Chiriqui Gulf National Marine Park Camping Trip

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Chiriqui Gulf National Marine Park Camping Trip

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All photos are property of Cathy P. Boys. Thanks Cathy!!

Boquete has all the appeal of the great outdoors being located in the valley next to a volcano, but sometimes I just get the hankering to relax on a sunny beach gazing at turquoise blue waters, specially after studying Spanish! Anybody with me?

Million dollar view from an uninhabited island at the Chiriqui Gulf National Marine Park
Million dollar view from an uninhabited island at the Chiriqui Gulf National Marine Park

Though Bocas del Toro might seem like the obvious destination getaway, there’s an even closer spot to Boquete that is a true nature gem in the Gulf of Chiriqui - the National Marine Park.

Did I say uninhabited islands?
Did I say uninhabited islands?

Thankfully Habla Ya arranges Day Trips and Camping Trips to this National Marine Park and I recently had the good fortune to join a family on their camping adventure.

Now, let me tell you, I did the Peace Corps for 2 years so roughing it is nothing new to me. But be fair warned that this camping trip is the real deal - you are sleeping in tents on a tiny uninhabited island with the tides to lull you to sleep. Best way to escape from it all!

In places like these, make sure to NOT make your tent under a coconut tree!
In places like these, make sure to NOT make your tent under a coconut tree!

Another tidbit is that the weather makes all the difference, as is true for any beach trip. It’s best to plan your trip during the Pacific's dry season from December - April to have the best chance of a rain-free and clear-waters trip.

On the morning of the quest, our dashing guide, Israel, was stoked since the day was starting out with a clear blue sky. That meant little chance of rain, at least for the day-time. We picked up the rest of the travellers in David and made our way to Boca Chica, the tiny fisherman’s village where all boats to the National Marine Park depart.

Let me interject to say that it is highly recommended to plan your trip beforehand as there are no daily boats nor tours leaving for the National Marine Park. Tourism is still much underdeveloped in this region so you are best to hire a local guide to help you plan your trip.

The Gulf of Chiriqui has many islands - big and small - to choose from. Isla Parida and its surrounding islands are specifically the protected National Marine Park. If you are looking for a more developed resort-type of journey, we suggest the charming rustic trip to Isla Paridita or the luxurious new resort at Isla Palenque. Our trip was all about camping with nature, so we would be visiting two uninhabited islands near Isla Parida over the two days - Isla Gámez and Isla Bolaños (both included in the protected National Marine Park).

Every part of this trip with Habla Ya is interesting, especially with a native-Chiricano guide. It’s your chance to ask whatever questions you have about Panamá! We covered a variety of topics from Panamanian indigenous persons to what mango trees look like to the popularity and safety of using a bicycle in Panamá and Costa Rica. Though half of the drive is on the Inter-American Highway, the other half is down a twisting road to the town of Horconcitos and Boca Chica. It’s neat to see traditional small Panamanian towns and learn about how they function. We also passed some marvelous views of the pastures of Horconcitos where the cows roam.

It's a 1.5 hour drive from Boquete to Boca Chica and the views are certainly worth it!
It's a 1.5 hour drive from Boquete to Boca Chica and the views are certainly worth it!

In Boca Chica, we met up with our boat driver, loaded the boat, and were off exploring the local mangrove forests. Always an exciting eco-system! Many animals have been spotted on these larger islands closer to the mainland, such as spotted cavys (like a mix between a rat and a rabbit, kinda like a guinea pig) and painted racoons. Luckily no snakes were spotted, but instead howler monkeys! Israel recognized their howls from a distance so we made our way to spot them out. At first it was difficult to see them through the lush leaves of the mangroves, but with practice we were able to discern the big black spots as the monkeys.

The closer we got, the more we saw, and the louder they howled! I think in total, we saw about seven. Really cute little boogers!
The closer we got, the more we saw, and the louder they howled! I think in total, we saw about seven. Really cute little boogers!

The trip to the first uninhabited island, Isla Gámez (where we would be staying for the night), takes about 30 minutes in total. First you ease through a bay, passing by a few lodging accommodations scattered above the mangrove forests, which line the edge of the bay. Then you are out towards open water where you have a view in front of you of a few scattered islands amidst the open ocean.

We also passed a neat open cave, which would be interesting (read: borderline dangerous) to explore.
We also passed a neat open cave, which would be interesting (read: borderline dangerous) to explore.

Isla Gámez is basically perfect (except there is no fresh water on the island). It’s located right next to Isla Parida, so it enjoys the protection of the larger island from wind and rain coming from the east. There are two natural white-sand beaches opposite each other dotted with coconut palms in the middle - one beach is on the north end and one on the south end. The east and west ends are scattered with big rocks, which are fun to climb on and go hunting for fish, crabs, and mussels. Above the big rocks are cliffs roping off jungle from the ocean.

When you come to a primitive place like this, it makes you feel as if you were the first living soul to contemplate its beauty
When you come to a primitive place like this, it makes you feel as if you were the first living soul to contemplate its beauty

We landed on the northern beach, unpacked our belongings and camping equipment, and said farewell to the boat driver. Everyone was excited, checking out OUR island for the next 24 hours. The air was not very humid, actually fresh and salty.

After getting settled and changing clothes, we all headed off to do our own thing - I laid out my towel to take in the sun and read my book, the two boys (ages 13 and 19) were curiously checking everything out and making up fun beach games with coconuts and palm fronds, the mom was capturing every moment with her camera, the dad was even more curious than his sons and was asking Israel all about the island and the Gulf of Chiriqui, while Israel was setting up the camp.

