Bocas del Toro is known for its natural beauty, its beaches and world-class surf. While most all residents seem to agree that the roads need to be repaired, they are concerned that the current plans for a new coastal road may jeopardize the exotic beauty of the island, reduce beach access, disturb flora and fauna, and even alter one of its most famous surf breaks, all this affecting Bocas del Toro’s main industry of tourism and the interests of many of its inhabitants.
There was an uproar when palm trees were removed from the beach just before the Y on August 9, 2023. It was then for the first time that many residents started to re-imagine the coastline with a new road, bike lanes, sidewalk and drainage system, the new construction being wider than the current two lane coastal road.
Now that the road work heads north into Big Creek and Paunch Beach, our WhatsApp, email and social media inboxes have been lighting up with messages from concerned citizens.
We inspected the area on Saturday September 9, 2023 and observed a total of four wooden stakes, topped with bright orange or yellow “caution” tape, each about five meters into the sea. See 25 more photos at the end of the article.
The stakes were set in Paunch Beach, between Skully’s and Paki Point, starting after Skully’s and a few residences, around the bend where the dirt road straightens. According to neighbors in the area, there were initially more than four stakes in the sea and the last one was in front of the Paki Point bar-restaurant. However many of the stakes, including the one in front of Paki Point, have already since washed into the sea.
What we know from the March 2023 presentation of the project is that it includes an 800 meter sea wall in Paunch. It seems like the wooden stakes in the sea are an indication of where that wall will be constructed.
From the plans published on government websites (see the end of the article for links), it looks like sections where the road nears the beach, like in front of Sand Dollar Bed& Breakfast, will include sheet pilings, sustained by boulders on the beach side. Below is a photo of the sheet pilings and this video can give you some insight onto how they may be applied.
We have received many messages regarding the wooden stakes, and also in regards to dozens of trees along Playa Paunch that have been marked with a bright red circle and dot, a bull’s eye target, which we can only assume means that they are being marked for removal. These are all of the trees found on the seaside of the current dirt road and many of the trees on the jungle side flanking the current road.
The wooden stakes with brightly colored tape can also be observed inland in front of and what appears to be within some of the residential properties near Playa Paunch. Though surveyors have appeared to enter private property to leave these markers, residents in the area say that they have not been contacted by the construction company, nor the government. People want to know if, how and when their property will be affected. They want learn more about the eminent domain laws are in Panama and how they will be compensated for any public use of private property.
“Folks spent years and years of their hard labor to afford to retire and purchase land in this beautiful place. It is no surprise that they are worried about their investments and government overreach,” said one of the concerned Paunch residents.
In the March 2023 presentation in the park, lead engineer Rolando Lay stated that public easement is 20 meters. However, on official government registered deeds for private property, it shows 15 meters (50 feet) of public easement on the current beach road by Paunch. In this graphic, it also shows 15 meters of easement and 12.5 meters that make up the sidewalk, drainage canal, two car lanes and bicycle lane. Residents in the Paunch area have measured between stakes, reporting distances of 90 feet, or 27 meters.
All of this activity with limited public outreach has raised some questions in the community and our editorial team is pursuing the answers. Here are some of the questions that have come up:
– Will this construction affect surf breaks in the area? Especially for the Tiger Tail surf break, based on the locations of the stakes in the sea.
The interventions of civic engineering have negatively impacted surf breaks before, as is the case in Maldives: “Chickens, one of the best and most accessible waves in the Maldives, has been significantly altered due to the construction of a seawall on the island,” according to Surfer Today, and numerous other surf journals. Perhaps this is a relevant case study for Bocas, its waves, coastal development and its impact on tourism.
– Where exactly will the 800 meter seawall be? What is the height of the seawall above sea level?
– How does the road design and its materials account for coastal erosion? How will it incorporate freshwater runoff (returning to the sea) while avoiding erosion from the same source? Especially from the approaching seas during storms and high tides.
– When it comes to the pylons behind the seawall, what is the stability of the soil below where they are being installed?
– Are there renderings available of what the beach road will look like?
– How does the approved environmental impact study address topics like erosion, runoff, impacts to coral in the area, removal of trees and its effect on local fauna?
– What are the laws of eminent domain in Panama? If the government seeks to convert your private land for public use, are you entitled to compensation and what is that process?
Do you have comments or questions yourself? Join the discussion in a recent post on our Facebook page or send them to firstname.lastname@example.org or WhatsApp +507 6537-0405 with “Isla Colon road” in the subject line. We may include your social media comments as quotes in upcoming articles and your questions in pending interviews we have with the Ministry of Public Works.
We encourage our readers to educate themselves on the publicly available information regarding the Isla Colon road renovation project.
We plan to do more reports on the road project as it relates to (1) Big Creek and Paunch, (2) Bluff Beach and the turtle nesting zones and (3) connecting Bluff and Drago with the newest part of the road.
If you see something newsworthy in any of these documents, please reach out to us. We are currently understaffed to process this amount of information and appreciate any assistance in researching this topic and insight into making sense of this very important story.
Public Documents Regarding the Road Project
Pliego de Cargos – There are dozens of downloadable PDFs of the plans.
Contratista Visible – Here you can download the contract, the order to proceed and track the progress of the project.
Environmental Impact Study – Click the link and enter “”DEIA-III-F-036-2022” in the field that says “Expidente No.” IMPORTANT: Make sure you set all other fields to “SELECCIONE” or else the document will not come up. The date and year fields are automatically entered to the current month and year and you must change them or else the impact study will not appear.
Bocas Breeze Articles – We have been covering this story since the idea was first mentioned in the “Isla Colon Tourism Cabinet” with the newly elected government in August 2019.
“Concejo de Gabinete Turistico: Plans and Proposal for the Revival of the Bocas del Toro Tourism Sector” – Never published on the web, it can be viewed on issuu.com, a PDF from our November 2019, an article by Felipe E. Lopez R. available in both English (page 12) and Spanish (page 13).
A Call For A Historical Pedestrian Bocas Town Center – February 2021
“INVITATION TO THE PUBLIC FORUM: Communities located in Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro are invited to participate in the PUBLIC FORUM, with the objective that citizens express their opinions and questions regarding the project.” – September 8, 2022 social media posts on our Facebook, in Bocas del Toro Facebook groups, Instagram and Twitter, urging public participation. There was some social media engagement, but very few people actually attended in the gym on September 12, 2022.
September 20th Facebook post citing the CIAM evaluation of the environmental impact study, encouraging people to download the study and submit any formal objections to the project before the September 22, 2022 deadline.
The environmental impact study was approved on March 15, 2023 and we covered it on social media.
Isla Colon Road Renovation Final Design Presented – An article covering the March 23, 2023 presentation in the park, just after the project had been given the order to proceed. This page includes all of the graphics from the slideshow from the March 23rd presentation.
A YouTube video of the complete Isla Colon Road Renovation presentation, subtitled in English (turn on Closed Captioning for English subtitles).
More Photos from September 8, 2023