When Robert and I travel, we like to get away from it all as much as possible. Cell phones and iPads? We leave those at home. Posh accommodations with nightly turndown service? Not our style! Reliable electricity and hot water? Don’t need it. We know we are in the right place when a flashlight is required to find our room at night. The one thing we can’t live without is access to cold beer and delicious food. Enter La Loma Jungle Lodge & Chocolate Farm.
La Loma is a tiny eco-retreat and chocolate farm located on Bastimentos Island in beautiful Bocas del Toro, Panama. Accessible only by boat, La Loma is a truly remote getaway. There are only four rancho cabins, one nestled into the heart of the jungle and three perched high up in the jungle canopy where the birds and monkeys live. Those last three require a steep climb, but the views from the top are well worth the effort. Each cabin was designed with privacy and an appreciation of the natural surroundings in mind. There are no walls—that would only detract from the view. A sheer mosquito net to sleep under is all you really need. Even the shower is outside!
It is clear that La Loma is a socially responsible operation. Each cabin was built by hand using naturally fallen trees and sustainably harvested lumber. Water is collected via rain catchment systems and solar panels provide electricity. You can charge your cell phone, but only on sunny days. They have worked extensively with the indigenous Ngobe people to establish numerous community development projects, with a particular focus on improving the lives of schoolchildren in the area.
Owners Henry and Margaret make you feel welcome the moment you arrive. They have gone out of their way to make La Loma special. During our stay, the hosting and cooking duties were handled by Jak and Brie who are two of the sweetest you could ever meet. La Loma guides Roger, Mr. Kelly and Chapi (whose ability to spot wildlife is unparalleled) happily accompany you on whatever excursions you may choose during your trip. It is a very community-oriented experience. We felt right at home and made fast friends with our hosts and the folks staying in the other cabins (I’m sure the impromptu rum tasting we hosted in our cabin helped with that!).
Despite its remote location, La Loma is a perfect jumping off point for Bocas del Toro’s many activities. We filled our days fishing, snorkeling, hiking, and lounging on the many nearby beaches. The best activity of all was relaxing in a hammock in our cabin, letting the sounds of the surrounding jungle lull us to sleep.
Because you are so isolated, all meals are provided. I normally steer clear of all-inclusive resorts, but La Loma is developing quite a reputation for its food. Much of the food served is grown on the premises, and the focus is on seasonal, sustainable ingredients. As you might expect, considering it is located on a cacao farm, chocolate is featured heavily on the menu.
Your day begins with homemade muffins and a thermos of Panamanian coffee which are discreetly delivered to your cabin early in the morning. When you are finally ready to toss aside the mosquito nets and officially get out of bed, head down to the main lodge for breakfast. It is a casual, self-serve affair, typically consisting of yogurt topped with tropical fruit, homemade coconut granola, and cacao nibs, a rotating selection of freshly-baked bread with guava jam (the johnny cakes were my favorite), and fresh juice and coffee. Someone will usually offer to make you some eggs as well—perfect if you are craving some of the zingy Bocas hot sauce.
Lunches were hearty and delicious. On our first day, we were served homemade tamales which were—somewhat unexpectedly—stuffed with whole, bone-in chicken legs. The tamales were accompanied by a savory beet relish and a beautiful mountain apple salad with hibiscus flowers. If you are planning to be out on an excursion during the day, La Loma will pack a lunch for you. The highlight of a rainy trip to the Zapatillos Islands was sitting down with our fellow travelers to a to-go lunch of white bean falafel, cabbage slaw, homemade tortillas and tahini-coconut sauce. You also get “lunch dessert” which may be spicy ginger cookies one day or guava jam thumbprints the next.
Dinner at La Loma is a bit more elaborate. Served communally in the main lodge, the meal starts with a social cocktail hour allowing guests to get to know each other. After a day of fishing or sunbathing, you may have a serious hankering for a cold beer. You shouldn’t pass up the nightly cocktail, however, which is frequently made using ingredients straight from La Loma’s garden. I really enjoyed the basil gimlet and the noni fruit margarita. Once everyone gets settled, appetizers are served. Fried plantains topped with curried eggplant and chilled cucumber and chayote squash soup with red pepper oil were among my favorites of the trip. Main courses were equally delightful. Our first night, we were treated to a delicious seared tuna and rice bowl with coconut and katuk, a leafy green vegetable that is brand new to me. It tastes like peas. Knowing that we were staying on a chocolate farm, Robert was hoping for mole and he got his wish! He was right to be excited—it didn’t disappoint. The chicken was tender and the mole sauce was complex and not overly sweet (a common problem in Seattle’s Mexican restaurants). It was served with coconut rice and bele leaf, another new vegetable to me.
Unsurprisingly, desserts were predominantly chocolate-based. We celebrated a fellow guest’s birthday with chocolate cake one night. Another night—Top Chef style—we had “chocolate three ways” (two truffles and a demitasse of rummy hot chocolate). Most people preferred the chocolate desserts, but I liked Brie’s “bird of paradise” best. It featured many of the different tropical fruits grown in the garden such as passion fruit, jackfruit and surinam cherries, which are tart and tannic and a bit of an acquired taste. I loved them and immediately starting dreaming up all of the various cocktails I could make with them. Surinam mojito, anyone?
Robert and I rarely talk about returning someplace—the list of places we want to see is just too long. But Robert has already brought up what activities he would do on this next trip to La Loma. If you love great food and beautiful surroundings (and are willing to release your grip on your cell phone for a few days) then La Loma is the perfect getaway.