I visited Popa Paradise for 4 nights at the end of November (feel bad this review is going up sooo late!), and it was mostly the serene paradise I had been seeking. I was meeting up with a friend from another city for a 4 night girls only vacation, but because of Hurricane Otto, we only got 2 days together. The staff was friendly and tried to be accommodating, and the lovely pool is like an oasis with a swim up bar serving a refreshing Mai Tai or tasty Mudslide. And the 18+ adults only environment delivered the peace & quiet we desperately wanted. Just what the doctor ordered. I feel a little bit spoiled at this point, and it’s been hard to find something similar for my next Caribbean trip. However, it’s not someplace I could have afforded on my own, and there are some other aspects worth noting below.
Popa Paradise centers around a main building which includes the front desk, dining area, a small gym, massage area, and game room area. The pool and swim up bar are adjacent. The sleeping areas and the beach are short walks from this main area, but I never ventured beyond the route between my ocean view casita (#6) and the main building, or my casita and the dock. Everything was pretty low key, which is what I was looking for. The music playing from the speakers by the pool...I visited Popa Paradise for 4 nights at the end of November (feel bad this review is going up sooo late!), and it was mostly the serene paradise I had been seeking. I was meeting up with a friend from another city for a 4 night girls only vacation, but because of Hurricane Otto, we only got 2 days together. The staff was friendly and tried to be accommodating, and the lovely pool is like an oasis with a swim up bar serving a refreshing Mai Tai or tasty Mudslide. And the 18+ adults only environment delivered the peace & quiet we desperately wanted. Just what the doctor ordered. I feel a little bit spoiled at this point, and it’s been hard to find something similar for my next Caribbean trip. However, it’s not someplace I could have afforded on my own, and there are some other aspects worth noting below.
Popa Paradise centers around a main building which includes the front desk, dining area, a small gym, massage area, and game room area. The pool and swim up bar are adjacent. The sleeping areas and the beach are short walks from this main area, but I never ventured beyond the route between my ocean view casita (#6) and the main building, or my casita and the dock. Everything was pretty low key, which is what I was looking for. The music playing from the speakers by the pool told the story: every morning at 8, it was Zen-like meditative, then reggae-inspired fun in the afternoon, and something jazzy at night. If you’re looking for an all-night kegger rock and roll party, you’d probably be happier at Club Med. This central building is open all night (albeit the front desk closes before dinner) if you want to come sit on the couches with other guests, or pull a book from the library. You might get some quality time with the orange & white cat Mini or the black dog Perrita. Also, the Wi-Fi is only available around the central building and the pool area – none in the rooms. It worked I’d say about 75% of the time – you can tell when the music stops that there’s an issue with the Wi-Fi. You are safe walking around the resort, and the room key is on a chain with a small flashlight although if there are 2 of you, you might still want to have a second one. The walk to my casita, while slightly uphill, was on good paved walkways, but some of the walkways to other casitas appeared to be on steps down a hill, which would have made me uncomfortable in the dark/rain.
The beach has a few lounge chairs, and you can get towels by the pool, but you have to carry down your own equipment (snorkeling, etc.) and beverages. There is no wait service down there. Looked like there was also an area to play volleyball between the beach and the pool area up the hill. I did not spend much time at the Popa Paradise beach or try swimming/snorkeling off shore – see more on that below – but I spent almost every afternoon on one of the two rafts, chilling in the delicious pool with a fruity adult beverage and maybe stopping for an order of nachos. Super relaxing for sure.
We stayed in Ocean View Casita #6, which was right above the shoreline. The view was blocked by trees which didn’t bother me too much since you can still see the ocean and hear the waves. The casita is a single room with a bathroom and back deck with chairs (I would have preferred a hammock, which are up at the main building). It was comfortable for 2 people – 3 might be a tight fit. Since I was staying with a friend, they were kind enough to put a second bed in the room for her, although only the main bed was protected by netting. I mention this, and the fact that there is no screen door to the deck, because we had some "visitors" in our room. Mainly beetles and one lizard. It’s a shame because the sound of the waves is so relaxing that I would have liked to have slept with the doors open. But I’m a city girl not accustomed to saying in the jungle and even small bugs terrify me. The other main problem I had with the room was that the mattress was very firm and I didn’t sleep well. Other notes about the room: the AC was good, there was a TV (no satellite) and a DVD player (there’s a smallish DVD collection in the main building). There was only one cabinet for clothes, small nightstands with lamps, and robes and slippers to use. There was also a small refrigerator with fresh water, sodas, and beer. On the downside, there is no alarm clock, no safe for valuables, and the water pressure in the shower was weak but that is to be expected. They do provide umbrellas in the room for rainy days (one less thing for you to pack). The power was mostly good – even through a big thunderstorm – but ironically it went out one quiet evening before dinner and then again briefly overnight.
