Finding a Deeper Connection to Panama at Tranquilo Bay
“It makes the difference between a tourist and a traveler,” says Renee Kimball, co-owner of Tranquilo Bay, when I ask why it is important for visitors to connect with their surroundings when they travel. “You can feel the difference when you engage, otherwise you could be on a beach anywhere. When you engage, you learn. You can still get the relaxation but why not get the other benefits that go with it?” It is this mindset that underscores the ethos behind Regenerative Resorts; a collection of eco-hotels committed to environmental sustainability and social impact that includes Tranquilo Bay for their highly-personalized offerings enable travelers to deeply connect with Panama’s natural beauty, wildlife, and local culture.
Set amidst the lush jungles of Isla Bastimentos, one of the largest islands that make up the Bocas del Toro Archipelago, Tranquilo Bay offers guests the opportunity to experience one of the most biologically diverse regions of the world. The remote property neighbors Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park; 32,700 acres of protected jungle canopy, white sand beaches, and coastal forests that are home to thousands of plants, over 200 types of tropical fish, and enchanting wildlife such as armadillos and night monkeys. Visitors do not have to travel far to experience the island’s biodiversity. With over 200 bird species, a 60-foot-high observation tower, and endless trails spread across 200 acres of forested property, guests can witness white-faced capuchin monkeys and two-toed sloths just steps from their cabana.
While Tranquilo Bay is undoubtedly an exquisite property, the family-run business believes the picture-perfect postcard is not enough; a vacation here is made memorable by enriching the traveler’s understanding of the destination. Perhaps it is the fact that Jim and Renee Kimball moved to Panama almost 20 years ago with their friend Jay Viola specifically to build the eco-lodge or that they live and work on site, but every aspect of the lodge has been to designed to deepen guests’ sense of place. Wood from the dock was used to craft the luxurious beds and coffee tables, while curtains and pillows were handmade by Renee Kimball, each themed by the activities offered at the lodge. These thoughtful design touches when combined with a staff-to-guest ratio of one-to-three and communal meals that always include one of the owners or guides, make a stay at Tranquilo Bay highly immersive and personalized.
Essential to elevating the experience beyond the typical eco-adventure are the three nature guides who live on site, two of which have been guiding tours at Tranquilo Bay for over a decade. It is their expert knowledge on the flora and fauna unique to the region that set Tranquilo Bay’s adventure excursions apart from those offered by nearby properties. “It’s beautiful but it makes it more interesting when you know what everything is,” says nature guide Ramon, who originally came to the archipelago out of a desire to rescue the endangered turtles. His genuine passion for needing to understand the local ecosystem is infectious and sparks curiosity in even the least nature-savvy traveler.
Known as the ‘Galapagos of the Caribbean’ for its white sand beaches and lack of large commercial resorts, a stay on the islands of Bocas del Toro would not be complete without a beach day. But Tranquilo Bay’s guided excursion to the Zapatilla Keys, a short boat ride away, redefines what a typical ‘beach day’ can look like. Endless stretches of deserted beach are explored at an island pace, with the occasional stop to dig for freshly-hatched turtle nests, not so as to disrupt the natural ecosystem, but to monitor the overall productivity of the turtle population on the island. Guests learn the distinct behaviors of the turtles and specific issues related to the preservation of the species; expanding their knowledge of the local wildlife as well as the social and cultural dynamics of the region.
“I feel like I’m in National Geographic,” says Bill, a Tranquilo Bay guest, as he kayaks through the tangled mangroves that surround the property. While a morning spent kayaking and snorkeling on the idyllic water is relaxing and visually-fulfilling, the experience is taken to new heights when guided by one of Tranquilo Bay’s nature experts. What would usually be described by the average snorkeler as “colorful coral and schools of fish”, are instead identified as four-eyed butterfly fish, sea cucumbers, and sharp-nosed puffers, each with their own unique characteristics. The intensely immersive snorkeling experience instills in guests a newfound appreciation for the sheer multiplicity of aquatic flora and fauna, as well as an increased awareness of the precarious nature of their existence. “We can’t recover the ecosystems, we can only preserve what there is now,” says Ramon, as guests learn of the importance of protecting this ecological wonder. It is through making every experience educational that Tranquilo Bay empowers guests to participate in the preservation of these precious islands, setting a new standard for what responsible tourism can look like.
Tranquilo Bay not only offers visitors opportunities to contribute to safeguarding the natural beauty of the island, but also to the conservation of nearby Ngäbe-Bugle communities. Guests can develop more meaningful connections with the Tranquilo Bay staff, almost all of whom are Ngäbe-Bugle, by accompanying them to their homes and witnessing the customs of their villages. Such as the baking of ‘yaniqueques’; a coconut-infused bread made by the two sisters-in-law of Yoel, an employee of Tranquilo Bay for five years. While he transports guests by boat on various day excursions, his wife works in the kitchen. The money they make at Tranquilo Bay supports his family, and in particular, his mother-in-law who looks after their children during the day. While this particular family commutes to work, Tranquilo Bay is the only property in the region to house half of the staff on site. Co-owner Jay Viola believes their deep commitment to employing locally is “greatly improving their [the staff’s] quality of life and opportunities for the future”.
By visiting the homes of employees, guests also become aware of the personal obstacles and learning curves that they have had to overcome working at Tranquilo Bay. “With each generation, education is improving,” says Renee Kimball. “You see employees who have been with us three to five years start to explain things to other employees in their own words.” Unlike typical ‘village tours’ where guests are outsiders with no relationship to the locals, a tour of a Ngäbe-Bugle village with Tranquilo Bay cultivates a deeper connection to the staff and an appreciation for the ways in which a stay at the lodge contributes to the wellbeing and development of the local communities.
Tranquilo Bay demonstrates that the most meaningful vacations are ones where travelers genuinely engage and connect with the places they visit. Whether it be tasting an edible flower, walking on the sand, or witnessing two Ngäbe-Bugle women bake bread; experiencing the sights, sounds, and smells of a place is much more fulfilling when the traveler has an educated awareness of their surroundings. The “responsible” element of responsible tourism simply becomes a positive byproduct when properties like Tranquilo Bay are motivated by a desire to deepen their guests’ understanding of their surroundings. Tranquilo Bay demonstrates that responsible tourism can be more than the gentle encouragement to reuse towels, and instead of compromising the guest experience, responsible tourism presents an opportunity to enhance it. Rather than disrupt the local environment and culture, the properties of Regenerative Resorts are proving that the hotelier, traveler, and local can work together to ensure the preservation of the destination.
Article and photography by Anna Haines