Itching for an Adventure

Bocas del Toro Canopy Tower View
View from Tranquilo Bay’s Tower

For years, I’d heard nothing but great things about Tranquilo Bay Eco Adventure Lodge, so I was excited to finally have the opportunity to visit the lodge in person and explore this wild & undeveloped region for myself. I’d birded Panama’s canal zone numerous times, as well as the Darien Province in past trips, but this was my first visit to the western Caribbean slope of Panama. After fifteen months of lockdowns without any travel, I was itching for an adventure and the thought of visiting a tropical paradise teeming with spectacular birds & wildlife seemed the perfect solution really! My friend and colleague, Luis Gles, a professional bird guide & seasonal research biologist in Miami, was available and as eager to explore this new region of the tropics as I was. 

Flying to Panama
Luis and I heading to Panama

So, on June 16th we departed Miami on an early morning flight headed south. The prospect of international travel following the global pandemic had seemed quite intimidating and in my mind, I’d envisioned (and even dreaded) the prospect of massive delays brought about by new Covid travel protocols. However, when we arrived at the airport, I was surprised at how smooth the process was. At the ticket counter we had to present negative Covid-19 test results from within 48 hours of flight time (something I’d invested 20 minutes in 2 days prior) along with our passport at check in. Within moments, the ticketing agent had tagged my checked bag and placed it on the conveyor, and then handed back my passport, Covid test results and boarding pass. “Whew, that was easy”, I thought (but was certain the worst was yet to come). 

We reached the security checkpoint but once again, we breezed right through with no real change or delays. The only difference really were that new thermal body temperature scanners that had been added, and (as with all airports and flights) all had to wear masks, a minor inconvenience in the scheme of things honestly. At the gate, there were again no different protocols and the boarding process was smooth and we found ourselves in row by ourselves so even room to spread out a bit! 

Flight Map into Panama
Flight Map Florida to Panama

Ever cynical, I was certain the major hassle would surely occur when we landed then. The flight to Panama City (PTY) itself was smooth and easy, but I still exited the plane prepared again for the worst. However, once again my self-induced anxieties and expectations seemed all for naught. Upon exiting we encountered the ONLY extra step in typical flight, a second review of the negative Covid tests Numerous officials were lined up here though at long tables and there were no lines so it literally took me longer to retrieve the document from the front pouch of my carry on than it did to verify. Again the delay was maybe a full minute at most!

We cleared the rest of the customs process in Panama City with ease, and then were shuttled over to the regional airport where we hopped aboard the short, one hour Air Panama flight carrying us west over the extremely scenic Caribbean coastline of Panama. Before I even knew it, we’d landed in Bocas Del Toro, leaving the hustle & bustle of the big cities behind, and started birding immediately. It was just after 2 PM as we walked from the tarmac into the small terminal building excitedly calling off the common tropical species, “Blue-black Grassquit, TK (AKA Tropical Kingbird), Kiskadee, Melodious Blackbird, Gray-breasted Martin…”. There was even a favorite bird that feeds in the flooded ditch in my front yard, but one that (until that moment) I’d never seen in Panama, a Tricolored Heron! 

Luis Gles heading out to Tranquilo Bay Eco Adventure Lodge

Soon after, we were gliding across the glassy-calm, crystalline Caribbean waters toward Tranquilo Bay Eco Adventure Lodge with a drink in one hand & binoculars in the other. At that moment, the last of my self-induced anxieties and unwarranted, intimidating fears of international travel just melted away and I smiled to once again be in the American tropics!

Mangroves Bocas del Toro
Bocas del Toro Mangroves

Our guides were relaying local information as Magnificent Frigatebirds winged gracefully overhead, and Pale-vented Pigeons flashed rich magenta hues as they flew between mangrove islands. As a boat owner that gets to regularly cruise mangrove-lined backwaters in Florida, I still found this scenery breath-taking, so I could only imagine how wonderful this must seem for other that aren’t able regularly enjoy habitats like this. Before I could give it a second thought though, we pulled up to the Tranquilo Bay docks and were greeted by singing “Mangrove” Yellow Warblers and Bananquits as well as our  hosts, Jim & Renée Kimball who met us with wide smiles and gracious hospitality!

“Mangrove” Yellow Warbler

Tranquilo Bay at the Space Coast Birding & Wildlife Festival

What a delight to help Jim Kimball represent Tranquilo Bay Eco-Adventure Lodge this past month for the 23rd annual Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival in Titusville, Florida!

Tranquilo Bay Owner Jim Kimball and Stacey M. Hollis, Tranquilo Bay Guide (sporting a signature Tranquilo Bay Tree Hugger shirt), in Tranquilo’s booth at this year’s Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival.

