The seductive charms of Pearl Lagoon

Pearl Lagoon, or Languna de Perlas in Spanish, is just about as authentic, non-touristy and undeveloped Caribbean as it is possible to get without dropping off the map altogether. Time seems to slow to a standstill, the delicious seafood is cheap and plentiful and the rum flows freely. Within a matter of hours we’d fallen under its spell and instead of the two days we’d planned for, finally dragged ourselves away six days later and only then reluctantly.

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Fishing with a hand net, Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Fishing with a hand net, Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

A small, traditional Creole and Miskito fishing community on the edge of a large and tranquil lagoon on Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, Pearl Lagoon is just waking up to the possibility of tourism. While the spectacular Pearl Keys are reasonably well known (although difficult and expensive to get to), community tourism to Miskito and Garifuna villages around the lagoon is definitely about to make its mark. Visit now, because things will have changed in a few years.

This part of Nicaragua is chronically underdeveloped. There is little infrastructure – regular water shortages and power cuts, no paved roads – but its friendly, easy-going people and its beauty have a seductive charm that captured our hearts. Plus, no roads means you get to spend a lot of time in boats zipping from one place to another.

Reggae music is the norm here, and you can almost forget that you’re technically in a Spanish-speaking country – Creole and English predominate.

Small fishing boat, Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Small fishing boat, Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

This region was controlled for decades by an alliance of the British Government and the indigenous Miskito people, who were the regional superpower before Europeans arrived. This alliance effectively kept the Spanish out of the whole region, which, with the importation of Afro-Caribbean slaves and Jamaican migrants, developed an entirely different Creole-Miskito culture to ‘Spanish’ Nicaragua.

The area is also home to a sizeable Garifuna community. The Garifuna can be found all along the Caribbean coast, from Belize to Costa Rica, and were either escaped slaves who rebelled, freed themselves and established free communities on the coast; or, as some anthropologists believe, made their way independently from Africa two centuries before the slavers.

Small fishing boat, Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Small fishing boat, Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Moravian Church, Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Moravian Church, Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

The British ceded the region to Nicaragua when it gained independence from Spain in 1821, but Nicaraguan control was non-existent until they took it by military force in 1894. The region overwhelming opposed the Sandinistas, and with US support launched an armed uprising against the Sandinista government in the 1980s. Which explains the government’s lack of investment in the region.

The lack of government interest in the ‘English’ part of Nicaragua has, in part, been filled by Colombian drug runners. Once-upon-a-time it was rum runners, times change but things stay the same. Drug boats bound for the United States frequently take refuge in the islands off the coast in bad weather or when being chased by law enforcement. To maintain local support they have invested more money in the region’s infrastructure than the government.

This includes a ‘donation’ of the region’s only high-speed internet cafe on Pearl Lagoon’s main street. Sadly, you still need electricity to have the internet and when we were there the electricity barely functioned. Still, you’re unlikely to win a ‘war on drugs’ when the drug runners are more philanthropic than the government.

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Let me just say it once more, “We loved Pearl Lagoon.” If you go there, try to stay in one of the stilted cabanas at the Queen Lobster restaurant. Owned by a young local woman and her Spanish husband, this is one of the friendliest and most pleasant places to stay imaginable. Plus, the restaurant serves some of the best seafood in town – although for the very best food try Warner’s Place a block or so behind the Moravian Church. Delicious.

Cabana at the Queen Lobster Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Cabana at the Queen Lobster Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Cabana at the Queen Lobster Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Cabana at the Queen Lobster Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

The owners of the Queen Lobster will also arrange trips to other parts of the area, including to the fabulous Pearl Keys. We went only for a day trip, but wished we’d spent the extra cash to stay overnight on one of the keys. Next time.

In the meantime, if you go to Pearl Lagoon for no other reason, go for the sunsets…

Sunset over Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Sunset over Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Sunset over Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Sunset over Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Sunset over Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Sunset over Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

The several faces of Bocas del Toro

Bocas del Toro is a magnet for tourists from all over the world, their popularity is obvious: beautiful palm fringed beaches, an easy-going vibe that is part-Caribbean, part-Central America and delicious sea food. We arrived just before Semana Santa, which is a huge holiday for Panamanians, and the crowds were packing into the archipelago for the long weekend.

We’d been told that all the islands have different personalities, attracting different crowds, so after spending three days lounging on Isla de San Cristobal we decided to go and explore a little more of the archipelago. First up was the transport hub (i.e. water taxis) of Bocas Town on the largest island, Isla Colon. Bocas Town is backpacking party central in this part of Panama, with rapid and barely controlled development taking its toll on the area.

