The archipelago of Bocas del Toro is such a fascinating place biologically, historically, culturally and socially. As you approach Isla Colón by plane you can see the wealth of natural environments laid out beneath you. Then the smalltown of Bocas del Toro comes into view, originally built for the banana industry, but now a focus for tourism. The municipal infrastructure is struggling to keep up with development and the idyllic haven for which many North American retirees originally came has been replaced. Many of the themes are the same, but each of the inhabited islands of the archipelago tells a different story with a different legacy from the past and at a different stage of development.
The SFS Tropical Island Biodiversity Studies program is on Isla Solarte, nestled between two indigenous Ngobe villages, surrounded by rainforest and fringed by mangroves, seagrass, and reef. We designed a program that addresses global environmental issues, but focuses on local case studies, and the students have had an intensive introduction to this unique place: they have hiked numerous rainforest areas, snorkeled on reefs, learned to identify various organisms both on land and in the sea, traveled in dug-out canoes with outboard engines through mangrove channels, harvested forest plants with local Ngobe guides, helped with the preparation of local food (tamales) in the village, had an intensive Spanish course, taught English in a thatched hut beside a pig, and so much more. (Check out a photo slideshow of these activities, below).
Students return from field trips dripping wet from the sea or covered in mud from the forest, and they love it. The rest of the semester will be full of surprises on land, in the sea, and with the people we meet, and we will continue to take advantage of the unbelievable classroom on our doorstep.