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Laid Back in Bocas del Toro, Panama: You Can Charter Here?

Sure you can. Elaine Lembo experiences it first-hand.

February 6, 2013

Bocas del Toro, Panama

Cruising boats line the docks in Bocas del Toro but there’s plenty of room for more. Elaine Lembo

I’d never have thought of Bocas del Toro, an archipelago on the Caribbean side of Panama near Costa Rica (think: skip the San Blas, and head northwest), as a prime chartering ground.

Certainly, salty cruising sailors and nautical locals like Ray Jason, who’s well installed aboard Aventura, his 30-foot sloop here, would be perfectly happy if I’d give this beautiful tropical gem a miss.

There are a few hundred boats and a few thousand people on nine islands and countless mangrove cays spread across two good-sized bays, Almirante and Chiriqui, and that’s about that. Dare I forget to mention the frogs, butterflies, tiny tree crabs, and three-toed sloths. Under water, there are hundreds of varieties of sponges, coral, starfish and reef fish.

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Ray Jason introduced me to Eko Smith, the assistant port captain.

But given that I’m here now, aboard a sailboat, I can’t help writing about it. When friends asked us to join them on a Trade Winds Cruise Club crewed charter aboard the Trade Winds Explorer, a Royal Cape catamaran (70 feet in length, 30 foot beam) in this lush, relatively untrammeled cruising ground (well, certainly untrammeled compared to the Virgins in the Eastern Caribbean) how could I resist?

Trade Winds has certainly gotten ahead of the pack of charter companies here; the company also offers transits of the Panama Canal and trips in Las Perlas, Panama, on the Pacific Ocean side. What could be more perfect? We’re basking in warm winds, anticipating snorkeling, diving, and kayaking, quickly and easily forgetting the frigid temps up north.

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Click here to see more photos from the trip!

One of our young crew, Elizabeth, nabbed a sea urchin.

While a lovely dinner of shrimp and pasta, salad, and key lime pie, beautifully prepared by chef Sarah Yarwood, is digesting, I’m mulling over the anticipated adventures of the coming week: snorkeling and diving off Starfish Beach, kayaking through narrow mangrove channels, spying a dolphin or two, visiting a cacao plantation and sampling its attendant organic chocolate products.

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You won’t starve for fresh fruits and veggies in Bocas. The mango is wonderful!

The Trade Winds concept offers shared charters all over the world, from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean and French Polynesia. It’s a member based charter company, with fractional ownership options. You can book by cabin, which means you may not start out knowing your crew mates, but you certainly won’t end the trip without making their acquaintance. You can also reserve the entire boat, too.

Our crew on this TW charter are Paul, captain, Sarah, chef, and Taylor, engineer and deckhand.

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On this trip, we got off the dock right away, but before we set out for more secluded spots, I nabbed a good-natured Mr. Jason for breakfast at Lily’s and a tour of Bocas Town, on Isla Colon, the starting location of the charter.

Bocas Town is the confluence of laid-back, surfer-backpack-expat activity. “We have a great camaraderie between sailors and land dwellers,” Ray said. “Unlike a place like St. Thomas, with its seasonal homes, people live here full time. It gives you a whole different vibe.”

Indeed, after a stroll down one of the town’s two main streets, I caught on.

Click here to read Part 2 of Elaine’s trip in Panama.

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