Bocas, the perfect hangout for natty naturalists

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NEW YORK -- Bocas del Toro, an archipelago of 68 islands and scores of islets recorded in the logs of Columbus' final voyage to the New World in 1502, today is the quintessential eco-adventure destination -- with a cosmopolitan flair.

Bocas is booming, in an off-the-beaten-path way, as Europeans and North Americans have settled here over the years, investing in restaurants, lodgings and bars.

Snorkeling, diving and bird- watching are the main attractions in the archipelago, which stretches along the western edge of Panama's northern coast. The mainland is part of the Bocas del Toro province, and the only town also is called Bocas del Toro, or Bocas town, and is located on Isla Colon, the largest island in the chain.

Bocas town provides a convenient base from which to explore the rain forests or to laze on pristine beaches.

Day-boat trips take visitors to neighboring islands and to the archipelago's reefs for diving and snorkeling.

Clients should not miss the boat excursion that features a visit to Panama's first marine park, Bastimentos National Park, home to a large variety of sea turtles as well as abundant sea life, birds and reptiles.

The oldest lodging in Bocas town is the Hotel Bahia, housed in the former office of the United Fruit Co.

The newest hotel is the deluxe Punta Caracol, an aqua-lodge located 15 minutes off shore. Its handsomely crafted, thatched-roof cabins and one master suite -- all with private bath and hot-water shower -- are built on stilts over the water.

In the evening, dinner is served by candlelight or on the terrace; during the day, arrangements are available for a variety of excursions.

Priced at $215 for a cabin and $325 for the master suite, rates include transfers to the hotel from Isla Colon, a welcome cocktail, breakfast, tea and biscuits in the afternoon, dinner and use of snorkel gear. Rates are per room, single or double.

To book, call (011) 507 263-5350 or visit www.puntacaracol.com.

One-hour flights depart from Panama City (Albrook Airport) to Isla Colon, and clients also can journey to the island by water taxi (a 30-minute ride) from the mainland at Chiriqui Grande.

There also is air service from David in the Chiriqui highlands to Isla Grande, and for travelers driving south from the Costa Rican border, boat service is available from the dock at Almirante.

The prime months -- meaning least amount of rainfall -- to visit Bocas del Toro are March, April, September and October; the months to see sea turtles nesting -- four of the world's eight species lay their eggs on Bocas del Toro beaches -- are between April and September.

For additional information, contact the Panama Tourism Institute (IPAT) at (800) 231-0568 or on the Web at www.visitpanama.com.

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