Even though this is an all-inclusive resort, you have to pay for the off-resort activities, which can add up fast, and you are also at the mercy of both the weather and the boat schedule, since the same boats are used to shuttle guest to/from Bocas town for arrivals/departures. This was a little frustrating, and the staff ended up accommodating me because there weren’t many other guests at the time, but I can see this being a problem during a busy period. Also, I was disappointed we did not have an opportunity to go out on Chewbacca, the catamaran featured on the website. It’s there, anchored offshore like a tease, but not whisking us away on adventures as we’d imagined. I believe they require a minimum of 4 people for a catamaran sunset, so maybe if you are in a larger group you can make those arrangements. I would have been happy to join another group.
If you’ve come all this way to Bocas and Popa, you owe it to yourself to visit the two shoe-shaped Zapatilla islands, each with the lush beach scenery and gorgeous waters you’ve seen in the brochures. (The ride out from the airport did not pass many beaches, mostly mangrove islands, which was confusing.) The good thing is that you can see the Zapas from Popa and it doesn’t take long to get there. The bad thing is you probably will spend most of your time at Zapa 2 – which is easier for the boat to dock, has a nice beach, and a long trail for hiking. The snorkeling is not very good, and the water off the beach is mostly filled with sea grass. But it is a nice swim and a beautiful view. Because the larger group I was with spent a lot of time on their hike, we didn’t have a lot of time at Zapa 1, and we were going to just do a “drive by.” I insisted on being able to have a few minutes to swim, and boy was it worth it! The sand is soft as carpet and the water is glorious. The boat can’t really dock so you have to just jump off the side and climb back on a ladder which was not easy for big girls like me. The beach area is mostly just for swimming and I understand there is good snorkeling on the other side of the island, but we didn’t go. I wish the resort used the boat that was more conducive to beach landings, and spent more time at Zapa 1 for both swimming and snorkeling.
I also asked for the trip to Dolphin Bay so I could snorkel with the dolphins, but I would not recommend this. You can’t get in the water because of the huge jellyfish (not something they told me when I booked it), and I only saw a couple of dolphin. Then we went somewhere else and the snorkeling was just ok. Dolphin Bay is also very very far from Popa, and I hear you see the dolphins anyway if you go to the chocolate farm, which I did not do. Probably best not to spend the money and time just to go to the bay.
In hindsight, especially since I’ve been fortunate to snorkel in Belize and Roatan, I think I would have just enjoyed the relaxation at the resort and only have done the Zapatilla trip – maybe even twice (as I did, on my own and once my friend arrived). I didn’t experience as nice beaches and ocean swimming in either Belize or Roatan.
All meals are at the main building. No formal attire required – shorts and flip flops are fine. I am a picky eater, so best not to take food advice from me. There's no menu - they pretty much just make one meal for lunch and dinner. The first couple of days, there was a large party of 16 people, so food was set up buffet style. After that, with only a handful of us at the resort, meals were prepared for us individually. They were able to accommodate my special requests (I usually had spaghetti for dinner each night). Breakfast I typically had pancakes, and always had delicious pineapple. If you get hungry in the afternoon, they have a bowl out with individual bags of Doritos, and a couple of times I asked for nachos which I enjoyed poolside. The staff’s English is ok, not great, so if you have a special request, it’s helpful to find an English-Spanish translation website. My Spanish pronunciation is also not great, so often I would type in what I wanted and then just showed the screen to the cook or bartender.
