of excursions and activities that they offered for both birders and non-birders. This would be an especially attractive option for families or groups where not everyone is a hardcore birder. Overall it was a lot of fun and I hope I have a chance to go back some day.
The lodge is located on Isla Bastimentos in the Bocas de Toro archipelago along the Caribbean coast of western Panama. This is a remote and beautiful area, and quite a unique location compared to other eco-lodges I have been to. Part of the island is a national park and the rest is privately owned. There are mangroves around the edge of the island, and a mixture of rainforest and clearings in the interior. While it’s certainly worth spending some time on the island, there are lots of other neat locations you can visit by boat, either on other nearby islands or on the mainland.
My cabin was spacious and tastefully decorated. It had hot water, ceiling fan, air conditioning, coffee maker, table, chair, and desk. Full-time electricity was provided by a generator that was far enough away that I did not hear it from my room. The air conditioner was nice to cool the room down in the afternoon, but I found I did not need it at night. I just opened the windows (which were screened), turned the fan on low, and it was very pleasant and wonderfully quiet. No TV, but I wouldn’t have watched it even if there was one. The restaurant and bar are in a separate building a short walk from the cabins, which is also nicely laid out and air conditioned. There was Wifi in the bar/restaurant area, and it was reasonably fast.
There were two full-time guides living on-site during my stay, Ramón and Natalia. Both knew the birds and other wildlife of the region, were very friendly, great at finding and pointing things out, and spoke excellent English.
The lodge offered lots of things to do, such as birding, sea kayaking, snorkeling, fishing, walking in the rainforest, visiting a working chocolate farm, and observing marine life. They told me that some times of the year you can even see Whale Sharks, but I was a little too early. There are no beaches at the lodge, but there are some not far that they can take guests to if they want to just chill out on the beach for a while. There is a canopy tower in the lodge clearing, a great place to spend the late afternoon for the spectacle of hundreds of Red-lored Parrots flying past at eye level, as well as seeing other birds in the canopy of nearby trees and enjoying the nice view. More than anything I am birder and nature photographer, and every day we went somewhere new. There were some great things to see around the lodge itself, such as lekking Golden-collared Manakins, but there were a lot of different birds to see on the mainland. Some of the excursions I did included a boat ride along an old canal that was teeming with birds, a visit to a nesting colony of Red-billed Tropicbird and Brown Booby, and a trip up to the continental divide near Lake Fortuna. These were long but exciting days, and we regularly found more than 100 species in a day due to the variety of habitats we visited. I saw or heard around 220 bird species during my four night stay, as well as decent variety of other animals such as some very colorful frogs, numerous sloths (both two and three-toed), and dolphins. I wish I had had more time. The snorkeling is meant to be some of the best in the region, and if I have the chance to return, I’ll want to bring a waterproof camera, or a camera housing, for some underwater photography. Also, the lodge can organize excursions to Escudo de Veraguas island, which has some endemic bird subspecies as well as the endemic Pygmy Sloth.
Every day we spent some time on a boat. The boats were good, fast, and well maintained. Most of the archipelago is sheltered from the open sea, so the ride was usually smooth. It did get rough and choppy on a trip out to the seabird colony. I never felt seasick even though I am sometimes prone to it on small boats. There were a couple of short rain showers where we had to put on raincoats; the boats have a small cover, but at high speed the rain just goes under it. As long as you are prepared, this shouldn’t be a big problem.
What impressed me the most was the friendliness and quality of service. The lodge is run by the same people who built it; it is their life and their passion, and this shines through in everything they do. You have meals with them, chat with them at the bar, and they sometimes drive the boat on the excursions, or do the transfers to the airport. At some other larger lodges, even some excellent ones, service can be very formal, or even impersonal, and you almost feel like you are being “processed”. That certainly was not the case here. I felt like they struck a perfect balance between catering to the needs of paying guests while also making you feel like you were also a friend and not just a client.
Frog and parrot photos by Nick Athanas. Photos of lodge amenities courtesy of Tranquilo Bay.