Pirates on the horizon

On a sleepy archipelago in the Caribbean, Vanessa Woods finds treasure that the Spanish overlooked.

Those pirates really knew how to do things. If you had to opt for a life of crime, what better location than the Caribbean? I'm sipping a pina batido, the non-alcoholic version of the pina colada, staring at the peacock-green waters of Bocas del Toro, an archipelago 40 kilometres off the coast of Panama near the Costa Rican border. From my banana chair on the beach on Popa Island, the third-largest in the archipelago, I can just make out speckled dark patches darting through the coral reef.

A few years ago I wrote a children's book on pirates, titled It's True - Pirates Ate Rats. Since Australia was a little too far south for most pirates to bother with, I wrote most of the book in a library rather than anywhere a pirate ship might have actually sailed. I squint at the horizon, as though one might pop over it at any minute.

The only ship around is a dugout canoe made from a single log with a small outboard motor on the back. It pulls up to a small dock nearby and starts unloading supplies.

The boat driver looks a thousand years old - old enough, perhaps, to remember a vanished past. I rise from my banana chair and walk my batido over to meet him. "Hola," I say, my dimly remembered Spanish forcing me to get right to the point. "Eran piratas aqui?"

"Pirates?" he asks in perfect English. He smiles wickedly and makes a sweeping gesture with his arm. "Muchos. All over. Everywhere."

It's not out of the question. In the 17th century, the Spanish were busy looting the Incas of South America. The Incas believed that gold was the sweat of the sun and silver was the tears of the moon. Gold and silver had no commercial value to the Incas but they loved the metals for their beauty and used them to craft ornaments and adorn temples and grand houses.

Gold and silver were their downfall. The Spanish plundered their temples and killed anyone who stood in their way. Those who were left alive were sold as slaves or put to work in mines, digging for precious stones and metals.

The treasure was sailed up the west coast of South America, then transported by mule train from Panama City to Colon, where it was loaded on ships bound for Spain. These heavy ships sailed straight past Bocas del Toro, making them prime targets for the light, swift ships of the pirates of the Caribbean.

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The old man and I make some small talk and then I get to my point. "Treasure? Do you know whether they left treasure anywhere?"

He bursts into raucous laughter. "Claro. They left treasures everywhere. It's just for you to find it."

He starts his outboard motor and putters away, still chuckling, and I'm left to ponder whether his laughter is amused or sarcastic. I decide to be optimistic. Millions of dollars in booty has been discovered in Florida in the past century, some of it by unsuspecting beachcombers, so why shouldn't I find something on these considerably more remote and less picked-over islands?

My stroll along the beach, looking for glimpses of gold, takes all of three minutes. Unlike most islands on coral reefs, the 68 islands of the Bocas del Toro archipelago aren't ringed with white sandy beaches. Instead, prehistoric jungles float on the water, pelicans bursting from the foliage like miniature pterodactyls.

My resort, Popa Paradise, is on Popa Island. It has kayaks on the beach, so I jump in one and paddle for a more promising location. The islands were formed 10,000 years ago, when the polar ice caps melted. Rising sea levels separated the islands from the rest of Central America, creating a unique ecosystem with several endemic species. There is a red poison dart frog here that is found nowhere else in the world. Seagrasses, the perfect habitat for endangered sea turtles and manatees, brush against the bottom of my kayak.

Popa Island is bordered by a tangled mass of mangrove roots. It makes a complicated series of inlets and secret passageways that would make a perfect hiding place for a ship in need of supply and repair.

However, when I tie up my kayak, intending to have a poke around, the roots are covered in black, slimy algae, making it impossible to climb over them. Also, because there's very little oxygen in mangrove sediment, sulphur-thriving bacteria fart a rotten-egg odour.

I hurriedly paddle into the fresh sea breeze. Probably, the only way I'll find treasure is if an absent-minded pirate dropped it.

To the north of Popa Island is a 13,000-hectare marine park named Bastimentos, which includes an island that is a haven for wildlife, including three-toed sloths and white-faced capuchin monkeys. But I've come for the underwater part of the park.

