“Conscious travel is a catalyst for social change.” So declares the website for Sweet Bocas, a luxury eco-retreat in Panama that puts serving its surrounding community on par with serving its well-heeled guests.

Set off the shore of its own private island in the pristine Bocas Del Toro archipelago on Panama’s Caribbean coast, Sweet Bocas offers a 15-acre all-inclusive retreat that pays homage to nature, sustainability, relaxation and style. The 20,000-square-foot, 7-bedroom, 3-story handcrafted overwater villa is the vision of former Montreal restaurateur Annick Belanger, who blended first-class amenities with unbeatable seclusion. The villa houses seven suites, a fully-equipped kitchen with culinary team, an espresso bar, entertainment-driven den, living and lounging areas, state-of-the-art gym, infinity pool and yoga studio. Additionally, two lakeside bamboo accommodations provide a tropical “glamping” experience under the stars. 

An exclusive-use property available for one party at a time, it is ideal for those seeking a place to unwind with a group of family or friends. With virtually no neighbors in sight, guests of all ages can experience this private paradise independently or with assistance by the house concierge. That includes getting acquainted with the surrounding marine environment with full use of the 30-foot motor yacht and boats, as well as premium experiences like surfing with world-renowned pro Terry Simms. Of course, there’s plenty to do away from the water as well, including bat cave explorations, indigenous tribe encounters, shaman healing, and more. Speaking of the fruits of the land, the island’s own sustainable gardens, orchards and farms provide the bulk of the ingredients for meals prepared by a world-class in-house chef.[

Photo: Sweet Bocas

Born in Canada and raised in Africa, Annick Belanger created this eco-paradise in order to provide a space for socially conscious travelers to truly engage. Sweet Bocas is a self-sustaining natural ecosystem, known as a permaculture, where sustainability is not just a buzzword. Commitment to guests is matched only by the commitment to the natural environment that envelops every aspect of guests’ stay, from the crystalline water, to the handcrafted teak house, to the farm’s handpicked produce and pure rainwater that guests consume.

That includes opportunities to visit local communities, participate in culturally immersive activities and leave a positive imprint on those that have called these sacred lands home since the beginning of time. Following the footsteps of her father, a pioneer and founder of trade schools and educational vocational programs that impacted many lives, Belanger believes education to be at the core of the mission at Sweet Bocas. 

Under Belanger’s direction, Sweet Bocas operates its own Dreamcatcher Foundation, which works in partnership with local nonprofit Give & Surf to support education and sustainable empowerment for the indigenous community in Bocas del Toro. Prior to 2011, there was just one small primary school offering inadequate education in unsatisfactory facilities in the Bahia Honda region of Bocas del Toro.

Photo: Give & Surf

Today, Give & Surf serves over 1,000 students per week in five indigenous and two local communities. The organization builds schools, staffs teachers, provides transportation to school (especially helpful as kids live in remote mangroves) and funds secondary education and university. More than 40 community development projects have been completed to benefit the communities of Bocas del Toro, with upgrades that include enhanced school buildings and a new community center.

In addition to letting guests shadow Give & Surf professionals during their stay, a stay at Sweet Bocas automatically includes a donation to the Dreamcatcher Foundation. Through the Foundation, the property is able to donate a percentage of every booking directly to Give & Surf. 

All told, Sweet Bocas offers an out-of-this-world escape that packs a punch when it comes to positive social and environmental impact. Heaven? You bet!

Sources: Sweet Bocas; Give & Surf  
Photos: Many thanks to: Sweet Bocas; Give & Surf; Nicholas Giombi For Photographers Without Borders 2015