The Parque Nacional Marino Golfo de Chiriquí  area suddenly has a surprisingly diverse range of accommodations, catering to those on budgets ranging from starvation to luxury. Prices here tend to be significantly cheaper in the low season, but if this place really takes off, be prepared for the rapidly rising prices Boquete and Bocas del Toro experienced.
Chitras (sand flies) and occasionally mosquitoes can be a nuisance all around here in the evenings, but much less so during the breezy dry season. That’s the price of having healthy mangroves.
This place is changing fast and the few places to stay and eat in or near Boca Chica may change, too: At the time of writing, Wahoo Willy’shad closed down, leaving just two places on the mainland—Gone Fishing Panama Resort and Seagull Cove Lodge. Other places are accessible only by boat.
There’s also an ANAM ranger station on distant Isla Parida  that can provide lodging for a small fee, but the island is inhabited and quite junked up. There’s no reason to stay here when you can sleep in a hammock at Hotel Boca Brava for the same price, or camp on a deserted island with a little planning.
Boca Chica and Horconcitos have a couple of rock-bottom places to eat, but most people dine where they stay. The restaurants at Seagull Cove Lodge and Hotel Boca Brava are easily accessible and open to the public.
Hotel Boca Brava (tel. 851-0017, fax 700-0250, hotelbocabrava [at] hotmail [dot] com, www.hotelbocabrava.com , US$7 pp in a hammock, rooms start at US$17.50 s, US$33 d) was for several years the only hotel in the whole region. It’s a cool place to stay or visit and I have a soft spot for it, but it’s definitely not for everyone.
It’s certainly not for those skittish about creepy-crawlies. I hadn’t been there an hour on my first visit, back in 1999, when a snake dropped from the rafters of the hotel’s open-air bar. The owner instantly started slashing at it with a machete; fortunately or not, it got away. An armadillo on the island has been known to race across the dance floor in the evenings.
The cabins and restaurant are on a cliff 20 meters and a long flight of stairs above the ocean on the eastern edge of the island, giving it striking views of the Pacific and the surrounding islands.
The place is a good deal as long as you don’t mind some rusticity and living close to nature. Since my most recent visit, Frank Köhler, the mercurial German character who pioneered guest lodging in this area, has finally sold up and moved away. The hotel is now run by a couple, Lupita and Esteban, who have worked in tourism in Mexico and the U.S. and seem to be bringing a more service-oriented orientation to the operation.
There are more than 10 kilometers of trails that lead into the forest and down to the island’s beaches. The forest is home to monkeys, anteaters, coatimundis, all kinds of birds, and a wealth of trees and plants. The previous owner proudly maintained that the island has “no poisonous spiders, but every kind of poisonous snake.” He always insisted they’re mellow, but don’t go for a forest hike without good boots. And watch your step. This is also one of the most economical places to book a tour of the surrounding islands and other natural attractions.
In recent years some (relatively) upscale rooms have been added. The “fanciest” are still pretty basic but have air-conditioning, hot water, a terrace, tile floors, cable TV, loft beds with double mattresses, and a table with chairs (US$55 s/d). The midrange accommodations (US$44 s/d) all have private baths, electricity, and fans. There is also a casita (US$49.50) with a TV and terrace. These are very simple midrange rooms—mattresses lie on raised platforms on the floor—and far from immaculate but perfectly fine.
A step down in quality and price are two rustic rooms (US$17.50 s, US$33 d) with shared shower and toilet. Those on a tight budget can also rent a hammock (US$7) or mattress (US$10) in an open-sided hut. The price includes access to the showers and toilet. Only the air-conditioned rooms can be reserved; the rest are first-come, first-served. This place has become well known on the backpackers’ circuit and sometimes fills up. Call for reservations.
The restaurant and bar is an open-air affair on the edge of the cliff. It used to be all groovy and wooden, but the wood rotted away and was replaced with much less boho-looking cement. The panoramic view is still terrific, however, and a second floor was added. The food here isn’t fancy, but it’s fine. Cambute, a kind of conch, is the house specialty. (If you’re into that kind of thing, you can row out to the underwater net where the live critters are kept and help him extract them from their shells—definitely not for the squeamish.) The average price of a meal is US$4. Vegetarian meals can be arranged with notice. The piña coladas here are amazing, and the homemade papaya liquor is refreshingly sweet but deadly.
There’s a boat to and from Boca Chica (US$1) at around 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. daily, though you may be able to flag down passing boats at other times. The Köhlers can also arrange transportation to or from David  for US$30.
