Not a month goes by without my sons asking when we can return to Panama. Our family vacation one June was to the luxurious resort of Hacienda del Mar on the scenic Pearl Island of San Jose and the experience has found permanence in their minds just as assuredly as the magic of Christmas morn.
Hacienda del Mar is a gem with eco-tourism as its main tenet and amenities galore. The best part for my youngest boy, then age 6, was having two distinct beaches immediately within reach. Going down the back staircase of the resort was the beach with the waves — constantly rolling waves that provided hours of fun, hopping among them, frolicking with rafts and sighting rays in the clear water. Or, he could choose instead the front staircase which led to a protected, calm cove and coral growth ideal for snorkeling a mere 10 feet from shore. All sorts of tropical fish swam among the coral and a five-foot eel surprised me as I swam. With the mask doing its best to enhance vision underwater, it took me a moment to realize that olive green creature was not really a fish at all, and in fact, I didn’t want to be so close to it, thank you very much! I promptly steered my six-year-old in the other direction, not knowing how he would feel about coming nose to nose with an eel!
My youngest son was prepared to spend his entire vacation in the water. He went from beach to beach to spring-fed pool. Enhanced with a zero-edge and painted turtle on the bottom, the perfect temperature of the pool allowed lazing in it, diving for toys, or swimming from one side to the other. The only reason this child saw for leaving the water was to eat. And that, too, was a treat.
Always choosing to dine outdoors, we reveled in the beautiful views from the dining room balcony. No matter what time of day or evening, the views of the offshore rock formations known as the Three Monks brought peace and wonder, interrupted only by a hungry toucan from time to time. Once so fresh as to steal a piece of chicken from my son’s plate, my husband thereafter came armed with a rolled-up newspaper in case the toucan became so brazen again. But its colorful beak and plumage was marvelous to gaze upon, and other birds worthy of identification added to our conversation.
Cashew trees, flowering shrubs, vines and crotons add beauty and interest to the island; a nature walk is a highlight for any visitor.
Renting a four-wheeler gave my husband access to adventures farther afield. From fly fishing for tarpon and snook in streams that run from the hillsides to the ocean, to looking for native species of snakes and other wildlife after dark, he was off and running when the spirit moved him and every night after dinner. On a previous trip, he had set up a white sheet and particular lights to call in the moths so he could enjoy the variety, but this trip he had his site on other types of tropical nature’s bounty, such as the native boa. Lizards, scorpion, tarantulas and colorful frogs can be found, too, if you go looking for them.
According to the Panama Canal visitor center, one of the meanings of Panama is “abundance of butterflies” and the colorful creatures alight at leaisure.
Along with nature and swimming, fishing is a daily possibility. Right offshore, the famous Three Monks rock formations attract pelagic species. Tripletail, grouper, dolphin, sailfish and more practically jump on your hook. Record-setting black marlin have been caught here. Whatever edible catch you might hook can be brought to the resort restaurant where skilled chefs can prepare it for your next meal. I had fresh fish for dinner every night and couldn’t have been happier.
One day out fishing with the boys, with shore still in sight, we saw a humpback whale and decided to have a closer look. We never got really close, but the thrill of being near a magnificent mammal gave us a mood-lifting high for the rest of the day.
The friendly resort staff, workout room, clubhouse, sports bar and more make activity or relaxation possible at any given moment. The 17 cabanas each with a balcony ensure solitude, if you choose.
Allowing time to reach the island is necessary. Located a two-hour boat ride or 25-minute plane ride from Panama City, arriving at San Jose brings you to the start of your stay in a tropical paradise. We flew to the island from Marcos Gelabert Airport (PAC) over azure seas; formerly Albrook Airport, it is a brief cab ride from Panama International airport (PTY).
The resort’s website, www.haciendadelmar.net provides alluring scenery and plentiful information in English or Spanish to begin planning your getaway. The island’s staff will arrange your flights to the island and ensure a vehicle will meet you at the isalnd’s airport to transport you to your cabanas in paradise.
If you simply want to hear the ocean’s rolling waves, open the website, turn up your computer’s volume and let it run. Close your eyes and you are there, in a stunning and eco-friendly cabana by the sea!