Bocas Town, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Bocas Town from the water, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Bocas Town, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Bocas Town from the water, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Main street, Bocas Town, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Main street, Bocas Town, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sign, Bocas Town, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sign, Bocas Town, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sign, Bocas Town, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sign, Bocas Town, Bocas del Toro, Panama

After a little shopping and arranging onward travel to Costa Rica we decided Bocas Town had little to offer and took a water taxi to Isla Bastimentos. We had two very good reasons for visiting Isla Bastimentos: it has a couple of excellent beaches and the Firefly, a lovely three-bedroom B&B on the island run by friends-of-a-friend, Lauren and Ryan. The Firefly has a great waterfront location and serves delicious food – we arrived just in time for lunch!

Water taxi, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Water taxi, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Ocean front outside the Firefly, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Ocean front outside the Firefly, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Ocean front outside the Firefly, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Ocean front outside the Firefly, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Old Bank, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Old Bank, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Isla Bastimentos is also home to a large Afro-Caribbean population, mostly from Jamaica, and it has a much more Caribbean feel than the other islands. In Bastimentos’s only ‘town’, Old Bank, people greet you in English rather than Spanish. Its a very different experience to Bocas Town.

Old Bank, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Old Bank, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Old Bank, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Old Bank, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Old Bank, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Old Bank, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

After a couple of cold beers and some excellent home-cooking at the Firefly we took a water taxi to Red Frog Beach. Red Frog is a pristine stretch of sand that has been turned into a high-end but low-key resort and you have to pay US$3 for the privilage of using the beach. It was Easter and the beach was packed, but we’d been giving some local advice and walked the short distance to Turtle Beach, which we had to ourselves.

Turtle Beach, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Turtle Beach, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Turtle Beach, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Turtle Beach, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

This was our last day in Bocas del Toro and as we arrived back on Isla de San Cristobal we were treated to a beautiful and dramatic sunset.

Sunset from Isla de San Critobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sunset from Isla de San Critobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sunset, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sunset, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sunset from Isla de San Critobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sunset from Isla de San Critobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Not all snakes are poisonous. If you see a snake tell us, don’t touch it.

So read the the section headed Critters in the welcome pack at the fabulous and remote cabana we were staying in amongst virgin tropical forest on Isla de San Cristobal in Panama’s beautiful Bocas del Toro archipelago.

It begs the question, “Who’s first response upon seeing a snake in the middle of a tropical island is to try to befriend the slithery little reptile?” Not mine, not ever, but people do crazy things when they leave their normal lives behind it seems. Seriously, this is a part of the world where the deadly Fer-de-lance, a snake known for being “irritable and fast moving” and “excitable and unpredictable”, makes its home. Do not touch the snakes!

Sailing toward Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sailing toward Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

The Bocas del Toro archipelago is famous in these parts, and with good reason. A series of tropical islands fringed by mangroves and white sand beaches floating in the Caribbean Sea; found at the northern tip of Panama, close to the border with Costa Rica, they are a major draw for international and local tourists.

We thought the islands might be over-developed after our stay on the San Blas Islands, so we based ourselves on the relatively obscure Isla de San Cristobal. The moment we saw our cabana on stilts with panoramic views of the ocean and the forest we knew we’d made the right decision. This really was getting away from it all, although having just come from San Blas our need to do so could be disputed.

Cabana, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Cabana, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Cabana, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Cabana, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Cabana, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Cabana, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Cabana, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Cabana, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

View from the cabana, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

View from the cabana, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Within a few hours of being at the Casa Selva del Mar, we’d swung in hammocks, snorkelled out to the reef, spotted a tree snake (not dangerous apparently, but resisted the urge to touch it), watched humming birds flitting between flowers and seen a very relaxed sloth dangling in a tree. Although the owners will cook for you in the evenings, the cabana has a good kitchen so we brought food including fresh fish and prawns – a luxury when you’re travelling.

We saw several sloths during our stay, twice so low down in the tree that I could have reached out and touched them.

Hummingbird, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Hummingbird, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sloth, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sloth, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sloth, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sloth, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sloth, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sloth, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

The heat and the humidity in Panama are pretty overwhelming and, while Bocas del Toro is less humid and there’s a breeze, it is hard to find the motivation to put the book down and get out of the hammock. Pretty much the only thing to do is a little snorkelling out to the reef. If you’re feeling energetic you could kayak around the island or make the long journey to the fridge for cold cerveza.

Happily for us, after a very peaceful first night where the only noise was the wind rustling the leaves of the palm trees, the owner, Izzy, took us out on his boat and we sailed for three hours around the islands near to Isla de San Cristobal. A lovely and relaxing experience, especially with a cold beer in hand.

Sailboat, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sailboat, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

You won’t find any white sand beaches on Isla de San Cristobal, but since there are only six other people staying within the thirty acres of tropical forest that is the Casa Selva del Mar, the peace and quiet is pretty absolute. After seeing the town of Bocas del Toro on the main island of Colon, I was relieved not to be staying there, especially after reports of regular club nights blasting music that could be heard all over town until 4am.

To top off our second day on Isla de San Cristobal we were treated to a spectacular sunset over the water from the elevated deck of our cabana.

Sunset, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sunset, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sunset, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sunset, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sunset, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sunset, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama