Husband and wife team Henry Escudero and Margaret Ann moved to Bocas del Toro in 2003 and were among the first foreigners to move to the islands, quite a bit before the whole concept of eco tourism really took hold. Margaret and Enrique own La Loma Jungle Lodge, a small ecolodge about a 15 minute boat ride from Bocas Town. As Henry and Margaret say, the Bocas del Toro Archipelago “ranges from jungle covered hills with calm mangrove bays to large beaches with rolling surf to the quintessential tropical islands rimmed with coral reef and coconut palms.” I visited Henry and Margaret’s eco lodge two years ago while I was writing the Frommer’s Panama guide and have admired their “low impact” travel and living philosophy ever since. I recently spoke to Henry and Margaret about living and working in Bocas del Toro, one of Panama’s most popular beach destinations.
Why did you decide to move to Bocas? The lodge was a dream that had been gestating since we met in college in 1991. We both wanted to pursue a largely self-sufficient lifestyle and escape the trappings of the work and consumer driven ‘global north’. After reading a newspaper piece entitled “Panama, The Oddest Country in Central America,” we decided we needed to visit. We fell in love with Bocas’ incredible natural environment and its diverse population.
2.) What were some of the challenges you faced when you first moved to Bocas, both personally and professionally? Having worked as an archaeologist (Henry) and a museum specialist (Margaret), there wasn’t a great deal of roll-over into this project. We both had to learn hands-on how to build structures, plan for water and solar systems and navigate the bureaucracies for building permits, licenses etc. It was particularly hard for Margaret as a women to have any authority in such a male- dominated culture. We were also appalled by the attitude of many ex-pats to the local communities; one of disregard at best and blatant racism at worst.
3.) How do you reconcile guest comfort and environmental friendliness? Many people seem to think they can’t simultaneously exist. What are some of the drawbacks or challenges you face running a “green” hotel? We’re very clear up front what the lodge can offer guests. We make it apparent in all of our publicity that our emphasis is on bringing guests closer to the natural environment and local communities and not on amenities such as air conditioning and swimming pools. As a result, our guests share the same ethos about responsible travel. They seek us out specifically because we’re the antithesis of generic chain hotels. This said, we do everything we can to provide comfort as long as it is compatible with maintaining our small ecological footprint. We have comfortable beds, enormous mosquito nets, flushing toilets and hot water. I can think of no challenges we’ve faced in running a ‘green’ operation verses a high impact hotel.
4.) What makes your lodge green, and why did you choose to build annenvironmentally friendly hotel? We wouldn’t dream of building it any other way! Although large portions of the land we purchased had been farmed in the past, the jungle was well on its way to reclaiming its territory and this is the way it should be. The flora and fauna are remarkable. From the outset, we did everything we could to limit our negative impact on the environment and local communities. Our power is solar, our water comes from a spring on the land, all black water is safely treated and gray water reused, we farm much of the food we consume and source the rest locally. We strictly minimize non-compostable waste. We employee only local people, offer training and career development opportunities and run a community development program (Hooda Chi). We’ve also planted hundreds of trees and worked to reduce invasive plant species.
Our interest and intentions were always in the area of sustainable and responsible lifestyles, although we have no formal training. Margaret specialized in social inclusion in the cultural sector, so although it may not have been immediately obvious, many of her skills were useful in running the community development program.
Is it a challenge to be green in Bocas and Panama? Yes and no. Awareness of environmental issues is leagues behind the UK and US. A little example? The looks of confusion we would receive when we asked not to have groceries put into a plastic bag! However, levels of consumption are less (largely due to limited income). In the past couple of years, there’s been a recycling scheme in Bocas which is great.
How do your guests respond to the lodge? The vast majority appreciate what we are doing at La Loma and relish the new experiences on offer to them. They’re often surprise at just how comfortable it can be living simply in the jungle. We made many wonderful friends and have many repeat customers.