It’s a tough call, but Pacific Bay Resort (cell 6695-1651, U.S. tel. 617/782-3228, www.pacificbayresort.net , $88 s/d, including all meals) arguably has the best scenery in the region. It certainly has the most: It extends over 65 hilly hectares, fewer than 10 of which are developed. The rest is covered with tropical forest that runs down to three long, brown-sand beaches. South Beach, as it’s come to be known, is especially lovely, a crescent-shaped expanse of sand with an islet just offshore that keeps the surf tranquil. It’s backed by shallow, vine-draped caves. Very Treasure Island. The photos on the website do not do this place justice.
The presence of the resort has discouraged hunters and encouraged wildlife to return, including howler monkeys, white-faced capuchins, hawks, deer, ocelots, white-nosed coatis, iguanas, anteaters, and sloths. The usual caveat applies, though: During any visit, don’t be disappointed if you only see birds and hear howlers in the distance.
The owner, Frank, was born in Panama but grew up in Boston: His nifty Panamanian-Boston accent is a first for me. He’s a friendly, easygoing guy who seems to genuinely love this place and be more interested in sharing it with like-minded visitors than making a fast buck.
Facilities are more basic than at the higher-end places in this area. There are nine cabins on the property, five of which are intended for guests. The cabins are borderline rustic, though the cement floors were covered with wood veneers, which should cheer things up. Each cabin has a queen and full-size bed, fan and screened windows, bathrooms with showers, and a small patio with hammock. All of them have a view of the ocean. Cabins are set in gardens and spaced far enough apart for privacy, so long as there’s no one in the room next door (the cabins are duplexes).
Each cabin is named for a province of Panama, arranged to roughly correspond to the geographic position and, even more roughly, the characteristics of the province. My favorites are Veraguas and Chiriquí, which are set on hilly terrain that leads down to the beach, not unlike their namesakes.
An open-air restaurant/bar is on the edge of a cliff with sweeping views of the ocean and coast. With advance notice, Frank can arrange a sunset barbecue out on nearby Turtle Point, named for the large sea turtles that sometimes make an appearance. The US$88 price includes a cabin and three daily meals for two people. Note that the price does not include transportation, which the resort can arrange. Fishermen in Boca Chica charge US$20 each way. Each cabin can accommodate two more people for an additional US$33 each, including meals. In other words, this is probably the most economical eco-resort in the country.
Activities available include kayaking, horseback riding, and boat trips to the islands. Telephone communications way out here are unreliable, and email is the best way to make reservations. The U.S. telephone number reaches a college bar Frank owns in Boston, which can result in some baffling conversations. Bring shoes with good traction, as the paths are paved and can get slippery.
Gone Fishing Panama Resort (cell 6573-0151, www.gonefishingpanama.com , $110–137.50 s/d), opened in 2006, is on the mainland between the Boca Chica pier and Seagull Cove. It offers four rooms, two in the home of the owners, a retired Florida couple, and two in a cabaña next door. The cabaña rooms are considerably smaller but more private. The ones in the house are quite large and feature sliding-glass doors with an ocean view and televisions with DVD players. All the rooms are air-conditioned, with queen beds, terraces, and private bathrooms, and all are hand-painted with tropical scenes.
There’s a decent-sized infinity-edge swimming pool in the backyard, but the social hub of the place is the terrace bar, which opens at 7 a.m. and closes when the last guest staggers to bed. Meals are available for about US$5–15; guests are not allowed to use the kitchen. As the name suggests, Gone Fishing is aimed at deep-sea fishers, but offers a range of other land and sea excursions, including trips to Coiba . This place tends to attract gringos and Canadians. Smokers and small children are welcome. The owners are planning to add 16 condo units to the property.
Seagull Cove Lodge (tel. 700-0236, U.S. tel. 786/735-1475, www.seagullcovelodge.com , $137.50 s/d), also opened in 2006, offers a little bit of everything: It’s supremely comfortable, it has striking views, it’s accessible, it’s run by service-oriented people, and you don’t have to take out a second mortgage to stay here. It’s on the mainland just a few minutes uphill from the village of Boca Chica.
Seagull Cove features six roomy, red-tile-roof bungalows staggered on a hillside and linked by a steep staircase that leads to a pier and small beach. Four of the bungalows have queen-size beds and two have two double beds each. They are otherwise identical, with modern furnishings, air-conditioning, sliding-glass doors, a terrace, firm mattresses, cable TV, safe, walk-in closet, and large, attractive bathrooms. The 7,500-square-meter property is steep but narrow, which means guests must close their curtains to have privacy from their neighbors and those passing by on the stairs. The chitras and mosquitoes are less of a nuisance here, thanks to the air-conditioned bungalows.
