Whether you are retired and seeking a Caribbean adventure with purpose or family-bound and need a change from the pool and party atmosphere of all-inclusive resorts, Bocas del Toro, Panama has something to offer. Scuba dive in Bastimentos National Marine Park, learn about fossils by participating in an archeological dig or help save endangered sea turtles. If your Spanish doesn’t improve as quickly as you like, there are two private Spanish schools ready to help you move past “una cerveza mas por favor”.
Contained in this region’s islands, rivers and bays are white or black-sand beaches, a variety o eco-environments and an impressive array of fauna and flora to see and experience. Many travel to Bocas del Toro to participate in ‘voluntourism’ i.e. helping to protect this lush tropical wilderness while being a tourist.
Natalia Decastro Gonzalez is a biologist and reseach coordinator with sea turtle projects at the Bocas del Toro Province. She states, “Bocas is a very important area for various species of sea turltes in diferent stages of life cycles. Some of the places where the turtles come to nest are Zapatillas Cays, Chiriqui and Bluff beach.” It is primarily hawksbill turtles who nest at Zapatillas and both leatherback and hawksbill turtles on Chiriqui and Bluff beach. Hawksbills are the most endangered species in the world. Green and loggerhead turtles are also native to the area and the focus of preservation efforts.
Two beach areas with volunteer programs are Playa Larga on Bastimentos Island and Soropta beach near the mouth of the Changuinola river. Volunteers spend three days or more living at the site and take shifts monitoring areas of the beach to protect vulnerable new hatchlings and to keep the eggs from being harvested as well as adults (for the meat and shell) by locals which is illegal but still occurs. Bastimentos Island is home to Bastimentos National Marine Park – established to protect the sea turtles and the abundant coral reefs found in the region.
The Institute for Tropical Ecology and Conservation (http://www.itec-edu.org/) has volunteer opportunities also, but is a non-profit professional organization primarily focused on offering field ecology courses for undergraduates and graduate students and supporting research in the academic area of tropical conservation. They have outreach educational programs in the local community that a volunteer may be able to participate in as well as other activities. Contact ITEC for more information on what is available during the time you want to visit.
The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institution in Panama has a Bocas del Toro Research Station located on Colon Island. Visiting scientists offer lectures on various topics that are open to the public.
Soposo Rainforest Adventures (http://www.soposo.com) is not a volunteer organization but offers many activities for tourists such as day trips and overnight excursions with one option an evening of storytelling over a campfire with native Naso Indians.
Spanish by the Sea (http://www.spanishbythesea.com/bocas.html) and El Paraiso (http://www.elparaisoschool.com/about_panama.htm) are two Spanish-learning language schools located on the main island of Colon. Both schools have hourly and weekly rates with private or group classes available. They both have options for on-site accommodation and meals or placement in an apartment or family home. Spanish by the Sea is located two blocks from the town center while El Paraiso is 10 minute walk outside of town near the local beach.
When you are a student at Spanish by the Sea, you can participate in a volunteer project at no extra cost such as monitoring the sea turtles.
About The Author
Molly McHugh is the author of Viva La Baja! Relocation Guide to the Baja California Peninsula available for purchase at www.vivalabaja.com. She also publishes Viva La Baja! Blog at http://vivalabaja.blogspot.com.