This annual festival, held along Florida’s Atlantic coast is one of connecting folks within the bird and nature-loving community while inviting them to explore and learn about birds and wildlife in a multitude of ways and across a diverse variety of destinations worldwide. One such destination represented, by Jim Kimball and yours truly, was Panama’s own Tranquilo Bay Eco-Adventure Lodge located on the enchanting island of Bastimentos set in the sparkling Caribbean archipelago of Bocas del Toro!

Surrounded by vivid and colorful photos of Tranquilo Bay birds and nature, I helped Jim man our booth at the festival. The bustling event was rife with birders, photographers, travelers, outdoor enthusiasts, nature guides, wildlife artists and all manner of nature travel-related vendors.

And the atmosphere was lively and ebullient as festival-goers and vendors alike shared stories about what they’d seen birding that morning (the festival puts on a plethora of guided nature excursions each day) in addition to many jovial renditions among outdoor enthusiasts attendees as they shared nature and wildlife experiences had both nationally and abroad, and there was, of course, plenty of discussion about future travel ideas and possibilities.

Some of the many colorful viewing possibilities at Tranquilo Bay Lodge!

An aisle down from us at the festival were our friends the Bethancourt family, members of the beloved Canopy Family, which encompasses a set of three lodges from central to eastern Panama that offer spectacular diversity in birding in a variety of key locations and ecosystems around the country. For folks who want a more complete idea of Panama’s abundant nature and diverse culture, we partner with Canopy Family to offer a joint package that seamlessly interlaces to provide a paired Tranquilo/Canopy experience that provides a robust display of true, wild Panama, a country with so much to offer from each of its many colorful corners.

The Bethancourt kids, Cristy and Roberto were looking stunning in their traditional Panamanian garb, ready for a folkloric dance performance at the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival.

For Jim, it’s fun to reconnect friends and colleagues that he knows through previous bird fairs and the business itself. I also really enjoyed seeing folks I’ve met while guiding at Tranquilo Bay and I was pleased to make many new connections with a lot of very passionate people dedicated to sharing nature with others. 

The festival also featured some wildly talented nature artists who displayed and sold all manner of bird-centric paintings which captured the eye of each and every festival-goer that passed by…including mine! I was especially drawn to and enamored with Christina Baal’s lively and colorful work in her Drawing Ten Thousand Birds endeavor and I simply fell in love with a piece I bought from Kate Dolamore, an American Kestrel, which was my spark bird back in 1990.

Art by Kate Dolamore and Christina Baal

 

It was great to meet up with Eliana Ardila Kramer of Birding by Bus, also one of the founding members of Phoebes Birding, a group dedicated to getting women and girls out into nature for birdwatching and shared outdoor experiences with like-minded ladies. Now that I can get behind!

Eliana, Jim and Luisa Conto (Nature Colombia)
For every donor that contributed $20 , Eliana would lay a red-lipstick smooch of thanks!

Eliana is raising money this year for the Champions of the Flyway birding competition. The competition was created in an effort to raise awareness around the decline of migratory raptors illegally hunted along their migratory pathways in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

This annual event is hosted by Birdlife International and partners, and the funds raised will be directed toward putting identified measures into place to combat this global issue. We at Tranquilo Bay along with many other folks at the fair thought it was a very worthy cause..and it showed on our cheeks!

While it was a busy festival and we got a lot done, Jim and I did manage to get out to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge a couple of times to enjoy the richness of Florida’s coastal environments before heading back down to our Caribbean island home..

So all in all, we had a blast, met some really great folks and enjoyed reconnecting with old friends. I’m really looking forward to encountering many of the nature lovers I met at the festival again in the future, perhaps greeting them as they arrive to Tranquilo Bay, set here in this lush, tropical corner of Bocas del Toro, Panama.

Dock Fishing, Tranquilo Style

Dock Fishing

While the majority of guests who stay with us here at Tranquilo Bay want to explore the surrounding forests, delve deep into dark bat caves or enjoy some serious snorkeling above our impressive coral reefs, we also happily invite those outdoorsy fishermen and women who come through now and again hoping to cast a line!

While the more serious tarpon fishing season includes a couple short seasons over the course of the year when the waters are calmest–a highly recommended time to come for ya’ll who dream of hooking these monumentally impressive, dinosaur-like fish–snapper, barracuda and jacks swim our calm, protected bay all year long.

Sometimes the there’s nothing better than the opportunity to jump in a kayak, either early in the morning or late afternoon when the sunlight is turning that beautiful late day sheen off the water, and drop a line, content to spend a couple hours in the peace that Tranquilo Bay offers.

Capitan Sanchez fillets a mutton snapper caught by a summer guest.

While the majority of fishing is catch and release, should you hook a good sized snapper or care to wrangle a barracuda off your line, the kitchen is happy to prepare a meal of it! One ambitious (and lucky!) guest got a mutton snapper right off the dock and was proud to share a bite with everyone in the dining room that evening!

