In a dockside bar in Bocas del Toro, a silver-haired Belgian man, once a lawyer on Wall Street, told us how he escaped, disconnected and built his own island paradise in Panama.
Swirling his rum, Michel recalls being embroiled in the rat race – a concept that many are aware of, but precious few of us escape from. He and his wife, also a high powered professional, couldn’t take enough time off to see the world. So they quit, upped sticks and travelled from Indonesia to Vietnam, India to Madagascar, and eventually landed in Costa Rica.
“Eco-tourism was big there, it had exploded, it had already been done,” Michel said, talking of Costa Rica, where he had originally thought of finding his own piece of land. It was only when he crossed into Panama and landed on Bocas del Toro did he see that the developers and the eco-tourism trend hadn’t tumbled over.
“It was my paradise,” he said, eyes alight.
When Michel arrived in 1996, Bocas del Toro was still recovering from the aftermath of an earthquake which had struck in 1991. Tourism was slow and Panamanian city-slickers still considered Bocas to be the country’s armpit.
He found a secluded section of land on Bastimentos Island and bought it from the local woman who lives next door. “There was nothing there,” he said, “only a handful of indigenous people and all the nature. That’s why I named the place Al Natural,” he added. “Eco was already taken by the Costa Rican developers anyway, I had to change it and find my own angle.”
Did Michel’s dreams match the reality of life on Bastimentos?
Luke and I were lucky enough to not only hear about Michel’s dream but to see it for ourselves. When our motorboat pulled into the dock, what we found wasn’t the luxury style hotel that you might find in a big city, nor the swimming pool mad, cocktail umbrella type resorts that spring up next to sandy beaches. We could see only secluded coastline, dense jungle and eight open-fronted cabins looking out to sea. As Michel had said, it was all natural.
Open-armed, a guy standing on the dock shouted to us: “welcome to paradise.” Of course, when we arived to this tropical island paradise, it was raining. Our beach scene had grey thunder clouds and a rough ocean to match. Rain happens in the tropics though, and in our opinion it’s atmospheric and exciting in its own way.
The man from the dock, Abner, wasn’t going to let a bit of rain get in the way of everyone having a good time. Abner is Michel’s right hand man and the resident host and dive master at Al Natural. While Michel deals with the emails and bookings behind the scenes, Abner is at the heart of the resort making everyone is relaxed and in a good mood – and he’s very good at it. Soon after meeting him I too was sandy-footed, with a rum cocktail in hand, heading out to the dock to see something incredible.
I’d heard about bioluminescence from my flatmates in Taiwan, but still never actually experienced it. When it was dark, we walked across the sand and along the dock, skimming our flashlight over the water. When we took the light away, an amazing blue sparkle glowed back at us. It looked like a million blue fireflies lighting up in the sea. I’d never seen anything like it before.
The morning after, did I leave Al Natural thinking that other people should be building their own paradise like Michel? I guess I did, but I also think that paradise is subjective. Everyone’s will look different and that’s what makes the idea beautiful.
What do you think about the concept of paradise? What would your personal paradise be like?
*Thank you to Michel for inviting us to stay at Al Natural.