Bocas del Toro  is one of the loveliest parts of Panama , and it’s still relatively unspoiled. The protected areas of the mainland include a large chunk of the enormous Parque Internacional La Amistad  and the buffer forest that surrounds it, as well as the wetlands of San San Pondsack .
The islands are home to an important national park, Parque Nacional Marino Isla Bastimentos . Bocas is a crucial link in the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor that extends from southern Mexico to eastern Panama.
Even the unprotected parts of the province are still largely undeveloped. Most of the land remains covered with forest, including primary evergreen forests with century-old trees that soar above 30 meters. The hundreds of animal and thousands of plant and insect species here include many that are endangered and some that are found nowhere else on earth.
But Bocas del Toro is under increasing human pressure.
For decades the main disrupters of the environment were vast banana plantations. These were created by clearing forests and wetlands and kept alive through the unregulated use of pesticides, fungicides, and fertilizers, to which workers were exposed and which ran off into the rivers and sea.
Now other troubling developments are coming to Bocas, and coming fast. New roads are allowing the incursion of subsistence farmers and cattle ranchers to formerly inaccessible areas. A vivid example of the rapid deforestation that follows can be seen along the new Chiriquí Grande–Almirante Highway, where lush evergreen forests are already disappearing.
The waters are also being over-fished, with lobster in particular locally threatened. The national mania for teak farming has spread to Bocas; there have been reports of acres of diverse, species-rich native trees being illegally cut down to plant this nonnative tree, which local wildlife has little use for as a habitat. And there is a strong push to dam the powerful mainland rivers, which have the highest hydroelectric potential in the country but which run through land that is home to both indigenous peoples and important ecosystems.
But on the islands at least, the greatest human impact is caused by tourists and resident expatriates. Seeing tourism come to an area as relatively untouched as Bocas del Toro  always provokes mixed feelings. It’s so easy to destroy what attracts people to a place like this in the first place. But ecologically sensitive tourism might, with luck, help preserve its natural beauty and maybe even help its people.
It’s encouraging to see new tourism operations popping up that try hard not only to be low-impact but to help restore the land and water around them to a healthy state, and who support neighboring indigenous communities. During your stay, please do your part to keep Bocas beautiful and wild for generations to come by seeking these places out and treading as lightly as possible.
• Do not touch coral. Coral is alive and can take years to recover from even minimal contact. Some coral is endangered and protected by international law: To be on the safe side, don’t buy coral jewelry.
• Hire local boatmen and guides. This offers them an alternative to fishing and hunting and gives the local community a stake in preserving their surroundings. Encourage them to take it slow and not toss anchors into coral fields.
• Team up with others for boat tours. It saves money and lessens the disturbance caused by boats that motor through the same popular spots day after day.
• Do not take “souvenirs” of any kind from the beaches or forests.
• Stick to established trails.
• Do not eat sea turtle meat or eggs, or any other endangered species. For one thing, it’s illegal. Avoid lobster, which is over fished and locally endangered. There are more decent vegetarian alternatives on the islands than in most parts of Panama.
• Buy indigenous handicrafts, if possible, directly from the makers.
• Consider volunteering, or making a donation to legitimate projects. U.S. residents can make a tax-deductible contribution to the nonprofit Nature Conservancy, which works in Bocas del Toro  and elsewhere in Panama. Contributions can be made online (http://nature.org ) or by mail (The Nature Conservancy, Attn: Treasury, 4245 N. Fairfax Dr., Suite 100, Arlington, VA 22203, U.S.A., tel. 800/628-6860).
• Report poaching or signs of environmental destruction to ANAM’s hotline (tel. 500-0855, ext. 1111). These denuncias can also be made online (http://consult.anam.gob.pa/denuncia_web/index.php ). If enough visitors complain it may have an impact.
• Don’t litter, of course. But also consider picking up and packing out trash left by others.
A new group of local businesses called The Bocas Sustainable Tourism Alliance (cell 6086-2231, info [at] discoverbocasdeltoro [dot] com, www.discoverbocasdeltoro.com ) is getting off the ground. They have an office on the ground floor of the building that houses Om Café , on Avenida E between Calle 1 and Calle 2. Contact them for more information and suggestions on how you can help.