Adventure at Tranquilo Bay Resort

By Randy Keck

(First of four parts, jump to part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4).

It was my great pleasure to be the beneficiary of experiencing the reality of Tranquilo Bay Resort in May of this year. Located centrally within the 68-island archipelago of Bocas del Toro off the Caribbean coast of northern Panama, this resort has, in terms of its development, an immediate past history that proves that truth can be harder to imagine than fiction.

For nearly two weeks, I experienced the varied attractions of Panama as a guest of Panama Jones, the original and longest-operating company providing tours to Panama from North America. While I expected to be educated daily and surprised occasionally, I was not prepared for the jaw-dropping experience of Tranquilo Bay.

An amazing odyssey

Tranquilo Bay is the brainchild of owners Jim Kimball and Jay Viola, who, amazingly, began planning their small island resort while still in college. After graduating, for several years they both worked and saved their money while in their free time thoroughly scouring the Caribbean looking for just the right location. Finally, they discovered Panama, the Bocas del Toro Archipelago and their future island home, Isla Bastimentos.

Next, they struck a deal to purchase part of the island. Then they moved to the island, which had no facilities of any kind, and began a painstaking 7-year process of designing and building Tranquilo Bay Resort by hand, transporting almost all necessary materials from the mainland by small boat.

In this labor of love, for the first three years Jim and Jay lived in tents. The magnificence of their achievement, in terms of ingenuity and the application of technology, are easily worthy of a primetime documentary and, in truth, must be seen to be fully appreciated.

Surprise, surprise!

With a small, attractive, user-friendly, low-lying island resort (currently, there are six air-conditioned deluxe cabanas), one would expect to find an adequate range of water-related activities available. What I was surprised by was the extensive range of water, island and mainland activities available to accommodate visitors whose interests range from relatively passive to very physically active. Guests are free to choose any daily activities they wish, and most excursions are guided by Jim and/or Jay.

Among the more relaxing options is lounging in comfort at the resort or spending several hours or more alone on an isolated tropical island beach complete with beach chair, shade trees, a cooler of tasty snacks and beverages plus crystal-clear calm seas for wading, swimming and snorkeling.

I chose a leisurely excursion to a Nogbe Bugle Indian village named Cerro Punto, located on a peninsula of the mainland. The highlight was visiting their hilltop school (short hillside hiking involved), where we were rather swarmed by smiling children wanting to be in photos. Jim and Jay often take photos back to give to the children whose pictures were snapped on previous visits.

Loco for cocoa at Green Acres

A special treat for us was taking a fascinating and highly educational guided tour of a small, combination organic cocoa farm and tropical botanical gardens, the home of a retired American couple, Dave and Linda Cerutti. At Green Acres, which is what they named their property after arriving from the USA, they live by the slogan “Save the rainforest; eat more organic chocolate.”

They produce, amazingly, completely by hand and with equipment made by Dave, a small quantity of absolutely top-quality chocolate — from their orchard of organically cultivated cocoa trees, a rare top-grade variety — in a time-consuming process that requires diligence and patience.

They sell their small supply of chocolate to visitors, local residents and restaurants. The chocolate chip cookies baked at Tranquilo Bay with the baker’s chocolate from the cocoa farm were the best I have ever tasted, bar none. I brought back to my home a supply of both regular and baker’s chocolate that is now reserved for special occasions only.

The story of this fascinating senior couple would also make a great documentary.

Vigorous activities abound

Physically active pursuits at Tranquilo Bay Resort are divided into two categories: land-based and water-based activities. Water options include swimming; great snorkeling and scuba diving; world-class fishing for tuna, wahoo and black marlin (in season); river and sea kayaking, and surfing (in season). Special all-inclusive fishing packages are available.

My water-lover interests were accommodated by two long snorkeling excursions during which we saw a great variety of colorful fish and coral types. The pristine seas afforded great visibility. A plethora of excellent snorkeling locations are accessible from the resort.

Land-based pursuits include jungle/rainforest hikes, caving and bird-watching.

Cabana comforts

In my brief visit of two-plus days, I spent little other than sleeping time in my cabana.

In a perfect world, I would have had another day to lounge at the resort and enjoy my spacious, tiled cabana with French doors opening onto an elevated covered porch with a hammock and hilltop view to the sea below.

The bathrooms were quite large, and each of the six cabanas had its own water heater and air-conditioner. The orthopedic beds made sleeping wonderful but arising psychologically painful, albeit in a most positive sort of way. The locally handcrafted furniture made to order for Tranquilo Bay completed the comfort package.

Hilltop dining

Meals are a special treat at the resort’s hilltop dining lounge in the main lodge. I especially enjoyed the seared reef fish and a house-special fish stew, in addition to desserts made with chocolate from the cocoa plantation.

Breakfasts and 3- to 5-course dinners are served at the resort, and lunches are either in-house or part of daily away activities. All of the meals were excellent. Snacks were also always available, and, in the guest packages, beverages included all soft drinks, Panamanian beer, rum drinks and South American wines. The friendly welcoming service provided by the owners and their small staff was absolutely genuine and immediately made us feel like we belonged.

Photographers, beware

Visitors to Tranquilo Bay Resort should be aware that their digital cameras are going to get a workout. Photographic temptations abound from every angle of every location and especially on excursions away from the resort. The Bocas del Toro region is an absolute Mecca for photographers, in terms of shooting diversity.

Tranquilo Bay packages

Prices (per person, double occupancy) for all-inclusive Tranquilo Bay Resort “Within the Reef” packages, including two nights in Panama City and all transfers, are $1,586 for 6 days/5 nights, $1,935 for 7 days/6 nights and $2,882 for 10 days/9 nights. Round-trip air transfers between Panama City and Bocas town cost about an additional $145 per person.

Visits to Tranquilo Bay Resort can be arranged by Panama Jones in conjunction with additional touring from Panama City, including full and partial transits of the Panama Canal or any combination of island and highland destinations in Panama.

The resort is now also featured in a 12-day “Panama Explorer Tour” escorted by Panama Jones owner Winston Rice, scheduled for Dec. 7-18, 2006, and Feb. 8-19, April 12-23, July 12-23 and Oct. 11-22, 2007. The price for the tour is $3,565 per person, double occupancy, including all internal flights and meals as listed in the itinerary.
For information and bookings, contact Panama Jones (Box 130, Clarita, OK 74535; phone 888/726-2621, ext. 12, e-mail or visit

Tranquilo Bay is highly recommended for all who wish to experience unspoiled tropical island nature at its best in combination with the finest efforts of man living and working in harmony with the natural environment.

Next month, I will review options for touring using Panama City as a base.

(First of four parts, jump to part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4).

Keck's Beyond the Garden Wall

❝These hardy souls are quite simply throwbacks
To an earlier time in the history of the New World
When pioneers ignored the concept of failure,
Knowing that challenges must be borne
In the face of absolute uncertainty,
The truths of their purposeful being
Tested solely by the ‘how’ in the ‘now’. ❞
— Randy reflecting on his experiencing the owners/architects/builders/pioneers of Tranquilo Bay Resort