Five of the bungalows have great views of the tranquil anchorage, ocean, and surrounding islands. The sixth is at the top of the hill closest to the restaurant, and it looks out mainly on forest. But it’s also the most secluded of the bungalows, and the trees around it are filled with oropendola nests. (Oropendolas are large, flamboyant birds known for their hanging nests.)
Seagull Cove is the latest creation of Pilar Ibañez and Flavio Nobili, a Spanish-Italian couple who also made their mark in Bocas del Toro , where they ran one of its best restaurants, El Ultimo Refugio , and in Boquete , where they had a hotel, La Vía Lactea (now Boquete Garden Inn ). Both places are now under new management. They are warm and friendly hosts.
The lodge’s restaurant is a large, comfortable, Italian-style terrace at the top of the hill with a terrific ocean view. Breakfast is for guests only, but the restaurant is open to the public for lunch and dinner. Flavio, the chef, does his best with the available ingredients. Highlights of the menu include beef scaloppini, shrimp piro piro, and, for breakfast, fluffy and delicate banana pancakes. There’s a small plunge pool next to the terrace that’s a nice spot to wallow in and watch the ocean on a hot day. (Hotel guests only.)
Opened in 2006, Cala Mia (tel. 700-0259 or 700-0025, cell 6747-0111 or 6617-5352, starts at US$198 s/d, including breakfast) is one of the loveliest places to stay in Panama. It consists of 11 modern, elegant bungalows on a narrow, rocky spit of land on the far side of Boca Brava, about 15 minutes by boat from Boca Chica. It’s flanked by two deserted beaches, a short stroll down the hill from the bungalows. The beaches aren’t the loveliest in the area, but gorgeous ones are a short boat ride away. Behind the beaches is tropical forest, home to howler monkeys and plenty of other small critters, which guests are free to explore. (A one-hour trail leads over the island to Hotel Boca Brava.)
The bungalows are large and comfortable, with plate-glass sliding doors that look out on a private, thatch-roofed terrace and a view of the ocean and surrounding islands. The well-appointed bathrooms feature circular glass-block showers. The bungalows do not have air-conditioning, and it can get a bit warm in there, but they do have ceiling fans and screened windows. At the tip of the little peninsula is an artfully decorated bar and dining room; a circular staircase leads to a mirador (observation platform) with 360-degree views.
Outside is a small but appealing infinity-edge swimming pool, and across a rope bridge is an islet with a tiny crow’s nest of a spa that seems to float above the sea. The whole place has an air of bohemian elegance, and everything is done so tastefully it’s hard to believe the Italian-Dutch couple who own the place designed it without any background in architecture.
Stays include free use of kayaks, snorkeling equipment, and sailboards. Half-day and full-day trips to the islands are possible, including as far away as Islas Secas  (US$180 for up to four people). Scuba and snorkeling packages are also available, as are deep-sea fishing trips to the waters near Isla Coiba . Horseback riding in the forest is US$30 an hour. The spa offers massages, manicures/pedicures, and exfoliation treatments. Yoga packages are also sometimes available.
Note that chitras (sand flies) can be a nuisance out here, though much less so in the dry season, when the breezes keep them at bay. One impressive thing about this place is that the owner states flat out in the promotional literature that they know their very presence in such a pristine area causes harm. It certainly causes a lot less than most hotels, and they try to minimize the damage not only by eco-friendly practices such as using solar power, but by doing something for the community—they say that 5 percent of their proceeds go to community-service projects in the area.
The Panama Big Game Fishing Club (tel. 6674-4824, U.S. toll-free tel. 866/281-1225, www.panamabiggamefishingclub.com ) shares the same general idea as Hotel Boca Brava—cabins and a restaurant/bar perched high up on the edge of Isla Boca Brava—but the result couldn’t be more different. The Big Game Fishing Club is an upscale, all-inclusive sportfishing lodge.
The four modern, cheerful cottages are similar except for the bright, hand-painted murals. Each cottage is 600 square feet, big enough for two queen-size beds in different wings of the cottage. The beds are separated from each other by a partial partition (but not doors). The cottages are air-conditioned and have huge, glass block–walled showers. Each cottage can sleep up to six people.
At the top of the hill is an attractive, semicircular bar and restaurant with plate-glass windows overlooking the sea, nearby islands, and the forested mainland. Above the restaurant, a ladder leads to an observation tower with an even more sweeping view.
The club offers fishing packages that last 3–6 days for US$2,461–5,980, not including taxes and tips. Packages include in-country transport and all meals and drinks. Off-season rates are cheaper.