“A hotel? Why are you going to develop a hotel here if people do not even come!”
My father continued by saying that people only came to Bocas del Toro for the Feria del Mar. I responded, “Well, we will bring them to Bocas and make this work”.
In September 2013 Gran Hotel Bahia celebrated 45 years of serving Bocas del Toro. This majestic antique wooden building already celebrated its hundredth anniversary and is still standing firm despite the ravages of time and the destructive earthquakes of 1917 and 1991. Built in 1905, it is considered one of the oldest buildings in the area.
But when Gran Hotel Bahia started it was just known as Hotel Bahia, a small 10-bedroom hotel located in a region that was far from being the travel destination it is known as today.
Located in the Caribbean north of Panama, Bocas del Toro was out of reach and out of mind for most people in Panama City and around the nation. Getting here was difficult back then.
During Feria del Mar, the most important cultural event in Bocas, the President of Panama would come and inaugurate the event.
“It was a very important time for Bocas to demonstrate our culture and way of life.”
It was the only time people anywhere would ever come to Bocas. The few places to rent rooms were full and it only lasted a few days. Besides these few days the archipelago was only for its locals.
After negotiating with the new managers of the Chiquita Banana Company, Jose (Tito) Thomas was able to purchase the old run down building.
During that time Tito reached out to his friends and connections and started fixing and repairing the old United Fruit Company building.
“The walls were dry and we had to paint several coats for it to stay. When we were done the hotel had bone white walls, two twin beds per room, a small table between the beds with a sink, and fan. Bathrooms were shared. At this time only the top floor had rooms. On September 1, 1968 we were open for business. Rooms were available for $12 each.”
It was only a couple months later and Panama entered a military coup. Everything in Bocas del Toro stopped. The only visitors at that time were government officials and vendors for the stores. Tito had to leave Bocas, and his father was alone to stay and run the business.
In 1971 Tito returned to Bocas and dedicated more time to fixing his hotel. He added new rooms for the downstairs with private bathrooms and a restaurant. Air conditioning was also placed in the rooms. This is despite the fact that Bocas del Toro was still not even on the radar. Tourism hadn’t even taken place in Bocas. Nevertheless Tito never gave up…
In 1971 Tito chartered a Copa plane and brought officers from various important groups from the Panama Canal and Panama City. Groups such as the Balboa YMCA, the Balboa Yacht Club, the US Army Dive Team, and the Panamanian Birdwatchers group came to Bocas. Tito shared with his guests the value of Bocas del Toro and it’s potential as a travel destination. He took them to the Soropo Canal near Changuinola and then to Cayo Zapatilla. Back then there was no tours so the entire excursion was made up, even places like Dolphin Bay were not popular or even known. Each leader from the various groups allowed Tito to participate in their group meetings where he would promote Bocas del Toro.
And so began the first packages. For 2 nights/ 3 days he sold packages at $75 per person with a room at Hotel Bahia, tours, and meals. Tito would charter flights with Copa Airlines (the domestic airline in that time) so that he could fly these groups Friday evening to Bocas del Toro and leave Sunday evening. He hardly made money for the hotel on these trips but he did start Bocas’ first exposure as a travel destination.
Tito would give talks to his guests about the anthropology and history of Bocas on the second floor balcony of his hotel. He focused on the historical importance of Bocas, even before Panama was what it is today. Before Panama, Bocas del Toro had three local newspapers, an ice factory, and even a lottery system. Bocas del Toro was more developed in many ways than the rest of the nation. On Saturday nights these groups would head to La Cabaña which was where the party was back in these days in Bocas. They ate local meals at “Suzy’s” such as rice and beans, stewed turtle, breadfruit, pig tail and other local dishes. It was ‘Bocas as Bocas’ and created more enthusiasm with the old Canal Zone officers and soldiers to visit Bocas.
Tito used these connections for the Feria del Mar and would bring US Southern Command officials with their families to Bocas. Two planes a day would leave the Albrook Airforce base to Bocas del Toro and fly back in the evening. Everyday new officers and soldiers with their families would arrive to the Feria del Mar and fill the beach and fair grounds. The Panama Canal was a big part of the Feria del Mar. There was even a stand at the Feria for the old Panama Canal. Famous Panamanian musicans such as Lucho Azcárraga would come and play music at the Feria, a very high class group of classical styled Panamanian music that used to play at the Union Club in Panama City.
For years later this was the way the island would promote itself, and the only hotel for years was Hotel Bahia, except with a couple few small ones. The only way to arrive to Bocas was by plane, a $15 round-trip (Tocumen – Bocas – Tocumen).
It wasn’t until the 1990s other hotels opened and tourism began to grow.
“I have always wanted that Gran Hotel Bahia be a model ‘Bocas del Toro’ hotel. I never changed the structure of the building or the public areas outside. I have always upgraded the rooms and hotel inside but I wanted to maintain the same old Caribbean Bocas style. I would like people to see this as the hotel of Bocas del Toro. We will keep trying to be the most important hotel in the region. Despite other more luxurious hotels have opened throughout recent years, we still offer the authentic Bocas del Toro experience.”