As I sit here in New York City, looking at another dreary day unfolding outside my window, I’m thinking about the view I had one year ago. That view had nothing to do with the red brick buildings and alleyways of Astoria; but rather featured the jungle foliage and sunny weather of Panama. Back in March 2014, I flew down to Central America with friends in tow to visit Panama City and the archipelago region of Bocas del Toro. What had originally been a two-day getaway on our greater tour of Panama City actually turned into the entire trip. We found ourselves falling in love with the sleepy islands of Bocas del Toro, the laissez-faire attitude of its residents and the beauty and warmth of its climate. It took little more than a day on the islands for us to realize we would prefer to stay in Bocas del Toro – and so we did. Our days were filled riding vintage bicycles around tropical islands.

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To say Bocas del Toro is a paradise is an understatement–it seems to be a haven for dreamers, surfers, beach bums and backpackers alike, who all flock to the pristine beaches in search of something they’re missing back home. With a slew of island bars, colorful crafts, cultural experiences and sun-kissed, smiling locals–Panama’s Bocas del Toro region is truly memorable. If you find yourself heading to Central America and stopping in Bocas del Toro, the following experiences are a must.

Oreba Chocolate Tour

If I close my eyes, I can still remember the first taste of that spoonful of freshly made dark chocolate. The subtle crunch of the sugar granules lending its sweetness, the slight bitter taste from the cocoa beans mixing with the smoothness of the whipped in milk. Moments ago I had seen all three ingredients come together like a choreographed dance, melting into each other while stirred by local Ngäbe women dressed in shades of vivid blue and pink. I had watched, transfixed, as one woman roasted the chocolate beans over an open fire and then passed it to another who crushed the mixture into a rich paste using a heavy, rounded rock.

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It was all part of the Oreba Chocolate Tour, founded and run by the local Ngäbe community who uses proceeds from their sustainable tourism to finance healthcare and education in their village. The Oreba Chocolate tour takes guests through the jungles surrounding the Ngäbe village to show them how the locals live off and depend on the surrounding jungle. Medicinal plants, sloths, toucans and of course chocolate unveil themselves throughout the tour all culminating in the unparalleled experience of enjoying freshly made chocolate (made right in front of your eyes) with a view of the surrounding jungle extending out in all directions.

Starfish Beach

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Seeing Starfish Beach for the first time (on the island of Boca del Drago) is like stepping into a desktop screensaver so often spotted in fluorescent-lit cubicles. Everyone has those idyllic beach photos hanging from their push pin boards or splashed across their computer screen; wistfully imagining themselves being wherever they think the photograph was taken. Imagine a white sand beach with crystal clear waters and a variety of bright, orange starfish nestled beneath the light ripple of waves. Got it? Well, that’s what Starfish Beach is like. It is perfection. You can easily spend the whole day snorkeling with more starfish than you thought possible, or you can enjoy the freshest seafood and lobster at no-frills restaurants. Think tables placed right on the beach and sand between your toes. Just remember not to touch the starfish; even if the lure of that perfect Instagram shot is calling your name, because the oils on our hands can damage these beautiful creatures.

Isla Bastimentos

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Isla Bastimentos – or Red Frog Beach – is a reserve where jungle life flourishes, beautiful beaches with rolling waves remain unspoiled and red frogs evidently run rampant. During my time at Isla Bastimentos, I did not spot a red frog but I can still attest to the beauty of the beaches and the wonderful hikes that lead through the jungles.

Aqua Lounge

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Ask anyone what they are doing on Saturday night on Isla Colon – the main island of Bocas del Toro – and most likely they will say “Aqua Lounge.” This hostel/bar/water amusement park of sorts is where all the locals and island visitors converge to dance and drink on balmy nights. The hostel is known for their trampoline-into-the-ocean set up as well as their swing set that hovers above the water. If you’re overly confident in your coordination skills whilst drinking, you may attempt to swing or jump into the ocean, although I wouldn’t quite recommend to do so. Nevertheless, Aqua Lounge brings people together from all over the world, whether surfers from Costa Rica, vacationers from Argentina, travelers from New York City or school boys from California, it is an eclectic mix of people bonded by wanderlust, music and drinks.

Local Crafts on Isla Colon

I collect bracelets from my travels. Some have wrapped themselves around my wrist and never let go while others have frayed and unraveled and now sit in a box of memories in my apartment. Each bracelet holds a memory – one is from my hike in Argentina’s Iguazu, while another is from an impromptu trip to Uruguay and another reminds me of a voodoo shop in New Orleans. Unfortunately, my bracelets from Panama have long fallen off but I can still remember eagerly buying these hand-woven crafts from locals to commemorate a day spent biking around Isla Colon with friends in tow.

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The time I spent in Bocas del Toro seemed flawless; it was that sort of carefree existence that people from cities like New York long for. From the colorful crafts to the pristine beaches to the friendly islanders and ex-pat community, it seemed to take little but an appreciation for beauty and a thirst for life to be accepted. I didn’t know it then, but my trip to Panama would be the last trip I’d take with my friends as life would pull us all apart, as it so often does. Looking back now on this grey day in the Big Apple, I will always remember attempts to synchronize our jumps for perfect group photos, dancing until 3am on the docks of Aqua Lounge, of waking up for lazy mornings spent swinging in hammocks and listening to my friend play ukulele. Life changes but our memories remain a constant. Although we have all gone our separate ways, Panama will always be this beautiful memory, forever burning bright.