A Paradise for Mind, Body, and the Planet:
Casa Cayuco, a tropical escape in Bocas del Toro, Panama combines wellness and sustainable tourism while helping an indigenous community
By Jill Dutton
The British gentleman, Julian, and I are the first guests awake, each sipping a steaming cup of locally grown, small-batch coffee at the open-air lodge at Casa Cayuco, an eco-adventure lodge on Isla Bastimentos in the archipelago of Bocas del Toro, Panama. We hear the unique song of the Oropendola, a bird that our lodge host, Alondra Gomez says, “sings each morning to call the rain,” because its call is heard more frequently when the jungle is dry.
Julian has spent his first night in a treehouse at Casa Cayuco, located on a beach, with lodging in the deep rainforest, considered “the most biodiverse terrestrial ecosystem on earth (source).”
Julian says, “I woke up this morning, and thought, I should get up. I’m sleeping in a rainforest. Then I told myself, I should sleep in. I’m sleeping in a rainforest!
"It’s a surreal experience, and one I want to savor,” says Julian, a professor of urban development, living and working in Boston.
This sense of awe seemed to infiltrate all of the guests, and during my four-night stay in a wooded accommodation, a two-story structure far above the lodge, with views of the jungle from every open window, I experienced it daily along with the other international guests I met. In addition to Julian and his friend Stacy, there were two Iranian friends, both living in the States but meeting for an adventure. There was the Turkish couple, the family with two young children from San Francisco, the German couple whose English was so fluent that no one detected an accent, my friend Ivette, born in Colombia, and myself. This international flavor was complete with the 26 employees working at the lodge – Alondra is from Panama City, and the other employees are residents of a local community, Salt Creek, the neighboring Ngäbe-Buglé Indigenous Village.
Nestled in the lush embrace of Bocas del Toro, Panama, lies a hidden gem that embodies the essence of eco-tourism, sustainability, and community development - Casa Cayuco. This wellness retreat isn't just a haven for those seeking relaxation and rejuvenation, but a beacon of hope for the environment and local indigenous communities.
While many eco-tourism destinations are accused of greenwashing – conveying a false sense of environmental practices, Casa Cayuco is true to its passion for eco-tourism as well as sustainable outreach to the indigenous community at nearby Salt Creek.
Eco-Tourism and Sustainability
Casa Cayuco stands as a testament to eco-tourism's true potential. Surrounded by pristine rainforests and crystal-clear waters, it harmoniously integrates into its natural surroundings. The resort's cabins, built using Panamanian wood, showcase the beauty of sustainable construction without compromising on comfort.
One of the most compelling aspects of Casa Cayuco's approach to sustainability is its commitment to preserving the delicate marine ecosystems. The resort takes active steps to minimize its carbon footprint, with a dedicated solar energy system, rainwater harvesting, and waste recycling programs. The locally-sourced, organic cuisine served here showcases the rich flavors of Panama while minimizing the carbon footprint associated with food transportation.
In addition to the resort's sustainable practices, they actively engage guests in eco-education programs. From snorkeling and kayaking to jungle hikes and wildlife conservation initiatives, Casa Cayuco encourages guests to connect with nature, fostering a deeper appreciation for the planet's wonders.
Community Outreach and Indigenous Empowerment
Beyond its commitment to the environment, Casa Cayuco shines as a beacon of hope for the indigenous Ngäbe-Buglé community living nearby in the village of Salt Creek. This indigenous community has historically faced challenges in accessing education and healthcare, but Casa Cayuco is working to change that.
The resort has undertaken a commendable project to build classrooms for the local children. By providing a safe and conducive environment for learning, Casa Cayuco is opening doors to a brighter future for these young minds. Education, they believe, is a key element in breaking the cycle of poverty and ensuring a sustainable future for the Ngäbe-Buglé people.
Furthermore, Casa Cayuco is partnering with the renowned non-profit organization, Floating Doctors, to establish a medical outpost in the area. The Floating Doctors provide essential medical care to underserved communities in remote regions around the world.
A medical outpost is near completion and will provide a home for Floating Doctors to place one-to-two full-time physicians in the community offering emergency services as well as ongoing medical care.
Casa Cayuco's support enables Floating Doctors to bring healthcare closer to those who need it most, improving the quality of life for the Ngäbe-Buglé community.
A Glimpse into Paradise
A visit to Casa Cayuco isn't just a vacation; it's an opportunity to connect with nature, promote sustainable living, and contribute to the well-being of a local community. With its eco-friendly initiatives and commitment to empowering the indigenous people, Casa Cayuco sets a remarkable example of how travel can be both a pleasurable escape and a force for positive change.
My four-night stay at Casa Cayuco included a flight from Panama City. From Panama City, I took a brief flight to Bocas del Toro where my guest and I were picked up by a guide, taken to the water, and settled in for a boat ride to the island of Bastimentos in the Bocas del Toro archipelago.
Our arrival was truly stunning. We pulled alongside the dock, obviously a focal point and centered around relaxation and the scenery with its numerous hammocks on the dock and in the water, lounges, and other sitting areas. I knew immediately it would be a favorite spot for watching the sunset, seeing other guests snorkeling, paddle boarding, and kayaking, as well as the daily 5 p.m. snack on the dock before dinner.
After a tour with Alondra, the year-round host, we received fresh Pina Coladas made from local ingredients. I settled into my room, high above the lodge, and nestled in the lush jungle. The windows were open with a table and chairs on the lower level of my suite, and a sitting area, net-covered bed, and bathroom with an open-air shower. It was the most fully I’ve ever been immersed in nature. Mornings I awoke to the sounds of the rainforest before heading down to the lodge for fresh local coffee and breakfast.
Every meal was locally sourced, plant-focused, and made with loving care by chefs from the nearby village of Salt Creek. Dinner each day was three courses, usually a salad, a daily catch main dish, and a delicious dessert, all served alongside a loaf of freshly made coconut bread.
During the day I alternated between total relaxation – a massage in my room, or moving from one lounging spot to another. I termed my Panama power animal as the sloth, which we saw on our visit to a cacao farm because I was slow moving, my only goal was to find the next great spot to rest and relax - an unusual opportunity for someone always on the go. When not reading or writing in the library, on the dock, beachside, or in the lodge, I enjoyed kayaking near the dock. Each guest had individual snorkel gear in their rooms, so it was an easy outing to explore.
When not resting, the trip included daily activities based on what was happening at the moment. We were fortunate enough to witness the hatching of about 100 sea turtles and watch as they made their way to the water. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. At night, we arrived during the rare period of bioluminescence and went onto the water after dark to witness the water lit up like millions of underwater fireflies.
During the day, we toured Green Acres, a cacao farm nestled in the jungle, and another day visited Monkey Island where rescue monkeys are cared for and released when possible.
One day we visited the nearby Ngöbe Buglé community in Salt Creek. The majority of Casa Cayuco employees live there, and the lodge works to support the community through the building of classrooms, a medical outpost, and more.
Between their community outreach, sustainable practices, and delightful lodge concept, Casa Cayuko truly offers an entire eco-adventure.
As you unwind in a hammock, listening to the gentle lull of the waves and the rustle of the rainforest, you can take comfort in knowing that your presence here contributes to a more sustainable and equitable future. Casa Cayuco is a paradise for mind, body, and the planet - an invitation to explore the beauty of Panama while leaving a lasting, positive impact on the world.
Learn more about Casa Cayuco in an episode of the Global Journeys with Jill Dutton podcast where Jill speaks with Alondra Gomez, the lodge host, as well as Jack Donahue, one of the owners of Casa Cayuco.