Tour guides really don't get any better than Israel from Explora Ya
Tour guides really don't get any better than Israel from Explora Ya

I entered into a bit of a dreamy state for a few hours while the sun brilliantly bronzed me. The Panamanian sun is very hot in comparison to what Americans are used to - do not come unprepared! Sunscreen and cover-ups on this trip are a must. Thankfully the waters on the northern end are calm and lapping - perfect for swimming and cooling down from the hot sun. I also spotted two green iguanas scurrying on the rocks near my tanning spot! Apparently it’s also common to find the green and black little frog, tiger egret, little doves, redfronted parrots, dirtyfaced parrots, and orangebird parrots around the islands in the Isla Parida archipelago.

We all got back together after a little while to admire a beautiful crab that Israel had caught.
We all got back together after a little while to admire a beautiful crab that Israel had caught.

The whole afternoon is a bit of a blur - lots of playing on the beach and exploring in the jungle and on the rocks. Lunch was a delicious mix of turkey and cheese sandwiches, tortilla chips and salsa, and all the fresh fruit you can handle.

If you're a family with kids vacationing Panama, you shouldn't miss coming to the Chiriqui Gulf National Marine Park
If you're a family with kids vacationing Panama, you shouldn't miss coming to the Chiriqui Gulf National Marine Park

Later in the day some deep-sea fishing boats parked their boats near the island and a few fishermen came ashore to play soccer with us. Israel took the boys on a crab-hunting and fishing trip off the rocks. Us girls were hoping for lobster, but they came back empty handed. (maybe that was for the best!)

Before it got too dark, Israel spotted a turtle bobbing its head in the water on the southern shore.

Dinner was a lot of fun to make! Cooking outdoors over a fire is always an experience. We decided to indulge in our surroundings and used a coconut from the island to make coconut rice. Lots of effort went into that dish and I’m happy to say it turned out very good. We also sauteed local chorizo with onions and added tomato sauce for a lip-smacking good meal.

Later in the evening a yacht docked in the calm waters on the northern shore. As soon as the sun set, the hermit crabs came out to have their show. Israel said we had to be careful where we left our trash bag because sometimes the crabs will tear it apart searching for food. Thankfully all of our fresh food was secured in coolers.

I’ve never seen so many hermit crabs in their natural habit! There were literally hundreds of all sizes! And there were a few naked ones searching for new shell-homes.
I’ve never seen so many hermit crabs in their natural habit! There were literally hundreds of all sizes! And there were a few naked ones searching for new shell-homes.

After a beautiful day of perfect weather, the breeze started picking up after the sun set to indicate that rain was on its way. Sure enough, drops started slowly falling so we took cover in our tents. The night was beautiful, though. It must have been an almost full-moon (though we couldn’t see it because of the clouds) because our surroundings were lit up with the faint moonlight. You could see the yacht off the shore and the deep-sea fishing boats in the distance, making their way out to sea. Such a natural calm on a private island in the Pacific Ocean.

Since the rain lasted most of the night, unfortunately some personal belongings got a bit wet, but it was nothing that a trip to the laundromat can’t fix! The next day was spent on the water, so all that was necessary was a bathing suit (which was going to get wet too!). We all got going pretty early since the body naturalizes to the sun when sleeping outdoors. The boys went off fishing again and ended up seeing what they thought was a blowfish! Us girls cleaned up camp, set out breakfast and started packing up. After a breakfast of cereal and fresh fruit, we finished packing everything and waited for the boat to arrive to take us to some snorkeling spots.

This was my first time snorkeling in the Pacific Ocean and it was the family’s first time snorkeling period! In these reefs you can find formations of the coral Porites lobata and the hydrozoa fire coral, which is a marine organism that looks like coral but it is actually more closely related to jellyfish and stinging anemones.

Unfortunately the water was quite sandy from the night’s storm, but that didn’t stop us from trying! Israel was able to point out schools of fish and snap up-close photos for the family. The rest of us were happy just getting a peak of the coral reef and some fish.

Snorkeling in Panama's Caribbean will generally provide better opportunities in terms of visibility, but the Pacific can be good too specially between December in April
Snorkeling in Panama's Caribbean will generally provide better opportunities in terms of visibility, but the Pacific can be good too specially between December in April

Afterwards we stopped at the other deserted island, Isla Bolaños. This island is much larger than Isla Gámez, but we only saw a tiny bit of it because of time constraints. We landed on the beach in a tumble of waves (the sea was rough that day!) and started exploring around the jagged rocks and into the jungle. On the beach was a couple - the only other tourists we saw in our entire two days in the Chiriqui Gulf! Israel pointed out beautiful natural orchids growing on the palm trees. Dozens of them! We saw a few termite nests on this island nestled in the crooks of tree branches (and experienced them mating on Isla Gámez, where the termites grow wings and fly around looking for their mate). The jungle floor of this island was also covered in hermit crabs!

As the afternoon was drawing to a close, we had to get back to Boca Chica and Boquete before it got too late. The boat ride back to Boca Chica was a reminder of the beautiful National Marine Park that we had the chance to experience first hand for two days, as we passed rock masses protruding from the ocean depths, other jungle-fied islands, and the special cave that we had passed on the way out. There’s nothing like a good man-versus-nature adventure to humble yourself.

A truly magical place, the Chriqiui Gulf National Marine Park
A truly magical place, the Chriqiui Gulf National Marine Park

FIND OUT MORE ABOUT TOURS & CAMPING TRIPS TO THE CHIRIQUI GULF NATIONAL MARINE PARK... »

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Search our blog if you're visiting Panama! From must do's, where to party or eat, to which beaches and hiking trails you shouldn't miss, you'll find great insider info about Bocas del Toro, Panama City and Boquete, as well as Panamanian culture, customs and traditions, and certainly tips and advice for learning Spanish while in our country! We've been writing about all things Panama for over 10 years and nothing beats local knowledge from the locals themselves.


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