Another perk is what fun this activity can be for our younger Tranquilo guests: we can easily get them set up and fishing off our service dock where the boats are kept. You’re almost always guaranteed to catch one of the smaller snappers hanging out under the dark safe nook the hanging boats provide. With mangrove crabs for bait, thanks to Captain Sanchez here, this mutton snapper was on the hook within seconds!

Building a StoryBrand PodCast

StoryBrand is a great group of people who help business clarify their message. Donald Miller began the company some years ago as he learned how to simplify his own message.  I have been interested in his books and other products for some time.  I signed up for his newsletters, emails, etc. and watched as his company grew.

StoryBrand did grow and it offered a live workshop to help other companies clean up the information they offer to prospective clients.  Given our location, heading to Nashville for a live workshop wasn’t in the cards so I hoped they would offer an online workshop as they have done for other products.  They did.  Yet, I still didn’t discuss it directly with Jim and Jay.  I kept absorbing all the information the company put out publicly and incorporated it as best I could.

Fast forward to spring 2016.  It was time to update the website and I knew it really needed an overhaul.  StoryBrand offered the online workshop again so I talked to Jim and Jay about it.  We decided to make the investment.  As soon as I finished the school year with the kids I dug into the class.  Then I edited the website and edited it some more.  It was a challenging process, but absolutely worth every dollar and hour spent.

In December, J.J. Peterson gave me a call and we talked about how StoryBrand had made a difference for Tranquilo Bay Eco Adventure Lodge.  Now, to be fair, the numbers we discussed with regard to growth of our business are so much more so than just changing our messaging.  This has helped immensely, but 12 years in business, trade shows, work with groups, and increasing our available units has also had a significant impact.  The increase in individual travelers rather than groups or people booking through travel professionals is the number that ties most closely to our work with StoryBrand.  And I must say that the investment in the StoryBrand workshop has paid off more so than any of the other marketing related tools (SEO assistance, business listings, etc.) we have used in the past.

The Building a StoryBrand Podcast is live now.  Its feature guest is John Lowry who discusses negotiation skills with Donald Miller.  I learned a few new things to consider that I didn’t learn in law school or years practicing law – always a nice bonus.  The phone call between J.J. and me is at the end of the podcast.  Take a listen.  Look out for a sloth and a little bit of Van Halen.

Panama Wildlife – Episode 7

Panama Wildlife Video

Wasps are insects that can bring mixed feelings, but having a close look at them, proves they are very interesting creatures. This video shows the way they take care of their offspring. By flapping their wings to reduce the temperature inside the nest, they protect the young inside the nest. Animals are not as dangerous as we night think. Respect and distance are the key to living in harmony with all the Earth’s creatures.

Emerald Basilisk

Wildlife PanamaAnother species of Basilisk lizard we see during some of our excursions is the Emerald Basilisk or Basiliscus plumifrons.

It is, as the striped basilisk, a very large lizard with diurnal, semi-aquatic, semi-arboreal behavior. The Emerald Basilisk is shier than it´s cousins and it´s range of movement is always closer to the water. As with the Striped Basilisk, juveniles appear to be primarily insectivorous, starting an omnivorous diet with a considerable ingestion of plant material like seeds, stems, etc. as grow(they get to 135 mm in standard length).

Their reproductive season is somewhat shorter that the Striped Basilisk, starting in May and finishing in September. During this time, they will lay from 4 to 17 eggs per clutch. In captivity, the hatching time is 55 to 75 days.

Basilisk Panama

This Emerald Basilisk’s distribution range is different in the Caribbean and the Pacific. On the Atlantic it ranges from the humid lowlands of Eastern Honduras to Western Panama, while on the Pacific slope it will be found only in Southwestern Costa Rica and Southwestern Panama.

There are several different excursions where we have found these amazing lizards, ranging from sea level, in the lowland forest of Almirante, to 2400 feet, close to the Bocas del Toro continental divide. Every time we see one, it seems brighter and more striking than the time before. Judge for yourself.

Bocas del Toro Orchids

In Panama extraordinary biodiversity is not a secret. It´s a privileged location on the Earth. It is in a tropical area, joining two formidable masses of land (North and South America) and separating the Atlantic and Pacific oceans at the same time.

But these facts are not the only reason, its topography, result of the dramatic geological events that lead to its formation, created so many micro-habitats.

From the Pacific and Atlantic shore to the summit of Volcan Baru at 11,398 feet above sea level (3374 meters) many micro-climates occur.   They all hold many different forms of life for such a small area of the world.

So, what do you think it happens to the most numerous family in the Plantae Kingdom … the orchids? Well, of the more than 20,000 species that exist in the world, Panama hosts 1,200 of them.   Bocas del Toro as a province holds it´s share!

Here are some pictures of common orchids that surround us:

Bocas del Toro Orchid

Orchid Panama

Orchid Plant Panama