Many of us have a fantasy of being stranded on a beautiful deserted island and having it all to ourselves. On many days the Zapatilla Cays in Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park can feel this way. The Cays are isolated from Bocas and other populated areas and on some days only a few visitors show up, so it is easy to find a private stretch of beach where you can be alone in a tropical paradise.
Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park is one of the primary destinations for visitors to the Bocas del Toro region of Panama. Established in 1988, the park encompasses a total area of more than 32,000 acres, of which more than 28,600 acres are marine habitats including extensive reef, sea grass beds, and large areas of mangroves. Within the park are three large beaches, one on each of the two Zapatilla Cays (about 1.25 miles of beach on each cay) and Playa Larga, with 2.7 miles of beach. These beaches have been known for many generations to be important nesting areas for sea turtles and you can see from the shape of the park that it was set up in part to protect them. The founders of the park had great foresight to see the need for protected areas in a region prime for development. The park is administrated by Autoridad Nacional de Ambiente (ANAM) which has local offices in Bocas and Changuinola.
The park was designated in order to protect marine and terrestrial habitats and marine and terrestrial fauna. One important part of the marine fauna is the sea turtles. The same things that attract people, attract turtles to the beaches of Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park -- long stretches of completely undeveloped beaches near beautiful marine habitats including reefs, sea grass beds and mangrove islands. A study of sea turtles in the park over the last 22 years has shown that it is an important site for four different species. Because it has been protected since 1988, sea turtle populations have begun to recover. In recent years it has become an important site for nesting by the critically endangered hawksbill turtle. But the Park is not a good place to see nesting sea turtles; the park is closed at night to protect turtles from disturbance and artificial lights. A better opportunity to see nesting sea turtles is at Bluff Beach which is accessible by car from Bocas town.
You can walk all the way around both of the Zapatilla Cays. In a few places, you will have to follow trails through the woods but most of the walk will be on the beach. On the Big Zapatilla Cay, be sure to visit Morgan’s Hole, the place where pirate Morgan is alleged to have buried his gold. The treasure was reportedly found and removed years ago. The pond you will find is the hole left when the treasure was dug up. It is along a nice trail that leads to a board walk through a swamp in the center of the big cay. The boardwalk is a favorite of birdwatchers. Walk slowly and watch carefully and you will be rewarded with sites and sounds of tropical fauna and flora.
Playa Larga is big as the name implies and walking the entire beach is recommended only for the very hardy. The surfing at Playa Larga can be excellent.
The management plan for Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park addresses both the needs of the flora and fauna and the ability of visitors to enjoy pristine nature at its best. If we all take care of this park, it will continue to delight visitors for generations and will always attract visitors to the Bocas region.