I plunge into water the temperature of a bath and as the bubbles clear I'm overwhelmed by rainbows. The whole reef is carpeted in bright-blue anemones, giant yellow brain coral as big as cars, green ribbons of seagrass, pink brittle stars - and that's before the fish show up. A green eel nestles among the sponges, I see parrot fish with the entire rainbow on their scales, butterfly fish, schools of dusk-coloured damselfish, zebra-striped angelfish and an orange groper the size of a border collie.

The groper gives me a small heart attack by nuzzling my hand like a dog. My whole arm could disappear into that cavernous mouth.

I'm tempted to tell him to be a good boy and sit, though he would find this difficult without back legs. So he and I regard each other, me a little wildly and he with a thick-lipped, slack-jawed calmness. He seems to be waiting for me to do something. My heart beating frantically, I pat him on the head. I think he wags his tail before floating away.

Such close encounters make me hungry. The best place to have lunch is Isla Colon, or Colon Island, the main island of Bocas del Toro. The town on Colon is named after the archipelago and is also called Bocas del Toro. For a main town, it's pint-sized, with a population of 3000. You can walk from one end to the other in 10 minutes.

Still, this used to be one of the most important towns in Panama. When Christopher Columbus arrived in 1502, his ships battered by storms, Colon and the surrounding islands were a haven of food and supplies. He named the islands in a practical fashion: Bastimentos means "provisions" and Carenero means "repair a ship". Columbus was so taken with the beauty of the place he named several islands, including Colon (Columbus) after himself.

He didn't find any gold around the island, which helped keep the area pristine. But events in the early 20th century put Colon on the map. The world's biggest banana producer, the United Fruit Company, had its headquarters on the island and you can still see its remnants in the lovely colonial buildings around town. The company turned the banana from a luxury fruit that only the rich could afford to a breakfast staple. It also tended to topple governments that were unsympathetic to its interests and cheat the local people out of rightful earnings, hence the term "banana republic".

After the decline of the banana industry, the island is experiencing a second boom as tourists slowly realise there is more to Central America than Costa Rica and Belize. Colon Island has all the best Panama has to offer; the infrastructure is excellent and English is spoken widely. The taxi drivers, on land and water, are friendly and honest - $1 a passenger anywhere around the island.

The houses perched over the water are almost as colourful as the reef. As I wait for lunch - half a lobster with king prawns on a bed of coconut rice, accompanied by another pina batido - I peer over the edge and see flame-orange starfish curl around the wooden pylons.

Overhead, storm clouds are gathering with astonishing speed and ferocity. The islands have the climate of a rainforest, which means even in the drier months of January to April, it still rains half the days in the month.

It occurs to me that the old man who spoke to me of treasure was right. Pirates were too fond of gambling, boozing and womanising to have much money left over to bury. The real treasure is the astonishing natural beauty of these islands. So I ask for another batido and wait for the storm to clear.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Qantas flies to Panama City for about $3078 from Melbourne and $2978 from Sydney. (Fares are low-season return including tax.) Flights are with Qantas to Los Angeles (13 hours), then on American Airlines to Miami (five hours) and Panama City (three). A return flight to Bocas del Toro is $US180 ($202) on Air Panama or Aeroperlas.

Car taxis and water taxis around town on Colon Island are $US1 a person. To get to more remote beaches, taxis cost from $US10 return. Water taxis from Colon Island to other islands cost from $US30 for a round trip.

Staying there

On Colon Island, Punta Caracol Acqua Lodge has cabanas floating on the ocean, with access by boardwalk. Double rooms from $US344; see puntacaracol.com.

Bocas Paradise Hotel sits over the water and has a great restaurant. Double rooms from $US88; see bocasparadisehotel.com.

The youth hostel Mondo Taitu has rooms from $US10 a person a night; see mondotaitu.com.

On other islands:

Exclusive Popa Paradise resort on Popa Island has ocean-view rooms from $US292 and lodge rooms from $US132; see popaparadisebeachresort.com.

The Buccaneer Resort on Carenero Island has double rooms from $US70; see bocasbuccaneer.com.

It rains for about half the days of every month but January, March and October are the driest. For more information, see bocas.com; panamainfo.com.

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