The biggest challenge of the resort is just getting there. You fly into the Bocas del Toro airport either on Panama Air from Panama City or on Nature Air from Costa Rica (both are less than an hour flight). Then it’s about a 45 minute boat ride from the island with the airport to the island where Popa Paradise is located. (They can also arrange for a boat to pick you up from the mainland that I think takes about the same amount of time.) The boat is operated by Popa staff, and because of the distance, they try not to do multiple trips between the islands. So if you are coordinating with other people (coming or going), you may find yourself spending hours in Bocas Town where there isn’t much to do except maybe grab a bite or a drink (or spend extra time at the tiny airport). Also, the flights are not exactly dependable. Nature Air has a single flight each day, so if that arriving flight is cancelled, you may not arrive until the next day – and if that flight is full – the day after that. My friend was supposed to arrive on Nature Air on a Thursday, but because of the hurricane approaching Costa Rica, the flight was cancelled, and since the Friday flight was full (their planes only carry 10-15 people), she didn’t get to meet me until Saturday afternoon, cutting her trip from 4 days to less than 48 hrs. Panama Air is a little better – they have 2 or 3 flights a day, and those planes hold maybe 40-50 people. But you can still be impacted by serious delays. As an example, when the big group left Popa to go back to Panama City, they had to leave the resort before sunrise to make I think an 8 am flight, which ended up not leaving until 10 am. I was on a 12:30 flight and when I arrived at the airport, the 8 am hadn’t left yet. So Panama Air put me on the 8 am that left after noon. My recommendation, if you have a choice, is to book Panama Air through Panama City and do the mid-day flights. It might be a big risk to try to get back to the US the same day you fly from Bocas to Panama City (you’d have to transfer between 2 airports). My friend was able to make her connecting flight in Costa Rica, since she flew in and out of the same airport. Because of all of this, I would highly recommend that you buy trip insurance. Also note: the boat taking you between the airport and the resort is small, could be bumpy, and on my trip out, did not have a cover. So good idea to make sure to have a hat and apply sunscreen so you don’t burn. (Even with the cover, you could burn your arms.) It goes without saying that these small transport boats also do not have toilets and there’s no place for the boat to stop if you need to go.
Other than the beetles and some other small creepy crawlies, I was surprised that there weren’t a lot of mosquitoes. (They have info sheets in the room about how they try to minimize bugs.) Pleasantly surprised not to have any problems with the no-see-ums that bothered me at other Central American islands, but that could be because I wasn’t in the sand at Popa very much. I did take Malarone (anti-malaria), and in hindsight would say it’s not necessary, especially since I had to take it for 8 weeks and mosquitoes were not an issue. I did get some kind of bite on my inner arm – not sure where that came from – so bring some antibiotic ointment and Band-Aids just in case. We also used Cactus Juice (can buy on Amazon) which is a great combination bug repellent/sunscreen with a pleasant smell.
Don’t let the Weather Channel website freak you out, as it did me for weeks leading up to the trip. The forecast of 100% rain and thunderstorms was not the reality. For one thing, you can’t look at Panama City weather, since that is on the Pacific Side and Bocas is on the Caribbean side. Second, as Vince – the owner – had reassured me, the rain usually comes at night and rarely would last more than a day. In my 5 days in the Bocas area, I only had one torrential downpour during sunlight: it was in Bocas town before getting on the boat to the island, and it was Miami-style rain (humidity goes up to 100% then you have a massive downpour for a brief period, and then sunshine). At Popas, I had some clouds the first afternoon, a pretty scary thunderstorm overnight that shook the casita, but otherwise mostly beautiful sunshine the remaining 4 days. I also only had one nice sunrise – it was sometimes overcast at daybreak - but that’s a fair tradeoff to get 4 days of sun for the pool and the beaches. In fact, my middle day, the skies were so clear and the waters so calm, that you could see perfect reflections of the sky in the bay, like a mirror lake.
You can tip at the end of your trip. They allow you to put it on the credit card when you close out your bill. They don’t tell you how much to tip, although you can either provide a single amount they will distribute equally, or you can specify who should get what amount. I chose the latter, because certain people seemed to do more than others (i.e. you can figure out how many drinks you were served, or who was your boat driver). Also, they were pleasantly surprised I allocated tips for the cleaning staff and other grounds crew. I guess other guests don’t normally do that – I don’t know why you wouldn’t.
I’m posting a bunch of pictures and happy to answer questions.More
- Free Wifi
- Breakfast included